GRAND RAPIDS — Forget Genesis.
At the trend-setting publishing house Zondervan — where Bibles are the firm’s business, although not its only one — the latest version of the greatest story ever told begins not with Genesis but with this chapter heading:
CREATION: Things Started Out Great.
One snappy chapter later, the obvious question is raised directly: What Went Wrong?
And the language updating includes some Old Testament erotica, as in this passage: “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me.”
Yes, the text may be sacred, but at Zondervan — where the sacred and the salable meet in a way that’s as old as the ancient hills — the drive is on to overcome the Bible’s deficits. It’s “a tough, tough book,” as communications director Mark Rice puts it, and reinventing the medium is one way to get out the message to a new, skeptical audience.
Once a relatively obscure Christian book publisher, Zondervan has emerged as a 21st century cultural force, shaping a growing market of Christian and spiritually seeking readers and producing innovations like DVD mini-feature films with hip-looking covers that appeal to a young audience.
In Grand Rapids, where a Calvinist passion for mingling God and industry has contributed to one of Michigan’s fastest-growing areas, Zondervan exemplifies the area’s sense of mission, from business to politics to religion.
Two years ago, Zondervan published “The Purpose-Driven Life,” by Rick Warren — a self-help book that propelled Zondervan and Grand Rapids to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It has sold more than 23 million copies, in English and Spanish, the publisher said, and spawned a mini-industry of Rick Warren products.
Things started out OK for Zondervan, too, when it was founded 70 years ago by Pat and Bernie Zondervan. But since an acquisition by publishing giant HarperCollins in 1988, and a post-September 11 boom in all things spiritual, the Bible business has never been better.
Conservative? Yes. But the publishing house also illustrates the progressive face of modern Christian conservatism — the packaging is updated and contemporary, even if the message retains its eternal ring.
Its hip new Bible, titled “The Story,” is formatted to look more like a Tolkien epic than a traditional Bible, and organized to read more like a modern epic than an ancient religious text.
Because research showed that 18- to 34-year-olds weren’t reading the Bible and are suspicious of traditional religion, Zondervan created a version that’s the size of a novel, printed with faux-gothic chapter headings and graphics, including maps of Israel designed to resemble maps of Middle-earth in “The Hobbit.”
The cover, with updated title and a cobblestone street photograph, looks novelistic and enticing. And the prose, taken from a recent translation, is relentlessly accessible.
We may look East and West to see where American culture is going. But Zondervan’s success — and presence in stores from Sam’s Club to Wal-Mart to Costco — suggests the pulse is beating strong in the heartland, too.
Laura Berman’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Metro.