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Hear ye, hear ye--the scriptures! Live remix!

Inspired By ... The Bible Experience: New Testament

Zondervan, October 2006, Audio CD: $49.99, ISBN 0-310-92631-9; Audio MP3 CD: $34.99. ISBN 0-31092633-5

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD. BUT THE WORD WAS INTERPRETED by religious leaders who read it to their followers from translations of the original texts until 15th-century printing technology made the Bible accessible to the masses. Six centuries later, a group of African American visionaries is using the technology of its era to make a "Bible experience" accessible to new audiences.

Inspired By ... The Bible Experience is a multimedia production that was launched this past October with a dramatized reading of the New Testament performed by an impressive ensemble cast of nearly 400 African American actors, musicians, spiritual leaders, media personalities and others. (See box for a partial cast listing; a "Making of" DVD is included with the New Testament production.) The Old Testament is scheduled for release in time for Easter 2007, and the full Bible dramatization is planned for the fall. A soundtrack of original songs, hymns and psalms as well as a variety of interactive media products will be available later in the year.

Several years ago, Kyle Bowser, an entertainment executive who created programming for HBO, Showtime, Lifetime, Fox, NBC, Starz and other networks, purchased an audio version of the Bible he found "boring." He knew he could produce something more inspiring. About that time, Ron Belk, who was president and CEO of FAITHGate, a company that allowed pastors to sell their content on custom CDs and DVDs, was interested in doing work that used his technological expertise to produce "faith-based products, services and content." Belk and Bowser began to brainstorm about possible projects and the audio Bible concept was born. The two men later called upon the skills of casting director Robi Reed and music producer Louis "Buster" Brown to round out what would become the core of Inspired By Media Group's production team.

"God has blessed this project," proclaims 36-year-old Belk, Inspired By's president, CEO and new media guru. "We brought our own personal strengths to it. Four people [who served as executive producers] literally put their lives on hold for a year to make it happen. It became a labor of love."

In the beginning, however, there was arguably more love than money. The team shopped the project in Hollywood for funding, but to no avail. Finally, support came from more than 2,000 miles away--in Grand Rapids, Michigan--where executives at Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins and "the world's leading Bible publisher," expressed interest. Zondervan published Rick Warren's immensely popular The Purpose Driven Life and its derivatives, and the publisher also produces the nation's five top-selling audio Bibles.

Reaching the Young

Inspired By Media Group and Zondervan wanted to reach a young, urban demographic, a high-tech generation that embraces the spoken word. Its members are between the ages of 18 and 34, and "have a personal relationship with God, but don't like to go to church," says Belk.

As casting began, the Inspired By team was cautiously optimistic that five to 35 performers might sign on to the project. However, as word spread through the African American creative community, Reed says people began contacting her wanting to participate. The total cast is approaching 400 and includes several Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Audie award winners. "For so long, Hollywood didn't use 'the Denzels' to deliver God's Word," adds Belk. Reed believes the production struck a chord with black artists because it offered them a unique opportunity to put their faith in action within the context of their profession.

"It's a wonderful project to be part of," says actress Lorraine Toussaint, who likens the performers' excitement surrounding the production of Inspired By ... The Bible Experience to the Roots phenomenon of three decades ago. "Everybody who was anybody and nobody who turned out to be somebody was in it," says Toussaint, who gave voice to narrative passages and several "strong minor characters."

The result of the combined energies and talents is an inspired cast of biblical proportions with Blair Underwood portraying Jesus for the second time in his career. (In 1992, he served as executive producer, director, writer and star of a short film called Second Coming.) Denzel Washington, who was among the first to join the project, reads passages from Song of Solomon with his wife, Pauletta. A myriad of singers and musicians, from gospel to hip-hop, not only perform on the soundtrack but also read characters. Couples Boris and Nikki Kodjoe, Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid and Samuel L. (the voice of God in the New Testament) and LaTanya Richardson Jackson perform. Eartha Kitt and Garrett Morris are among the actors who portray Satan because "the Devil takes many forms" says Belk.

Several performers came to the project with audiobook experience. In addition to Toussaint (Fortunate Son), they include Underwood (Jack and Jill), Angela Bassett (When Death Comes Stealing), Ruby Dee (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Pamala Tyson (Cover Girls), Forest Whitaker (Duke Ellington), Lisa Renee Pitts (Better Than I Know Myself), Mirron E. Willis (I Say a Little Prayer) and LeVar Burton (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr).

