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My Take: How technology could bring down the church
May 15th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: How technology could bring down the church

Editor's Note: Lisa Miller, formerly the religion editor at Newsweek, is the author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife,” recently released in paperback.

By Lisa Miller, Special to CNN

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and Bible publishers are ostentatiously commemorating the landmark by producing an abundance of gorgeous doorstops. Leather bound Bibles. Two-volume sets. Replicas of the 1611 version complete with “original” illustrations.

The hoopla is entirely justified, since the King James Bible revolutionized Bible reading, bringing Scripture into a common vernacular for the first time for the English-speaking world.

It is not too much to say that the King James Bible - mass produced as it was, thanks to a new technology called the printing press - democratized religion by taking it out of the hands of the clerical few and giving it to the many.

Today, another revolution in Bible reading is underway – one that has nothing to do with gilt-edged paper. If the King James Bible brought the Bible to the English-speaking masses, today’s technology goes a giant step further, making Scripture - in any language and any translation - accessible to anyone on earth with a smartphone.

Just like the 500-year-old Protestant Reformation, which was aided by the advent of the printing press and which helped give birth to the King James Bible, changes wrought by new technology have the potential to bring down the church as we know it.

In the face of church leaders who claimed that only they could interpret the Bible for the common people, Reformation leaders like Martin Luther taught that nothing supersedes the authority of the Word itself.

"A simple layman armed with Scripture,” Luther wrote, “is greater than the mightiest pope without it."

In that vein, digital technology gives users the text, plain and simple, without the interpretive lens of established authorities. And it lets users share interpretations with other non-authorities, like family members, friends and coworkers.

With Scripture on iPhones and iPads, believers can bypass constraining religious structures - otherwise known as “church” - in favor of a more individual connection with God.

This helps solve a problem that Christian leaders are increasingly articulating: that even among people who say that Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and savior, folks don’t read the Bible.

According to a 2010 survey, more than a third of born-again Christians “rarely or never” read the Bible. Among “unaffiliated” people - that is, Americans who don’t belong to a religious congregation - more than two thirds say they don’t read the Bible.

Especially among 18-to-29 year olds, Bible reading has come to feel like homework, associated with “right” interpretations and “wrong ones,” and accompanied by stern lectures from the pulpit.

Young Christians “have come to expect experiences that appear unscripted and interactive,” the Christian demographer Dave Kinnaman told the Christian magazine Charisma in 2009, “that allow them to be open and honest with their questions, that are technologically stimulating, that are done alongside peers and within trusted relationships.”

This yearning for a more unmediated faith - including Bible verses live in your pocket or purse 24/7, available to inspire or console wherever and whenever they’re needed - has met an enthusiastic embrace.

For growing numbers of young people, a leather-bound Bible sitting like an artifact on a stand in the family living room has no allure. It’s not an invitation to exploration or questioning.

Young people want to “consume” their spirituality the way they do their news or their music. They want to dip and dabble, the way they browse Facebook.

Thus the almost-insane popularity of Youversion, a digital Bible available for free on iTunes and developed by a 34-year-old technology buff and Christian pastor from Oklahoma named Bobby Gruenewald. He conceived of it, he told me, while on a layover at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, wishing he had a Bible to read.

“What we’re really trying to address is, how do we increase engagement in the Bible?” he said.

Now available in 113 versions and 41 languages, including Arabic, Youversion has a community component that allows users to share thoughts and insights on Bible verses with friends. It has been installed on more than 20 million smartphones since 2008.

On May 2, Youversion staged its own King James commemorative event: for 400 seconds, starting at noon, more than 10,0000 users logged on and read a portion of the Bible – King James translation, of course - a kind of 21st century Bible-reading flash mob.

Traditionalists worry that technology allows young believers to practice religion without committing to what in the south is called “a church home” - and they’re right.

I did a public Q&A with Michigan pastor Rob Bell on the eve of the publication of his new bestseller "Love Wins" and was astonished, during the book-signing that followed, at how many acolytes felt they knew Rob through his sermons, which they regularly downloaded off the internet, even though they had never met him. They hailed from places like Australia, South Africa and New Jersey.

They listen to Bell while they’re working out, or commuting to work. They get their religion - like their meals - on the run.

It is now possible to imagine the extinction of the family Bible, long given as a gift on graduation day or other big occasions and inscribed with special dates: births, marriages, deaths.

