Carl McColman: Do Contemplatives Need Bible Software?


Is the Bible a textbook, or a legal code, or a love letter?

I suppose one could argue that it is all three. But it seems that, for much of Christian history, our theologians have tended to lock themselves away in an ivory tower, reading the Bible like a textbook, while church authorities (and their secular counterparts) have too often seen the book as merely a juridical text, meant to enforce morality and good order. Lost in the shuffle is the Bible as an amazing love story, full of poetry and passion, where God declares joy and tenderness in the call for each of us to enter into union with Divine Love.

The contemplative revival sweeping across the church in our day marks a beautiful resurgence of the "love letter" approach to the Bible. The monastic practice of Lectio Divina, now widely appreciated in many churches, invites us to read sacred scripture in a meditative, reflective, prayerful way. Embracing Lectio Divina is a significant step toward a spirituality grounded in contemplative awareness, in faith anchored in loving trust and intimacy with God.

But here's the thing. When teachers of Lectio present it to groups (I do this too), we often say "This is not Bible study." And it's not. But I worry that we could subtly sending out a message that Bible study is therefore unimportant, or worse yet, unnecessary. When we affirm a prayerful/devotional reading of scripture, are we unwittingly marginalizing the importance of a scholarly, informed reading of the text?

A few months ago, a person associated with Logos Bible Software approached me and asked me if I would be willing to test drive their Catholic Bible Study Software, Verbum 6. I agreed, even though I was already using a competitive product. I'll admit - at first I was skeptical of it. I'm not a scholar, and even though I'm in full-time lay ministry, so much of what I do is practice-based: I teach people how to pray, not how to read Greek or interpret difficult Bible passages. So I wasn't sure how this professional-grade software could really be useful for someone like me.

Want these books by Thomas Keating as ebooks? Well, you'll have to get Verbum; they're not available for the Kindle.

Want these books by Thomas Keating as ebooks? Well, you'll have to get Verbum; they're not available for the Kindle.

Well, six months later I use Verbum every day. I repeat: every day. It's not perfect, but it's far and away the best Bible software I've ever come across. It's built on Logos, which was originally developed for the evangelical market, but Verbum is designed for Catholic (and Catholic-friendly) users in mind, so in addition to top-rate Bible tools, it offers a delicious array of resources from church tradition, such as the works of Aquinas and Augustine and other church fathers, Catechisms (both the current one and the Catechism of Trent), Vatican II Documents, papal encyclicals, various other writings from saints or renowned Catholic theologians, across the spectrum (from Raymond Brown to Joseph Ratzinger), and - here's where it gets interesting for me and I suspect most readers of my blog - a wide assortment of writings from the great mystics, including Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing, and Evelyn Underhill. Even a nice assortment of the best writings of Thomas Keating are available.

Now, you might be wondering why this matters; after all, most (but not all!) of these books are also available in other electronic formats, such as Kindle, Nook, or Google Play. But Verbum is far more than just a garden-variety ebook reader. It offers integration so that any of these classic texts can be referenced when engaging in scripture study, to have at your fingerprints the mind of the church - and, particularly of the saints and mystics - when you are studying a particular passage or text.

So it works like this. Say you are studying a passage in the Song of Songs. You type in the passage, and you'll pull up not only the verses you are studying, but also a detailed "Passage Guide" that links you to relevant material in scripture commentaries, cross references to other scripture passages, quotations on your verses in the writings of the church fathers, saints and mystics, liturgical references (when is the passage used in the lectionary, for example), along with a detailed analysis of the topics and themes of the passage, key figures/voices in the passage, and cultural concepts embedded in the text. If that weren't enough, there is also an "Exegetical Guide" which provides a detailed word-by-word analysis of the text in its original language. Sometimes, as in the case of Psalm 65:1 for example, this can be most enlightening.

Exegetical Guide for Psalm 65:1, which shows how the word "silence" is ignored in the NRSV translation. The Hebrew original reads "Silence is praise to you, O God," but the anemic NRSV translation renders the verse is "Praise is due to you, O God."

