“Faith Comes by Hearing”: A brief history of American Audio Bibles

Ari Y Kelman

Casting Samuel L. Jackson in the role of God says as much about the power of Pulp Fiction as it does about hermeneutics, but imagine a God that sounded like Eartha Kitt…

Denzel Washington, one of the voices in
The Bible Experience

The 2007 Audie (the Oscar for audiobooks) for “audiobook of the year” was awarded to The Bible Experience, a new 19-CD recording of The New International Version of the New Testament. Produced by Inspired by… Media Group, The Bible Experience features a full cast of A and B list African American performers from Denziel Washington and Angela Bassett to MC Lyte and Eric Benet (nee Mr. Halle Berry). Combining the The New International Version of the New Testament's contemporary sensibility, lush musical accompaniment, and effusive individual efforts, it is, as the title insists, not just a recitation of the Bible, but a full-blown "experience".

Since its release in November, 2006, The Bible Experience has become something of a juggernaut, even among other versions of the Bible. The good book was featured on Oprah, was the subject of a story on NPR, and received coverage in almost every major newspaper in America. All told, The Bible Experience has sold over 800,000 units in eight months, and it has quickly become Zondervan publishers’ (one of the leading Christian publishing houses in the United States) best selling title.

To become a best-selling title as a version of the best selling-book of all time is itself, no small feat, and I think the popularity of this version suggests something new is afoot in the world of faith, text, media and message. In effect, it is a revision of the old question about style and substance, but in this case, the stakes seem higher. And, with all due respect to Mr. Jackson’s powerful Pulp Fiction riff on Ezekiel 25:17, substance generally trumps style in questions of faith.

If nowhere else, in questions of faith and the spirit, if the issue at stake is that of Eternal Truths, it shouldn’t really matter whether Johnny or June Carter Cash delivers the message. With respect to omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience, the message bests the medium every time. Or, at least, it should, shouldn’t it?

After all, what kind of divine message can’t outpace its own poor delivery or uninspired recitation? Would you put your faith in a Word that couldn’t stand on its own?

Kyle Bowser, producer and partner of Inspired by . . . wanted his product to do, essentially, two things: 1. “To make an artistic statement of what Bible characters sound like.”, and 2. he hoped that listeners, “in the process of being entertained… will be exposed to God’s word.”

For Bowser, entertainment comes first, and enlightenment second. If nobody is listening, then the message is lost. This was not always the case with audio recordings of the Bible.

The Good Book has been rendered on record as long as books have been recorded. In 1933, Congress approved the creation of “sound-reproduction records” for the blind, and the first titles recorded under this new provision were the Psalms and the four gospels, along with the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a handful of Shakespeare, and six works of fiction. Two years later, the American Bible Society began recording their version of the Bible, which they completed by 1944.

Once recorded, the Bible took up 169 two-sided records. The whole thing would have taken 84 &1/2 hours to listen to from Genesis to Revelation. Eventually, technology allowed for ever-smaller sets of recordings, but the text essentially remained the same whether read by James Earl Jones, Sir John Guilgud, or Johnny Cash. The most famous recording of the Bible -- at least until The Bible Experience -- belongs to Alexander Scourby, who read the American Bible Society version. For a sample of Scourby’s classic reading, go to this page on Audio

The Bible it is. An experience, it is not.

For Scourby, the American Foundation for the Blind, and the American Bible Society (ABS), the central issue was ensuring the text be read cleanly and clearly for the visually impaired. Entertainment and style took a distant back seat to fidelity to the King James translation. Yet if the eventual goal for audio bibles was to be, as an article from Christian Life Magazine in 1956 reported, that “Tired businessmen home from work to weary to read can sit down and hear the King James Version interpreted ably by the proper, expressive reading of the passage,” things would have to change.

What is “proper” and “expressive” is, of course, contextual; questions of gender, accent, tone, cadence, and yes, even language influence what the words of the Bible mean when read aloud. At one extreme is Scourby’s relatively dry reading which almost naively tried to silence those factors. At the other is The Bible Experience, which attempts to invite these into the reading itself in an attempt to turn the Bible from a text to an experience.

If the ABS’ version was a substitute for printed text, The Bible Experience is a prosthetic extension of it. If the ABS intended to spread God’s word to those who couldn’t read it, The Bible Experience intends the same, but for an audience that (likely) otherwise wouldn’t listen. The medium isn’t the message, but when the medium moves 800,000 units, its message can’t be ignored. Instead, The Bible Experience might be urging us to listen a little more closely, to hear something old in a new way. It might not be a matter of updating the Bible for today’s audience, but drawing today’s audience back into the text.

Casting Samuel L. Jackson in the role of God says as much about the power of Pulp Fiction as it does about hermeneutics, but imagine a God that sounded like Eartha Kitt… That might herald the beginning of the days of the messiah, not matter how you hear it.

The Bible Experience

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