The best selling book of all time is going digital. As a successful mini-series and downloadable app, the Bible seems to be as popular as ever. Brooke speaks with writer Thomas Larson about the importance of the spoken Word and the effect of new media on its "holiness".
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the rest of the hour, we'll consider how information travels, in each era and across time. And we’ll start with the ur- publishing event, the Gutenberg Bible, printed almost 600 years ago. Even now, the Bible sells roughly 25 million each year in America alone. And the media have certainly influenced the understanding of the events captured therein.
Noah: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was a clip from the year’s most viewed TV series, the History Channel’s mini-series on the Bible. At some point, almost 100 million people tuned in. So why does the American Bible Society conclude that fewer Americans read it or view it as sacred?
Author Thomas Larson wrote recently in the magazine Guernicaabout what might be in store for the Bible, as it enters the digital age. Welcome to the show.
THOMAS LARSON: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wondered whether consuming it onscreen mutes the holiness of the Bible.
THOMAS LARSON: Let's take that word “holy” first. I sort of put quotes around that word because it implies that it cannot be judged. What I really mean is that holiness is really a matter of physicality. The fullest human expression comes about through shared oral language, and this is what gives it its holiness, the fact that so many millions, if not billions, of people have handled this language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that enhanced or diminished by consuming it on your phone? And would that be true of any text?
THOMAS LARSON: Yeah. I mean, even the, the great secular books are being desacralized by their transmission into film, video, Internet, etc. There are things that are passed through the oral tradition, and if you have less of an oral tradition, even if they make movies and audible versions of the Bible, that's not the same as actual people reading it aloud and talking about it in small groups. I think that is crucial, that when the book loses its felt intimacy, in the sense that the Bible has, you know, been pawed and thumbed and carried around and backpacked among the soldiers on D-Day, once you start to lose that sense that you can have faith via a physical object, I think something's gonna radically change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are active communities online that can share it. And, of course, the use of these apps, 100 million people, would suggest that people are communally consuming the Bible.
THOMAS LARSON: This notion that we share things through social media doesn't mean they are felt in the body. Just because your eyes glance over a text, that doesn't mean you have an intimate relationship with it. You know, giving someone a Bible for confirmation is not like giving them an iPod, where you can swipe the screen and, and read Leviticus. It just doesn’t seem to have that fleshy connection. My attendance with literature is in the flesh. It's in the voice. I want it to speak as it always has spoken. I’m worried about where it’s headed, and the Bible is a great example, the fact that our language that comes through our literature will be muted by the digital age.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I, I just wonder whether you may be a trifle premature. The online world offers endless opportunities that can make this kind of relationship with the Bible more communal.
THOMAS LARSON: It's important to remember that the way you believe is to speak back what is told to you. Without that physical exchange, I think the outreach of a religion is going to have to change. I, I don't know if it can be done digitally. I know Christians are trying to do it digitally, but they've always responded to new media. That's what the King James version of the Bible is, a mass-produced book that would get the message out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you're using the Bible as an example of how the current digital age could deprive our great texts of their power, what do you think is likely to happen?
THOMAS LARSON: One of my ideas is that whatever it is we’re talking about today, that will become literature, not in the sense that we venerate it, but in the sense that technology will force us to communicate immediately. Talk will rule. The written text will not. Perhaps this will be far into the future, but I think the purveyors of the Bible will have to figure out how they can transform a text back into oral speech, as it used to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, that sounds almost apocalyptic. You predict this even at a moment when more people, especially young people, are writing more than they ever did in the pre-digital age.
THOMAS LARSON: Yeah. The age we live in is a field of flowers that are all blooming at the same time. There is, via technology, a transformation of the expressive arts. Is this a radical change from what we were? I sure hope so, because I think it may make the world more believable through actual experience, rather than a set of beliefs given to us from these so-called sacred texts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you're saying is, is that this is a good thing, not a bad thing. [LAUGHS]
THOMAS LARSON: Well, I have to have hope, you know? We don’t know where the future is going. We live in the moment. We don't live in this utopian past that when we die will exist again. This new realm is where people live. How’s the Bible gonna play into that new realm, if the old texts really don't have anything to say, in the new contexts? So there's hope that a, a kind of democracy will arise in place of the power of the book. That's what I'm saying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
THOMAS LARSON: You're welcome, and I've enjoyed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thomas Larson is the author of a monthly series on the social author at Guernica.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.