DANGERS IN USING COMPUTERS TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE AND USE IT FOR MINISTRY
by Mike Stallard
(1) The first danger is the possible loss of the meditative or reflective life centered around thoughtful consideration of the Word of God and its application to living. Note Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves To Death (1985) and his theory concerning television as a medium which determines the form of our learning and then make application to the computer as a learning device.
Below I have inserted a discussion entitled "The Rise of Video Culture" which deals with this at more length. It has been excerpted from a Faculty Forum presentation I gave in chapel at Baptist Bible Seminary on February 13, 1998.
The Rise of Video Culture
Here, I am not simply critiquing American indulgence in MTV or Blockbuster Video. Instead I am being drawn back to the intriguing presentation by Neil Postman in his short, but provocative, critique entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death which he gave us nearly fifteen years ago. Postmans thesis is that it is not entirely good that our culture has moved from learning based upon the printed page to learning based upon video technology. Application of this technology shift complicates the work of a Church that believes that God has given us a written Word on printed page in space and time. The loss of interest in meditative lifestyles may reflect this transition or it might be intensified by it. Yet the meditative lifestyle is part of ones growing fellowship with God. Thus, the Church must come to grips with the video elements in our culture and how they affect our thinking.
These are not trivial matters, but they are only a small part of the way in which I define technology education. As I see it, the subject is mainly about how television and movie cameras, Xerox machines, and computers reorder our psychic habits, our social relations, our political ideas, and our moral sensibilities. It is about how the meanings of information and education change as new technologies intrude upon a culture, how the meanings of truth, law, and intelligence differ among oral cultures, writing cultures, printing cultures, electronic cultures.
Postman is not saying that we should warn people about the dangers of technology as part of a na´ve anti-technology stance. He goes on to clarify that
technology education does not imply a negative attitude toward technology. It does imply a critical attitude. To be "against technology" makes no more sense than to be "against food." We cant live without either. But to observe that it is dangerous to eat too much food, or to eat food that has no nutritional value, is not to be "antifood." It is to suggest what may be the best uses of food. Technology education aims at students learning about what technology helps us to do and what it hinders us from doing; it is about how technology uses us, for good or ill, and about how it has used people in the past, for good or ill, It is about how technology creates new worlds, for good or ill.
If Postman is right -- and I have no reason to dispute him entirely, although various areas may be open to debate -- the ramifications of the shift to a video culture for communicating the truth of the gospel and the Bible are enormously significant. One corrective for a biblically illiterate culture on the face of it is at least communication of Bible content. Yet, most of the communication forms of the Church are writing/printing forms of communication. Even our expository preaching is text-based not orally based. But the culture is moving away from a printed material learning model. Could this aggravate the situation we find ourselves in with respect to biblical illiteracy? We must use new forms of communication or train listeners in the old forms. We have no other choice before us. Otherwise, we may entertain a diminishing audience.
Brown echoes Postmans concerns:
In a practical sense, the thinking involved in watching television is radically different from that which is necessary in verbal communication (reading, speaking, listening). The gap between that which is visual and that which is verbal is profound, differing not only in degree but in kind . . . The result [of television viewing for children] is deficiency in the ability to read intelligently, communicate clearly, and reason morally. This lack of cognitive ability resulting from early video-dependency is strangely akin to the willful activities fostered by certain postmodern assumptions.
Moral arguments and epistemological considerations have no place in the world of television. True, false, good, bad are the stuff of language and ideas, not visual images. In a video-dependent society, moral decisions are emotive not rational, not based on reasons or principles but on existential ecstasy or terror. The result is an increasing inability to discuss significant issues in a meaningful way. Whereas political debates of the past were distinguished by cogent argumentation and sophisticated ideas, current debates are limited to two-minute responses and five-second sound bites.
The visual does not supplement language, it displaces it. Unlike reading which requires an enormous amount of intellectual participation, television traps the brain into a passive dependency.
