The Crisis Facing the Good Book

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."

That rendering is consistent with Witnesses' belief that Jesus is not equal to the Almighty God, a position rejected by most other Christian denominations, which place Jesus and God in a holy trinity with the Holy Spirit.

Other translations reflect attempts to bring the ancient Scripture in line with modern realities and political sensitivities. Whether God, and people in general, should be referred to as "he"--a debate known as "inclusive language"-- is the hottest translation controversy today within both Judaism and Christianity.

In the 1995 translation known as "The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version," for instance, the classical phrase "Son of Man" is changed to "Human One" and the Lord's Prayer invokes "Our Father-Mother in heaven." In addition, some versions are changing the Gospel of John's references to Jews to "religious authorities" or "leaders" to avoid the anti-Semitic reactions that have long troubled Jewish-Christian relations, said David Scholer, a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.

"Some people would call this a politicizing translation because it carries, in their view, a particular agenda too far: tampering with the historical text and changing language that actually changes meaning, rather than clarifying meaning," said Scholer, who counts himself among those with some qualms about such translations.

But Scholer is a firm supporter of using inclusive language to refer to people--"dear brothers and sisters" in Paul's letters, for instance. And he predicts that most Bibles eventually will adopt such language "because the overwhelming cultural reality is that's how English is being spoken today."

Despite the marketing efforts, however, bringing Americans back to the Bible faces daunting odds.

For starters, the book carries some pretty deadly baggage. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Bible," for instance, bluntly acknowledges the reader's possible "ghosts of Bible studies past." These include "droning priests, pulpit-pounding pastors, knuckle-rapping nuns, or sermons that seemed hours long."

Alternative Philosophies

In today's religiously diverse environment, more people are exploring other wisdom traditions and find the Bible wanting.

On a recent evening, management consultant Marta Carlson and her 19-year-old daughter, Leigh Pinegar, browsed through the "Eastern thought" section of Borders Books & Music in Pasadena, stopping to inspect books on Zen.

Carlson was raised as a Lutheran, owns several Bibles, values the book as a "rich resource for understanding Western thought" and still reads new Bible material to

feed an interest in archeology. But she no longer looks to the book for spiritual inspiration, turned off by things like the emphasis on humankind's sinful nature and what she regards as the "horrendously paternalistic" God of the Old Testament.

"It builds a spirituality on the basis of badness and it's no place to start," said Carlson, who gains her spiritual sustenance instead from the writings of Lao Tzu, Confucius, D.T. Suzuki. "Eastern religion deals with . . . harmony, balance, enlightenment."

Others say three decades of court rulings against religious expression in public venues have dislodged, perhaps permanently, the Bible's central position in American life.

"The Bible has been damned by the media and public interest groups as a document that is out of step with current culture," says Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group. "It's not politically correct because there are moral standards set forth in the Old and New Testaments."

(Visions of the good old days of a flourishing Bible literacy may be overly nostalgic, however. According to the Gallup Organization, 53% of Americans polled in 1950 could not name any of the four Gospels, compared to just 13% who were completely stumped in 1998.)

And there is no getting around the fact that the Bible is simply a difficult book.

Stacey Martinez, a Pasadena dance instructor, owns 12 Bibles. She reads Scripture regularly--James is her favorite book--and she can quote, by heart, passages like Jeremiah 29:11. ("For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you.") She has seen the power of the Bible in her life, she says, yet here she is at Borders bookstore, checking out "The Idiot's Guide."

"The Old Testament is very difficult for me to understand," Martinez said. "All those so-and-sos begat so-and-so."

The problem is exacerbated by a striking phenomenon: People are discouraged by the Bible's perceived difficulty, yet millions of Americans still prefer a version that is beyond the literacy level of most of them, Barna said.

In focus groups, people show resistance to contemporary language because "it didn't sound like the Bible," said John E. Eames, executive vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson Bibles. And research shows that many more people prefer the King James version, with its complex language, over such plainer-language texts as the New International Version, Barna says.

But the key to Bible illiteracy is less the book itself than the dismal state of Bible education, Barna adds. Too many pastors speak over the heads of congregants, "dump information" on people without telling them how to apply the lessons to their lives and fail to adjust the teachings to a multimedia generation, he said.

Here and there, however, pastors are laboring to make the ancient words come alive for today's modern seekers. The Rev. Dr. Steven E. Berry of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles is one of them.

Berry uses personal stories and films, such as Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth," to spark interest in the written text. He challenges Bible students with provocative questions: How should such ancient biblical laws as death by stoning for adulterers be regarded in today's society? He passionately holds forth on how critical Bible study has been, not only for spiritual growth, but also to the development of literacy, the system of higher education and the ideals of free thought, self-governance and democracy.

"It is not just an old, empty book," Berry said. "The reason America became great all started with the Bible. Most people have no idea how exciting it is."

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Bible Translations Compared

Translators who render the ancient texts of the Bible into English often come up with very different versions, sometimes for theological reasons, other times for reasons of style or language choice. Here are two scriptural passages comparing the King James version with some modern translations.

GENESIS 1-3

King James version

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."

A translation that seeks to give a literal sense of ancient Hebrew (The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Bible: Volume I, translated by Everett Fox)

"At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters--God said: Let there be light! And there was light."

A translation that seeks to be easier for modern readers (The New Living Translation)

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was empty, a formless mass cloaked in darkness. And the Spirit of God was hovering over its surface. Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light."

PSALM 107:8

King James version

"Oh, that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!"

A translation that seeks gender equality (The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version)

"Let them thank God for God's steadfast love, for the wonderful works to humankind."

A translation that seeks to be easier for modern readers (New Living Translation)

"Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for all his wonderful deeds to them."

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