Exegetical Guide for Psalm 65:1, which shows how the word "silence" is ignored in the NRSV translation. The Hebrew original reads "Silence is praise to you, O God," but the anemic NRSV translation renders the verse is "Praise is due to you, O God."

Once again - I am not a scholar, I know just enough Greek and Hebrew to be dangerous, and I recognize that many contemplative Christians may not need the kind of power that a software program like this wields. But I think anyone with an adult desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of your faith - even if you're never going to preach a sermon or teach a seminary class - would find a tool like Verbum to be meaningful and useful. And of course, if you are someone who preaches or teaches, then I think it's nigh about indispensable.

But there's more to this program than just an impressive portfolio of gee-whiz Bible study aids. Watch the video to get a taste of how Verbum can be used for topical study.

It's a cross-platform tool: once you install it on your desktop, you can install apps on your tablet and smartphone to literally take it with you everywhere you go. Best of all, it's like a sportscar - plenty of power, but still perfectly useful for driving your ordinary errands. In other words, Verbum works as a perfectly fine alternative to other e-readers, so the books you install in your Verbum library (whether the Bible or Evelyn Underhill's Practical Mysticism) go with you everywhere, too. One function I really like is the ability to set up daily reading plans - and not just using the Bible. You can set up a daily reading plan for any book in your library, so every morning you can set it up to give you an excerpt from The Dark Night of the Soul or The Cloud of Unknowing to accompany your daily scripture reading. For that matter, when it comes to Bible reading, you have the choice of setting up a daily reading plan, or just accessing each day's lectionary readings: they're right there on the Verbum home page, automatically updated every morning.

There are some things it doesn't do, that I wish it did. It doesn't provide a user-friendly Daily Office; you'll still need to install an app like "Divine Office" on your smartphone for that. It would be nice if it has a "Lectio Divina" window to allow users to document their reflections and prayers attached with whatever passage of scripture is being used in prayer. But since Verbum is primarily a study rather than devotional tool, I suppose these gaps are understandable. Furthermore, I find it's not the easiest program to learn, so it was important for me to use the Verbum Practicum series of instructional videos, which was helpful - but expensive and based on an earlier version of the software (although I understand new training videos are in the works). But there is an extensive menu of online helps, including a blog, to assist the new user in finding his or her way to using Verbum.

It's pricey, which is understandable given how much horsepower is under the hood. But the money is attached to the books you buy, so you spend as much or as little as the library you wish to install - and Verbum offers a variety of starter libraries at prices ranging from about $275 to almost $2900 - but they often offer sale prices to take some of the bite out of the price tag. If you buy one of the smaller libraries, your cost on the upgrades goes down accordingly, so you can get in the game with a relatively small initial investment, and then upgrade over time. The company does offer payment plans, but the monthly fee is a bit steep so you might be better off just biting the bullet and paying it all at once.

Best of all, you can get started even by simply purchasing a single Bible for under $20. Granted, you don't have all the fabulous study tools, but if you just want to set up a daily reading plan, you'd be good to go (of course, I'd recommend throwing in The Cloud of Unknowing for another $15 and reading that every day as well!). If you do that, though, I strongly recommend you go on to get at least one of the libraries. It's worth it.

I called this post "Do Contemplatives Need Bible Software?" I think the answer is yes, because I believe contemplatives - at least, Christian contemplatives -still have an obligation to study scripture as much as we are committed to praying it. If you're like me, once you install Verbum, all your big old hardcover Bible study tomes will start to gather dust. Because if you're like me, you'll be using Verbum every day.

Okay, I already mentioned this, but in the interest of full disclosure: Logos supplied me with review copies of the Verbum 6 Scripture Study Library, Practicum, and several other titles in their library. All they asked was that I write an honest review, which I have done. The enthusiasm is all mine. I suppose I should also disclose the fact that I've spent my own money on more than one occasion to enhance my Verbum library. Yes, I'm sold on this product.

I'm not making any money off of this link, but I'll provide it anyway: go here to learn more about Verbum.

From Carl's blog at