The Messiah as superhero

Pop culture is the latest tool in the campaign to spread the Word but critics say this just pits the trashy against the eternal.

A world in turmoil.

Corrupt leaders and crazed prophets.

One day a stranger appeared.

He cast out demons and raised the sick.

The world – your world – would never be the same again.

The Manga Bible.

The stranger is robed, with a handsome, stern face. He goes up to a mountaintop in the wilderness with another robed figure with a completely blank face. They have a tussle of wills. “You have won for now,” says Satan, the blank-faced dude. “Until next time.” And he vanishes to the sound of Wwwhooocosshhh!

Welcome to the kick-ass Jesus of The Manga Bible, “God’s Word as you’ve never seen it before!” The first English manga version of the world’s bestselling book was released in February last year. The publisher, Hodder Headline, describes it as “a faithful adaptation of the Bible, injected with new energy” by the “dynamic, action-based artwork” of Siku, “one of the UK’s hottest comic talents”. Siku’s other work includes Judge Dredd in the comic 2000 AD and a computer game, Evil Genius.

You can get various editions: “Extreme” contains the full Bible text, “Raw” has the Bible comic strip without the text and there are New Testament versions. Teachers and youth groups can consult online notes on how to introduce The Manga Bible. “Start the session by going around the group and asking everyone to answer the question, ‘Which celebrity do you most admire?’ ” the notes advise. “Explain to the group that we’re going to look at one of the most admired ‘celebs’ of all time: Jesus €¦ Excited? Sceptical? Keep an open mind €¦ There’s no nativity play in sight, honest!”

And just to confuse the issue, Tyndale House Publishers released another manga Bible in November, plus English-language versions of a series of Japanese manga comics based on the Bible, starting with Manga Messiah. “We’re thrilled to offer the greatest story ever told, about the most controversial man who ever lived, in the most popular graphic novel format on earth,” says Kevin O’Brien, director of Bibles and Bible reference at Tyndale House.

The bloggers are agog. “I really want to read this. I have always envisioned a mangafied Jesus: I imagine him as having the amazing ability to shoot nails from his palms and, in times of extreme peril, to join with his 12 disciples and form a gigantic mecha-Messiah,” one says.

But why do we need a mangafied Jesus? It’s all part of a huge industry dedicated to reinventing the greatest story ever told.

Recently a small wave of bestselling books attacking religion has washed through the biblical vision of the cosmos. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion is scathing about the nasty, jealous, murderous God of the Old Testament and not much more complimentary about the God of the Gospels. But the success of the Dawkins book, after about a year on The New York Times bestseller list, is a drop in the ocean compared with the success of the Good Book.

Yet it is not enough, it seems, that the Bible is the bestselling book of the year, every year, with an estimated 25 million sold each year in the US alone. Nor is it enough that we have translated the Bible into about 2400 languages, with the United Bible Society working on about 600 more translations. Or that there are at least 50 versions available in English. The Bible must be sold to every possible market, whether it is youth or indigenous communities speaking their own language. And the marketers pursue their goals with evangelical zeal.

Michael Chant, executive director of the Bible Society in South Australia, calls it giftwrapping the Gospel. “We’re not changing the word or the message, just wrapping it for a new generation. The old, heavy black book at the end of the table just doesn’t speak to young people.”

“It’s always the same text,” says David Renshaw, the Bible buyer for the Koorong chain of religious bookshops. “So you’ve got to find other ways to market it and creative ways to appeal to all sorts of groups.”

Hence the study Bibles, the devotional Bibles, the tidal wave of new translations, Bibles with endorsements and notes from popular preachers, Bibles in pink and green and chocolate and little furry covers (Baby’s First Bible).

One of the largest Christian publishers, Thomas Nelson, got into the teenage market four years ago when it created the first of a series of BibleZines, Bibles designed and presented to look like magazines. Refuel, “a totally cool new way for teen guys to read the Bible”, features a cover with mounted warriors and the headline “Men Of The Sword: How Unstoppable Warriors Got So Awesome”.

Revolve, for girls, features Bible beauty secrets, quizzes and cover lines such as “Guys Speak Their Minds” and “Do U Rush To Crush?” There are also BibleZines for women and children, and Divine Health, featuring the author of the bestselling diet book What Would Jesus Eat? Altogether more than a million of the BibleZines have sold so far.

The sales for the Holi Baibul, the Kriol Bible, are much more modest – an initial print run of 2000 when it was released in May – but it has been one of the most important world translation projects and marks the first time any Australian indigenous language has had a complete Bible of its own.

Kriol, a creole language developed from contact between Europeans and indigenous Australians, is spoken by about 30,000 people across the Top End. The Bible translation took an arduous 27 years. It came out of work done by Aboriginal Christians and missionaries in communities in the Northern Territory, supported by the Bible Society, Lutheran Bible Translators, the Church Missionary Society of Australia, the Anglican Church, the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages and the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Reaction to the Holi Baibul has been “extremely positive”, says the Bible Society’s Michael Chant. “People are very excited about having a whole Bible.”

There are plans for a new print run, an audio recording to help people who struggle with literacy and “Bible helps” (story books and guides using Kriol). One of the reasons the translation took so long is that some of the cultural concepts are hard to get across: “white as snow” doesn’t mean much to a Top End Aborigine, let alone more complex concepts such as forgiveness and redemption. The translators needed to live in communities and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture, Chant says.

On the other hand, a Kriol speaker might react with joyful recognition to the parts of the Bible that baffle and bore many modern readers. All those chapters of “begats” mean everything to someone who takes their sense of identity from their forefathers.

Australian translation doesn’t stop with Kriol: work is under way on more than 16 projects including translations of parts of the Bible into Luritja and the Torres Strait Creole, Yumplatok. There’s also an Auslan (Australian sign language) mini-Bible on DVD.

Nobody is burnt at the stake any more for producing a new Bible. But Bible translations still have their detractors. The ultra-conservative Christian journal Touchstone has found fault with what it calls “heretical Bibles”, especially their tendency to rewrite what we might see as sexist language: “Egalitarian Bibles encourage a faulty view of man, thus of Christ, thus of God.” But the “heretical” Bibles that Touchstone rejects – the New Revised Standard Version and the reworked New International Version – have long been accepted as orthodox and are hugely popular.

Heaven knows what the Touchstone heavies would make of the BibleZines. But this trend worries more liberal church folk. Last year, Phyllis Tickle, a former religion editor of Publishers Weekly and the author of popular prayer books, told The New Yorker: “There’s a certain scandal to what’s happened to Bible publishing in the last 15 years.”

Tickle believes that instead of demanding that the reader steps out from the culture to become more Christian, the new approach says, “You stay in the culture and we’ll come to you.” Tickle continues: “And, therefore, how are we going to separate out the culturally transient and trashy from the eternal?”

But Chant believes that the packaging of the Bible, if not the message, has to change to respond to the changing needs of society, even if that means a manga Jesus.

Do people still read the Bible all the way through? “All the time! Thousands of people are doing just that. I’ve read it cover to cover a couple of times.” The Bible Society produces a daily reading plan, breaking the Good Book into bite-sized chunks. You can do a one-year or a four-year plan. And study Bibles give you notes to better understand the passages you read.

“To be perfectly honest, some bits are pretty boring,” Chant confesses. “But even there, they have a point.” And he’s not worried about attacks from the likes of Dawkins. “The Bible has stood up to the test of time. It’s strong enough to stand up to complaint and criticism. It contains the ultimate truth. If people choose not to believe it and to attack it, that’s fine. But they’re on the losing side.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 8, 2008.
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