Every Friday in Sacred Space, Brad Williams explores the place of popular culture in the local church.

Judging by the latest book study our church has begun, a whole lot of people got iPads, Kindles, or Nooks for Christmas. We had been promoting our latest Wednesday night book study for several weeks, and much to my dismay, we took zero book orders. That was quite different from the previous study. In that one, I ordered around a dozen books for people. I took the low order rate to be a sign that people might not be very interested in the book I had chosen.

To my amazement and relief, our Wednesday night study was at least as full as the one before, and the discussion was lively. What was the difference? Everyone, except one person who ordered the book themselves, had bought the book electronically. That includes myself. For the first time ever, I am teaching a book study from an electronic device.

The convenience for me as a teacher is notable. I can highlight passages with a touch, and enter notes on the highlighted passage with equal ease. I can bookmark pages I want to return to with a flick of the finger. I can swap from the book we are studying to the Bible with ease. In the iPad version of the book, the author has videos embedded at the beginning of some of the chapters explaining his thoughts. That sort of thing astounds me. Imagine if you had a copy of Augustine’s “Confessions” wherein Augustine himself gave you a little intro to a few of the chapters. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?

This summer, if God wills, I will be heading to Tanzania to teach a pastor’s conference. Is it possible that my little e-reader is the only “book” I will need to bring? If I have it, I can bring an entire library without over-stuffing my suitcase. The potential there is incredible, when you think of it.

I suspect that we will begin to see more and more e-readers instead of thick Study Bibles on Sunday mornings. The only drawback to this that I have found is that it is sometimes easier to thumb through pages than it is to sort through a e-reader’s Bible directory. In book studies, it is difficult for us all to get on the “same page” when I single out a quote because the font size and read that you choose will cause the “page number” to vary. (In the future, will we still call them “page numbers”?)

I believe that this trend of using e-readers instead of books is only going to grow. Does this help the church? Yes, I believe that it does. It makes it easy to access more good literature, it will make books cheaper to own, and if book “sharing” becomes more common, that will make it even better. Also, imagine giving an e-reader to a pastor overseas. You could literally ship him an entire theological library in one device. The money you spend on the device will be far cheaper than the cost of shipping a physical library. Most of the classic works are either free or only cost a dollar.

My advice at this point is to rejoice that we have such technology, and that we should begin thinking carefully about how we as a church might take full advantage of it.


  1. Brad,

    I agree that Kindles, Nooks, and iPads can be valuable resources to the church. In principle, I am not opposed to any such devices per se, and support our efforts to use them to minister.

    That said, however, I think we should be wary of the possibility that these devices fully replace the physical book. I realize such an occurrence might take place within my lifetime, and to be perfectly frank, I am terrified of it. The immediate availability of disembodied information strikes me as all-too-Gnostic. Reading, learning, should also be a tangible, physical experience. No flat screen can fully replace that sensation. If we lose the printed book entirely, we lose . . . not the SOUL of reading, but actually the opposite, which is just as important.

    Indeed, increasing research is showing that reading from screens, at least in part, causes our “deep reading” brain functions to atrophy somewhat. This tendency is more true of the internet, where web distractions abound, but it is really true of any screen-based document that can be “scanned” instead of read and where words can be hunted for immediately. Old theologians and readers could only find information in the Bible quickly by the careful, deep process of learning it thoroughly and intensely. (I’ve put links to some such reading articles below.)

    As you say, “The convenience for me as a teacher is notable.” This is another reason to use such devices but also a reason to be skeptical of them. Anything that makes our life convenient could be helpful but should also be treated with suspicion. Convenience often comes with the sacrifice of content or of character. While not always true, I think we as Christians must pause to think a moment before adopting something merely because it is convenient.

