Why free Bibles might not be a good thing (@tim_hutchings)

"Free Books", by Eric Doeringer

“Free Books”, by Eric Doeringer

If we had to pay for digital access to the Bible, would we care about it more?

I’ve been researching the impact of digital media on Bible reading for a couple of years now (and I’ve written about it for BigBible’s #digidisciple blog before, here, here and here). I’ve spent some time studying YouVersion, the most popular mobile app for reading the Bible (in a pretty crowded market). YouVersion has been installed more than 120 million times worldwide, and YouVersion is free. Makes sense, right? You have a product people want, and you want people to have it, so you give it to them for free in a format they like using.

You can see the free e-Bible as a response to “digital abundance”. A paper book is a scarce resource: only a finite number can be printed (or hand-copied), because each one costs time and money to make. You could say the same about recorded music, film and pictures. The internet changes all this, by changing the way media are copied and distributed and accessed. Write an e-book or upload a video to YouTube, and you can find a worldwide audience without needing to charge anyone for anything. We move from a world of scarcity into a world of digital abundance, where vast libraries are available on demand and audiences no longer even understand the concept of paying for the media they want. Media industries that once relied on sales are now looking for other ways to make money – live performance, perhaps – or losing out to upstart self-published rivals. You can give away infinite copies of the Bible online, to every reader who wants one, without ever running out of paper and ink.

So in a world of digital abundance, is there any reason not to give Bibles away for free?

There are some practical answers to that question, of course. Publishing a Bible is never really free, even online: someone has to pay the designers and developers. Someone has to pay the translators who are busy working on the versions we will be reading in the future. If you’re downloading all that work for free, the money to pay for it is probably coming from generous donations.

But the idea of free Bibles is not really new, and it’s worth looking back at some history to see what else might be at stake here. You’ve probably heard the internet compared to the invention of the printing press, because the printing press was connected to the Protestant Reformation, and evangelical Christians love thinking about the Reformation. But a better comparison might be to the early nineteenth century, when new printing technologies and global trade routes made it possible to print and distribute Bibles much more cheaply than ever before.

The new printing revolution motivated the creation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804. Matthew Engelke has written a great new book about the Bible Society’s work in Britain today, but his historical notes are particularly interesting for thinking about digital media. At its first meeting, Matthew says, the new Bible Society committed itself “to encourage a wider dispersion of the Holy Scriptures”, with three key rules: no church allegiances, no notes or comments to obscure the plain text of the Bible, and no freebies. No freebies! Despite the new abundance of cheap print, the Bible Society insisted that all customers pay something for their Bibles.

The reason for this was simple: if you give something away, no one thinks it’s worth anything. If your goal is for the Bible to be actively read and cherished, you need to convince your audience that the Bible is a book that has value.

Is that principle still useful, in an age of digital abundance? Are we more likely to use a Bible app if we had to stop and think and pay something before downloading it? Does a a digital resource (like a Bible, or an e-book, or an album of music) need to establish its value in different ways, perhaps through a friend’s recommendation instead of an exchange of money? Or was the Bible Society always wrong about the dangers of freebies?

I’m not sure yet – I’m still thinking this through. What do you make of it?

PS: The featured image for this blog post is an artwork called “Free Books”, by Eric Doeringer. According to his blog, Doeringer left a box of free books in Manhattan each weekend as part of an art exhibition – but tore the last few pages out of each book, to render them useless, turn them into works of art and annoy their readers as much as possible. How mean!

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.