The Bible is Not a Database
The Bible is Not a Database
Not that long ago, I misplaced something at home. When normally I would begin trying to remember where last I was and what I was doing, instead, I instinctually thought, ‘I’ll just run a search for it.’ The thought felt so natural that it was as if I subconsciously believed the whole world was indexed in a database somewhere to which my brain was wirelessly connected and with a few mental keystrokes I could locate my missing object. That moment signaled to me something significant. The technology I use every day is not just helping me to think, it’s shaping how I think. Since I use databases every day, I now think the world is a database I can quickly search with simple combinations of keywords. I use this technology so often, that thinking my search queries will return the results I’m seeking has become second nature. The relationship between the tools I use to navigate the world and how I conceptualize the world is merging. Since I’m both a tech geek and a pastor, this experience got me thinking about the way I and others are now accessing the Bible. In my experience, gone are the days when, in some worship gathering, I might have heard the ruffling of paper pages when a Bible reference was given. Fewer and fewer people are using printed translations of the Bible in the worship gatherings I lead or attend. Instead, I’ve noticed far more people accessing digital translations of the Bible on mobile devices like phones and tablets. Admittedly, the convenience of having the Bible at one’s fingertips to a mother wrangling three small children is quite understandable. I even have some personal hang-ups and stigma that I attach to people wielding big Bibles at church. But it does raise this question in my mind. How does the use of this new technology shape the way we think about the Bible? We may learn some things about how this new digital medium might be changing the biblical message from considering how another seismic media shift changed the message of the Bible. I’m referring, of course, to the invention of the printing press. However, to appreciate how radically the printing press reframed our understanding of the Bible, fundamental beliefs some of us hold uncritically are likely to be challenged. In many Western traditions of Christianity—particularly the Protestant varieties—it’s assumed that an individual is able and encouraged to read the Bible for themselves. Even more specifically, such a conclusion is probably self-evident to most of those in American who call themselves “Evangelical.” My guess is, it would likely come as a shock to them that this belief is relatively new. And it might be even more shocking that such belief is at least as much a product of technology as theology.

