While as an older child and teenager I was always keen on having the newest technologies available to me—particularly with regard to entertainment—as I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely become a “late adopter.” I resisted exchanging my desktop PC for a notebook until 2008, was slow to start using text messages and smartphones, and I have only recently begun using a tablet computer for displaying sheet music in practice and performance. And after years of resistance I have at last sharply curtailed buying printed books in favor of using a Kindle Paperwhite. Both my wallet and my shelf space have benefited from these changes, and traveling is certainly easier with a small device or two replacing the multiple books and sheet music scores with which I once stuffed my carry-on bag. I have even begun doing my daily Bible reading on the Kindle, something I would never have imagined even a couple of years ago. I may be slow to adopt new technologies, but once I feel that a new piece of hardware or software is proven I am happy to put it to use.
The proliferation of Bible reading apps in particular perhaps calls into question the continued mission and activities of The Gideons International, the association in whose scripture distribution ministry I have participated for the past twelve years. We are coming close to meeting our goal of distributing 100 million scriptures annually by 2020, but in a time in which even committed church members have exchanged printed Bibles for reading from phones or tablets during corporate worship, is giving away printed Bibles passé? Even The Gideons International itself has a free Bible reading app! Still, I don’t think the time for distributing printed Bibles has passed. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Printed text is an enduring technology. Digital archives are a wonderful thing. Because of the multiplied thousands of articles available in PDF format even 10-15 years ago I was able to complete my doctoral dissertation in considerably less time and with less expense than if I had done so a decade or two before. I well remember reading British brass band journals from over a century ago on my computer in my basement; in previous years I would have had to exchange my own basement for a musty library archive someplace in England. Despite the great promise of digital archives, though, I have also heard stories about how digital resources from even 40-50 years ago are no longer accessible because the hardware needed to access them no longer exists. Conversely, library books from the same period are still enjoying a long and useful shelf life. What does all of this have to do with Bibles? The Bible apps on my phone, tablet, and eReader are useful and convenient, but sooner or later (probably sooner) they will be obsolete. I have a Gideon Bible from the 1910s on my shelf, and its text is as plain and readable as it was when it was first delivered from the printer. Printed Bibles endure.
2. Electronic Bibles are not everywhere convenient. One of the most remarkable developments in the “Two-Thirds World” is the proliferation of digital communications to rural areas that were entirely bypassed by their analog counterparts. Cellular telephones are relatively common in parts of Africa that were once chronically underserved with regard to telephone service, electricity, etc. Still, digital media can be expensive and unreliable, whereas the Gideons have managed to bring the cost of printed New Testaments down to around $1.20 on average. Those Testaments rarely break, and never run out of battery!
3. It is still nice to hand someone something tangible. One of the things that I sometimes do not enjoy about my teaching position in a secular university is that religious expression is often effectively curtailed by regulations and expectations both real and perceived. I don’t have as many opportunities to personally hand out Bibles as would someone in a working environment more amenable to proselytizing. Still, when I do have an opportunity to place a Bible in a hotel room or hospital room or hand a New Testament to someone personally there is a sense that something tangible, something real is being given, something that came at a cost to the giver. People still appreciate that, even as we hope and pray that those receiving scriptures will read therein of the ultimate Giver, the One who gave Himself that we might live.
4. God still uses these Bibles to save souls. Last night our Gideon camp held its annual banquet for area pastors, and while I regularly speak in churches to raise funds for buying Bibles I very much enjoy hearing others speak about how God is using the Gideon ministry, hearing new testimonies of lives changed through the giving, receiving, and reading of His Word. Will the time come when printed Bibles are no longer useful or relevant? Honestly, I doubt it, and in any case it is clear that God is still pleased to bless the distribution of scriptures around the world, now in 201 countries, territories, and possessions, and in 107 languages. I’m happy to still be a part.