Disaggregating the Bible

Disaggregating the Bible

THE SOURCE: “Christianity and the Future of the Book” by Alan Jacobs, in The New Atlantis, Fall 2011.

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The Koran calls Christians “People of the Book.” It’s an apt description. “There is an intimate connection between the Christian message, the Christian scriptures, and the codex,” argues Alan Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College. The codex—a bound, portable successor to the unwieldy scrolls on which Scripture was preserved for earlier Christians—spread a unified and organized version of the Word across the world. But what happens to Christianity if the book goes the way of the scroll?

It depends, says Jacobs. As a technology, the bound book has served Christians well. Early adherents were eager to convey that “the Church does not possess a series of “little books,” but, rather, one big book that encompasses both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. From the Christian perspective, Jesus’s life is foretold in the former and chronicled in the latter. “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Jesus Christ,” Jacobs writes of the Bible’s message. Whether one is browsing Scripture on an iPad or thumbing through it the old-fashioned way, that message of unity endures. “Electronic reading devices like the Kindle, and even tablets like the iPad, preserve many of the essential features of the codex,” Jacobs says.

Not so projector screens and PowerPoints, which are rapidly becoming the preferred means of presenting Scripture in church services around the world. Screen projection, prevalent in developing-world congregations too strapped to purchase Bibles, “severs its chosen verse or two from its textual surroundings” and “occludes any sense of sequence within the whole of the Bible.” (Jacobs isn’t the first to fret about fragmentation. Biblical scholars have claimed for years that verse and chapter divisions—not finalized until the 1500s—are artificial distractions.)

Popular Web sites also encourage selective reading. Search boxes in online Bibles feature more prominently than “browse” buttons, Jacobs reports.

Will these technologies lead Christians to miss the forest for the trees? It’s possible. “If Christians forget, or forget more completely than they already have,” Jacobs writes, “the integrity and necessary sequentiality of their holy Book, and of the story it tells, that would be a catastrophe for Christianity.”