Bible and digital humanities: V. The Bible in Multimodal Culture

Claire Clivaz - 25.11.2023


Welcome to the fifth and final module of the Opencourseware “Bible and digital humanities” of the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), created thanks to a 2023 grant from the “équipe Université numérique”, UCLouvain. This module presents the challenges that await the biblical text in a digital culture where text, images and sound are combined in equal measure, a so-called ‘multimodal’ culture. As stated in the first introductory module, this Opencourseware is a starter aimed at a wide audience and is intended to enable everyone to pursue their own quest using the references and readings provided.

1. The Bible text, image, sound

In module 4 we saw that in 2016 the Swiss Reformed churches were asking themselves the question of the ‘dissociation’ or ‘emancipation’ of Scripture from books, which is now omnipresent ‘in electronic media of all kinds’ (Sola Lectura, p. 30). To take the measure of this phenomenon, I suggest you go to YouTube and search for ‘Psalm 23’. You'll find a tower of Babel or an inventory à la Prévert: private or institutional videos, Christian, Jewish or Muslim versions, naïve or sophisticated images, with or without music, with commentary of all kinds, and even a version illustrated by artificial intelligence.
Sometimes a publisher - a book publisher - manages to put a reference at the top of the list, for example Orell Füssli. The most surprising thing about this ‘vertigo of lists’ - to borrow the French title of a fundamental cultural work by Umberto Eco - is that each of these digital objects refers to the same statement. They claim to transmit the Psalm 23, independently of their relationship to the text, sometimes visualized in the video, sometimes not.
For example, this YouTube video on Chapter 6 of Genesis, with images generated by artificial intelligence, does not show the written text on the screen: it is simply read out to music. In other words, thanks to multimodal digital culture, we are rediscovering a relationship with written texts that is essentially auditory and visual, as it was for at least 90% of people in ancient times.
In our view, this is one of the greatest transformations of digital culture for the Bible, and we are beginning to take stock of it. This is clearly expressed in Sola Lectura: “The media history of Christianity certainly shows special affinities between the Christian message and the book as a medium. But this connection does not touch the essence of Christianity; it does not lie at the heart of Christian identity. [...] Christianity is not a religion of the book, but of reading. At the beginning of the Christian religion, there was no sacred book transmitting the word of God, but Jesus Christ, the Word of God in person [...]. In this respect, electronic social media will become increasingly important. [...] The book, or any other means of communication, does not therefore pre-exist Christianity; it is an incidental historical phenomenon” (p. 30). While some will undoubtedly take issue with the statement that the book is a historical phenomenon incidental to Christianity, it is nevertheless liberating to bear in mind that the link between Christianity and the book “is not at the heart of Christian identity”.
Here the Protestant essay is in line with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that “the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’. Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, ‘not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living’ [St. Bernard, S. missus est hom. 4, 11: PL 183, 86]. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open (our) minds to understand the Scriptures’ [Lk 24:45]”. (I.I.III.2, §108). Digital culture invites us to rediscover the biblical expressions in a multimodal culture, text, image and sound, or sometimes image and sound alone, a challenge rooted in a long theological tradition that values the event and performance of the Word.
To approach this challenge, it is stimulating to listen to the Reformed theologian Karl Barth who, long before digital culture, expressed in one minute that he had above all wished to communicate with his community by writing his famous commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. I invite you to listen to this short video (in German with English subtitles): « What I was trying to reach with that? Initially not a book that I wanted to publish. But a collection of manuscripts which I read to my friends. But then, step by step, it was supposed to become a book anyway. And so it resulted in a book. But if I get asked what I tried to reach with it, I can only say I was looking for comrades, for fellow people [Mitmenschen] and fellow Christians, who possibly out of the same confusion that I found myself in, were also about to reach out for the Bible, and the New Testament and the Epistle to the Romans, in a very different way. And with them together, sort of in an invisible community [unsichtbare Gemeinschaft], to read this old text ».
In Barth’s words, we perceive as much the communicator - the pastor, the teacher - as the writer: “I was looking for... an invisible community”. In fact, Christian theology, with its two-thousand-year-old historical heritage, has every useful reserve of wisdom and traditions to take the multimodal turn of digital culture in the right direction. This turn will be all the better negotiated if we take the measure of the effects of multimodal culture on our relationship with texts in general.

