The Good e-Book

  • Article by: CASSANDRA SPRATLING , Detroit Free Press
  • Updated: September 11, 2012 - 4:28 PM

Increasingly, people are reading the Bible on smartphones, iPads and other electronic devices.

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Jacques James and his wife, Christa, followed along with their Bible iPad app for the first time during a Bible study in July at Apostolic Church in Auburn Hills, Mich. Some e-versions of the Bible offer maps, audio and video renderings of Scripture and allow readers to compare translations side by side.

Photo: Jarrad Henderson, Detroit Free Press

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It's Tuesday evening Bible class at Apostolic Church in Auburn Hills, Mich., but it feels a lot like a Sunday church service.

The praise team has sung spirituals, and the pastor, the Rev. Steve Warman, is wrapping up his lesson.

As he builds toward the climax of his message, he refers to "the word of God" and holds up the text to which he is referring. But that's no Bible in his hand: It's an iPad.

During Bible study, several people read electronic tablets and a few look up verses on their smartphones, while others flip through the pages of a bound book.

Not too long ago, the sight of someone using an electronic device at a worship service might lead an observer to assume that person was not fully engaged. But not anymore. Reading the Bible used to mean reading a book, but increasingly people are getting the Word on smartphones, iPads and other electronic devices.

So what will happen to the printed Bible? The last word has not been written on that, but experts speculate that its unchallenged reign is over.

"The Bible is sort of the flagship of the printed book culture," said Timothy Beal, author of "The Rise and Fall of the Bible" (Mariner, $15.95).

"The printed word is losing its place as the dominant medium for reading."

He pointed to the traditional family Bible -- once commonplace in many homes -- as evidence of the decline in printed Bibles.

"The family Bible as we know it is already a thing of the past in most families," he said. "What was once a perfect product during its time has become kind of an artifact."

Hardcover Bibles are no longer always found in hotel rooms worldwide, either. Last month, a hotel in Newcastle, England, replaced the hardcover Bibles in all 148 guest rooms with Amazon Kindles, preloaded with Bibles. It's exploring doing the same in all 44 hotels the InterContinental Hotels Group owns worldwide.

Tradition holds in some churches

The Rev. Michael Nabors, pastor of New Calvary Baptist Church in Detroit, has at least 20 hardcover Bibles in his office. He recently began using an iPad during Bible study, but sticks to a hardcover version in the pulpit. He doesn't think many of his older members would appreciate him using his iPad.

"What if he's up there preaching and the battery dies or something like that? I hope he has a real Bible next to him, so he can look up what he needs to look up," said Isabella Howard, 62, a longtime church member.

She wouldn't trade her hardbound Bible for any e-version.

"I feel closer to God with this," she said referring to her Bible. "I don't have to plug up anything. All I have to do is open it up and read it."

For others, there are more liturgical reasons to shun e-Bibles during worship.

For example, a representative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit said it would be impractical for a priest to use an e-reader during mass because the Holy Book is held high, carried down the aisle and placed for display on the altar as part of the opening of the service. For some occasions, the book is perfumed with incense.

(Though the book is viewed as a Bible by many Catholics, it is actually called the Book of the Gospels.)

"It would be really strange to process an iPad down the aisle and place it on the altar," said Dan McAfee, director of Christian Worship for the archdiocese.

"E-Bibles are great for personal study, but they can't be used for liturgical books," he said. "The Bible is a sacred book -- a one of a kind -- not just a file among many files in an iPad."

Bible publishers guard sales figures closely, but the United States' largest Bible publisher, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Zondervan, said sales have been growing.

Zondervan offers about 800 different Bibles for adults and children. It also offers approximately 80 e-Bibles. During the past 12 months, sales of digital Bible products increased four times over the previous 12 months, said Zondervan spokeswoman Tara Powers.

"Today, every time we release a print volume, we release a digital version," said Chip Brown, a senior vice president and publisher.

Brown said e-Bibles are not a threat to the printed volumes.

"Just as TV came along and didn't kill film or radio, I don't see digital versions killing the bound volumes. This is just a different way people are engaging [with] the Bible."

Electronically accessible

In a sense, e-formats have made the Bible more accessible to more people, Brown said.

"Today, there are two things you don't leave home without. One is your car keys. And now, no one leaves home without a phone or some kind of digital device. So we will quickly get to the point where everybody has their Bible with them at all times," Brown said.

Some e-versions of the Bible offer opportunities to explore the book in ways printed versions cannot. For example, many e-versions have maps that pop up to show the area written about; some allow readers to compare translations side by side, and some offer audio and video renderings of Scripture.

Warman, pastor at Apostolic Church for 18 years, said he began using an iPad in the pulpit about two years ago for practical reasons. His sermons are written on his iPad. He contends e-devices do not distract from the message.

"The Bible is really God saying, 'I love you.' However it comes, we get the message."

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