If you stacked all the
Bibles sitting in American homes, the tower would rise 29 million feet, nearly
1,000 times the height of Mount Everest.
More than 90 percent of
American households own a Bible, and the average family owns three, according
to pollsters at the Barna Group. The American Bible Society hands out 5 million
copies of the Good Book each year; 1.5 billion Gideon Bibles wait in hotel
Scripture outsells the
latest diet fads, murder mysteries and celebrity bios year after year.
Evangelical publishers alone sold an estimated 20 million Bibles in
recession-battered 2009, raking in about $500 million in sales, according to
Michael Covington, information and education director of the Evangelical
Christian Publishers Association.
Experts say it’s nearly
impossible to calculate exactly how many Bibles are sold each year. But one
thing is clear: The Good Book is great for business.
“Bibles are in many ways a
cash cow,” said Phyllis Tickle, a former longtime religion editor at Publishers
Weekly. “The Bible is the mainstay of many a publishing program.”
However, some Christian
scholars wonder whether too much Good News can sometimes be a bad thing, as a
major new translation and waves of books marking the 400th anniversary of the
venerable King James Bible inundate the market this fall.
The assortment of
translations and “niche Bibles” (think, “The Holy Bible: Stock Car Racing
Edition”) sow confusion and division among Christians, invite ridicule from
relativists, and risk reducing God’s word into just another personal-shopping
preference, the scholars say.
“I think we are drifting
more and more to a diverse Babel of translations,” said David Lyle Jeffrey,
former provost of Baylor University and an expert on biblical translations.
Jeffrey believes Americans need a “common Bible” — a role the King James
Version played for centuries — to communicate the grandeur of Scripture without
reducing it to “shopping-center-level” discourse.
“When we have so much
diversity we lose our common voice,” he said. “It is in effect moving away from
a common membership in the body of Christ into disparate, confusing
misrepresentations of the rich wisdom of Scripture, which ought to unify us.”
Leland Ryken, an English
professor at Wheaton College, a leading evangelical school in Illinois, was
“When there is wide
divergence among Bible translations, readers have no way of knowing what the
original text really says,” Ryken said. “It’s like being given four different
scores for the same football game, or three contradictory directions for
getting to a town in the middle of the state.”
meanwhile, say they have an obligation — even a divine calling — to make
Scripture ready and readable to as many people as possible.
Despite the Bible’s
ubiquity, Americans are not necessarily reading or absorbing scripture, said
Paul Franklyn, associate publisher of the Common English Bible, a new
translation sponsored by five mainline Protestant publishers.
For example, half of
Christians cannot name the four Gospels; a third cannot identify Genesis as the
Bible’s first book, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Forum on
Religion & Public Life.
The new Common English Bible
aims to present an easy-to-read translation from the “theological center,”
Franklyn said. Its New Testament debuts this fall; the entire Bible is due next
Despite the profitability of
Bible publishing, penetrating the crowded and competitive market is a “big
risk,” requiring equal parts scholarship and salesmanship, Franklyn said. The
Common English Bible publishers spent $1 million on the translation and will
doll out another $3 million to get people to “pay attention” to it, he said.
Scholars estimate that at
least 200 English translations have been published since 1900 — many of them
revisions of earlier texts. Sorting out the differences between the New
American Bible and New American Standard Bible, for example, can be daunting
for even experienced readers.
The market can be so
confusing and crowded that half of customers who visit Christian stores to buy
a Bible leave without one, according to a study presented to Christian
retailers in 2006.
“Heck, I’m overwhelmed and I’m
supposed to know what the hee-haw I’m doing,” said Tickle, author of “The Great
Emergence,” a well-regarded book on the future of Christianity. “Bibliolatry is
not a word I use very often, but we are probably veering very close to it.”
There’s even a cottage
industry of experts to help people choose a Bible. Paul Wegner, a professor at
Phoenix Seminary in Arizona who conducts church conferences about the Bible,
says Christians constantly ask why there are so many different Bibles, and
which is the “right” one.
“People almost throw up
their hands, there are so many Bibles out there,” he said. “Maybe they’ve
created a market for me.”
To counter consumer
confusion, publishers began marketing Bibles based on “felt needs,” or secular
interests, said Andy Butcher, an editor at the journal Christian Retailing.
Zondervan’s 2010 catalog of Bibles (“The Book of Good Books”) runs 223 pages
and includes Bibles tailored toward black children, students, spiritual
seekers, women with cancer, busy dads, new moms, recovering addicts, surfers,
grandmothers and camouflage enthusiasts.
“The next thing will be a
Bible for men in midlife crises,” Jeffrey said, “with ads for Harley Davidson
Tim Jordan, a marketing
manager at B&H Publishing Group, a leading Christian publisher that sells
niche Bibles, compared them to conversation starters. “It’s just being smart
about where people are at and trying to meet them there,” he said. “We need to
engage people into the Bible.”
Ryken, however, suspects
publishers’ motives may be more economic than spiritual.
By definition, niche Bibles
are designed to corner a market segment, he said. In the process, “the Bible
loses its identity as the authoritative word of God and becomes something
trivial, on par with shoes for hikers or luggage for the international set.”