Monday, June 16, 2008

Is Bible Software Making Us Stupid?

The question that heads this post was posed by Jim Darlack over on his blog after reading the article on The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" That article worried about the changes that the Internet is causing not only in what we read but also how we read. How we read does affect the way we think, so what are we losing in this brave new world where an overabundance of information is readily at our fingertips. I will admit that I could probably be exhibit A for the prosecution. I find that I constantly skimming articles and other written pieces, and that I have become more proficient at skimming. Why? Because I now have it in my consciousness that I don't need to remember everything an online article or book says. I only need to remember the general point or some key details that get vaguely stored in my memory. If I need to recall more precisely what was said, all I need to do is Google it and then find the specific bit of information I am wanting.
The danger here is that we lose context and, more importantly, the ability to think deeply. Both The Atlantic article author and Jim Darlack take a balanced perspective on the matter, so they are not advocating tossing out technology. With respect to biblical work, Jim encourages a "hermeneutics of love" (btw, a concept he only somewhat remembered and Googled to find it again!), a love for the text that requires a commitment to engage deeply with the text.
As someone who teaches Greek to seminary students, I have pretty much given up on expecting them to read Greek and instead focus on how I can make Greek a useful and lifelong tool for them. (I have blogged it about here, for example.) I believe, however, that Bible software is not making us stupid, but it is allowing us to (making us?) think differently.
I previously provided an example using John 3.16. If you look at that exercise, you will see that a person who was only allowed to use hardcopy resources to work through it would need hours to complete the task and about 12 or so books. Now there is something to be said for that kind of diligence in working with a text, but by using Bible software, I don't think I have lost anything at all, and I have gained quite a bit of time!
Let me give another typical example that arises in my class. As we are working through Matthew 6.13, we get to the last phrase which reads, "But deliver us from του πονηρου." I ask the class what the gender of
του πονηρου is, and since I encourage them to embrace those articles as our good friends, they quickly note that it is a masculine... or a neuter! What's the difference? If masculine, then it would be indicating a personal reference: "the evil one." If neuter, then more likely the abstract: "evil." (BTW, on a total side note, here is an instance which validates why multiple morphological coding systems for the Greek NT are useful. In BibleWorks7, the BGT/BNT and the GNT both indicate that it can be masculine or neuter. Some of the other ones, such as the BYZ or the WHO only indicate it as neuter. In Logos, I only find that texts using the Swanson morphology identify that both masculine and neuter are a possibility.) How, I ask, do modern translations deal with it? Students look at their English texts (hardcopy or digital: in this instance the software simply saves us time), and note the variations and see the footnotes. (The NET Bible as usual offers the fullest, though certainly not complete, explanation.) Which way, I then ask, did Matthew intend his audience to understand it? One could look at lexicons or, more likely, check a commentary to see what others have said about this matter. Again, software mainly serves to help us answer this question more quickly. Here, however, is the point at which the Bible software allows us to ask a better question: How would one go about determining what Matthew intended? Someone in class will realize that what we really want to do is look at all the ways that the πονηρος is used in Matthew. In the old days, this would either mean reading through the whole Gospel of Matthew or pulling down Moulton & Geden. In either case, it would indeed mean too much time. With Bible software, however, I can locate the 26 hits within seconds. If I want to get more specific, I can within another few seconds find all articular uses of πονηρος in Matthew. (E.g., in BW7, I use the BNM and on the command line, enter: 'ο πονηρος =gnc.) With this info before us, we can make our own determination about how Matthew understands the term.
My point here (in case you are just skimming this article!) is that Bible software does indeed provide the means to ask different questions, and these questions can often allow us to engage more directly and deeply with the text.


  1. Software encourages laziness in those inclined to avoid asking questions by providing quick and incomplete information. It doesn't make people stupid -- stupid people can't make connections and can't learn from experience. For those who keep asking questions, software can enable them to extend their question-asking and problem-solving process to great lengths. What bothers me about software is the features that foster laziness by suggesting the facile answers -- highly-touted features such as "reverse interlinears."

  2. I appreciate what Carl says, and in that respect, I suppose Cliff Notes and bullet point summaries and other such printed shortcuts do the same thing for lazy readers. That is, a reader can be just as lazy without software as with it! The trick is to help people see that they can ask better questions and find those answers without having to do quite so much work as in the past when software was not available. When I am teaching in settings where people do not know Greek at all, I even encourage them to use (reverse) interlinears. Instead of not working with the original languages at all, at least I have them engaging with the text more directly. Sure, it's a lazy way out compared to learning Greek or Hebrew, but it is better than nothing. (Of course, we then get into the problem of people making claims that can't be validated based on limited proficiency with the languages, but that is another matter...)

  3. I agree with the commenter Carl; laziness is a product of some, as is study. Just as with books and comprehension, you have to teach people how to make best use of the software before you just simply put it in their hands.

    Just as much as I am an advocate of designing software that makes it easier for people to read and begin to understand the Word, I am much more so the type of person that will sit with someone and show how by using those tools I can grow in my understanding of this fatih. If we don't teach them that, no amount of tools will ever make us smart ;)

  4. I'd also like to comment on the laziness-vs-deeper study idea...

    Before I got Logos Bible Software, I would have put out the effort necessary to do the kinds of things that I can do with it.

    I would have read the word...looked up a word or two in the concordance, read a little commentary, and satisfied myself that I did a "bible study."

    It's even spurred me on to learn some Greek!