God and MP3s: The Audio Bible Craze

When people speak of hearing God, they usually don't mean they can adjust the volume. But a wave of new audio Bibles with Hollywood talent, chintzy sound effects and overwrought musical scores is bringing God into the MP3 era—and they couldn't have more different, well, complexions. There's "The Bible Experience," a complete Bible recording featuring a divine roster of A-list black celebrities, including Forest Whitaker as Moses, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Judas, Blair Underwood as Jesus and Samuel L. Jackson as the Big Guy himself. (The New Testament half has already sold close to 400,000 copies in its eight months on the market.) The competition: "Word of Promise," another surround-sound Scripture set, starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus (again), Terence Stamp as God and a mostly white, thoroughly B-list cast. They're both on sale this fall. Just press play and pray.

Of course, the publishing industry has long performed what amounts to a miracle of market renewal, making the Good Book a perennial hit through endless repackaging and niche selling. Among the most memorable recent creations is the "Drink Deeply Bible," which comes with a canteen for the spiritually and physically parched (or for folks who like their metaphors literal). The Bible Society in Australia has converted Scripture into audio files, e-mails and text-message bursts, as in: "In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth. Da earth waz barren, wit no 4m of life." The convenience of these modern miracles is obvious, but they raise a thorny question: now that the holy texts are digital, portable and deletable, how should we treat them? It seems blasphemous to shuffle God into electronic company with Madonna and the Grateful Dead, and later destroy his name as casually as "Control-Delete." Even downloading the Word through the same fiber-optic cables as the latest Korn album sounds like a bad idea, given that Roman Catholics dispose of holy water through special pipes to keep it from touching sewage.

Indeed, some religions believe in treating e-Bibles, and the gizmos that host them, as carefully as the print versions. "If someone uses their iPod exclusively for sacred purposes," says Justin Daffron, a Jesuit priest at Chicago's Loyola University, "then it's a sacramental object that needs to be buried or burned when it wears out." But feel free to delete digitized Scripture on a daily basis. "The file itself is just a file," adds Daffron, who erases the readings he receives on his multi-use BlackBerry guilt-free. Jews also believe that the Bible prohibits destroying the readable name of God, although it's not that simple in an electronic world. "It depends on whether the digital grooves or tiny dots that the computer translates into Torah can be considered letters," says Joel Roth, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. "If you say they aren't, then what about the Old Testament in Braille?"

Protestant evangelicals see e-Bibles as mere vessels for God rather than holy objects—kind of like the replicants in "Blade Runner" were less human than their human originals. "There's not the same sense of investing the object with sanctity," says Lauren Winner, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. "Evangelicals will use whatever helps squeeze religion into the cracks of modern life." They've been timesaving pioneers since the beginning, starting in the 1920s, when Aimee Semple McPherson became one of the country's first mass-media preachers, and continuing to the arrival of television in the 1950s, with Billy Graham. The new "100-Minute Bible," which collapses the greatest story ever told into 50 passages intended to be read in two-minute nibbles, has been around in some form for nearly a century.

That said, it's hard to predict which of the new audio Bibles consumers will go for. Both are full of quivering voices and high-drama sound effects (slicing swords, crashing waves, swooshing angels) set against a background of schmaltzy music that might have been conjured on a Casio keyboard. They're also both based on plainspoken translations and will be available for download on iTunes for about $3.95 a book, $34.99 for the complete New Testament. Where they differ is in intensity. "The Bible Experience" is aggressively, sometimes scarily, performed. The apostles sound Oz-like, while God rumbles in Samuel L. Jackson's coolest baritone. "Word of Promise" has a quieter, more floral sound—more flutes, fewer cellos—based on early samples made available to NEWSWEEK. Perhaps we'll look back on these Hollywood confessions of faith as pivotal turning points in spreading God's word. Then again, they could follow Charlton Heston's Moses into the pantheon of camp classics.