When the time came to write his thesis, religion major Justin Brendel turned to his own spiritual upbringing for inspiration. Having grown up in what he describes as “an increasingly digitized Protestant church,” he learned at a young age that the Bible was a necessary intermediary between himself and God. But the format of the Bible was a topic of hot debate, too.
“I was given mixed signals about the role of digital devices in religious experience,” he says. “Was reading from the Bible on my phone the same as reading from my book-like Bible on my dresser? I thought so, but many people told me otherwise.”
Brendel’s thesis is a product of this lingering childhood uncertainty. Titled “Digital Bibles: Aesthetics, Experience, Performativity,” he uses 60-odd pages to “examine the proliferation and use of digital Bibles.”
“This thesis is a direct result of my own curiosity for the current and future role that technology plays in Christianity, the church, and my own faith,” Brendel says.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
Working on my thesis was a very formative piece of my Haverford experience. As the capstone of my academic work for the College, I wanted this thesis to express not only my best work, but also my favorite work. I believe my thesis accomplished both. I worked very hard on this project and was alone for a lot of it. Last fall, instead of taking classes on campus, I decided to pursue an internship in New York City working as the photographer for a journal on religion and public life, entitled First Things. In New York, I had no access to Haverford’s library… [so] I relied on online sources, as well as purchasing my own books from Amazon and reading books from the New York Public Library, but being in New York challenged me to think in terms of the practical effects of digital Bibles on churches. In New York, I visited a number of hip churches and used my connections at First Things to speak to bishops, rabbis, friars, pastors, and app developers about religious digital technology and conceptions of beauty. Being in New York was difficult for researching, but it gave my project a unique ethnographic perspective that it would not have had otherwise.
How or why could your research help other researchers or academics?
Very little scholarship is devoted to the digital Bible and its effects on churches, primarily because digital Bibles are a fairly new phenomenon. The mobile Bible app I focus on, YouVersion Bible App, was released in 2008. Many other digital Bibles, which are frequently used among church congregations and pastors, are no more than 15 years old. These apps have greatly affected not only reading behavior and Bible-reading experience, but also church culture and community Bible reading. To give an idea of the digital Bible’s influence, YouVersion, the most popular Bible app, offers 1300-plus different Bible versions for 1000-plus languages and has been downloaded over 319 million times in the last ten years. It is very surprising that there have not been extensive efforts to understand the role of digital Bibles in contemporary church culture. My thesis situates the digital Bible in a history of Bible medium authority, which Jeffrey Siker (the only scholar I could find in this area) addresses, but the ethnographic component—which consider[s] digital church space [in the form of] Instagram feeds, Christian culture magazines, church websites, online churches, church advertising, online pop-up church merchandise stores, and how digital Bibles are performed in church spaces—is the first of its kind (from what I can tell). It is exciting to produce a piece of work that I am proud of, that is unique to my area of study, and incorporates pieces of my own religious experience, passion for visual media, and theoretical concerns.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.
Photo: The YouVersion Bible app was one of the primary sources religion major Justin Brendel ’18 turned to when it came time to write his senior thesis on the digitization of the Bible. Photo courtesy of Justin Brendel ’18.