Coming to a Bible near you

Bible closedWhose Word is it, anyway? A well-researched article from Sarah Skidmore of the Associated Press on how Bibles are being repackaged to attract secular readers does a great job of examining an ongoing trend in the publishing world.

The article focuses on a particular edition entitled "Bible Illuminated: The Book."

The headline "New Bibles alter form -- not word --to draw readers" suggests that it's the visuals that will separate new Bible version from older ones.

Yet there are many, many translations of the Bible floating around -- some a good deal more accurate than others.

At the end of the story, I didn't know how this new edition is being evaluated by scholars, or pastors, or even readers. Is it being seen as a new tool for evangelism, or simply a cool living room table accessory?

We do discover, close to article's end, that the basic text for the new edition is the Good News version, licensed by the American Bible Society. But that's about the only hint we get that this might be a story about religion as well as about a hot marketing niche.

The article begins with a bang -- but immediately raises questions.

Martin Luther King Jr. graces one page, Angelina Jolie the next. A photo of a man on fire opens the Book of Revelation. And laid across a two-page image of gasoline spilling from a pump is the quote that begins, "The whole earth was amazed and followed the beast."

It's not the good book some may remember.

While the Bible has been recreated and repackaged innumerable times, publishers of the newest editions are using some distinctly unique formats to capture the attention of readers.

"In general, Bible publishers have always been creative, but now they are scrambling to meet a culture where people are moving away from print reading," said Paul Gutjahr, an associate professor of English and adjunct associate professor in religious studies at Indiana University.

Secular as well as traditional religious Bible publishers are getting in on the act. Dozens of different versions of the Bible come out each year for various niches: the outdoorsman, the married couple, business leaders. There are electronic Bibles available for the Kindle, iPods and handheld devices. There are graphic novel and comic book interpretations. There's even a new chronological version of the Bible coming out this fall.

What does the author mean by "recreated"? And what's a "traditional religious Bible publisher"? Is there another camp of publishers called "liberal religious Bible publishers?"

After detailing the surge in Bible sales, and the new versions coming out, there's a paragraph so hip that it almost completely eluded me.

The Bible is reinvented quite often. While essentially still the same book, Gutjahr said that for the past two decades, updates were largely focused on new translations. There are also versions that come out each year that are essentially the same book, with different covers and sizes based on people's wants. But he sees the next trend as one toward textual translation and visual translation.

As a potential consumer, I'd like to know who is doing the "reinventing" and what it means that the Bible is "essentially still the same book" (a phrase repeated twice, as though it would be clearer the second time). I'm clueless, in this context, as to what "textual translation" is.

There's another question here: how do photo essays or graphic translations change someone's experience in reading the ancient text? I wish Skidmore had time to ask that question.

But what seems to be missing here is drives the huge sales -- surely these visually appealing Bibles aren't all being used as status symbols.

"It's about new points of entry in a modern world that is not ready to open its doors and windows to the traditional word," he said.

These "gateway Bibles" -- those intended for the secular crowd -- seem to be the latest frontier in Bible publishing.

That's a quote from Robert Hodgson, dean emeritus of the Nida Institute for Bible Scholarship.

A "gateway" to what?

The topic of how publishers and advertising executives are trying to attract secular buyers by using provocative visuals and glossy packaging is fascinating.

But without at least a tip of the hat to more than two thousand years of Biblical scholarship, or some background on how new editions are being seen by "traditional" constituents, we aren't sure why anyone would want to open "Bible Illuminated: The Book" once it is safely on their coffee table.

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