So at the beginning of this new year, as I think ahead to how I would like to grow in understanding the Bible and applying it to life, I have a question: what system and tools do you readers find most helpful for studying the Bible?
For some, a wide-margin edition for note-taking is indispensable. Others have a particular ‘Study Bible’ they love, with notes in from various contributors. Maybe you prefer to ‘journal’ all your notes and thoughts – if so, do you have a system of organising them afterwards, for example by book? Others are embracing the digital age and taking advantage of the benefits offered by tools such as Olive Tree’s Bible Study App. Others are content mainly to have a devotional program of reading and simply take notes in whatever way they feel able (for example on their phone or in a favourite notebook). Maybe you don’t have any kind of system but have been thinking about it for the new year, as I have been.
I’d be really interested to hear what works for you in the comments. As for me, I’ll offer some thoughts on different approaches which I’ve tried. As will become clear, I don’t think I’ve found the ultimate system for me – yet!
I’ll begin with my straightforward, leather-bound NASB Bible (pictured). It’s a text & cross-reference Bible, two-column, with half-page intros to the books and some maps. And the odd table or specific map slotted into the text, but these are rare. It’s all you could ask for in terms of simplicity and giving you a nice way into the text without the swathes of ‘helpful’ info you can get from Study Bibles. I used to own a Study Bible and don’t have anything against them per se, but my inclination is to want space to form my own opinions and gather my own data about texts.
I’ve carried this NASB around with me more than any other Bible, and it shows. After the leather started flaking I attempted to cover it with gaffa tape. This impulsive move proved as disappointing with hindsight as you might expect; apart from being a darn sight uglier now, the gaffa would often peel and make my hands sticky. I bought a case.
Inside, I fit what notes I could into the margins. They’re not designed for writing in but it’s possible if you can keep your notes to a few words (or a sentence if you can put it at the top or bottom of the page). I think I knew when I bought it back in 2006 that I would want to make notes in it; apparently I didn’t consider that I might eventually run out of space.
This led to me getting a wide-margin NASB a few years ago. Now, the difference was immeasurable in terms of how much space I had to write notes. Whole sentences next to one verse! It was a dream come true. Except that space traded for portability: the thing is hardback, and is HUGE. And therefore heavy. Plus they added further to the page count with some additional features which doesn’t help the payload. A further, un-thought-through tradeoff was the amount of time it would take to transfer all the notes I’d already made in my more portable NASB – something I was determined to do, and couldn’t put off once I’d started. In all, it took 3 years, given breaks and busy-ness. I’ve just finished the task, and am not sure what to do next. Because over the last few years, another potential solution has arisen. But first – solution to what?
Basically, I want to keep all my notes together. Hence my determination to transfer all my notes to the new wide-margin. But inevitably, I do have others floating around elsewhere. For a short time a few years ago I began a piece of paper for each book of the Bible which I filed away and retrieved when needed. I soon realised this wouldn’t work long-term and wouldn’t provide a great solution when I was out and about. Nevertheless I have two huge lever-arch-file folders with Bible notes and related items. How can I have a more unified system and keep everything together?
Enter Olive Tree
I mentioned Olive Tree’s Bible Study App earlier. I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you don’t know what it is, it’s a Bible study resource for digital devices – computers, smartphones and tablets. It offers immediate and obvious benefits, especially to someone in my position.
You can make notes on the text. Every note you make can be as long as you want – no margin restrictions here. Your notes will save and will never get lost. What’s more, if you have the App on multiple devices, all your data will sync, so your notes are wherever you want them. What’s more, you can organise your notes with categories and tags – so while they can be placed at a specific location in the text, you can also find them from elsewhere. For example I could make a note in Romans about the Cross, and another in Revelation, and a quick search for my notes about the Cross would turn up both of those notes and any others I’d made. It’s a dream for Bible study!
Moreover the way the app works means that you can still view things like cross-references seamlessly – more so than with a paper Bible. Tap on a verse reference and it pops up for you to read it, before you hide it again. This works in anything, including notes you’ve made – great for preaching from your note and quoting the verse when you tap on it.
It’s all very clever. There’s even a resource guide which adapts to whichever passage you’re reading, showing you maps of the places mentioned, dictionary entries, more information or verses about the people or subjects therein, and much more. I recently bought Vine’s expository dictionary for use in the app, and it links in beautifully.
Not Quite Right Yet
Maybe it’s my generation, caught between the days of analogue and digital, but I just can’t quite rest with Olive Tree yet. Sure, it has already proved useful in various scenarios including preaching, but I haven’t knuckled down and organised it to be my key resource yet. I just can’t quite leave my paper Bibles – or books – behind.
Not just because I enjoy the quality of actual books, and the disciplined act of reading a paper Bible over reading the Bible on your phone when (let’s be honest) Facebook is a tap away. It’s also because I can’t ignore the research specifically to do with making notes by hand, and how this is most effective at embedding information in our minds (eg. see this Lifehacker piece http://lifehacker.com/5738093/why-you-learn-more-effectively-by-writing-than-typing). I also don’t feel quite so absorbed in reading and studying on a screen. I still have to tap on a note to see what I wrote, rather than having my handwriting right next to the printed words for me to glance at. Furthermore, in my opinion, extended screen-use is taxing on the eyes.
Also, while it is possible to call into question how future-proof the notes in my paper-Bible are, it’s not unreasonable to ask the same of the digitised notes I make in my Olive Tree App, despite appearances. Now I will be generous and say that, given OT’s long history and experience in adapting to new platforms, I’d give it the benefit of the doubt for being there in fifty years’ time; but what about the hardware? What about the technology market? Personal computing may seem like an invincible fortress now, but if the 19th and 20th centuries have taught us anything about industry and culture in capitalist economies, it’s that nothing is certain – especially for the giants. Will I really be using the iPhone 21s in 25 years’ time? At the moment I’d put my money on paper, even if I do have to fight to preserve the fading ink!
All the same, that still doesn’t feel like a strong enough reason to not use the incredible resource that Olive Tree provides right now on my iPhone, iPad and, yes, Mac too. Perhaps if something radically changed in the future, I’d be able to export all my notes for whatever new system emerged.
As I said, I would like to get more in depth with the Scriptures this year, and I hope to blog about it more as I do so. If anything, I expect I’ll continue to use a jumbled approach – perhaps reading my paper Bible and making notes in OT on my phone, or even transferring paper notes into the App at some point. Or maybe I’ll have to do more bench pressing and carry that huge wide-margin around. And as I also said at the beginning, I’d be really interested to hear what works for other people, whether you’ve had similar struggles porting over from an analogue to a digital world in seeking to preserve the fruits of your years of study! What works for you?