And the Word became digital . . .
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
November 30, 2008 - Among many evangelicals, the season of the Christian year known in liturgical church traditions as Advent has been historically neglected. Instead of awaiting the coming of Christ (both in remembrance as a helpless babe and in anticipation as a triumphant King), evangelicals rush straight for the manger (or perhaps the tree or the wrapping paper, as the case may be). However, some anecdotal evidence suggests this trend is changing.
To the extent that these reported changes are reliable, they convey a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is heartening to witness God’s people act upon a longing for a deeper intimacy with the Word who became flesh. Moreover, it is heartening to see such action take the form of patterns of worship that align those same believers with that “great cloud of witnesses” that constitute Christ’s Church across time. On the other hand, one cannot help wondering whether the reported enthusiasm for Advent merely reflects evangelicals besetting sin – a penchant for all things novel and merchant. (Note the article’s example: a VeggieTales Advent calendar “with a Merry Christmas felt wall hanging that counts down from Dec. 1 to 24th with a candy cane to mark the days.” This seems to comment on itself!)
This particular season of Advent coincides with the release of two new monographs that provide occasion for deep meditation on the Word of God written – even as Christians anticipate the second coming of the Word incarnate. The first is Donald L. Brake’s A Visual History of the English Bible (Baker, 2008). Brake weaves together a rich tapestry of historical strands in simple, unadorned prose as he traces the development of contemporary English versions of Scripture from the canonization process in the ancient church, through forerunners to the King James Version (e.g., Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Coverdale). The book itself is a visual feast with over 100 full color photographs of historic manuscripts and Bibles, many from Brake’s personal collection. As a complement to the rich visual display, Brake's narrative is punctuated with poignant historic reminders of periods in the history of Christianity when the written Word was virtually inaccessible. As an example, Brake cites the story of John Porter who was shackled and jailed by Bishop Edmund Bonner for violating the 1542 “Admonitions” which hung from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Church in London that forbade parishioners from reading aloud from a church Bible (which, incidentally, itself was chained to the pulpit!).
The world of Bonner and Porter seems almost incomprehensible today. Our access to the written Word in English is unparalleled in Christian history. And the recent release of the English Standard Version (ESV) Study Bible will likely prove to be another noteworthy chapter in the on-going story of putting God’s Word into the tongues and hands of the people. Already the ESV Study Bible has become a best-seller among study bibles. And the success of the print edition, together with the co-release of a full, online edition (available to those who purchase the print version), has prompted Crossway publishers to “announce the forthcoming release of the ESV Study Bible on a wide spectrum of digital platforms, including Mac, PC, Windows Mobile, Palm, iPhone, Blackberry, Google Android, and Symbian. To achieve the widest possible digital distribution, Crossway has partnered with the leading digital software providers, including Accordance, Biblesoft, Laridian, Olive Tree, and WORDsearch, to make the ESV Study Bible available with all of its notes, articles, and features.”
It is perhaps most charitable to assume that the motivation for the digitization of Scripture is similar the passion of William Tyndale: to put the Scripture in the hands of even the “boy that driveth the plough.” In short – put God’s Word into as many hands as possible. Still, during this season of Advent, it is worth reflecting whether the habits of the digital age are, in fact, conducive to receiving that Word that our world so desperately needs.
In his letter to the church at Galatia, Paul writes that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” During the season of Advent, Christians around the globe reflect on the full weight of that time when, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Providentially, the “fullness of time” included a culture that could not conceive of an iPhone. Ours is the age of Twitter-ing and Yammer-ing. And one would be right to wonder whether a culture that is a consumed with twittering and yammering can sustain the kinds of conditions necessary to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Having released the Bible from its pulpit chains, we are now releasing it from the “imprisoned” space of the printed page.
In reading Brake’s history of the English Bible and reflecting on Crossway’s ambitious initiative, one cannot help but wonder whether the digitizers of the ESV Study Bible possess Tyndale’s conviction, whose final words before being strangled and burned at the stake for his role in making God’s written Word more accessible were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Perhaps so. But if not, one cannot help but wonder whether the release of God’s Word into the wide and wonderful freedom that is cyberspace will ultimately have the same trivializing effect that twittering and yammering continue to have on all written and spoken discourse.
Come, Lord Jesus!