Book by book, the Bible is a stormy hit

The slim, pocket-size paperback, its elegantly austere cover depicting a bent shadowy figure, appears to be a book of hip, post-modern poetry.

But it is Job, one of 12 books of the Bible that a tiny Edinburgh publishing house brought out last month with enormous success - 900,000 in print - and in a nationwide storm of controversy.

The furor is over the contemporary introduction, in which a best-selling British author, Louis de Bernieres, argues that God comes out of the tale "looking like an unpleasantly sarcastic megalomaniac."

Each book has commentary by a well-known personality. Rights have been sold around the world. For an American edition next spring Grove/Atlantic is known to have approached writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Annie Proulx to write introductions.

In Britain only two commentators describe themselves as Christians.

"Printing a contemporary commentary alongside the text of the King James Authorized Version is an exciting mix of the sacred and the secular," says Jamie Byng, head of Canongate Books, the publisher.

In the United States, the marketing concept of a repackaged, rebranded Bible will be the same: attractively designed, attractively priced (1 - $1.60 - in Britain, cheap enough for an impulse buyer), and typeset for readability, with the 1611 text laid out across the full page in paragraphs, providing a coherent, modern narrative in bite-sized chunks.

The intention will be the same too: "We are going to stir things up," says one editor at Grove/Atlantic, predicting a brouhaha over the introductions to the American editions.

In Britain, the commentaries, including one by the bad boy of British letters, former heroin addict Will Self, have angered some Christian groups.

"I fail to see the point of people not sympathetic to the text of the Bible commenting on it to people outside the church," says Canon Jack McGinley, a parish priest in Nottinghamshire. "They could have chosen people who would have taken an enlightening approach."

But a bid by fundamentalist Christians to persuade the Scottish Bible Board to revoke Canongate's license to print the King James Version failed.

"The Church is very broad," says Andrew Kerr, clerk to the board. "And there is also a view that the initiative [to publish the Bible this way] was a welcome one."

Praise from priests

Indeed some Anglican priests have praised Canongate.

"It gives the opportunity to nonbelievers to look carefully at the text of Scripture," says the Rev. Willem Zwalf, a vicar from Cambridgeshire.

"It is certainly one way of getting some people who would never ever have picked up a Bible to read the Scriptures."

Such as Prof. Steven Rose, "an ex-Orthodox Jew, an atheist and a biologist to boot," as he describes himself in his introduction to Genesis. Yet this behavioral scientist found that the message of Genesis still "underlie[s] many of the presuppositions of our assumedly post-religious, rationalist and reductionist modern science."

The modern arguments among evolutionary psychologists, for example, as to whether human behavior is fixed by "selfish genes" or whether we can transcend them, goes back to the debate over free will and predestination that began with the story of the fall of man in the second chapter of Genesis.

Other agnostics, such as the novelist A.N. Wilson, who introduces the Gospel according to St. Matthew, also urge readers to think outside their rational boxes when they read about the miracles of Jesus.

"By rejecting this Gospel, you will reject one of the most disturbing and extraordinary books ever written," he warns; "not, as you might think, on intelligent grounds, but because you (and I, alas) are too hemmed in by our imaginative limitations to see the sort of things this book is doing."

Most of the introductions are by noted authors, underscoring Canongate's presentation of the works as literature.

The magnificent King James Version "possibly more than any other work in history, has had an influence in shaping the language we speak and write today," says the introduction to each work, encouraging the reader "to approach them as literary works in their own right."

There can be no doubt as to the quality of the language, even if most churches in Britain no longer use the King James Version, having switched to more easily comprehensible translations.

As Doris Lessing writes in her introduction to the incomparable verse of Ecclesiastes, "We are very much the poorer because the Bible is no longer a book to be found in every home, and heard every week."

Spiritual interpretation too

But "by approaching the Bible primarily as a work of literature you do not deny the spiritual interpretation," insists the publisher, Mr. Byng.

He is marketing his editions mainly to non-Christians because "in this day and age there are an increasing number of secular people who have strong moral beliefs nonetheless."

Next year, Canongate intends to bring out another 12 books. Given the spectacular marketing success the first ones have enjoyed, Byng boasts that "we will be bringing the Bible to more new readers than any other version this century."

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