The Book Bench: Loose Leafs from the New Yorker Books Department

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Screen Savers
Posted by Macy Halford
October 26, 2011,

Publishers Weekly recently reported that we are in the midst of a “Digital Bible Explosion.” Apps of the Bible are now more frequently downloaded than Angry Birds, and the sacred texts of other religions aren’t far behind: there’s an iQuran, iTorah, and a digital Book of Mormon. There are devotional apps of other sorts as well. For Catholics, there's EZPray, the Vatican-endorsed iBreviary, and Confession (which leads you through a personalized “examination of conscience” to prepare you for the sacrament); for Muslims, there’s Islamic Compass, which promises to give “the most accurate prayer times”; for Jews, there’s a combination Siddur and Zmanim; for Protestants, there’s Daily Jesus (a daily quote generator), Bible Blocks (a Tetris-like game that rewards players with a Bible verse between levels), and my favorite, Granny’s Bible Dojo (Granny cracks boards with karate chops, and helps you learn the order of the books of the Bible).

This list barely scratches the surface: as PW reports, numerous religious publishing and software companies were developing digital platforms well before the advent of the iPad; some have been at it for more than twenty years. And some of their apps are extremely sophisticated: QR codes embedded throughout the Life Essentials Study Bible link to video and audio sermons; Batoul Apps’ beautiful Quran Reader features audio recitations, commentary, translations, bookmarks, and note-taking capability; YouVersion contains over a hundred and fifty different Bible translations in forty-five languages. It’s free (like many, though not all, of the apps), and has been downloaded more than thirty million times.

The question of how, exactly, digitized texts will change religious practice has been a pressing one in religious communities for at least a decade. (A recent article in Christianity Today wondered whether the People of the Book shouldn’t be rechristened the People of the Nook.) But the era of digital religion is only now poised to begin in earnest, ushered in by technological advancements—the widespread adoption of tablets and smartphones—and by religious leaders eager to harness the power of that technology to inspire and instruct their flocks.

Last week, I contacted leaders of several religious institutions in New York and asked about how the digital was being used in their communities. Cregan Cooke, the director of communication and media at Redeemer Presbyterian, Manhattan’s best-known megachurch, told me that parishioners use mobile devices during services to look up Bible verses; that pastors like having multiple translations of the Bible on their tablets to refer to “whenever they’re away from their physical libraries”; and that the church has recently developed its own app, which contains a sermon podcast and community news. It’s been downloaded more than twenty-five thousand times.

This isn’t surprising at a church whose senior pastor, Tim Keller, is an Internet video star with his own publishing imprint. But more traditional congregations have also eagerly embraced digital technology. Kevin Gabriel Gillen, a Dominican friar at the Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village, wrote me that iBreviary is in common use in the church. “Walking into a chapel with an iPhone may raise the eyebrow of another friar, because they may think you are about to make a phone call or text, but the iPad seems to be accepted.” The church has an app of its own, and has recently rebuilt its Web site to be “swipeable” on an iPad. Rabbi Zvi Romm, of the Bialystoker Synagogue on the Lower East Side, one of the oldest orthodox Jewish congregations in the city, told me that many members use handheld devices during the week for prayer and study (there is no electricity—and therefore no technology—allowed on the Jewish Sabbath, which falls over the weekend). And according to Amir Ahmad, the founder of the public forum Islam and New Media, apps of the Quran have become so wildly popular that “even traditionalists know and realize their benefits, and don’t categorically reject them.” Islamic apps are both utilitarian (alerting Muslims to prayer times, providing recordings of the Azan or call to prayer, and pointing the direction to Mecca via GPS), Ahmad says, and “the ultimate expression of Muslim religious identity and piety in a ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ way. Not only are they Islamic; they are also cutting-edge.”

This is not to say that disputes about the value and use of digital texts do not arise. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the co-founder and executive director of Hadar, a traditional Jewish educational institute on the Upper West Side, said that arguments commonly arise in orthodox communities when congregants who are otherwise observant use their devices on the Sabbath. (There’s a term for this style of observance: “Keeping half-Shabbos.”) At Hadar’s yeshiva, where Kaunfer runs prayers three times a day during the week, he sees people use their devices to pray on: “It’s a little jarring,” he told me, “because you don’t know if they’re communing with God or checking e-mail.”

In the Islamic community, Ahmad said, dispute centers around the religious sanctity of texts. “From a young age, we’re taught never to place other books above the Quran. The book itself must be revered because it contains the word of God.” But on an iPad, the Quran lies alongside “other digital content such as music and pictures.”

But such worries seemed of minor concern to the people I spoke to. In fact, many see seemingly negative effects of the digital era as evidence of spiritual vitality. Kaunfer, for instance, believes that the current revolution is not so very different from the one that occurred some seventeen hundred years ago, when the Mishnah (the Jewish code of law), hitherto communicated orally, was first written down. Then, he said, memory took a blow, and it has taken another one with the coming of the handheld device. But this isn’t necessarily bad: “In many ways, pulling text out of one’s pocket is truer to the way Jews experienced text in ancient times, when they pulled it out of their heads.”

Monsignor Donald Sarkano, of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in Little Italy, echoed Kaunfer’s sentiments. “Perhaps memory has been affected,” he said. “But why is this a problem?” He has long since stopped feeling embarrassed when people ask him tricky theological questions and he has to Google the answers. “Before, I would just have to look smart and try to respond to them,” he says. Now he never gets it wrong. Sarkano sees tremendous potential in the Catholic Church’s embrace of the digital. He is currently working on a project to outfit Old St. Pat’s sanctuary with flat-panel monitors in a way that won’t disrupt the vertical sight lines of the Gothic design. “Ideally,” he told me, “we’d have tiny screens on the back of the pews, like at the Metropolitan opera. Can you imagine? We’d be able to send parishioners personalized messages.” He wonders if a digital offertory could be incorporated into the mass somehow, so that the moment of giving would be preserved, but people wouldn’t have to carry cash. And he thinks that digitizing all the books in the church would help with the clutter problem: the Catholic Church is currently making changes to the mass (a version “more faithful to the original Latin” goes into effect on November 27th), he told me, and new books and hymnals have been pouring in. Wouldn’t it be better without “these big, fat books?”

Ultimately, Sarkano said, the changes are exciting. “This is a shift in culture and form. That might be uncomfortable for some people, but it’s not a bad thing, and it’s certainly not immoral.” Religion, he said, has always found ways to survive, even thrive, in changing times. “It is simply building its nest on a new branch.”