Monday, May 25, 2009

The Bible v the Koran

The London Times

25 May 2009

In the battle of the holy texts, Christianity has the upper hand, says a new book on the surprise resurgence of religionJohn Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge For all their manifold disagreements, Christians and Muslims are both “people of the Book”, and have an obligation to get those holy books into the hands of as many people as they can. Spreading the Word is hard. The Bible is 800,000 words long and littered with tedious passages about “begatting.” Many have claimed that the Koran, though only around a tenth of the length of the Bible, is an even more difficult read. Edward Gibbon complained about its “endless incoherent rhapsody of fable and precept”. Scholars who spend their lives studying them still argue over their ambiguities, literary allusions and obscure references. Yet there are more Bibles and Korans available in more languages than at any time in history. More than 100 million copies of the Bible are sold or given away every year. The Koran is ubiquitous in the Muslim world. Whole chapters of the book are used to decorate mosques. The faithful transcribe phrases and put them around their necks in amulets, use them on bumper stickers or as letterheads.
This mountain of holy books is a giant refutation of the secularisation thesis. “The Book lives on among its people,” Constance Padwick, a scholar of the Koran, has written. “For them, these are not mere letters or mere words. They are the twigs of the burning bush, aflame with God.” The same can also be said of the Bible.
Christians and Muslims are proving remarkably adept at using the tools of our time — globalisation, the media and growing wealth — to supercharge the distribution of their holy books.
The Islamic world boasts several television channels that do nothing but broadcast the Koran, while at the other end of the technological spectrum, the American Bible Society produces a small audio device that can broadcast the Bible to a crowd of 100. You can consult both books on the internet, read them on a “Psalm Pilot” or listen to them on iPods. (“Podcasting” has given rise to “Godcasting.”) Just because you put a holy book in people’s hands does not mean they will understand it — Americans buy more than 20 million new ones every year to add to the four that sit in the average US house. Yet one Gallup survey found that fewer than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), and only a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (the evangelist Billy Graham is a popular answer). The situation is worse with Islam. The archaic language and high-flown verse of the Koran, while inspiring to some, can also be difficult to understand for even highly educated Arabic speakers. Only 20 per cent of Muslims speak Arabic as their first language.
The two peoples of the Book face similar challenges and opportunities. The interesting difference lies in how they are overcoming those hurdles. The Bible business is very much a bottom-up affair — an interlinked global network of 140 national or regional Bible societies pools resources to reach its collective goal.
The Koran is also going global. But for that it is unduly indebted to a single political power: Saudi Arabia. Its combination of geology and history — the country’s vast oil wealth and position as the guardian of Mecca and Medina — has turned it into a vast engine for spreading the Word.
At the same time, the Muslim diaspora is also spreading the Word to areas of the world where it has never reached. The Tablighi Jamaat (“Group That Propagates the Faith”), part-time preachers who dress like the Prophet, are behind plans to construct a megamosque in East London, next to the 2012 Olympics site.
But an immediate problem for Islam, much complained about in the Muslim world, is America’s War on Terror, which is certainly making it much more difficult to spread the Koran.
Christians are also much more enthusiastic than Muslims about translating their holy book. Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God — although most Muslims tolerate translations, it is a begrudging sort of tolerance. By contrast, Christians are much keener to get the Word out. You do not have to learn Greek or Hebrew to get the Lord’s word. It has been translated into more languages than any other book in history — including Klingon, spoken only by imaginary space aliens.
The headquarters of the American Bible Society, just north of Columbus Circle in New York City, is a monument to Christianity’s enthusiasm for translation. It houses a collection of 4,500 Bibles in 2,400 languages, to which it continues to add ever more translations, including Barrow, a language spoken by a handful of people in Alaska. Its ambition is that everyone can claim: “God speaks my language”.
The second advantage is Christians’ superior talent for turning their holy book into a commercial enterprise. The “good book” now comes in every colour of the rainbow, including the colours of your college. A “hundred-minute Bible” summarises the Good Book for the time-starved. There are Bibles in everyday vernacular or even street slang (“Even though I walk through / The hood of death / I don’t back down / For you have my back”). Westminster John Knox has revived an old idea, begun in 1965 with its bestselling Gospel According to Peanuts, to give us the Gospel According to everyone from Bart Simpson to Madonna.
In 2003 Thomas Nelson dreamt up the idea of BibleZines — crosses between Bibles and teenage magazines. The pioneer was Revolve, which intercuts the New Testament with make-up tips and dating advice (“Are you dating a Godly guy?”). There are toddler-friendly versions of the most famous Bible stories: The Boy’s Bible promises “gross and gory Bible stuff.”; God’s Little Princess Devotional Bible is pink and sparkly.
The Bible Society has also embraced all sorts of innovations. It gives a free copy of the military edition of the Bible, complete with a camouflage cover to all members of the US Armed Services. It provides booklets of biblical excerpts to people who are trying to cope with tragedies or disasters: the society gave away five million specially prepared booklets after 9/11 and 1.5 million after Hurricane Katrina.
It also uses prominent sports stars to spread enthusiasm for the “good book”. The New Orleans Hornets have been known to distribute copies of the Bible. LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is such an enthusiastic Bible promoter that he has been nicknamed “King James”. Publishing and translating the book is only the beginning. There are now sophisticated dramatisations of the Bible, with well-known actors and state-of-the-art sound effects. Zondervan’s The Bible Experience features every black actor in Hollywood, from Denzel Washington to Samuel L. Jackson as God.
Other businesses are producing films that dramatise bits of the Bible as faithfully as possible. There are Bible quiz books, bingo games, sticker books and floor puzzles. There is even a Bible-based jukebox that plays your favourite biblical passages. A “fully posable” Jesus doll recites famous passages of the Good Book.
The third advantage for the Bible over the Koran is the wealth of its believers. It helps the Bible’s cause that the world’s richest and most powerful country has more evangelicals, missionaries and media organisations than any other country. By contrast, the fact that the Koran’s heartland is relatively poor, with low levels of economic development, technological prowess and popular education, hurts the book’s cause — though Muslims do not see it that way. (What matters is that people are reciting the Koran; not who is doing it.) The fourth advantage is the West’s belief in religious freedom — guaranteed in America by the Constitution, and in Europe by an aversion to religious persecution caused by centuries of it. The heartland of Islam, on the other hand, is theocratic. The Saudi royal family and the official Wahhabi clerisy are intertwined. The Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance employs 120,000 people, including 72,000 imams. Clerics vet school textbooks. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the kingdom’s religious police, frequently arrests Christians for merely possessing copies of the Bible. Filipino Christians, who are usually poor, are a particularly popular target.


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