Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Hypertexting the Bible

It is definitely the case in my life that I find it difficult to believe that I ever functioned in the world without the internet. I have vague recollections of browsing through cards at a library looking for books and calling the local theater for movie times. Yet far more interesting is that I have become so accustomed to the conveniences the internet proffers. Type in someone's name, a topic, a news item, etc., and information floods onto your screen. Clearly, this is a mixed blessing for the sorting and assessment of information is cumbersome and dictated by the quality--not the quantity--of search results.

With the rise of the internet, the lives of those us fortunate enough to tap into cyberspace were radically changed. Surprisingly, however, one thing has not changed as some had expected: books. Standing in the middle of hundreds of books sellers hawking their newest volumes and towering piles of the printed word at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, one can sense that the publishing of books is still alive and well. Perhaps the dire predictions of the demise of publishing were a bit premature.

Nevertheless, I think it is high time that we begin to examine the hermeneutical shifts that cyberspace may require of biblical exegetes. That both the shifts from scroll manuscripts to the codex format and the rise of print culture following the proliferation of printing presses changed the very nature of reading is clear. In retrospect, the theological and hermeneutical effects of such technological innovation are far easier to delineate. Much more difficult is assessing how our stance before the text will change when it is reproduced on a computer screen rather than held between leather covers on thin paper in two columns. D.C. Parker comments,
Regarding electronic texts, another matter should be remembered. Both manuscript and printed books are not only seen, but also handled. Fine parchment and high-quality paper, leather bindings and tooling are to be felt. The electronic text is present to the reader behind a barrier. While the writer is closer to the text because of the ease with which it can be manipulated, to the user it is remote, accessible only at a remove by the use of the keyboard. A book may be kissed as a relic or held aloft as the Gospel or sworn upon as something sacrosanct. It is hard to see such use ever being made of a diskette. (194-5)
The same could probably be said of the trusty and proverbial King James family bible found in many an American household; will it be replaced with a flash drive someday? Also important might be the relative inaccessibility of hypertexted bibles to those without the technical literacy to tap into computing power. Ultimately, we might even ask whether the wide-spread distribution of bibles in electronic form will have any effect on biblical literacy; after all, the Gideons have already stocked every hotel in this country, and new translations and study bibles line our bookshelves.

Maybe this subtle shift in the form of the biblical text will bring us to a renewed appreciation of the transmission of these texts throughout time. As how we read the bible shifts, we may reflect upon the historical processes that brought this word to our day. Parker opines,
The Gospel texts can be properly understood only by recognizing the significance of the medium in which they are transmitted. We thus conclude this section with the beginning. Their origins and early transmission were as manuscript copies. It is with the physical reality of their existence that our interpretation of them must reckon. (196)
From manuscript to hypertext, the texts of scripture continue to beckon some and repel others, both confound and inspire. Many of us find ourselves in the midst of these tensions. The challenges and opportunities of electronic bibles will only require our continued and diligent attention.