    Let me reassert that I fully support the use of Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and the internet in the pursuit of understanding truth and in the use of Bible studies, just as you discuss, Brad. But let us use the utmost discernment. In an earlier CaPC posting, Jason Morehead wrote “In Defense of the Humble Cassette.” I would suggest that his thesis is even truer of books. I use the internet and my computer every day, and indeed I find them helpful tools. But there can never be a substitute for what goes on in our God-formed brains when we muse, ponder, meditate, and tactilely feel the Word. I myself know how prone I have become over the past few years to become distracted, to scan; I was not like this in college, before I used the internet regularly. Or, as Rupert Giles puts it in the Buffy: The Vampire Episode “I Robot, You Jane”:

    “Books smell—musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer…it has no texture, no context; it’s there, and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible; it should be…smelly.”




  2. Geoffrey,

    I think that your nostalgia for books have driven you mad! :)

    I cannot imagine why reading something on paper would cause my brain to think more deeply than it does on screen. I think that’s crazy talk. And the idea that God designed our brains to learn words from book medium over digital/papyrus/vellum/stone tablet medium strikes me as equally absurd.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like books. I have hundreds of them in my library. But I cannot tell a definitive difference in my deep brain thinking from one to the other.

    Also, I don’t think that an e-reader is anything like internet browsing. I sit, and I read a book on a back-lit screen.

  3. Well, as I mentioned, the analogy to the internet is not perfect. That the internet affects brain functioning is not nostalgia for the printed page; it’s quite scientific. But any screen technology allows the reader to hop around almost instantaneously, and thus the concern is still very real. You admit in your column:

    “I can highlight passages with a touch, and enter notes on the highlighted passage with equal ease. I can bookmark pages I want to return to with a flick of the finger. I can swap from the book we are studying to the Bible with ease. In the iPad version of the book, the author has videos embedded at the beginning of some of the chapters explaining his thoughts. That sort of thing astounds me. Imagine if you had a copy of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ wherein Augustine himself gave you a little intro to a few of the chapters. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?”

    My point exactly—it IS mind-blowing. And that may not be the best thing for the mind. To have video embedded in a text? Video DEFINITELY causes decreased “deep” brain function. Your brain may be more active, but it is not active with as much substance. And while I would love to see Augustine’s commentary on his Confessions, it actually work just fine on its own, and has for 1500 years—which is why we still read it.

    Just because technology is a machine and a tool, that does not make use of it morally neutral. Please correct me if I am wrong (I mean it), but your column does not suggest to me that you ever thought about the possibility that there could be moral implications to replacing the printed book with the electronic book. Your analogy of papyrus/vellum is not quite on target. As one of the links I sent pointed out, the real analogy belongs to ancient Greece, when oral culture was replaced by printed culture. And we gained through printed culture (obviously), but we (at least in America) also lack the amazing brain powers of memory that oral culture retained. The ideal to strive for, I would think, would be somehow to train our brains in all formats: oral, print, and digital. We can’t do that if print books cease to be. And we lose a piece of ourselves (very literally, certain neural pathways) if that occurs—we will become less than what God made us to be. Our brains may become a mile wide, but they will remain only one inch deep.

  4. I tend to agree with Geoffrey. I try hard not to romanticize physical books but I do think that something is lost when everything becomes extremely convenient and at your fingertips. Not only does it cater to our diminishing attention spans, but there is also a certain level of “gimmick” involved that I think can distract from the material itself. Not only that, but making it easy usually makes it cheap, in more ways that one. Your wallet might appreciate it, but at what cost to how you process and retain what you read if the purpose is to communicate ideas or stories?

    The example of the printing press removing some of the benefits of an oral culture is a good one… There are obvious benefits of e-readers and by all means we should be excited about them! It is pretty magical that we can send entire libraries across the world in a device weighing less than a pound. But we should also be very careful to recognize what we could be losing, which is much less obvious at this point in time. We might actually have to work harder than we did before these devices in order to keep hold of the good things we lose.

    I myself will continue to buy printed books as a matter of preference. Time will tell whether or not e-readers will actually make us even shallower thinkers. ;)

  5. How on earth does reading a book on a Kindle cater to diminishing attention spans? The reading experience is identical save for the facts that your text is less designed (i.e. closer in character to that of the original manuscript) and that the physical object you’re interacting with bears a slightly different tactile form—but that’s the case between hardcover and trade paperback and mass market paperback. Which is the real reading experience?

    You people make me want to pull the eyes out of things.

