Pastors and programmers at BibleTech conference explore deeper theology through code

Pastors and programmers

There’s a lot of stuff in the Bible — accounts of geography and warfare long past, layers of meaning translated from Greek and Hebrew, conflicting ideas, important historical figures. At this week’s BibleTech conference, more than 130 pastors, coders and theologians from just about every denomination gathered to discuss, among other issues, how to use machine learning and rich datasets to extract, cross-reference and bring new meaning to the Bible.

The event was hosted in Seattle by Faithlife, a Bellingham, Wash.-based company with roughly 400 employees that offers more than 130,000 digital books about faith and Biblical translations along with Logos, its own e-reading software designed for studying faith and theology.

Faithlife CEO Bob Pritchett co-founded the company, which used to be known as Logos, 28 years ago. At the time Pritchett had been a Microsoft programmer working on Windows 3.1 and other projects while building Bible software in his basement. Now his company ranks No. 18 on the GeekWire 200, our index of top Pacific Northwest startups.

Faithlife also offers software designed for churches, including a system for handling credit card payments instead of cash offerings during services; web hosting; and PowerPoint-like presentation software designed for church services.

The Bibletech conference is now in its sixth year and about half of its attendees are usually programmers, Pritchett said.

This year’s seminar titles included “The Fringe Future of Scripture,” “Tagging Meaning and Not Just Form,” “Crowdsourcing Scripture Then and Now,” and “Alexa, What Does the Bible Say?” Another section discussed how machine learning can be used to translate the Bible into the world’s dying languages, languages spoken even by just a few hundred people.

In a presentation titled “Mapping the World of Theology,” FaithLife Director of Content Innovation Sean Boisen discussed his team’s efforts to build theological databases that can extract and cross-reference information. Datasets include important words and passages in the Bible, historical knowledge, important figures in Christian history, a timeline of world events, a timeline of biblical events, to name a few.

Boisen showed off a new tool for exploring Christian doctrine called the Lexham Systematic Theology Ontology (LSTO), which cross-references 234 theological concepts with other datasets. And the data can be visualized: Boisen projected on a screen an “idea tree” resembling a subway map, interlinking strands of theological thought.

“We’re looking at building resources that layer information on top of the biblical text, a whole system of cross-references,” Boisen said, adding that the goal is to “blow up the book … chop the books up in little pieces and make them accessible in new ways.”

In a presentation called “Seeing the Future: Examining the Glacial Pace of Digital Engagement with the Bible,” Kenny Jahng, the co-host of the Future.Bible podcast, recommended that churches use technology in practical ways to connect with parishioners. That includes podcasts, live-streams, online Bible studies and even the VR Church, where people assume the roles of avatars and can interact with each other.

Jahng said churches need to deploy these methods to connect with churchgoers who are accustomed to consuming information whenever they want. Just as people don’t have to sit down in front of the TV at a certain time to watch a favorite show, he said many churchgoers are not accustomed to the idea of settling into a church pew regularly for the Sunday 9 a.m. service.

There are now more than 1,000 “devotional apps” available for download, most for smartphones, he said. And the YouVersion digital Bible has been installed on devices 370 million times so far.

Just as with the tech industry, some applications of these media are clumsy and hackneyed, he said. He noted, for example, that he certainly is not going to sing for 30 minutes in his home during a church service livestream. Jahng said podcasts, virtual churches and other online worship run the risk of being trivial and trifling.

“We’ve reduced everything to what I call Bible McNuggets,” he said.

And yet, Jahng said, faith-based tech can be quite effective, especially uses that begin with connecting online and result in small groups meeting in person. Another promising use of technology: Sending dispatches that encourage people to interact with their faith throughout the week. Used skillfully, technology can engender a more dynamic, living understanding of faith than, say, a regular church service — the experience of divinity rather than merely learning about Jesus, he said.

“The role of the pastor in many churches is obliterated,” Jahang said, adding that technology is “democratizing access not just to each other but access to Christ”.

Faithlife, the conference host, was based in Kirkland, Wash. until 2011 when it moved to Bellingham, where it has a five-building campus in the city’s downtown.

Faithlife digital publishing platform serves all Christian denominations and some Jewish readers as well. Providing such a diverse array of faith-based titles naturally lead to quibbling and controversy among customers. Pritchett, the CEO, shrugs it off.

“We joke that we are the arms dealers in the theological wars,” he said.

With its conferences and other offerings, Pritchett said Faithlife wants to help people learn about their faith, not control their explorations.

“You wouldn’t want a library that reflects only the librarian’s opinions,” he said.

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