In the beginning was the Word, and it was so cool

Contra Costa Times
By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Times staff writer

Feb. 12–A glossy, candy-colored magazine with three laughing teenage girls on the cover and the Bible inside has area clergy praising pop culture’s value to scripture — or warning of its threat.

Revolve 2007 has hit bookshelves, promising teen girls tips on beauty, boys and battles with Mom.

Some pastors say “amen” to the so-called Biblezine, which wraps modern-text New Testament around fetching photographs. It may put the Bible in the hands of youths who might otherwise not read it, they say.

Others say the trendy mag trivializes the Good Book.

It is required reading for middle-schoolers at Golden Hills Community Church in Brentwood, as is Refuel 2, a newer version for teenage boys.

“A literal translation is great, but if no one understands it, it defeats the purpose,” said the Rev. Cliff Olson.

Unlike the baby boomer generation, today’s teens bring little religious literacy with them, he said. The Biblezine’s accessible images and text help bridge the gap.

“Jesus spoke in parables,” said Brenda Noel, acquisitions editor at Thomas Nelson, Inc., publisher of the magazine-like Bibles. “He took things from the culture people were familiar with and taught through those things.”

Anything that makes the Bible resonate with youths is a good thing, said the Rev. Rob Baker, pastor of Oasis Christian Fellowship in Pleasant Hill.

“I don’t care if it’s a magazine or smoke signals,” he said. “One of the last things we need in the Christian community is stodginess, lack of creativity.”

The problem? Teens tend to blur the lines between messages of faith and the commands of popular culture, and revolve can blur them further, said the Rev. Tim Barley, student ministries pastor at Valley Bible Church at the Crossing in Pleasanton.

“Over the years people have found ways to soft-pedal scripture and make it more palatable, rather than emphasizing God’s standard for us and how we’ve fallen short of it,” he said. “It’s there, but the way (the magazine) couples it with trendy issues can be a distraction.”

Alarm bells sounded for the Rev. Donald O’Keefe when he learned that the translation is not literal.

“That is scary, because that is paramount to passing an individual’s idea of God’s meaning along as if it were the word of God, when in fact it is merely his private opinion of God’s meaning,” said O’Keefe, pastor of United Pentecostal Church of Christ in Bay Point.

The pop look brings God, patriarchs, saints, apostles and martyrs down to the level of “rockers and druggies,” rather than lifting up those who’ve lost their way, he said.

But when revolve exploded onto the market in 2003, it performed so well that Thomas Nelson followed it with Refuel, a version for young men in 2004, real, a hip-hop incarnation marketed to urban ministries in 2005, and Blossom, for younger girls, in 2006.

The line spurred unheard-of sales in the Godzilla-size Bible market.

Fans trumpeted revolve’s emphasis on social responsibility and volunteer work.

Critics hammered it, partly because of its language. For instance, the authors explain Corinthians 13:4-5 as follows: “A wise mom once said, ‘Take it as a compliment that other girls think your guy is great too. Be secure enough to acknowledge their good taste.'” The King James version reads: “Love is patient; love is kind. Love does not envy; is not boastful; is not conceited; does not act improperly; is not selfish; is not provoked; does not keep a record of wrongs.”

Feminists chastised Thomas Nelson for claiming to promote a healthy body image while filling the Biblezine with photos of slim, pretty girls in midriff tops.

Liberal Christians balked at the conservative political slant of the advice. “Blab,” an advice column, tsk-tsks at homosexuality and says God wants guys to take the lead in relationships.

Unlike the King James Bible, the New Century Version — which Thomas Nelson owns — offers a “dynamic translation.” That’s a “thought-for-thought” rather than word-for-word translation, said Noel, the Thomas Nelson editor.

“‘Dynamic equivalent’ right away doesn’t rock my boat, but the idea of getting the Bible into kids’ hands does,” said the Rev. Tony Aria, youth minister at North Creek Free Evangelical Church in Walnut Creek. “With the dynamic equivalent, there’s a danger of injecting your own biases in there.”

Religious leaders must understand that the traditional black-clad Bible is “a thing of the past,” said Stewart Heller, executive director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Media.

“To the degree they can create an alternative to pop culture, they’re smart,” he said. “This is a battle for minds in the media. If you’re going to compete you better get up to date, or your show will get canceled, so to speak.”

Increasingly, overhead projection screens replace the pew Bible, and churches employ Web sites to attract or keep in touch with parishioners, according to a 2005 study by the Barna Group, a Christian researcher.

Despite these changes, the Bible commands a killer market. It remains the top-selling book every year, Publishers Weekly says.

Thomas Nelson claims more than 36 percent of that market. The company, which went private in 2006, netted $253 million that year. The entire line of Biblezines has sold more than a million units, Noel said.

The company sank plenty of market research into the layout and design of each Biblezine, she said.

“We go onto the Net to get as much information from the fashion industry we can, and pull what we feel is the color we’ll see the most often on the runways,” Noel said.

In 2003, that was pink. The new issue features a spectrum of hues from yellow to indigo.

“We make sure there is a scriptural foundation” to the articles, she said.

The company’s newest foray is Redefine, for baby boomers. Articles offer tips on caring for aging parents and picking a “hot” second career. On its cover, a couple in jeans and leather jackets ride a motorcycle on a country road.

“We had an incredible struggle trying to get the right look,” Noel said. “One of our staffers was driving down the road one day and saw that very thing.”

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