'Strine' slang Bible a hit in secular Australia

"Out of the blue God knocked up the whole bang lot.... God said 'let's have some light' and bingo – light appeared."

So opens the new second volume in the popular "Aussie Bible" series. The initial installment of the Good News told in Australian slang has sold more than 100,000 copies since 2003 – this in a country where sales of 18,000 or more qualify a book as a bestseller.

The 90-page phenomenon was promoted as a "ripping yarn about Jesus of Nazareth" in which Mary was "a pretty special sheila," Jesus was "God's toddler," and the Three Wise Men were "eggheads from out east."

Not everyone is happy with the sometimes irreverent, always entertaining, rendering of the Gospel into the vernacular known as Strine, supposedly the sound Aussies make when they say "Australian." The Bible Society of New South Wales, which publishes the series, has received about 30 letters of complaint, including some hate mail.

Undeterred, devout Christian and author Kel Richards released his second volume called "More Aussie Bible" at a sausage sizzle (barbecue) outside a Sydney cathedral this month. For Mr. Richards and his publisher, the two vernacular volumes are an attempt at swelling the ranks of the faithful in a country where only 9 percent of people attend church regularly.

"I think the appeal is that it brings back the force of the original language in which the Bible was written," says Daniel Willis, chief executive officer of the Bible Society. "Plus, it's an easy read; you don't need a tertiary education to understand it."

In "More Aussie Bible," Psalm 23 is reconfigured as "a bush ballad" that begins: "God is the station [ranch] owner, and I am just one of the sheep. He musters me down to the lucerne flats, and feeds me there all week."

It also retells the story of Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame, whose jealous brothers sold him into slavery and told their father he had been killed by a wild beast. In Genesis 37:1-36, Joseph's father Jacob tears his clothes and weeps, but in Richards's version he cries out: "He's been killed! Maybe a dingo got my boy!"

When called for comment a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said they hadn't received complaints about the Aussie Bible and hadn't been contacted about it before but would issue further comment later.

Inspiration for the second book came from the large number of people who told Richards the first volume had prompted them to delve into the full-length Bible.

"I'm jaw-droppingly staggered by how well it did," says Richards, a radio presenter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "It's astonishing."

Translating the rather stiff and sometimes obtuse language of the King James Bible, with all its thees, thous, and verilys, into language familiar to ordinary Australians, made it far more accessible.

"People make the mistake of thinking that Australian English is just slang. It's much richer than that, and it's a language of the heart. It's quirky and funny but it can also convey seriousness and emotion. It connects with people at a deeper level than standard English," Richards says.

The second volume focuses on the Book of Genesis, Proverbs, the Gospel of John, and John's first letter, including the story of Adam and Eve.

"There was this sheila who came across a snake-in-the-grass with all the cunning of a con man. The snake asked her why she didn't just grab lunch off the tree in her garden.

"God, she said, had told her she'd be dead meat if her fruit salad came from that tree, but the snake told her she wouldn't die. So she took a good squiz [look] and then a bite and passed the fruit on to her bloke.

"Right then and there, they'd realized what they'd done and felt starkers [naked]" – so begins Richards' account of the temptation in the Garden of Eden.

Critics contend that the Aussie Bible's success is due more to novelty than any religious attraction.

But the Aussie Bible has proved particularly popular among chaplains working in prisons and hospitals.

"It's accessible. It's not a big black book the size of a telephone directory," Richards says.

Bibles in dialect proliferate

This is not the first time the Bible has been subjected to an unusual adaptation. Kel Richards was inspired to translate parts of the Old and New Testaments into Aussie "lingo" after reading a Cockney rhyming slang version of the Bible, written by a school teacher working in the East End of London. Australia has also given the world a version of the Scriptures translated into the text-message language of mobile-phone users.

"In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth," begins the SMS version, launched last year. "Da earth waz barren, wit no 4m of life; it waz unda a roaring ocean cuvred wit dRkness."

The SMS version, translated into text by the Bible Society in Australia, is designed to appeal to tech-savvy teenagers. Older people may feel it somewhat lacks the gravitas of the original.

"The old days when the Bible was only available within a somber black cover with a cross on it are long gone," said Michael Chant of the Bible Society, which also publishes a Surfers' Bible.

A decade ago, Christian Surfers International released the Grommet's Guide to God, which spread the Christian message to younger surfers.

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