Brown goes on to apply this to orthodox Christianity by noting
Moral and creative reasoning aside, the implications of devaluing verbal communication cut at the heart of a biblical worldview. God has chosen language as an integral mode of self-revelation. If the verbal is no longer important, where does that leave Scripture? The close tie between language and God is reflected by Nietzsche who complained, "I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar."
Brown sees a hopeful response in teaching Christianity in its broadest terms and in focusing on the unifying dimension of Christ. Nonetheless, the rise of the video culture becomes for the evangelical a complicating factor in trying to communicate the gospel to an audience that is not normally given over to the required thinking processes.
(2) The second danger is the exercise of a naive faith in the computer Bible software that mirrors and exaggerates a naive faith in something "in print." We must remember that Bible software was designed and written by fallible human beings who were not inspired by God. Our attitude should be to approach the computer as a tool in the same way we would approach a Greek lexicon, Hebrew grammar, commentary, or theology book.
(3) The third danger is the potential belief due to our technological society that computers are best for all kinds of Bible study. THIS SIMPLY IS NOT TRUE!
There are some things that humans are still best at in gathering information for research. For example, a computer may not be faster than a human being who has 10 books opened across his desk while he correlates various inputs concerning a biblical passage. For a computer to present 10 different sources on the screen simultaneously is possible but limited by screen size. In addition, a human being can look at several pages of the same book at the same time (because of the design of a book) probably as fast as or faster than a computer can present the same information to the user. Note the class illustration. Therefore, it is important that we keep a proper perspective about computers. They are tools that can be extremely helpful in doing certain things faster and more efficiently.
(4) The fourth danger is the user's lack of understanding of the underlying texts used by each Bible software vendor. This applies not only to the actual text chosen as a baseline text but also to the particular "tagged" text chosen. The "tagged" text is the Hebrew or Greek text along with the database organizing that text for the computer as well as classifying and tagging the text grammatically.
Illustration: In Gramcord, the word "Hosanna" is classified as a conjunction [in the NT]. In Bible Works for Windows, it is classified as a particle. Similar to Bible Works for Windows, LOGOS, using Strong's Concordance, classifies "Hosanna" as an interjection. The Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich Greek lexicon refers to it as indeclinable, hence, a particle. See John 12:13.
(5) The fifth danger is that the user does not understand the parameters used in the searching process which is the major function of all of the Bible software packages.
Note: A possible mistake on the part of the user is to use the computer Bible software as just a "fast" concordance. For example, in studying the concept of the kingdom of God in the Scriptures, the user may search on "kingdom" and proceed in his study from there. However, a "phrase" search rather than a "concordance" search is more valuable. Instead, search on "kingdom of God." This is, in my opinion, the major capability of computer software which is hard for humans to reproduce quickly. You cannot use Strong's or Young's concordances to do this both quickly and exhaustively. The computer will give you the necessary passages in fractions of seconds.
(6) The sixth danger is added pressure to fall into the most common interpretive error apart from computer use -- taking something out of context. With the monitor's screen limiting your focus or attention to a small place, you may have the tendency to ignore larger context questions.
(7) The seventh danger is the tendency on our part to do sloppy interpretive work because of our "rush" to do the job. The speed of the computer adds to that tendency by increasing our expectations of a "quick job."
Illustration # 1: One way this is played out is our failure at times to search for all permutations of a particular construction. For example, have we checked for the adjective to follow the noun it modifies as well as the adjective before the noun it modifies. Both would be needed for a complete search.
Illustration # 2: We can make this mistake by failing to consider all the possible verb cases or noun declensions that may be available for my interpretive consideration.
Illustration # 3: We can make this mistake by failing to manually eliminate false matches. In short, the search results must be studied, not accepted. The computer software simply points you to possible texts for consideration and the hard work of meditation and study.
DO NOT LET THE COMPUTER CON YOU INTO THINKING THAT BIBLE STUDY IS AN EASY TASK.
Remember that you must understand the computer program with its strengths and limitations and you must understand the language constructions to do a thorough job. The software covered in this seminar is not language learning software.