Matt Skinner: New media make the Bible accessible; Bible readers too

Consider the Bible's peculiar reputation. It's exceptionally accessible and inaccessible, all at once.

We put it everywhere and make it appealing-published in "user-friendly" formats, repeatedly retranslated-all to keep it situated at the heart of Christian identity. Yet, familiar as it is, the Bible still cannot shed its strangeness as a book full of enigmas and a product of cultures very different from our own. Our desire to make it as available as possible even exacerbates its aura of impenetrability. What message is sent when half of each page in a "study Bible" contains explanatory notes to make sure everyone understands why a certain prophet was so angry or what an Ebenezer is?

This paradoxical situation is woven into Protestantism and was fueled by both the emergence of movable type and post-Reformation theological squabbles. But it's also part of the longer, broader history of Bible-publishing and Christian piety, as a recent study illustrates well.

New digital technologies promise to provide fresh ways of boosting the Bible's accessibility to those who want to read it, now that anyone can do so online. But these emerging technologies also increase the likelihood of being inundated with esoteric biblical commentary that, despite its good intentions, may leave people feeling like they'll never know enough. It may suggest that learning what's apparently required to understand this book may not be worth the effort.

ON Scripture is a web-based attempt to provoke conversations about biblical texts. As its authors reflect on texts, they intend to inform how we think about scripture and how we live in light of it in today's world. Produced by Odyssey Networks, a multi-faith media coalition, and posted each Wednesday, an ON Scripture piece examines a text and considers how it orients our outlook on the current events that influence our hopes, fears, and priorities. The biblical text is chosen from the upcoming Sunday's readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Embedded videos complement the written commentary, allowing glimpses of people of faith engaged with difficult issues and public causes. 

In addition to the Odyssey Networks website, ON Scripture posts appear on the religion page of The Huffington Post and on Day1, the mainline Protestant media outlet.

ON Scripture promotes the Bible's accessibility, for it insists that scripture remains a vital theological resource for understanding what it means to live faithfully and serve our neighbors. Thus a recent post asked how "the greatest commandment" might influence perspectives on the #OWS movements. By offering an informed encounter with a biblical passage in conversation with current events, ON Scripture emphasizes that an outlook shaped by the Bible may be more important for a life of faith than just increased expertise about the Bible.

Today we read the Bible on the same screens where we see the daily news, our work-related email, and photos of loved ones. With everything else residing only a click away, we discover new potential for reading the Bible in more direct contact with all of the other aspects of our lives. The technology can help free us from assuming we have "sacred" tasks that are separate from "secular" ones. 

If technology makes scripture more proximate to "real life," shouldn't commentary do likewise?

Our online existence also erodes old divisions between our private lives and public ones. ON Scripture advocates for public scrutiny of the Bible through public conversations-on social media or offline, among churchgoers, and between Christians and others who are interested in us. An author and video start each discussion, but individual readers can quickly extend it.

Perhaps as we venture into these new media landscapes, the Bible will give us greater access to one another as we meet there to think together about what God calls us to be and do.

[Taken with permission from the New Media Project blog; originally posted 11/16/11.]