If you’re an evangelical of a certain age, you’ll know the peculiar noise that rings throughout a church sanctuary after the pastor announces the text for the morning’s sermon: a reverberating ripple, a soft shuffling, the vaguely watery timbre of individual sheets of thin paper being turned. That’s the sound of a congregation opening their Bibles in near unison. The words “I invite you to turn in your Bibles” elicit a papery bruit that feels unique to Christian churches.
Walk into most evangelical churches today, and it won’t take long to notice that this page-turning hum is quieter than it used to be. In some places, total silence has replaced it. The age of the smartphone has meant the age of the Bible app. Many of us no longer “turn” in our Bibles. We scroll.
Enter John Dyer’s book People of the Screen: How Evangelicals Created the Digital Bible and How It Shapes Their Reading of Scripture. This scholarly, impressively researched work is both a historical account of the creation of digital Bible technology and a sociological study of what that technology means to the evangelicals who create, distribute, and use it.
There’s a growing number of books about Christianity and technology. People of the Screen is more than that: it’s a book about a Christian technology and the particular beliefs and behaviors that make it plausible for a particular people. Along the way, Dyer—a vice president and assistant professor at Dallas Theological Seminary—reveals some fascinating tensions between Christian doctrine and digital tech.
People of the Screen
People of the Screen traces the history of Bible software development, showing the unique and powerful role evangelical entrepreneurs and coders have played in shaping its functionality and how their choices in turn shape the reading habits of millions of people around the world. This book argues that evangelical creators have a distinct orientation toward societal change and technology called “Hopeful Entrepreneurial Pragmatism” that uniquely positions them to lead the digital Bible market, imbuing their creations with evangelical ways of understanding the nature and purpose of Scripture.
On Tech Designed for Christians
People of the Screen is an academic work intended for a broad audience beyond evangelicals. As the book begins, Dyer helps readers define two key concepts. First, he defines the word “evangelical.” Dyer is careful to acknowledge, and mostly avoid, the pitfalls that attend such definition (a distracting section on former president Donald Trump notwithstanding). Most evangelicals will see themselves accurately in Dyer’s framework, which is mostly concerned with one’s theological and spiritual view of the Bible. Second, Dyer coins the term “Hopeful Entrepreneurial Pragmatism,” or HEP, to describe the attitude toward technology he finds most common among evangelicals.
The first part of Dyer’s book is arguably the most thorough historical record of the development of Bible software ever published. Readers may be surprised to learn that as early as 1982, professionals from major computer corporations banded together to create Bible software. The Word Processor and the Scripture Scanner software programs garnered attention from mainstream journalism outlets, and their success triggered an explosion of new computer programs dedicated to the study of the Bible. Importantly, many of these tech companies were eventually acquired by Christian publishers and institutions, solidifying their role and legitimacy within the evangelical culture.
The theme that most concerns People of the Screen, however, is that of evangelicalism and technology. While the book’s history of Bible software development is interesting, the latter half of the book, in which Dyer presents his own field study of evangelicals and Bible tech, is consistently revealing. The evangelicals Dyer interviews have generally optimistic and pragmatic philosophies toward digital tech. They value the convenience of being able to access Scripture and study aids on one device, and they transparently admit how smartphone apps help them engage the Bible more regularly.
What Does It Mean to ‘Engage’ the Bible?
The evangelicals Dyer interviews have generally optimistic and pragmatic philosophies toward digital tech.
That last verb, “engage,” is a hugely important one in People of the Screen. “Bible engagement” is the single most used term by both software developers and users when asked what Bible software apps and programs help them accomplish. This is significant because “engage,” unlike words such as “meditate” or “memorize,” is vague. Within the attention economy, “engage” covers a vast array of actions; you can “engage” with an ad simply by hovering over it instead of scrolling past it. You can “engage” a social media post by clicking “like” and then forgetting it an hour later. So what does “Bible engagement” actually mean?
The consumers Dyer interviews give us some hints. According to Dyer’s survey, 45 percent of evangelicals use their phones to read Scripture “devotionally.” That number drops to 22 percent when the activity is “long reading,” 17.3 percent for “memorization,” and only 6 percent for “study” (132). Dyer hears from many evangelicals who use both phone and print but gravitate toward the latter in more meaningful or important situations.
Dyer’s study also indicates Bible apps and software tend to work against deep knowledge and responsiveness to Scripture. As part of his research, Dyer administered a “Bible comprehension assessment” (using the epistle of Jude) to two groups of evangelical readers: one reading from a printed Bible and one reading from a phone’s Bible app. Comprehension was noticeably lower among the digital group. After the reading assignment, 44 percent of the print group reported feeling encouraged and 16 percent reported feeling confused. These stats were very different among the digital group: 36.7 percent felt encouraged, while 30 percent felt confused. Dyer observes that “the screen appears to induce a mood that is more confused [and] less spiritually nourished” than that induced by print Bibles (168).
Apps’ Virtues and Vices
The virtue of Bible apps, of course, is they make Scripture easy to access for a huge number of people, and there’s much evidence throughout People of the Screen that ease of access results in more Scripture reading. Dyer’s research helpfully amplifies the voices of those who have labored on digital Bible technology, and all of them express genuine reverence for God’s Word and a desire for people to be transformed by it. There’s no question the riches of the Bible are reaching an exponentially greater number of people due to digital technologies, and this fact deserves much better than an unthinking nostalgia or Luddism.
Nonetheless, the portrait that emerges from both the history and data in People of the Screen is one in which digital Bible technology presents as a commodity. Its very shape exhibits a logic of consumption. When the Bible is pressed into the form of a smartphone display, it becomes less an object of deep reflection and source of corporate authority and more like everything else on the internet: content meant to be consumed efficiently then bounced away from just as fast.
Reading the Bible is obviously a good thing. But mindless, distracted reading—the kind of reading practically endemic to the digital medium—isn’t commanded and is actually warned against (James 1:23–24). There’s nothing in Scripture that suggests “engaging” the Bible in a passive way is of any benefit. Rather, Christians are exhorted to meditate on God’s Word day and night, much like the roots of a tree constantly drink from a stream of water (Ps. 1).
Mindless, distracted reading—the kind practically endemic to the digital medium—isn’t commanded and is actually warned against.
Evangelicals as a whole don’t tend to evaluate their technology according to what it is but according to what it can do. We welcome the medium as long as we feel we can control the message. But with digital Bible reading, research suggests Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message.
The information in People of the Screen should encourage evangelicals to keep investing in their physical Bibles, to keep prioritizing quiet, undistracted time hearing from God, even when such opportunities are less frequent than we’d like. There’s a place for the ease and utility of our Bible apps. But we’re physical beings who must remain attentive to the inescapable physicality of the world God has made.
I invite you to keep turning in your Bibles.