James Avery, whose previous audiobook work includes Christopher Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy, says, "I'm an avid reader. I love doing books on tape, especially if it's a good book. The Bible is, of course, a good, good book. It's fun to develop different characters and use my craft to give meaning through voice without physicality."

While The Bible Experience is probably one of the largest undertakings of its kind, it is not the first audio Bible, nor is it the first production with African Americans in lead roles. In the 1980s, James Earl Jones lent his unique voice to a nine-hour, unabridged recording of the King James Version (KJV) of the New Testament for Topics Entertainment, which sold nearly 500,000 copies before the production was remastered and rereleased in 2002. In 1993, Ruby Dee and her husband, the late Ossie Davis, recorded and released The Bible on Tape through their production company, Emmalyn Enterprises.

Unlike the Topics and Emmalyn productions, Inspired By ... The Bible Experience is not a verbatim reading of the Bible. It is a dramatization, with full production values and complete with ambient sound, Belk calls "theater of the mind; close your eyes and you're there. You're part of the scene." While the production is geared toward the young, Belk is confident it will also appeal to listeners who are low-tech, older and of other ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Taking It on the Road

Word of the project created a consumer buzz fueled by the Internet long before the summer of 2006, when marketing of The Bible Experience began in earnest at large venues like MegaFest and the Congressional Black Caucus conventions.

Royce Slate Morton, a member of the Sweet Soul Sisters Book Club and a Christian living in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, says, "When I heard about the lineup of celebrities pulling together to bring the Scriptures to life, I thought 'why didn't someone think of this sooner.' I knew it would be awesome, but when I viewed a clip of the making of the The Bible Experience, I was hooked! I got chills just listening to it. I have already purchased four copies--one for me and three as gifts. I'm spreading the word at church, at work and to my family members to go out and purchase their personal copy."

A special preview of The Bible Experience was held in suburban Atlanta for 9,000 people at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, spiritual home to Bishop Eddie Long, who is a member of the cast. It was crucial to get pastors and spiritual leaders to "endorse, validate and embrace" The Bible Experience, says Belk who adds quite matter-of-factly, "before it [the Bible] was a 'Hollywood product,' it was God's product."

The Inspired By endeavor comes at a time when the Christian Booksellers Association reports a steady increase in consumer spending on faith-based products to the tune of $4 billion annually. In addition, a 2006 study by the Audio Publishers Association shows an increase in annual audiobook sales of $871 million, nearly five percent more than the previous year. Overall, audio Bibles are selling faster than print Bibles, says Paul Caminiti, Zondervan's vice president and publisher of Bibles. In the first two months since its release, The Bible Experience sold more than 70,000 copies.

Inspired By ... The Bible Experience is based on the language of Today's New International Version (TNIV) instead of the familiar King James Version (KJV). Why? Zondervan holds the exclusive North American publishing rights to the New International Version (NIV) and TNIV.

In addition, the language of the King James Version, which was published in 1611, is archaic, says David Rensberger, professor of the New Testament and chair of Biblical Studies and Languages at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He adds that the TNIV New Testament "is based on better Greek manuscripts" than those that were available earlier.

The NIV was released in 1978 and TNIV, which updates it, in 2005. Both use "contemporary English rather than the outdated--though often beautiful language of the KJV. Thus, it is generally much easier to understand, especially for people who were not raised in the church hearing the King James Version read every Sunday," concludes Rensberger.

Inspired By Media Group hopes to create new media applications for mobile devices, computers, satellite radios and cell phones, which Belk calls this generations "portable source of information, education and entertainment. They don't leave home without it." There will be ring tones and ring backs that can include a favorite Scripture, daily devotion or Bible stories.

"The project is a ministry," says Belk. "Just as Jesus sent out his disciples to spread the news by word of mouth, we are using today's technology to reach the masses," says Belk. "As God said, 'Every ear shall hear.'"

Gwendolyn E. Osborne is a contributing editor for Black Issues Book Review who frequently covers audiobook and marketing trends.
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Author:Osborne, Gwendolyn E.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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