Posterized Bible covers: Enterprising newsfeature in Nashville Tennessean

You hear so much about the "Word of God," it's easy to forget the need for it to look attractive as well. So the Nashville Tennessean showed some alert reporting in its newsfeature on a venerable poster company being tasked with a contemporary Bible translation.

Reporter Heidi Hall took an otherwise mundane announcement and made it into a solid, hybrid business-religion story:

The Common English Bible's Nashville-based distributor contracted Hatch to create new paperback covers showcasing three Scriptures — a fresh look for this Christmas giving season. The 2011 translation replaces anachronistic phrases with the language of today.
Its distributor's instruction to Hatch was frighteningly broad: Basically, just do that wonderful thing you do. But artist Amber Richards said she stuck with her employer's archive of text and picture blocks and asked question after question until her design emerged.

Hall, the reporter, spins the story several ways. She cites Hatch manager Celene Aubry noting that both the printer and the publisher, Abingdon, are venerable firms. "When the 225-year-old company wanted a fresh look, they came to the 135-year-old company," Aubry says.

Hall also stirs in a dash of history, noting that Hatch's first project was a flier in 1879 announcing a speech by the famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, a Congregationalist minister. So, she says, the Bible project is a homecoming of sorts for Hatch.

As the cover art shows, though, the publisher didn't try for some contemporary look to match the modern-language version of the Bible. Instead, it went retro, with posters of three scripture verses looking like they were printed in the 1890s.

Hall, the writer, explains the thinking behind the choice of three verses:

* For Lent and Easter, Malachi 4:2: "But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name; healing will be in its wings."

* For Nashville -- "Music City" and the home of both Hatch and Abingdon -- Ephesians 5:19: "Speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs."

* For a sports reference, suggested by Abingdon senior editor Michael Stephens,
I John 4:7: "Dear friends, let's love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God."

All the covers, of course, are meant to be produced in time for the Christmas season.

There's also a bit of background on the Common English Bible -- produced by 500 translators, reviewers and editors from more than 20 faith groups. The translation is also surprisingly successful -- with more than 1 million copies thus far, according to Hall.

The Tennessean article finishes by comparing the three featured verses with other popular translations: King James Version, New International Version and the fast-rising English Standard Version. It's not a one-to-one comparison, though: For each verse, a different translation is put up against the Common English Bible.

It's a fun read, but a little sparse. I wanted to know more about the look and feel of the new edition. What typography? Will single-column editions be available? Can you get it with standard tools like maps, cross-references, explanatory notes or a concordance? Maybe space was tight that day in the Tennessean. Still, you can't tell a holy book by its cover.

The paper also had a chance for more human interest. Remember how Amber Richards, the Hatch artist, said she "asked question after question" until she decided on a design? Well, what kinds of questions? What designs did she reject? And on what basis did she know the final result was the "right" one?

Finally, the story might have benefited from outside reaction. Pastors or, better yet, lay leaders around Nashville could have looked at the new covers and said if they liked them. Better still, the Tennessean could have just shown the art around a mall. Readers always like to read other readers, you know.

Photo: Banner on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean, showing the three poster-like covers produced by Hatch Show Print for the Contemporary English Bible.

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