Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Bible Business

The New Yorker recently ran an interesting article about the Bible publishing business. I am somewhat interested in it, considering that, when I was going to church, I had a Bible with four different translations side by side. I realized that each translation had its own particular slant. I didn't realize, however, how much these books are marketed, and what a profitable business it is. Consider:

The popularization of the Bible entered a new phase in 2003, when Thomas Nelson created the BibleZine. Wayne Hastings described a meeting in which a young editor, who had conducted numerous focus groups and online surveys, presented the idea. “She brought in a variety of teen-girl magazines and threw them out on the table,” he recalled. “And then she threw a black bonded-leather Bible on the table and said, ‘Which would you rather read if you were sixteen years old?’ ” The result was “Revolve,” a New Testament that looked indistinguishable from a glossy girls’ magazine. The 2007 edition features cover lines like “Guys Speak Their Minds” and “Do U Rush to Crush?” Inside, the Gospels are surrounded by quizzes, photos of beaming teen-agers, and sidebars offering Bible-themed beauty secrets:

Have you ever had a white stain appear underneath the arms of your favorite dark blouse? Don’t freak out. You can quickly give deodorant spots the boot. Just grab a spare toothbrush, dampen with a little water and liquid soap, and gently scrub until the stain fades away. As you wash away the stain, praise God for cleansing us from all the wrong things we have done.
(1 John 1:9)

“Revolve” was immediately popular with teen-agers. “They weren’t embarrassed anymore,” Hastings said. “They could carry it around school, and nobody was going to ask them what in the world it is.” Nelson quickly followed up with other titles, including “Refuel,” for boys; “Blossom,” for tweens; “Real,” for the “vibrant urban crowd” (it comes bundled with a CD of Christian rap); and “Divine Health,” which has notes by the author of the best-selling diet book “What Would Jesus Eat?” To date, Nelson has sold well over a million BibleZines.

This crass commercialization leads to something I have been disturbed about in many modern religions: the idea that religion requires little from you. Come to church once or twice a week, listen to some rock music and you are totally right with God. Sure, make a personal statement here and there, like putting a Jesus fish on your car, and you are good to go. What we tend to get these days is religion that infantilizes, that tells us what we want to hear, not the difficult truth, and this is being reflected in the Bible business.

Phyllis Tickle, a former religion editor of Publishers Weekly and the author of popular prayer books, told me, “There’s a certain scandal to what’s happened to Bible publishing over the last fifteen years.” Tickle is contributing to a new Bible paraphrase for Nelson called “The Voice,” which is intended for the progressive emergent church, so she is not entirely opposed to modern repackaging. The problem, as she sees it, is that “instead of demanding that the believer, the reader, the seeker step out from the culture and become more Christian, more enclosed within ecclesial definition, we’re saying, ‘You stay in the culture and we’ll come to you.’ And, therefore, how are we going to separate out the culturally transient and trashy from the eternal?” The consumerist culture in which BibleZines and the like participate is, to Tickle, “entirely antithetical to the traditional Christian understanding of meekness and self-denial and love and compassion.” In Tickle’s view, reimagining the Bible according to the latest trends is not merely a question of surmounting a language barrier. It involves violating “something close to moral or spiritual barriers.”

Read the entire article here.


Moe said...

In response to part of your statement, "What we tend to get these days is religion that infantilizes, that tells us what we want to hear, not the difficult truth...", you cannot stereotype all of Christianity in that vain. While I know this article speaks to Bible publishing, many of the same statements could be made about modern Christian churches. In a plug for pastor Ken Ortize at Calvary Chapel, he speaks to this topic quite frequently. Part of his response to this is he WILL tell you the difficult truths and what you don't want to hear. He has had several sermons about churches that are more interested in the size of their congregations and offerings than they are in getting out a truthful biblical message. He prefers to educate us on the messages the Bible teaches and if you don't like it...oh well, but at least he is speaking from his heart and his beliefs rather than just delivering ear candy.

Eric said...

But the problem is that many churches (of course, not all, but you know that I have been to many churches in my life) preach the doctrine of self improvement, and it's like self-help. It forces you to keep looking at yourself, instead of looking to the world. Jesus had two commandments that basically replace the ten commandments: love god, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Many churches are good at asking you to love god and yourself, but they leave out the neighbor part. Or like my mom's church, they spend all their money flying to India to convert people there while ignoring the wretched on the streets of Spokane. The difficult truth I was referring to was the loving your neighbor part. If churches spent more time reaching out to those in need (like Jesus did--the best religious movement in my lifetime was the WWJD movement, because, if you look at what he did, he didn't hang out with the rich and comfortable, he helped the poor and afflicted) and less time keeping gays single, the world might be a better place.

Anonymous said...

This shouldn't be shocking to anyone. It easier to believe in a God in our image than follow the one true God. Christians are the worse with this offense because expectations are so much higher. The whole bible is filled with examples about this.

While I agree that Christians need to do more to reach out to people in need. I can certainly give you many examples where they do. According to a most recent study Christians gave more money to charity than non christians. However wealthly christians gave less than poor christians. Certainly more can be done. The church use to be the sole support for the poor now it is the Federal Government.