Instead, the Bible may someday exist exclusively online, with features that allow for personalization: Link to photos of weddings and baptisms! “Share” favorite verses!

When Bible study can be done on Facebook as easily as in the church basement, and a favorite preacher can teach lessons via podcast, the necessity of physically gathering each week in the same place with the same people turns remote.

Without a doubt, this represents a new crisis for organized religion, a challenge to think again about what it means to be a “body” of believers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Miller.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion • Technology

soundoff (1,564 Responses)
  1. MSfromCA

    A lot of you people miss the whole point. It doesn't matter if "every word is true" – there is lots of good stuff in the New Testament especially on better ways to live. I go to church to be challenged to be a better person and to interact with like minded people who live near me. I couldn't care less if every word is true.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  2. Jeff

    It's a shame, but I cant take this author seriously if they don't know enough Bible history to know that the first Vernacular English Bible was the Geneva Bible in 1533.
    The King James version was the first "Authorized" English version produced by (and for) the Church of England... IT became a standard for most other English speaking Protestants because it was so widely available in the English World.
    But it was not the first English version, nor was an English version authorized for the Catholic world until Vatican II.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  3. db

    This country is packed with dummies who are confused by technology. The church will survive. As the old saying goes, "As long as there are dummies, religion will flourish".

    May 16, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • richunix

      with religion: Fools are lead by the foolish!

      I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  4. MSfromCA

    There is a branch of a megachurch in my town where the main speaker appears on a large screen broadcast from the main church 25 or so miles away. In this way, the most popular preacher in the area can speak to many smaller communities. What s wrong with this model? The twitter or social media thing is just one more step – no physical meeting. Just have to make sure the trolls are kept out at the door.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  5. mike

    Well, she mentions not reading the bible, what better example of NOT reading the bible than Rob Bell.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  6. Bible Clown

    It would certainly make it harder for nutbars, frootloops, ding whackers and sectarians to burn it, that's for sure. "I will, er, print out a Bible and burn it, infidel!" "Oh, ok. Have fun."

    May 16, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  7. Phil

    Religion is just a man made explanation for things man didn't understand thousands of years ago. Do we really want society, in the next millennium, to look back at us and think that we seriously believed in a magic man in the sky, who was his own father, was sent down from Heaven to have himself killed, to save us from the sin he originally condemned us to, all because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree? Puh-lease.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Bob

      God, who is not a 'magic man in the sky," sacrificed to save mankind from the sin it condemned itself to by disobeying God.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  8. I AM

    How is it possible that GOD destoryed the earth and killed everything...except for Noah and his family, and destroyed all EVIL. yet. evil remain on earth to this day?

    May 16, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • crucified

      you misunderstand the scriptures dealing with the flood.. there was a DNA problem.. the nephilium where destroyed!

      May 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Sincere

      The flood was a judgment against the degree of evilness on the earth at the time. However, the flood did not erase the presence and practice of sin, since Noah and his family were saved from the flood. The doctrine of original sin, as expressed in the Bible, is found to hold that, through Adam and his sin, all people were corrupted – we are conceived and born in sin. All, of course, except for Jesus! Sin still thrived in Noah and his family and decendants.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • TM

      You didn't hear the whole story of Noah. If you read the Bible you would know that Noah was not without sin but he was a rightous man. Te Bible also tells that he had 2 sons and their wives on the Ark and they sinned when they had found land.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  9. weallgotone

    "With Scripture on iPhones and iPads, believers can bypass constraining religious structures – otherwise known as “church” – in favor of a more individual connection with God."

    Now we can have the iDavid Koresh, or the iJim Jones.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  10. Steve

    All this talk about whether or not the KJB is accurate or not is irrelevant.

    If any of you actually believed a word of it instead of going through the motions for social reasons, you would learn Hebrew and Greek and go to the original texts. You'd be living your lives in strict accordance to the bible, even when it violated the laws of your country. Your eternal existence depends solely on your obedience and you leave it up to someone else's interpretation?

