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The Bible unbound

Religion | The latest in Bible software delivers Scripture outside the book

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

SEATTLE- As new technology moves the text of Christian Scripture off the printed page and onto computer screens, mobile phones, and iPods, believers around the world are confronted with the reality that the word of God is not a leather-bound book-or even written words for that matter.

Many leaders in the Bible software industry celebrate that shift in understanding, especially given its potential to increase the frequency with which people encounter the Bible. The availability of multiple mediums places emphasis back on the message, discouraging the veneration of particular conduits of Scripture at the expense of Scripture itself.

What's more, the power of the internet to distribute God's word at affordable rates around the globe has energized many mission organizations and excited donors as they watch their dollars wield unprecedented leverage for the dissemination of truth.

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But with new technology comes new questions: Do Bible search engines, digital lexicons, and easy-click study notes promote laziness? Should Christians continue rigorous scholarly pursuits in the original languages when simple software seems able to do the work for them?

Bob Pritchett, president of Logos Bible Software, contends that such powerful digital tools encourage scholarship rather than impede it. "We joke that our software's a time machine in that it takes all the paper handling out of Bible study. When pastors and seminary students use our software, they still spend 15 hours per week in Bible study but get three times as much done because it saves all the time of pulling the book off the shelves, looking in the index, and turning pages."

Logos is one of many organizations looking to keep Bible software on the cutting edge of developing technologies-if not out front. Historically, Christianity has driven many of the most important breakthroughs in communication technology over the past two millennia. Both the book and the printing press resulted from efforts to preserve and spread the Bible's influence.

In that spirit of Christian innovation, Logos hosted what it termed BibleTech 2008 in Seattle last month, a two-day gathering of software developers and Bible gurus from around the country to share ideas and speculate on future market demands.

The result? More questions: Should owners of Bible translations follow the online culture and make their texts available for free on the web? And if so, how will they stay afloat as the rapid growth of mobile digital reading devices renders print Bibles obsolete?

Crossway, publisher of the English Standard Version (ESV), has broken ranks from the guarded Bible copyright holders of years past, proving the merit of a less-than-intuitive online sales strategy: If you give it, they will pay.

The hugely popular rock group Radiohead demonstrated the power of that idea when it released its latest album last year for free download on the web with a suggestion that listeners pay what they think it's worth. The band raked in more online profits than those of its six previous albums combined.

Crossway webmaster Stephen Smith tells a similar story: "Mostly, it's just about building loyalty. Our market share has increased." In the seven years since its release, the ESV has become one of the most preferred versions in North America.

Almost all non-commercial online Bible study tools feature the text, which encourages pastors and churches to make it their translation of choice. Consequently, Crossway's print sales have soared. "With Bibles, you see a lot less willingness to go exclusively digital because people need to carry their Bible to church," Smith said. "At some point there's going to be a really good mobile e-book Bible. But we don't really see the market shifting in the near future."

For organizations like the 191-year-old American Bible Society (ABS), publisher of the Good News Translation and the Contemporary English Version, the revolutionary idea of giving away content is no easy sell. John Mark Mitchell, associate director of IT at ABS, is pressing for a more Crossway-like attitude but faces resistance from ABS bosses: "There's movement, but it's slow. It's easier to focus on the risks than the opportunities."

Mitchell recently helped release a website offering an audio version of ABS content free of charge. Three years ago, he says, that initiative would have gotten him fired on the spot. But three years ago, it would have counted as innovative and sparked significantly more interest. "Our underlying mission is to make the Bible available to every person in a format they can understand at a price they can afford," Mitchell said. "What's the opportunity lost by following only when it's safe?"

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