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COLUMN ONE

Selling the Good Book by its cover

Publishers have found a big niche for Bibles inspired by pop culture. The variety is sometimes overwhelming.

December 25, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

"There you go!" says Brian Scharp, vice president of Bible marketing. "The list of premium features is growing and growing."

"Gold-plated bling?" Niemeyer asks mischievously.

"A vial of Holy Land soil attached to the back?" Bishop offers, as the room dissolves in laughter.

The Zondervan staff has turned down a few ideas -- a 3-D pop-up Bible, for instance -- that they found too gimmicky. "There is a line, because it's God's word," Scharp says.

Later, though, he admits: "It's hard to draw the line in any one place and say, 'We're never going to cross that.' "

Zondervan recently published a Celebrate Recovery Bible for alcoholics. (The commentary notes that Adam showed an addict's skill at denial when God scolded him for eating the forbidden fruit.) For kids, there's a comic-book Bible in Japanese manga style. (One panel shows elderly Isaac and Rebekah praying for a child. In the next panel, Rebekah's stomach pops out -- to a "WHAM! BIFF! POW!")

Holman Christian Standard offers the Golfer's Bible, a compact hardcover that intersperses the Gospel with advice on proper grip. Thomas Nelson puts out BibleZines -- including the New Testament packaged as a glossy teen magazine, complete with beauty tips and quizzes. There's even a waterproof Bible with pages that fold out, map-style.

All this has raised predictable concerns.

"Where the fine line between accessibility and desecration is, is not real clear sometimes," says Phyllis Tickle, a noted Christian author. "I find it really, really distressing to think that young people may have their first impression of Christian Scripture presented to them in an almost pandering way."

Shopping in a Christian store in Grand Rapids, Kurt Forrest looks almost dizzy at the selection. He's trying to find a Bible for his 7-year-old son among more than 300 titles, including some that break up the Scripture with science projects or descriptions of gory battles.

"I want the full-blown Bible," Forrest says, frustrated, "something he can carry with him all the way out into his teen years."

Nearly 20 minutes later, he's still browsing.

Which points up a flaw in the Bible-for-every-interest strategy: Half of all customers who walk into a store intending to buy a Bible leave empty-handed, according to Brenda Lugannani, a vice president of Family Christian Stores, the nation's largest Christian chain.

"When they look at what's available," she says, "it begins to confuse them."

On the other hand, modern Christians have come to expect a very personalized faith.

The culture has steadily moved away from the biblical concept that believers must be "in the world, but not of it." Instead of stepping into a distinct Christian culture, they stay where they are, and Christian culture comes to them. There are Bible studies just for Harley owners, evangelists who target only wrestling fans, ministries for skateboarders and rappers and porn stars.

So why not a glittery pink, totally tubular Soul Surfer Bible?

"We're serious about taking the Bible to the masses in a way the public can understand and engage," Caminiti says. "We've always said we publish for every age and every stage, and we do that unapologetically."

That's good by Melinda Skarli, who's searching a Family Christian Store in Grand Rapids for a Bible that her teenage daughter can give a troubled friend. "I want one that's going to be cute enough for her friend to be attracted to," she explains, leafing through a compact edition bound in hot pink and orange.

In a way -- an admittedly commercial way -- theologian Kurt Fredrickson sees modern publishers as following the hallowed footsteps of Christian heroes such as Jan Hus, William Tyndale and Martin Luther, who risked their lives to bring God's word to the masses.

"For centuries, there's been a desire to make the Bible more accessible," says Fredrickson, who directs the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Yes, the concept of a trendy Gospel may sound tacky.

"But we're Americans," Fredrickson says. "We're always trying to find a niche."

--

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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