People of the Book

Protestant Christianity is a by-product of a single medium—the printed Bible. Without printing, no one could have challenged the authority of the pope. How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life, at least its life as we currently know it. Our culture has a shrinking preference—and even aptitude—for reading books, especially complex ones. If the Bible is anything, it is complex, so it should not surprise us to see a growing biblical illiteracy in the electronic age. The Bible is an extraordinarily demanding library of books. The stories, letters, and laws are shrouded by the fog of time. The thick dusty languages of ancient Greek and Hebrew convey the message through cumbersome translations. The books were born in civilizations and cultures alien to us, and the assumptions and attitudes of the original authors often escape us entirely. In many cases, excavating meaning requires the fortitude, patience, and discipline of an archeological dig. [1]
When the printing press made it possible for an individual to possess their own, personal copy of a Bible translation—in their own language, no less—the way people accessed and interacted with the Bible was fundamentally altered. Rather than most often, or perhaps even exclusively, hearing scripture read aloud in a corporate worship context, a person could read the scriptures apart from any worship environment and apart from the input of clerics or biblical scholars. It should come as no surprise, then, that some began to read the Bible as merely a collection of ancient literature, no different from other literature from antiquity. The technological advancement of printing simultaneously advanced textual criticism simply by placing a copy of the Bible in the hands of individuals apart from a worshiping community.
By the 17th century, the [printed word] had become the dominant means of communication. These conditions embedded the bias of the printed medium deeply into the Western worldview and gave rise to the modern mindset that represented a dramatic departure from medieval European thought. This newly entrenched worldview was characterized by a strong emphasis on individualism, objectivity, abstraction, and reason, in contrast to the medieval worldview characterized by an emphasis on tribal, mystical, and sacramental experiences. [2]
What a person expected of the Bible changed. Rather than expecting biblical interpretation to be conduced corporately in a worshiping community with clerics and biblical scholars while inextricably linked to application, the expectation emerged that the individual is empowered to interpret the Bible for her or himself and apply their interpretation individually, or not at all. Private interpretation was powered by the technological advancement of printing which served to radically transformed the message of the Bible. From that point on, the very message of the Bible was expected to be individualistic. This is not to say that the Reformers naively advanced a pure democratization of biblical insight. As Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, has written,
The apparent democratizing of divine knowledge that the perspicuity of the Bible provided for was affirmed by the Reformers, but the priesthood of all believers did not mean the equality of all readers. Calvin could imagine Bible reading occurring only in the context of Christian community and not by isolated readers on their iPhones between dumbbell sets at a 24-hour fitness club. This shift would have been literally unimaginable for the Reformers, because for them, reading was a communal act that extended back in time through history (including biblical history) and encompassed all its many members and readers. In the ‘proper pasture’ Calvin envisioned, the sheep did not find the pasture or graze there alone. [3]
Nevertheless, Calvin’s own work of translation served to undermine even his noble ideal of communal interpretation by assuring Bible-readers that having the scriptures translated into their native language would ensure their understanding of the gospel.
Calvin, like many of the Reformers, spoke confidently about ‘the perspicuity of Scripture.’ He was convinced that just as the gospel of Jesus Christ is available for every kind of person, so the Bible, which proclaims this good news, must be as well. This double conviction is evident from his very first Reformed writing, the preface to Olivétan’s New Testament. He explains that the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and the reconciliation of God in Christ ‘is what is stated plainly in the [New Testament] and set forth there openly.’ The purpose of the translation is ‘to enable all Christians, men and women, who know the French language, to understand and acknowledge the law they ought to obey and the faith they ought to follow.’ Scripture makes plain both our human need and God’s way for salvation; this is the core of the claim of perspicuity. [4]
Instead of making the Bible easier to understand and accessible to all, personal translations of the Bible changed the message of the gospel and multiplied interpretations of it exponentially. Now, there are millions of people who are confident they have received God’s unmerited grace by faith, but are much less confident they need to participate in meaningful Christian community or love their neighbor by seeking justice for the oppressed. Individualistic interpretation of the Bible has given rise to many potentially destructive forms of “Christianity,” not least of which is the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” and the concept of “personal salvation” that’s focused solely on a blissful afterlife. The technological development of printing simultaneously developed alternative expectations of the printed Bible’s message and application in the hands of individuals. People shaped the tool of the personal, printed Bible and then the tool of the personal, printed Bible shaped them.