  6. Seth,

    Don’t give in to the dark side.

    To the Rest,

    I don’t think my kindle has caused my attention span to shorten. Last month, I read $70 worth of books, including the entire “A Game of Thrones” series. That’s more reading than I did in the previous four months combined. That took some major attention span, and also many different uncomfortable reading positions.

    I cannot speak to my “deeper brain function” though. I’m not sure the Kindle can be blamed for the lack of that.

  7. Maybe I should have explained more what I meant by that. I’m sorry for being unclear and making blanket statements with no backing whatsoever… My rhetoric was severely lacking if it gave you violent urges to pull the eyes out of things, haha!

    For me, at least, having a device that makes it easy to flip through pages and even between books with only a few clicks makes it difficult for me to focus for more than a few minutes on one book or essay or article. My problem is worse with blogs (and I know a Kindle is a FAR cry from the internet as far as distraction, but bear with me)… I can’t resist clicking links to the next article and the next article and the next, sometimes without even finishing the one I was originally reading! Even books can pose this problem to me (In Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution” he lists sources and websites in footnotes as opposed to just in a bibliography in the back, and I had to stop myself several times from putting the book down mid-thought and going to the internet to look them up).

    So I would argue that the reading experience is not the same, and my prediction is that it will become less so as time goes on. My worry is that as digital print media makes the huge network of ideas easier to access at your fingertips, it will contribute to the kind of A.D.D. I see in myself when it comes to reading. Again, I’m speculating, and we can’t see the end result of these things. I also want to make clear that I am not against e-readers and the fact that they’ve made access to so many books and ideas is NOT a bad or evil thing! But I do think we should just keep an eye out for what we might be losing, like with any technology (cars have caused the need to construct gyms so we can stay in shape and healthy, for example), instead of embracing it without questioning any potential pitfalls.

  8. I’m fine with speculation and caution. I like the idea of saying, Hey, I wonder if there’s any qualitative difference between reading a book in bound pages and reading a book on an electronic device? What I’m not a fan of is the presumption that there must be an essential difference because of what are more likely trivial distinctions.

    Geoffrey was pointing to some strangeness that described reading on paper as a tactile experience and reading on a device as non-tactile and possibly gnostic. Just because a tactile experience is different doesn’t mean it’s not tactile (though I’m not even sure I grok what is meant by tactile). And where do we get the presupposition that the possibility of papercuts is intrinsic to the reading experience, anyway? It seems more likely that paper is incidental to the experience and so the thing that is being celebrated and preserved by Geoffrey has more to do with books as desirable artifacts than it does with reading itself.

    One of the things that bothers me about the discussion is that people keep trying to bring in their experience with the internet and with blogs, as if the intentionally short-attention-demand of that content has anything to do with electronic reading devices. A better comparison to blogs and webzines would be magazines and the editorial pages of the newspapers that still exist. These are items that are not necessiarly meant to ever be read from start to finish. Magazines, after all, are merely barely veiled advertising space, featuring articles that are designed mostly just to sell readers on a product or idea in the short time before a reader flips to another article (this is easier to do in a magazine than it is on the internet). Magazines and newspapers are designed for quick digestion of fact, opinion, and ideology. They are as much geared toward that as the internet is.

    Books, however, are meant to be taken in over time and require much greater attention and discipline to absorb. eReaders promote that discipline by making it convenient to engage books. And I’m as likely to put down a physical book to check Facebook or look up a relevant fact on Wikipedia as I am to switch apps on an iPad to do the same.

    What it comes down to is that until there is valid research justifying ill-feeling toward book-reading on an eReader (and so far, everything seems to be focused on the woes of blog-reading instead), all the arguments against the eReader come off merely as luddite paranoia—nostalgia dipped in fear of change. I’m willing to entertain the idea that reading digital versions of books is a societal negative, but not until I hear a plausible argument for the critique.

  9. I think you make some good points and we can definitely agree on a few things. I know I have a tendency to put the “analog” versions of today’s rapidly-changing technology on a pedestal. I do want to be mindful of my bent towards the nostalgia of paper books among other things… and it’s true, reading a book in any form requires discipline regardless of whether it’s e-ink or on paper, and I like your comparison between newspapers/magazines and blogs. I think that does knock the feet out from under that argument, and I won’t use it anymore.

