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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Let there be bytes: Software firm brings interactivity to Bible

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – It might come as a surprise to some that this city of 81,000, known more for banning plastic bags than as a center of religion, is headquarters to the world’s leading producer of Bible software.

Last year, Logos Bible Software, which occupies three buildings downtown and employs about 250 people, had sales of more than $35 million. Its main product, Logos 4, compiles dozens of versions of the most printed book in history and searches through hundreds of reference books.

Type in “holiness,” promises the company, and you’ll get “more than 100,000 hits for ‘holiness’ in less than a second.”

Christianity has embraced the digital age with a passion.

(As has Islam; islamicfinder.org claims more than 10 million downloads worldwide of its free software that automatically calls out for prayer five times a day.)

“The Christian community has always been out in the front of getting stuff on new technology platforms,” said Bob Pritchett, a 40-year-old former Microsoft employee who is president and CEO of Logos.

“There was the Gutenberg Bible (around 1450). When radio was introduced, you had people preaching on radio the next week.”

The software is chock-full of enticements for techies. For example, it shows you the original Greek or Hebrew in which the text was written, complete with audio on how to pronounce those ancient words. And it zooms in on maps and photos of historical sites.

Pastors account for a fifth of sales, Pritchett said. Tap, tap, and the software finds just the right quotation to use in a sermon.

But it is individuals looking to learn more about the Bible on their own who account for two-thirds of sales, Pritchett said.

Logos 4 has nine editions, starting at $149.95 to $4,290 (“more than 1,600 books worth almost $30,000 in print!”). Sometimes the work isn’t very high-tech. Some older texts with typefaces that don’t scan well are typed in manually by contract workers in India.

The unchurched might ask why someone would want to study the Bible to such an extent – literally line by line.

Said professor Jo-Ann Badley of the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, “Why do gardeners pore over seed catalogs, read and reread descriptions of kinds of carrots, thinking about choosing the right one for their garden? Why do sports fans read pages of the sports section each day, or memorize the statistics of hits from left-handed pitchers vs. from right-handed pitchers? If you study the Bible carefully, it helps make sense of your world.”

She said reading Biblical text in the original Hebrew (Old Testament) or Greek (New Testament) allows students to better understand the meaning of passages. The problem is, Badley said, seminary students would have to spend two years studying the language. The software cuts that to a few clicks.

“There are things that don’t translate easily,” Badley said. “If you try to read Shakespeare as he wrote it 500 years ago, the English is substantially different. One Hebrew language professor I know says that reading the Bible in an English translation is like kissing your spouse through waxed paper. Maybe people use Logos to cut some holes in the waxed paper.”

The market around Bibles certainly is huge, although sales figures are hard to peg because millions are given away for free. Gideons International says that since 1908, it has distributed for free more than 1.7 billion Bibles, nearly 79 million just last year.

Logos keeps finding new ways to place the Bible in social media.

Another Logos product called “Proclaim” lets parishioners tap away on their smartphones or tablets as the pastor is preaching.

The pastor, of course, has a huge screen behind him that illustrates his sermon.

“Let’s say I’m referencing something in a Greek or Hebrew word that’s tied to a website. I can send a ‘hot link’ if people want to dig a little deeper,” said Pastor Rick Bulman of New Hope Foursquare Church in Bellingham. “It’s pretty remarkable. It makes learning the Bible fun and interactive.”

These days, Logos is in the beta phase of a new platform called “Faithlife,” a kind of Facebook for connecting “with your church, friends, and Christian leaders online.”

Pritchett was asked for any particular Bibles passages that would be pertinent to entrepreneurs. He emailed back several, including Proverbs 22:4.

“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services.