Personalized Search

Today, the technological advancement of the Web has introduced a new dimension to this shift. Not only can the scriptures be read and interpreted privately and applied personally, without the insight of biblical scholars nor the guidance of pastoral leaders, they can also be rapidly and precisely searched. The database is now a fixture of our digital lives, whether we realize it or not. It’s running in the background of all our most beloved online destinations and mobile apps. It powers our digital quests for both enlightenment and entertainment. This hidden dimension of the Web is what enables us to quickly access information that we would otherwise never unearth. We no longer have to read off long URLs when we want to direct people to a particular page of a website. We simply direct them to the site’s home page and recommend some concise keywords (e.g. “For more information, go to keyword ‘Fresh Air’ ”). Or, one doesn’t even need to bother requesting the particular domain, when one can simply start from a search engine like Google. In fact, we no longer ‘search’ for pages on the Web, we “google” them. What formative power does this new practice (empowered by the database) have on our way of thinking? How has the shaping of databases shaped us? For one thing, it makes us “queriers.”  When a person submits their keyword search into the search field of a database-driven site, they are “running a query.” The user has a question and the magical database elves run around finding the answer. You and I come to the database with our questions, and we have faith that the database has the answer. How self-centered this process is can be easily overlooked. Who we are has more to do with the questions were asking than the text from which we’re seeking answers. Our social locations are constraints upon the range of subjects with which we’ll concern ourselves. For example, among many other subjects, Martin Luther was embroiled in discussion of how the Lord’s Table should be theologically conceptualized. What do Christians mean by Christ’s “presence” in the bread and cup? This is no doubt an important subject, since it has to do with a Christian tradition that is taught in scripture and practiced by all Christians everywhere. But, as Dr. James Cone powerfully points out, our social locations play an important role in the theological questions we ask.
I respect what happened at Nicea and Chalcedon and the theological input of the Church Fathers on Christology; but that source alone is inadequate for finding out the meaning of black folks’ Jesus. It is all right to say as did Athanasius that the Son is homoousia (one substance with the Father), especially if one has a taste for Greek philosophy and a feel for the importance  of intellectual distinctions. And I do not want to minimize or detract from the significance of Athanasius’ assertion for faith one iota. But the homoousia question is not the black question. Blacks do not ask whether Jesus is one with the Father or divine and human, though the ortho- dox formulations are implied in their language. They ask whether Jesus is walking with them, whether they can call him up on the ‘telephone of prayer’ and tell him all about their troubles. To be sure Athanasius’ assertion about the status of the Logos in the Godhead is important for the church’s continued christological investigations. But we must not forget that Athanasius’ question about the Son’s status in relation to the Father did not arise in the historical context of the slave codes and the slave drivers. And if he had been a black slave in America, I am sure he would have asked a different set of questions. He might have asked about the status of the Son in relation to slaveholders. Perhaps the same is true of Martin Luther and his concern about the ubiquitous presence of Jesus Christ at the Lord’s Table. While not diminishing the importance of Luther’s theological concern, I am sure that if he had been born a black slave his first question would not have been whether Jesus was at the Lord’s Table but whether he was really present at the slave’s cabin, whether the slave could expect Jesus to be with him as he tried to survive the cottonfields, the whip, and the pistol. [5]
The questions that drove the early church councils, and the questions that drove Luther’s discussion of the Lord’s Table, were occasioned by their social locations. The questions with which we approach the Bible are shaped by the social locations from which we approach it, which in turn shape the answers we expect to find. Eighteenth century American Southerners arrived at far different conclusions regarding what the Bible has to say about slavery than do Twenty-first century American Southerners. The text of the Bible has not changed, but the society around the Southerners has. They now stand in a different social location as if the ground beneath their feet had shifted. Furthermore, N. T. Wright has warned Protestants against remaining trapped in a Reformation time capsule, by continuing to ask the questions that were relevant then, instead of conducting a fresh investigation of what the Bible’s ancient message means for a postmodern world.
For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions. [6]
In his book, iGods, Craig Detweiler comments on Google’s service of “personalized search.”
Google offers different search results depending on where we are, what it knows about our interests. When we arrive in Portland or Miami, Google knows we’re there—and our local news shifts to match our locale. It is nice to get news tailored to our favorite teams or our most pressing issues, but it is somewhat creepy to consider how our location is targeted so invisibly. Pariser understands why we embrace personalized recommendations: ‘Our media is a perfect reflection of our interests and desires. By definition, it’s an appealing prospect—a return to a Ptolemaic universe in which the sun and everything else revolves around us.’ This is the iGods’ alluring and dangerous promise—to place us at the center of our own self-reflexive universe. But what if we don’t necessarily know what is best? What if our limited experiences are further delimited by our choices so far? Instead of expanding our world and understanding, we could become consumed by what we already see and hear. [7]
Technology, as an extension of ourselves, is limited by our limitations. It is by nature self-centered. How ironic is it that the message of a book that is thought by many to teach people how to be less self-centered, can be so changed by how we access it that it makes us more self-centered?