    I’m still going to hold out, at least until the downsides to e-readers make themselves clearer. Call me a luddite, but I think in a larger sense our willingness as a culture to adopt whatever the latest and greatest is without a second thought has contributed to how mired in our technology we are. I would just like to see more consumers thinking a little harder about what they choose to make a part of their lives… For myself, I really don’t need to spend $200 on an e-reader when I have a library down the street and ample space for my book collection as well as a preference to hold a highlighter in my hand and make notes in physical pages, and I have a trusty bag large enough to fit a few books on the go. I personally have no GOOD reason to make the switch.

    Again, not saying e-readers are evil and I recognize the gaps they can fill… like the fact that many people who have them say they read more than they did before (which is great!) and before this article I’d never thought about being able to send entire libraries across the world (which is awesome!).

  10. Just for fun, here are some downsides to eReaders (none of which are intrinsic to the idea of the device, but are current expressions of the circumstance in which they have arrived):

    • Lending is just flatout broken. The few publishers who do allow lending put abominable restrictions on it.

    • Pricing is silly. When Kindle first came out, Amazon had the clout to pressure publishers toward more sensible pricing practices. When Apple started selling books, we started seeing publishers pricing digital versions of their books the same as retail paper versions (a.k.a. more expensive than paper once you take Amazon discounts on paper into consideration). This is waaaaaaay too much for a book you’re essentially getting a long-term borrow on.

    • DRM. In a bid to protect their IP, publishers relinquish ownership rights from digital consumers. This is the single worst aspect of maintaining one’s digital library: the fact that you don’t own any of the books in your digital library unless you break copyright and secure DRM-free archival copies of your books.

    In the end, there are definitely problems with digital reading devices, but the bad guy in each of these situations is not the device but the publishers (and the broken copyright laws that empower publishers’ poor decision-making).

  11. Seth,

    Totally agree with your second point! I was so irked to have to pay $13 for a book download! But what are you talking about on point 3? Do I not own the books I bought from Amazon? I don’t understand what you mean.

  12. Note also: my reading splits between reading digital and paper. I read a lot more digital before the pricing went stupid. I read mostly paper right now, but that is a huge burden on my already too-full bookshelves (and we don’t have any more wallspace for books).

    As far as preferences go, I actually prefer reading Good books in hardback with intact book jackets. This is all due to nostalgia mixed with an admiration for the book as an artifact. Also, I look cooler to the passerby if I’m reading a fat hardback from a reputable firm than I do holding a Kindle or iPad. This being the case, I still detect no difference in the reading aspect of my book experience.

  13. @Brad – You don’t. You own the right to access them from Amazon’s database so long as Amazon or the publisher doesn’t relinquish that right (which has happened on rare occasion). You also don’t (unless Amazon has changed in recent months) have the ability to read your digital copies anywhere outside Kindle software.

    Plus, if you did own the books, you could just send the book file to a friend who could then give it back to you once she’s done. That you don’t have control over the book is a good indication that you don’t own it.

  14. @Seth– That’s it! I paid $13 for a book I don’t own. And you know why? Because Geof is right! If I hadn’t lost the ability to do deep brain thinking, I would have realized I was getting hoodwinked!


  15. Actually, it seems initially like both Brad and Seth are using e-readers in one way I think is appropriate, as a supplement rather than a replacement for the physical book. My preference would be to see each coexist.

    I believe the point Ciara and I are making about attention span still stands. The internet and e-readers are only two ways in which this attention issue has become manifest over the past century or so. For some simple observational evidence, just look at the length of a paragraph from a document of, say, the 1880s (even a newspaper); you will note that the paragraphs were much longer. The reality is, our culture now assumes that we do not have the attention span to be able to handle a three-page paragraph.

    This is evident in media prior to the internet and e-readers. Look at the contrast between two long-running popular kids’ shows: Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. The former consists of brief clips, only a few minutes in length; the latter consists largely of a guy talking (even putting on clothes) in continuous, slow-moving shots. They assume two different ways of learning or thinking. And I think both methods are appropriate and good.

