Black Voices Bring the Bible to Life

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) In a new audio Bible, the Holy Trinity has some familiar voices: actor Samuel L. Jackson plays God; actor Blair Underwood performs the role of Jesus and Dallas megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes renders the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament portion of ``Inspired By ... The Bible Experience'' arrived in stores the first week of October. The all-black cast takes on the characters of the Bible, backed with music and realistic sounds to bring printed words to life.

The executive producers of the project _ a collaboration between Inspired By Media Group and Christian publishing giant Zondervan _ hope the spoken-Word translation will reach a generation less interested in opening up the physical pages of the Bible.

``We wanted to create a project, a Bible experience that would communicate to a young generation and so we felt that we needed to create an urban product to do that,'' said Lou ``Buster'' Brown, co-founder of the Inspired By Media Group and one of the four executive producers of the audio Bible.

``While it is an all-black cast, it's not a black product by any means because when you listen to it, you don't hear color,'' he said. ``You hear the Word of God.''

The 19-CD package, which has a suggested retail price of $49.99, is expected to be followed next fall by a larger Old Testament dramatization. Both books are re-enactments of the Today's New International Version, a translation by Zondervan.

Originally, project organizers planned for a cast of dozens but the cast list increased to more than 250 as word spread and others asked to be included.

``The phone started ringing off the hook,'' said Brown, who produced soundtracks for ``The Prince of Egypt'' animated film. ``The project had taken on a different weight. It had become a legacy project.''

Among the first people cast were movie stars Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett and Underwood, who previously played Jesus in an independent film after getting his start on ``L.A. Law'' and later, as Miranda's love interest on ``Sex and the City.''

Washington and his wife, Pauletta, recite Song of Solomon, the eight-chapter poetic dialogue between lovers. Bassett reads the stories of Jesus' Nativity and Resurrection.

Paul Caminiti, vice president and publisher of Bibles at Zondervan, said audio Bibles have already been a staple of his company, but the talent recruited for this version doesn't compare to past productions.

``We've used professional voices before, but not of the ilk of Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding and Angela Bassett and Blair Underwood,'' he said.

Beyond the Hollywood talent are ambient sounds and contemporary classical strains of an original orchestral score that bring scenes to life, he said, citing the story of Jesus casting out demons from a man and shifting them to a herd of pigs.

``You hear the galloping of the pigs and squeal of the pigs as they rush over the cliffs,'' he said.

And when John the Baptist loses his head, the accompanying ax chop and screams of disgust are included.

``These were real stories with real people who were going through joy and pain,'' said Brown.

Jackson, whose earthly roles have ranged from a foul-mouthed hitman in ``Pulp Fiction'' to a Jedi knight in ``Star Wars,'' was originally cast as an angel. After asking to be promoted to the God role in the New Testament, his lines include ``This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased'' in the scene of Jesus' Jordan River baptism.

Jakes' Holy Spirit lines appear in four books of the Bible. Among them is one from Hebrews that reads: ``Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.''

Actors in some of the less heroic parts range from Cuba (``show me the money!'') Gooding, Jr., who plays Judas, to Eartha Kitt, who reads the part of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

``She's just been known as kind of that very exotic, sultry personality for so many years,'' Brown said of the actress who played Catwoman in the 1960s ``Batman'' television show.

``Her accent was so unique. We just thought her saying, `You surely will not die' would be just fantastic. She was amazing.''

Other stage and screen stars such as Ruby Dee, Alfre Woodard, LeVar Burton and Tyrese Gibson join clergy and musicians such as Creflo Dollar, Bishop Charles E. Blake, Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin and hip-hop star Common.

Neither Inspired By Media Group nor Zondervan required that cast members sign any kind of statement of faith.

``One of the things that we recognized is the Bible is full of people that weren't saved,'' said Brown, who describes himself as a born-again Christian who attends a nondenominational church in Porter Ranch, Calif. ``That doesn't mean that God won't use them to deliver his word.''

Caminiti hopes the celebrity voices will lead people to pay attention to the biblical words, whether through CD players or on their iPods.

``There are going to be people that would say `I've tried reading the Bible before and it's just too big and I don't know where to begin,''' he said. ``I think a lot of that is going to be remedied by this theater-of-the-mind experience.''

As recording of the Old Testament continues, the production team is truly acting on faith since Jackson has not committed to God's starring role.

``As of now, we have not recast God,'' Brown said of the 80 hours required for the divine voice in the first books of the Bible. ``I'm going to leave that in God's hands.''

KRE/JL END BANKS

Editors: To obtain photos of Underwood, Bassett, and cover art of ``Inspired by ... The Bible Experience,'' go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on ``photos,'' then search by subject or slug.