    No, we're all atheists. Some of us don't need the social affirmation that comes with pretending we believe something that we know can't exist. Others do.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Bob

      We are not all atheists. And some of us don't pretend that everyone believes as we do.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Katelyn

      Nicely put.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  11. bush limbush

    If science, rational thought and common sense have not "brought down" the church yet, I doubt Twitter will do it.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  12. hnrast

    CNN articles can be equated with piles of cow dung and its readers the flies feeding from them.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  13. Doc Vestibule

    Perhaps some of these new electronic versions will include the long suppressed firt page of The Bible that reads:
    "The stories in this anthology are works of fiction. People, places and situations are the products of the authors' imaginations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (or undead), or historical events is purely coincidental."

    May 16, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  14. Wayne

    Belief blog. What a waste of space.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Alverant

      Since it's on the internet, it's not actually taking up space.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  15. Jason B.

    Of course, churches won't like this. Just like the first public Bibles, it takes away from their power. More people can read and interpret for themselves.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  16. FaithStreet

    This is very interesting. People will always seek community in groups of people that congregate as churches, but technology's impact on the church is certainly a fascinating and under-explored area. Definitely worth the read. 1000s of great NYC churches on http://faithstreet.com.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  17. Tom

    Hey! This exact same thing happened when Gutenberg invented movable type and made printed bibles widely available. That's why we have an atheist world today and no one believes in religion any longer.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • shoddymill

      Certainly unbelief is more common and more accepted in many places, but I'd hardly call it an atheist world. In the words of the great philosopher Yogi Berra, "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

      May 16, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  18. HA25

    I think the author has missed the real threat technology is to the church. People can now on their iphones see pictures from the hubble space telescope; they can read viewpoints from atheists on these blogs; they can see hour-long programs that shine a scientific light on the bible and remind people of the real context of Jesus' day – when an egg-timer that had a chime was inconceivable; or they can watch live TV and see people of different faiths all believing – absolutely – that their god is right and demands the death of anyone who disagrees. It's enough to open people's eyes.
    Imagine what Jerusalem will be when the religions of Abraham's descendents has gone the way of Isis. It will be no different than the Valley of the Kings.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  19. Bruce

    ". . . Australia, South Africa and New Jersey . . ." I loved the wording of this little statement. As if Seeing Rob Bell and being from New Jersey was like being from a foreign country. Thanks Lisa for putting humor into the article.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  20. Carl LaFong

    Technology has nothing to do with it. As the Church becomes more and more conservative and close-minded regarding the rights of ALL mankind, people will continue to be driven away in droves. They also need to come clean on the scope of the pedophile scandals.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • John

      Sorry, but I think that you are confused. The church is not becoming more conservative, quite the opposite. Look at what just happened in the Presbyterian church where they have just changed their ordination standards. You are certainly free to your own opinions, but please base them on facts – not your pre-conceived notions about what is happening. Likewise, don't read Scripture trying to prove that some behavior is acceptable when it is, in fact, a sin. Jesus taught us to forgive sinners, He never taught us that sin was acceptable.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Carl LaFong

      wow, John, you are DELUSIONAL. Open your eyes to the discrimination that the Catholic Church inflicts upon women, gays, non-Catholics. If you don't think THAT is conservative, then you have a real mental problem. This is coming from a life-long Catholic who has just left the Church after 48 years. I was tired of the Gospel of Hate that I was hearing Sunday after Sunday. I know it's hard for someone brain-washed like you to try to think for themselves.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Sean

      @John

      If we are just going to use one example to prove our points ..okay.

      WBC .. enough said.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • wonderwall

      If you're welcome to change, why not try the Episcopal church. Protestant yet Catholic.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Bob

      The church includes more than the Catholic Church. And that John doesn't agree with you doesn't mean he is delusional, brainwashed, or not thinking for himself.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Brian

      Carl, Glad to hear you are no longer going to a Catholic church. Too bad you wasted so much time there. The Pope is not the "Heavenly Father" and Christ should no longer be seen on the cross, singleness can be good IF one can not sin- "most should marry" and on and on. Your nasty tone from the "Gospel Of Hate" is obvious, not Christlike to be sure, as you say. I suggest attending a church this Sunday that is less about religion and more about love and actually studying the Bible. My church is a Baptist church, but I'm not "Baptist"- I went to mass with my friends growing up, went to protestant churches too, then married a Baptist. I've found their collegial literary analysis to be very, very glorifying to God and helpful to my family and our community, including my mission work in W. Africa- not Bible banging, rather loving care for disabled people in need of wheelchairs. Go back to church Carl. Not "The Church", but to worship God as He deserves and expects.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Katelyn

      Amen.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.