    To bring this back to the current debate, I agree that Kindles and Nooks are hardly THE cause of apocalyptic attention demise. But I still contend that they manifest the larger trend of our culture away from slow, disciplined, thoughtful reading and that they cater to our desire to absorb information quickly—at times more quickly than we can process thoroughly. And I still haven’t seen either Brad or Seth actually respond to data suggesting the differences in brain function, other than essentially saying, “I don’t feel like I’ve experienced that.”

    I do, however, appreciate your acknowledgment, Seth, that it is worth considering; that is essentially how I see Christ and Pop Culture should function—as a means of we Christians thinking thoroughly and biblically about new fads and ideas. Some will be worthwhile entirely, others will be good with appropriate caution, and yet others will be entirely negative. What I felt about your initial article, Brad, was that it didn’t really recognize even the possibility of drawbacks. In general, I appreciate your columns because you will often defend the less edgy, more traditional (and perhaps less popular) positions (regarding subjects like alcohol, gambling, etc.). Thus, you present a counteractive against rushing too quickly into areas we might regret. I didn’t quite catch that note of balance or caution in this posting, though I feel the conversation that has since been generated has been worth having.

  16. Quick note: I said “gambling” when I meant “tattoos.” I don’t know if you’ve tackled gambling, Brad, though I’m sure it would be good if you did. I just got my cultural issue mixed up.

  17. Part of the problem with recalling too fondly the stylistic tics of two hundred years ago is the presumption that those things were laudable. There were a great number of writers who cast their thoughts in long, unwieldy multi-sentence titles and never had any idea where a paragraph should likely end. The puritanical writers, especially, show a marked reliance upon redundance and over-statement. And it’s not even clear how many in that culture actually did read those tedious, poorly written scrawls. It makes as much sense to guess that what readers they had actually skimmed their texts while they wait for the next installment of something more digestible, like Moby Dick.

    TL;DR Three-page paragraphs are an abomination and their diminishment in the modern era is not particularly conducive to your point.

    To your point that the eBook “manifests the larger trend of our culture away from slow, disciplined, thoughtful reading and that they cater to our desire to absorb information quickly,” you have still yet to offer any evidence that this is the case. You may not prefer the staccato rhythms of an author like Kurt Vonnegut, but he was penning three word paragraphs long before the advent of digital media. And you’ve offered nothing to suggest that the digitization of text is resultant from whatever malignant cultural phenomenon spawn Vonnegut and his ilk.

    Razoring Occham, wouldn’t it be easier to start with the base assumption that digitized text resulted from our desire to safeguard texts in compact ways, allowing also for ease of publication, duplication, and transportation—and begin our critique from that point? If indeed, the digitization of text originates from a pragmatic argument rather than a pandemic one, wouldn’t the rise of digital readers remark more upon the democratizing nature of the digital text than of a scattering of attentions? And could a society whose attentions are really as scattered as all that actually create both the means of digitization and the device that can interpret such?

    I appreciate that you have a concern, but you have yet to offer any justification for the concern beyond the fact that you are concerned.

  18. Geoffrey,

    I appreciate your reading, and I think you may be right. Before I actually got my hands on a Kindle, I found e-readers annoying. I am an admitted and happy Book-o-phile. In face, I have so many books that I have them stacked in my garage and some in storage, not to mention the ones lining the shelves of my house. I was of the firm opinion, on the pragmatic side, that e-readers could never replace a book. They seemed clunky, the screen went black after a few minutes of idling, and the screen’s pages were far smaller than normal.

    To add to this disdain, I own an iPad2. I found it distracting in exactly the way you describe. Too many games, apps, emails, and etc. to distract me. Then I got my Kindle, and that all changed. I don’t know why, but I find it far greater than my iPad as far as a reader goes, so much so that I think they are only cousins.

    As I contemplated how many books could be stored on this thing, especially with the serious library limitations my missionary friends have in travelling, the good points overwhelmed my concerns, especially as I genuinely enjoyed the reading experience.

Comments are now closed for this article.