Losing the Plot

This new and convenient way of tailoring our study of the Bible to the questions which are relevant to us poses a serious problem for how we understand its purpose. Approaching the Bible like a database fundamentally misunderstands scripture as a repository of data in search of queries. But the Bible does not promise to answer our every question. In fact, the Bible has its own agenda and isn’t particularly interested in catering to our whims. The Bible is a story. How we conceptualize the Bible nature and purpose will affect how we engage with it and seek to apply its teaching. Instead of thinking of the Bible as a warehouse of information we digitally access with search terms, as if they were digital forklifts we program to scour the aisles stacked high with words and return to us a palette of verses, perhaps we could think of the Bible as a ride at a theme park. The creators of the ride have their a goal for those who experience it. Maybe the ride is based on a movie. So, the ride’s creators want to introduce you to the setting of the movie by taking around in a boat beside various animatronic figures who act out scenes from the movie with a backdrop from the movie. Then, the ride takes you through some obstacles that simulate conflict from the film. Lastly, the ride resolves just as the movie had, with the hero victorious. Like all stories, the biblical canon has a beginning, middle, and end. It has a rising action, climax, and falling action. Together, the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and New Testament tell one, overarching narrative. That narrative has been systematized and cataloged many times and in many different ways. One way to systematically catalog the story is:
  • Act 1: God Establishes the Kingdom—Creation
  • Act 2: Rebellion in the Kingdom—Fall
  • Act 3: The King Chooses Israel—Redemption Initiated
    • Scene 1: A People for the King
    • Scene 2: A Land and a King for God’s People 
  • Interlude: The Kingdom Story Waiting for an Ending: The Intertestamental Period 
  • Act 4: The Coming of the King—Redemption Accomplished
  • Act 5: Spreading the News of the King—The Mission of the Church
    • Scene 1: From Jerusalem to Rome
    • Scene 2: And into All the World
  • Act 6: The Return of the King—Redemption Completed
That is just one example of how the story of the Bible could be systematically cataloged. The larger point is that the canon of scripture follows the pattern of a story rather than an encyclopedia of answers. Therefore, the very medium of a biblical database can contribute to misunderstanding the Bible’s character. Imagine someone picking up a novel and looking for the search field. They say, “I don’t want to read this whole book. I’m not interested in the plot, or the story the author is trying to tell. I just want to know the age of the main character. Why can’t I just ‘google’ the answer to my question?” Well, the reason one cannot simply ‘google’ the answers to one’s Bible queries is because the Bible may not be answering those questions. Just as Animal Farm was not addressing how to make popcorn or Twilight answering the question of how to make “insanely great” deals, the Bible isn’t necessarily going to contain answers to our personalized queries. This could be very frustrating to those who assume the purpose of the Bible is to return results that are helpful to their self-centered goals. This contributes to the cultural trope that the Bible is no longer “relevant.” If what is meant by relevance is whether or not the Bible can supply advice that is tailored to the interests or desires of those querying it, then the trope is correct. The Bible has no interest in being “relevant” in that way. However, the story the Bible tells is incredibly relevant to all human beings since it is the story of humanity’s Creator and the Creators redemption of creation. In order to grasp the Bible relevancy, however, one must actually know the story the Bible is telling.

Asking the Wrong Questions

Perhaps much of our frustration over theological divisions is due to the way we have come to conceptualize the Bible. Many of the current controversies that threaten to divine denominations center around contemporary cultural phenomenon that did not exist when the Bible was written. Those who view the Bible as the highest authoritative arbiter on matters of ethics or church practice approach the Bible seeking answers. “What does the Bible say about same-sex marriage?” they might query. Or they might run a search with this question: “What does the Bible say about abortion?” As the story of humanity’s Creator and that Creator’s redemption of all creation, certainly the story the Bible is telling is relevant to these subjects. But there is no “abortion” or “same-sex marriage” encyclopedia entry in the Bible. It will also not suffice to find every verse which contains the word for which one searches. Finding every instance of “pig” in Animal Farm tells one nothing about the book’s message. The only way Bible-readers will be able to discover the teaching of the Bible is to know the story. And the only way Bible-readers will become those who apply the teaching of the Bible in their lives is by becoming part of that story. To do this will require resisting the way our accessing of the Bible via digital databases seeks to shape how we conceptualize its character. And as we resist the database conception of scripture, retaining its narrative constitution, we must also resist the temptation to see ourselves as the ones around whom the story revolves—becoming its main character. The Bible is not a database. Instead, the Bible is the story of the Creator God redeeming creation. All human beings are invited to find themselves in that story, to be caught up in it, through the Author, Main Character, and through God’s story-shaped people.
  1. Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Our Faith (Zondervan, 2009), p.146-147.
  2. Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (Zondervan, 2005), p.51.
  3. Mark Labberton, “The Plain, Difficult Sense of Scripture,” Christian Century (March 30, 2017) (accessed April 25, 2017).
  4. Ibid.
  5. James Cone, God of the Oppressed (HarperSanFrancisco, 1975), p.14.
  6. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (InterVarsity, 2009), p.37.