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The Crisis Facing the Good Book

Although Bible sales are booming, fewer people are bothering to open the cover, put off by difficult or outdated language. Some believe a glitzy new campaign may change that, but others have less faith.

July 27, 1999|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

It is the biggest bestseller in the history of the planet.

It recounts gripping stories of sin, sex, brutal violence, awesome miracles, divine compassion and the faith and redemption of the fallen and flawed. Its larger-than-life characters defeat giants, part seas, get swallowed by whales, suffer horrible deaths, spring back to life.

The book is a cornerstone of Western civilization, inspiring the art of Michelangelo, the plays of William Shakespeare, the novels of John Steinbeck and the films of Hollywood. Its ethical standards have launched freedom movements worldwide. Its prose has enlivened our language: Salt of the earth. Wolves in sheep's clothing. Drop in the bucket. Skin of my teeth. Woe is me!

Both cultural icon and spiritual touchstone, the Bible is revered by three major world faiths with billions of believers. But in a paradox to tax the wisdom of Solomon, it is widely unread.

According to one religious research firm, two-thirds of Americans don't regularly read the Bible or know the names of the Four Gospels. More than half of Americans surveyed can't name even five of the Ten Commandments. And the majority say they find the Good Book irrelevant.

The widespread Bible illiteracy comes despite the fact that Bible sales are booming, up 50% over the past few years at some publishing houses. According to Barna Research Group in Ventura, 91% of Americans own an average of three versions.

"We still hold the Bible in high regard, but in terms of actually spending time reading it, studying it and applying it--that is a thing of the past," said George Barna. The reasons cited range from changes in American culture to the intrinsic difficulty of the text itself.

Now religious organizations are making a major effort to jazz up the ancient Scripture's doddering image. Bible publishers are producing a dizzying array of products, with translations and editions pitched to every conceivable niche market, to convince people that the book is neither arcane nor irrelevant.

Two Christian organizations, for instance, have launched a $7-million drive that backers call the biggest Bible-reading campaign in history.

The campaign, by the Christian Broadcasting Network and Tyndale House Publishers, features glitzy celebrity endorsements, a snazzy theme song, a 50-city promotion tour and ads on such ratings giants as "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Rap artist Hammer is pushing the product--the campaign is using a 1996 contemporary English version and has named it, simply, "The Book"--as are comedian Sinbad, country singer Ricky Scaggs, TV host Kathie Lee Gifford and Olympic figure skating gold medalist Tara Lipinski, to name a few.

"The Bible has been demonstrated through the centuries as the book of answers for life," said Michael Little, CBN president. "But it has to be repackaged in the marketing language of the day. People have to understand it's cool. It's applicable."

Long gone is the undisputed reign of the venerable King James version, bound in black leather with "Holy Bible" stamped in gold, pages flowing with the elegant if outdated language of 17th century England. Today, there are more than 3,000 Bible editions appealing to different readers.

Finding Niche Markets

At the Lighthouse Christian stores in Long Beach, Arcadia and Pasadena entire walls are stocked with hundreds of Bibles supplemented with special notes for children, teenagers, feminists, recovering addicts, women in crisis. Overall, the chain's Bible sales are up 15% in the last five years, a spokesman said.

The "TouchPoint Bible" is organized under topics such as anger and self-esteem and offers answers to common questions ("How do I deal with the bitterness I feel from divorce?"). Norman Vincent Peale offers "The Positive Thinking Bible," while the chatty, folksy "Devotional Bible for Dads" includes a forward by New York Mets pitcher Orel Hershiser.

"The Dad Bible" includes close-ups of biblical dads and lessons learned from them. Noah gets a thumbs-up for being "The Dutiful Father," but Adam is relegated to the sorry status of "Wimpy Father" for buckling to temptation and ducking a showdown with the serpent. Another feature, "Hey Dad," supplies answers to 100 pesky questions kids ask: "Can a man really live inside a fish for three days?" (Yes, the book claims, citing an unconfirmed account of a man swallowed, Jonah-like, by a large fish near Maine in the early 1900s and safely recovered three days later.) Or "Why could men in the Old Testament have more than one wife?" (Legal or illegal, polygamy creates misery, as Solomon, David, Abraham and other patriarchs found.)

Some of the various translations reflect distinct theological points of view. The world's 5.5 million Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, favor the New World Translation, which, for example, renders the John 1:1 passage about Jesus this way: "In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god."

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