Digital Bible Could Hasten End of Bound Scriptures

For an hour on Tuesday I was able to imagine a world in which the Good Book no longer existed—at least not in book form.

Two men arrived in my office to show me their new product, a digital Bible called GLO (pronounced "glow"). Unlike other digital Bibles—which look, well, like Bibles—this one is cool with a capital C. Designed for people who prefer to read while they're watching TV and texting and downloading music, GLO is to the Bible what SimCity is to the comic book: an interactive scriptural immersion experience. Go to Exodus 25, for example. There, you can read, in the New International Version translation, the description of the Tabernacle the Hebrews built in the desert, where they sacrificed animals on altars to the Lord and, more importantly, where they stored in an ark the stone tablets upon which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments.

Then click on a computer-generated image of the Tabernacle itself and things get really interesting. See the Tabernacle from the height of an airplane—Look! There's Mount Sinai! There are the tents of Aaron and Moses!—and then swoop down into it, cruise around, navigate through walls to the inner sanctum where the Ark of the Covenant rests. Penetrate its golden lid and view tablets themselves, written in proto-Canaanite letters, the way they must have looked (if you believe in these things) before they finally disappeared, mysteriously, forever.

In addition to all the chapters and verses of the canon, GLO has Bible commentary and a Bible dictionary, as well as 2,300 photos, 700 paintings of Biblical scenes by well-known painters (Michelangelo, Chagall), 500 virtual tours of the Holy Land, and a timeline that runs through "creation" through the first century. It can be sorted chronologically, geographically, or thematically, and all of its moving parts are cross-referenced. GLO is an indisputably evangelical Bible, but its point of view is designed not to provoke. It takes no hard-line positions on evolution, divorce, or homosexuality.

It's not perfect. GLO, which launches today, is available only for the PC. Other applications—crucially, for the cell phone—are due out next year. With all the bells and whistles, GLO is too big: it uses 18 gigabytes of memory and needs two gigabytes of RAM to run. At $90, it's too expensive. But it does convince me that the leather-bound Bible on every household bookshelf may soon—like records and videocassettes and newspapers—be endangered, if not extinct. Already, millions of people are storing Bibles on their cell phones, for use in church or in an airport lounge. Already, those Bibles let you bookmark favorite passages, scribble notes, link to favorite commentaries. Imagine if they also talked, sang, and moved. Imagine if you could post and share your own snapshots of your trip to Jerusalem—or your baby's baptism—in your Bible, alongside GLO's digital deconstruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

GLO is the brainchild of Nelson Saba, a Brazilian evangelical Christian who was once, before his conversion, a technology vice president at Citibank. Three years ago, he joined forces with Phil Chen, a Taiwanese businessman whose family has an interest in the publicly traded company HTC, manufactures handheld wireless devices designed to compete with the iPhone. Chen, 31, comes from generations of devout Christians and is a Christian minister himself, trained and ordained at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. He was in Afghanistan building schools and orphanages for poor kids when he started thinking about the ways in which he could use technology for a good cause. "If I give this," he told me, gesturing at his cell phone, "to a child, I'm not giving him a book. I'm giving him a library, a university, a future."

Chen does not see technology—using it, developing it, disseminating it—as something he does. It's part of who he is. "It's something deep in my culture, something that I love to do, an extension of what God created me to be." The goal, then, is nothing short of changing the way in which people interact with Scripture. During the Reformation, Scripture moved from the hands of the few to the hands of the many, thanks in part to technology—the printing press—and in part to the efforts of the Reformers to translate the Bible into the languages of the world. Chen and Saba believe digital Bible technology will change the world: it will give the Bible to a new generation of people who don't read books, who urgently want guidance and inspiration, who want religion to be personal. "I see it as dramatic as moving from an oral society to a written society," Chen says. The family business is a profitable one; Chen's mother gave them $5 million in seed money.

"My mother," says Chen, "she is a very, very devout Christian. She knows every chapter and verse. But she has never been to the Holy Land. She can't see it, she can't smell it—something as simple as a tree, she has no idea what it looks like. From her perspective, it's impossible to imagine that world."

Saba, is the obsessive one, a 50-year-old geek in love with all the cool stuff GLO can do. He himself went to Israel to videotape the virtual tours and is particularly proud that he gained access to the cave beneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. "You have some experiences through our software that you wouldn't have if you went to the Holy Land yourself." And what of the idea that the job of a book is to provoke the human imagination—and that no book has arguably done that better than the Bible? Do people really need to be shown pictures of Calvary, in other words, to be moved by it? "What engages the digital generation is, 'What's there for me?' " Saba answers. For an hour this week, I thought, "This is the beginning of the end of the Word."