When actor Garrett Morris visited a studio to record his part in an all-African-American audio production of the New Testament, everyone assumed he'd do a fine job as King Herod. That is, until the original "Saturday Night Live" cast member found himself dethroned.
"He got through one half of a sentence, and I said, 'Garrett, I love you, but your voice is not King Herod,' " recalls senior director Chip Hurd, who promptly fired Mr. Morris from his part.
But Ms. Hurd, a veteran television actress, had some good news, of a sort, for Morris: "You know what your voice does sound like? Satan." An agreeable Morris gained a new role, and hundreds of thousands of listeners are now associating his voice – if not his name – with one devil of a character.
While his role is more villainous than most, Morris has plenty of company in Hollywood and beyond. Dozens of prominent actors, singers, and other celebrities have lent their voices to two new dramatized audio productions of the Bible, and their work is finding a large audience among those who listen on their iPods while cleaning house or in their cars while commuting.
Michael York, Marisa Tomei, and Luke ("Beverly Hills 90210") Perry, among others, star in an audio New Testament called "The Word of Promise." Released in October, it's been selling at a fast clip; the Old Testament is due next year.
Meanwhile, an all-black version of the New Testament, with a cast and crew of 400, including Denzel Washington and Eartha Kitt (as the Serpent), has sold a reported 350,000 copies. Listeners have snapped up another 100,000 copies of a full Bible version, released last year in time for Christmas.
"There's been realization that this really brings the Bible to life in this vivid manner and provides a whole new context to understand the Scriptures," says Brian Scharp, vice president of marketing at Zondervan, publisher of "Inspired By ... the Bible Experience," the all-African-American Bible. "Part of our hope is that this version brings people back to the Bible."
The style of the new audio Bibles may come as a shock to listeners accustomed to recorded Bibles read by stentorian narrators. The dramatic Bibles are sophisticated cinematic productions, complete with elaborate sound tracks and a variety of vivid sound effects.
In "The Word of Promise" audiobook, for example, the spectral voices of demons in the Book of Matthew sound as though they belong in a Stephen King movie, while the letters of Paul are accompanied by sounds of a quill dipping into an inkwell, the sipping of tea, and a fireplace. Biblical scenes of chaos, such as those in Revelation, are especially intense.
The performers themselves often act with gusto, no surprise considering that many – but not all – are devoutly religious. According to "Word of Promise" producer Carl Amari, actors Stacy Keach and Richard Dreyfuss, who played Paul and Moses, respectively, were thrilled because they had long studied and admired their characters. And Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," returned to the role in "Word of Promise."
Academy award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. says playing the apostle John in "Word of Promise" reaffirmed and deepened his own faith. The acting he's used to doing is "deep, spiritually," he says. "But this is deep with a capital D."
In "The Bible Experience," says senior director Hurd, African-American performers were drawn to the chance to play biblical roles that had long been denied to them. "Our perspective – not being asked to play those roles in movies, ever – gave it a lot of heart," she says. "People came in saying, 'I can play King Herod, I can play Bathsheba?' "
The producers of dramatized Bibles hired theologians to help interpret the material. They faced a few other challenges, too, from getting through all the "begats" to fine-tuning the interplay among performers. "Whenever there was an actor who was a bit over the top, it would stick out," says Mr. Amari. "We'd have to refine it and refine it."
Reading the Bible aloud can actually be quite a challenge, says Stephen Cook, professor of Old Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. "A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that the Bible is this authoritative voice on high, that should be read in a serious manner," says Mr. Cook. "A lot of it is extremely humorous, and there are a lot of very funny parts."
Nondramatized recorded Bibles – typically read by a single narrator – remain available for those who prefer to perform scenes in their heads. Last June, a publisher rereleased a 17-year-old audiobook of the late singer Johnny Cash reading the New Testament.
Audio Bibles are not for everyone. Many rely on contemporary translations and tend to be geared toward Protestants. Then there's the matter of listening to the Bible, rather than reading it, which some may view as a shortcut. "If you're going to study the Bible, you need to read it carefully," says actor Max McLean, narrator of several Bible translations. "But if you want to get an overview, one of the best ways is to listen to it."
Of course, countless millions of Christians throughout history have only heard the Bible read aloud.
"The main difference is that in oral cultures, hearing is a communal experience. Between the headphones we tend to be closed in on ourselves," says Wayne Meeks, professor emeritus of biblical studies at Yale University. "Yet even in that private place, really good stories take us into other worlds with other people. And the Bible has some awfully good stories." Bookstores offer a variety of audio Bibles on compact disc, and some can be downloaded through audible.com or other websites for listening on a computer or MP3 players. Audio cassettes generally aren't available, although you may find them at libraries.
Here are several recent editions. Prices are for compact discs.
The Listener's Bible
Narrated by Max McLean
Translation: New International Version, English Standard Version, or King James Version.
Length: 75-80 hours
Cost: $119.95 (Old Testament alone, $89.95; New Testament alone, $39.95)
Inspired by ... the Bible Experience
Dramatized by Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Blair Underwood, etc.
Translation: Today's New International Version
Length: 89 hours
Cost: $124.99 (New Testament alone, $84.99. Old Testament alone, $49.99)
The Word of Promise: New Testament Audio Bible
Dramatized by Michael York, Marisa Tomei, Jim Caviezel, etc.
Translation: New King James Version
Length: 20 hours
(Old Testament forthcoming in 2009)
Also: Casscom Media at casscom media.com offers a number of narrated audio Bibles, including a compilation of passages in Spanish. Other books of faith are also available in audio format. To find titles, check bookstores or perform an Internet search for the book's title and the word "audio."