2. Multimodal digital culture: textuality otherwise

The first two generations of digital humanist work were essentially marked by electronic projects on texts and textuality. This is illustrated by Roberto Busa’s statement in the preface to the Companion to Digital Humanities 2004: “Humanities computing is precisely the automation of every possible analysis of human expression (therefore, it is exquisitely a ‘humanistic’ activity), in the widest sense of the word, from music to the theater, from design and painting to phonetics, but whose nucleus remains the discourse of written texts”.
This statement is a historical landmark worth keeping in mind. On the one hand, it heralds what we have witnessed over the last twenty years: the exponential growth of audio-visual data to the detriment of textual data. According to CISCO, 80% of the data exchanged or visualised on the Internet is now in the form of video, as shown in this infographie Université en transition from UCLouvain.
On the other hand, Busa spoke of his attachment to text, which in 2004 he thought was still central to all the other fields of digital humanities. But it seems difficult to believe that this centrality of text is still so dominant today. In the Baudelaire Song project, for example, Baudelaire’s poems are considered at least as much through their sound aspect (song, sound) as through their textuality.
This multimodal shift was announced by Kathleen Fitzpatrick as long ago as 2009: “If we had the ability to respond to a video with a video, if we could move seamlessly from audio files to images and text as a means of representing music, it might allow us to think in exactly the way we produce when we write: to bring these different modes of communication together in complex shared documentary forms” (p. 27). Today we are there: we watch videos, and we produce them, we express what we do more and more via expressions that join text, image and sound, and this Opencourseware is an illustration of this.
This evolution in cultural communication practices has a definite ecological cost, as shown by this poster produced by the Université en transition of UCLouvain. It’s an urgent challenge to reduce the carbon footprint of our digital uses, while daring to venture into this “text - image – sound” culture known as “multimodal literacy”, a concept presented in an online course on the #dariahTeach platform.
This digital teaching platform has been published by the European research infrastructure DARIAH - Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities. It features notably an Opencourseware, produced in 2017, which teaches multimodal literacy. The notion of literacy was born from the growing-up of the printed culture in the 19th century and refers to all the practices and representations associated with the written word. Since the end of the 20th century, by virtue of the transformations at work in digital culture, anthropologists, ethnologists, and then ancient researchers have begun to use it frequently in the plural, so that it encompasses both printed and digital written practices. Multimodal literacy encompasses all content production practices that combine text, image and/or sound. This #dariahTeach open courseware presents and analyses several examples of multimodal culture, including practical exercises for learning how to decipher these text-image-sound productions.
As part of this eTalk, I invite you to look at and explore two multimodal digital objects, one journalistic and the other artistic. The first is a digital application created by the Swiss newspaper Le Temps about Eritrea, and the second is a multimodal production about and with the work of Vincent van Gogh. The common feature of these two heterogeneous digital objects is that they convey different points of view on the same subject, by varying the means of expression and the voices used. It would be desirable to see the creation of genuine multimodal communication objects for the biblical sciences.
The eTalks hope to move in this direction, and you can discover a series of nine eTalks on the end of the Gospel of Mark, created as part of the SNSF project MARK16 (2018-2023). They are still relatively close to a classical academic form of communication. It would be desirable for the younger generation of theologians to create multimodal knowledge objects, which would make it possible to cross-fertilize points of view on the latest research findings. This is an opportunity for creative minds, perhaps inspired by previous examples, either more cognitive (such as the report on Eritrea) or more artistic (such as the multimodal production on the work of Vincent van Gogh).
As for the #dariahTeach platform, it offers several courses in digital humanities, on subjects as varied as TEI/XML encoding - as we saw in module 3 - or sound studies, storytelling, a series of introductory videos on digital humanities, and so on. You’ll find there everything you need to continue your discovery of the digital humanities.

3. The computer world: a textual literacy

This final module cannot be concluded without a reflection that should give theologians plenty to think about, even in this digital world where 80% of videos circulate on the web. Despite all appearances, the written word continues to have the last word in this universe. Indeed, in the computer world, the command line interface (CLI) is more precise and efficient than the graphical user interface (GUI). In other words, when you start to open up what we feel is the black box of computing and venture into programming languages, the written word definitely wins out over the visual: what you can do by writing via your computer’s terminal will always be more precise and faster than using your computer’s graphical interface. In the face of the written code, the power of the image recedes abruptly: it's words that count in CLI.
We can only hope that many theologians will venture to the interface of computer and humanistic cultures, to become qualified interpreters of code. We are well versed in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac or Aramaic: it's up to us to add computer codes to this range of languages. The challenges of interpreting texts, images and sounds are now largely delegated to code, as Domenico Fiormonte puts it : “Each encoding action, or rather each action of representing a specific ‘object’ via a formal language, involves the selection of a set of possibilities, and thus consists of an interpretative gesture” (p. 30).
At a time when the two main French translations of the Bible – the Bible de Jérusalem and the Traduction Oecuménique de la Bible – are being reedited and republished, we wonder whether in a quarter of a century’s time, the next generation will also take in charge the computer translation of these works, by coding the text and choosing the TEI/XML meaning tags themselves (see Module 3). It could also add images and sound illustrations, restoring the biblical stories to their ancient performance content (Module 4). It would then be a new Instrumentum omne, to use the ambitious title given by Erasmus to his printed New Testament (Module 2). Let’s see!
Many thanks to the équipe Université numérique of UCLouvain for their support of this Opencourseware, prepared by Claire Clivaz and Elisa Nury with the support of Prof. Régis Burnet. Many thanks also to the free version of, an AI application, for the fast English translation of this Opencourseware.
The final slide presents the list of references quoted in this module 5.