Belief Watch: Apps for Religious Texts on Phones

Like so many Christians, Kevin McNeese carries his bible to church on Sundays. He "pops it open," he says, and follows along as the pastor reads that week's chapter and verse from the pulpit. For fun, McNeese reads additional, sometimes extensive, Bible commentary. At the conclusion of the service, he closes his Bible—and puts it in his pocket. He used to carry the Good Book to church, he says, but now, thanks to an app installed on his iPhone, "my Bible is with me all the time."

We think of mobile-phone applications, "apps" as they're called in the vernacular, as mostly silly stuff: games, wallpaper and ringtones you download for a giggle or to impress your friends. Alternatively, apps are pragmatic, high-tech tools: global-positioning gadgets or zoom lenses for digital cameras. But just as Luther saw the printing press as a vehicle to distribute Scripture to the masses, now almost every distributor of mobile apps is seeing the potential in providing cell-phone users with whatever religious material they may desire. On iTunes you can download Bibles, the Qur'an, pearls of wisdom from Jesus and the wisdom of the Buddha. (One new app helps users figure out who they were in their past lives.) A company called Thumbplay offers ringtones by top Christian bands and Bible-verse wallpaper. (The most popular is Psalm 23, "The Lord Is My Shepherd.") McNeese himself just released NRT Mobile, an app that lets fans of Christian music research their favorite bands. Installing religious material on cell phones is a good thing, McNeese says. "This is a way of getting information on the go, and we are all on the go," he says. "It's better to read a Bible app than play Scrabble or Wheel of Fortune, which does nothing for anybody."

There are those who would say that reading the Bible—or indeed, any religious text—on a mobile phone trivializes a sacred activity, one traditionally done in quiet away from the buzz and busyness of everyday life. The irony is obvious. In church, we put away our cell phones; there we seek respite from the electronic devices to which we are so tethered. But there's another way of looking at the mini-boom in religious apps: by putting your favorite Bible verses next to your calorie counter and your Global Positioning System, you integrate religious practice with the rest of your life. In the modern West, "sacredness has become this 'other'," says Anne Foerst, professor of theology and computer science at St. Bonaventure University. "I find that problematic. Sacredness touches our lives constantly in the here and now. It enters what we call trivial and transcends it." Religious apps may seem to represent modernity run amok, in other words, but they can bring holiness back into our lives where it belongs.

In Islamic countries, religious apps are even more popular than in the West, says Patrick Mork, vice president of marketing for GetJar, an online app store with headquarters in San Mateo, Calif. And the most popular religious app by far is Azan, which alerts Muslims five times a day that it's time to pray. It works in any time zone and is available a dozen languages including Arabic, Turkish and Bosnian. Last week 42,000 people downloaded Azan from GetJar alone. Twenty-nine thousand downloaded the Qur'an itself. So popular is the practice of downloading ringtones from recitations of the Qur'an that in some Islamic countries clerics have outlawed it. Nevertheless the practice persists. In the developing world—where landlines don't exist—people use their cell phones for everything. "On your phone, you have a digital version of the Qur'an, plus your e-mail, a couple of games and your calendar," says Mork. Despite clerical disapproval, apps put Scripture literally into the pockets of the people.