The Benefits of Reading a Paper Bible

Being on staff for a Christian club at a major university, I have many, many interactions with students around the Bible. I don’t think it will shock anyone for me to say that most students I meet with use a Bible app on their phone, not an actual Bible, when we read God’s word or open to a verse. The portability and near weightlessness of this option are obvious selling points to a student with a Biology textbook in their bag. But I hope that this is not the only way, and not the primary way, that people now use the Bible. I am not voting we turn back the clock to 2007, the momentous year when both the first iPhone and Kindle were introduced. I am also not against using the Bible electronically, but I believe there are significant benefits in using an actual Bible instead of one on your phone or tablet.

1. Distraction free reading

One of the greatest benefits to using an actual Bible is distraction free reading. The reading experience on a phone is beset with distraction. Texts, Instagram likes, Facebook comments, Snapchats, retweets, alets, email notifications, maybe even a phone call—a daily expanding social media universe with countless black holes to get sucked into. A smartphone is hardly the place to withdraw in order to focus. Especially if we are focusing on the Lord’s word to receive fresh light, which requires our eye to be single.

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light. –Matt. 6:22

Studies have shown that there is a cognitive cost each time we click on a notification to get an update and then switch back to what we were concentrating on before. Each time we make that switch our concentration becomes more and more fragmented. We experience the fractured simultaneity of a Cubist painting (an attempt to see all sides of a figure simultaneously, but from different viewpoints). On top of that, rapid back and forth multitasking depletes the nutrients in our brain and leads to exhaustion. In fact, the very possibility to quickly make this back and forth switch is detrimental to cognitive performance. It’s like standing on our tippy toes at the edge of a cliff swatting at a fly—the more we swat, the more likely we are to lose our balance and fall. That is to say, reading on your phone with just the realization that someone might like a recent Instagram post of yours massively detracts from your ability to be fully cognitively present.

Daniel J Levitin describes this process:

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new—the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.

Technology is like bamboo, it’s an invasive species. This is largely because a book and a smartphone are very different as tools. A book is only a book. But a smartphone can become other things: a movie, a game, a camera, a text. The tool is not benign. Holding a smartphone in your hand is similar to holding ten non-digital tools in your hand. And unlike a book, the screen is not passive. It is also a communicator that initiates conversation. Using a book is singular and definite; using an iPhone is multivalvent and indeterminate. To read the Bible on your phone is to welcome invasion and interruption. If we are to enter into our private room and shut the door when we spend time with the Lord, it makes sense that we don’t leave a few doors open on our phone.

But you, when you pray, enter into your private room, and shut your door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. –Matt. 6:6

2. Better retention

Another major benefit of reading an actual Bible is better retention of what you’ve read. This is because reading on paper is different from reading on screens. Studies have shown that when we read we construct a mental map of the text as we do with physical landscapes.

In an article for the Scientific American, Ferris Jabr says:

We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit… the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape.

This is why people often remember where on the page (top right) and where in the book (near the beginning) a sentence they are looking for is located. This only happens with actual books though, which means that our brains do not actively map the content of what we read on screens. This is in large part due to the physicality of books—that we flip actual pages, that text is forever fixed at a precise location on those pages, and that those pages indicate to us the remaining length of a book. We loose all these tactile details when we read on screens, which in turn affects our long term retention of information.

Jabr continues:

Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text. In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text. As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

This lack of navigational clarity, the loss of footprints on the trail, ends up impairing our long term retention of what we’ve read.

Establish my footsteps in Your word… –Psalm 119:133

Although it is much easier to whip out your Bible app and scroll through a chapter, we don’t leave many footprints in this kind of reading and the text doesn’t leave much of a lasting mark on us either. With what text could it be more imperative to have a mental map of the terrain than the Bible?

3. Discoverability

Another major benefit of using an actual Bible is its discoverability. A physical book has major flip value. It’s easy to flip around and discover new content and still retain a good sense of where you are in the text. Of course, you can jump around in an ebook too, but it is hard to see where you are going and understand where you land. To continue the illustration from the last point, reading in an electronic Bible is like teleporting from Austin to New York—sure, you get to your destination, but you never see what’s on the way. Reading a paper Bible is like driving. This way you end up discovering a whole lot more about America. Places you’d never have visited before catch your eye and charm you.

Growing up (let’s say early high school), this is primarily how I read the Bible. I’d randomly open somewhere, read a little, and them randomly flip somewhere new. Certainly not the most systematic approach, but great for discovery. I still remember certain verses I discovered and fell in love with that way (and I still remember exactly where they are on the page). If I read on a phone as a kid that never would have happened and the deep impression those verses left on me also wouldn’t be there.

I rejoice at Your word, like one who finds great spoil. –Psalm 119:162

We need to make new discoveries every day in God’s word. Regarding this, Watchman Nee says,

These freshly revealed truths are not God’s new inventions. Rather, they are man’s new discoveries. There is no need for invention, but there is the need for discovery.

With a paper Bible, you can discover things a lot more easily. Opening to Psalm 131 on my iPhone, I can only see 5 verses. Opening my actual Bible, I can see all of Psalm 131, 132, 133, 134, 135, and the beginning of 136. With an actual Bible, the text is an open field to explore, but a field that always remains in your sight no matter where you run in it. With a screen, the text is broken up into individual images that must replace each other and can only be viewed one at a time, like viewing that same field in a series of slides on a projector. This severely limits not only what you discover in that field, but even your desire to discover.

4. Visibility

Another benefit in using an actual Bible is its visibility. If you are reading a Bible on your phone, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to tell. But if you are reading an actual Bible, at a coffee shop or on an airplane, everyone will know. There are very few books with gold lined pages.

Keeping the Bible visible does at least two things. First, it allows others to see what you are reading and possibly begin a conversation. It is hard to hide a physical Bible while reading it. Second, it sanctifies you. It sends a clear nonverbal message of your identity in Christ to those around you and that you live according to what is written in those 66 books. We are certainly less likely to audaciously live in the flesh while holding an actual Bible.

I think this should be especially true of those speaking during messages. The TGC had a really good article on pastors bringing their Bibles, physical ones, to the pulpit when they speak. But it’s even true for those listening. If a visitor walks in, looks around, and doesn’t see any Bibles, he may think the congregation is not that serious or interested in the Word. The truth may be that everyone is looking at their Bibles on their phone, but this again may be easily misinterpreted as distraction.

The point here is, in a culture that is trying to erode the authority of God’s word and its presence in society, it is a major loss if believers themselves, for the sake of convenience and having one less thing to carry, assist in removing the Bible from the public eye.

There may be other reasons to use a physical copy of the Bible, but these four come to mind quickly for me. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this topic!

2 thoughts on “The Benefits of Reading a Paper Bible

  1. This article really helps substantiate what I believe many Christians already have a sense about – whether subconscious or realized. Thanks for putting this into words!


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