Tuesday morning, at a worship gathering held near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the speaker stopped short as he began to give an instruction familiar to generations of Protestants: "Please open your Bibles and turn to ... "
He smiled and said, "Well, I guess few of us use paper anymore, so scroll over to ... " His listeners laughed appreciatively.
It has been more than three decades since the first efforts at commercializing software to read and search the Bible came on the scene, and the variety of digital tools available today is nothing short of astonishing. Fueling much of the boom has been the radical explosion of smartphones and tablets. Millions of believers have forsaken paper-based Bibles in favor of digital ones.
That's not to suggest that printed Bibles are anywhere near extinct; in fact, the titles remain among the top sellers. Thomas Nelson, one of the larger Bible publishers, reports that more than 2 million copies of the "Spirit-Filled Life Study Bible," aimed at Pentecostal Christians and edited by noted pastor Jack Hayford, have been sold. That particular Bible was just released in a new edition utilizing the New Living Translation, which melds the traditional "formal equivalence" translation method with a "thought-for-thought" approach. A hardcover copy will set you back about $45, although that's a very good price considering the notes and information that appear alongside the Bible text.
For $5 less, however, Logos Bible Software will sell you those same notes, and integrate it into their own Bible-study program, which starts at $295, providing about $3,500 worth of Bible translations, study aids and reference books. Plus, those Logos items also will be available on your tablet and smartphone, for no extra charge.
Of course, the Logos program — which I personally use and recommend highly — is one of many such systems, albeit one that's available for computers using either Microsoft Windows or Apple's Mac OS X. Other programs generally stay with one platform or another, such as Accordance for the Mac or BibleWorks for Windows. The Sword Project, which bills itself as "open source" Bible study software, is free and available for Windows, Mac and Linux users.
Although the features of each software offering will vary, the basics are generally there: the ability to read (and, with the Bible.is application/website, also hear) one or more versions of the Scripture, and to search said versions quickly. Want to find every instance of "sweat" in the Bible? Click "search" and you're done, far more quickly than any paper-based reference could ever provide.
Commercial packages such as Logos, of course, give users the option to add tons of additional reference books, commentaries, outlines, dictionaries, concordances, language tools and more, all of which are quickly searchable. Instead of having a dozen (or more) books open at one time on your desk, you can quickly see specific references, and select those that fit your purpose.
Copy-and-paste features in these programs allow users to highlight and preserve selected items into a word processing document, complete with footnote/endnote references to identify sources. That's a boon for students and authors who want to keep all their source material straight.
The Internet itself offers a wide range of online Bible options, such as BibleGateway.com, which also has a wide range of online study tools and Bible translations, all for free, thanks to advertising support.
The end of this technological boon is nowhere in sight. Programs such as the "Glo Bible" bring multimedia aspects to Bible study, and I wouldn't be surprised if an enterprising software publisher manages to incorporate clips from Bible-related films into their programs somewhere down the line.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of all this technology — the stuff that made the devotional speaker stop in his tracks the other morning — is that it will help serious and casual readers of the Bible get more out of the text, which is what many religious leaders were hoping for in the first place.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.