The National Catholic Review

Visitors to the American Bible Society’s New Media Bible Web site (http://www.newmediabible.org) will discover an innovative way of encountering the Bible. The product of several years of work, this prototype Web site presents the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37) in streaming video, in a dozen musical settings, in cultural settings and in commentaries on the text. In addition, it provides links to other Bible Society projects, to other translations, to commentaries on the parable and to devotional material featuring the Good Samaritan.

Long known to scholars and seminarians as a source of inexpensive Greek- and Hebrew-language editions of the Bible, the American Bible Society, an ecumenical organization founded in 1816, has as its mission to make the Bible available to everyone on the planet. To accomplish this it translates and distributes the Bible "without doctrinal note or comment" in hundreds of languages throughout the world.

When starting its "Into the Third Millennium" project about 10 years ago, the organization asked how it could encourage teenagers and young adults to read the Bible. One recommendationthe one that led eventually to the Web siteproposed an attempt to translate the Scriptures into the language and dialects of video, particularly the music television or MTV-style productions so popular in the early 90’s. After the approval of an experimental program, an A.B.S. task force quickly settled into the work of translating portions of the life of Christ, choosing representative moments from the Gospels.

The project involved much more than merely filming an adaptation or performance of the scriptural material. Instead, the New Media Translations Program (a subsidiary of the A.B.S. translations department) sought to apply the same criteria of translation that the Bible Society uses for any language project: Return to the Greek text, review the relevant scholarly material to produce a good understanding of the text and cultural background of the text, explore the target language to find how best to express the text in its idiom, prepare the translation and check it with native speakers.

What became the New Media Bible grew out of particular attempts to understand the dynamics of the biblical text in the original languages and to translate these languages into media that include not only words but also oral performance, verbalization, rhythm, intonation and visual material. The MTV format led the translation team to consider music, visual arts, graphic materials, video editing and a whole range of artistic expression that television viewers take for granted. The format also inspired collaboration among translators, language experts and biblical scholars on the one hand, and visual artists, musicians, film and video directors, cinematographers, performers and the whole range of other talent required for a video program on the other. Consciously resisting the style of biblical adaptations that Hollywood loves (from "The Ten Commandments" to "The Last Temptation of Christ"), the translation team sought to remain faithful to both the scriptural text and contemporary media.

To date, the New Media Bible project has produced five translations: "Out of the Tombs" (Mk. 5:1-20), "The Visit" (Lk. 1:39-56), "A Father and Two Sons" (Lk. 15:11-32), "The Neighbor" (Lk. 10: 25-37) and "Resurrection" (Jn. 20). A sixth, on the birth of Jesus (Lk. 2:1-21) is currently in production with the African-American group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Each production experiments with the form, trying to exploit different aspects of the audiovisual media for a faithful translation. The translations appear on separate videotapes and last 10 to 12 minutes each. Later projects became more ambitious and included not only the video production but also CD-ROM’s, which contained a digitized version of the video, study materials and other resources for the given text. As the Internet and the World Wide Web became available, the New Media Bible moved online.

The translation team conceptualized "Out of the Tombs" as a straightforward MTV video, in which a narrator recites Mark’s account of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac against the background of contemporary images that try to convey demonic possession and restoration. The dominant visual metaphor, drawn from Mark, is the sea, raging and calm. In addition to the dramatic video, the team also produced two performance videos, one featuring a chanted version of the text and the other a rap music version.

"The Visit" presents Mary’s trip to the hill country of Judea to see her cousin Elizabeth through a performance video by the Women of the Calabash. In this video, the musical group sings the translation as they dance and play handcrafted instruments against a simple background suggesting the Judean countryside and village life. This video’s production included the design for a CD-ROM and features graphic elements integrated into the larger presentation. Not only does the CD-ROM present the video translation of the Greek text, it also connects the user to portraits of Mary in the tradition of Western art. A second video was done in Spanish with a completely fresh treatment.

Listening to the Greek text of Lk. 15:11-32, (the Prodigal Son) with an ear to its oral melodies and refrains, the translation team and musical consultants chose country-western music as the genre that most closely matched the biblical material. Set on a southern ranch, the video and country-western singer (Rory Block) trace the family story from rupture to reconciliation while challenging the viewer to enter the parable, much as Jesus did. The CD-ROM, which came out later, includes the digitized video, commentary, articles by Scripture scholars and links to the parable in Christian and secular history.

Because it judged that the parable of the Good Samaritan is widely known and yet widely misunderstood, the translation team carefully chose a setting that would defamiliarize the audience. Using a voice-over technique and child actors performing by a railway crossing (symbolizing a central metaphor of journey), the video slows the pace of the parable. Because this was to be the first Web-based project, the team gathered research to support more in-depth Bible study by Internet visitors: scholarly articles on everything from travel in the time of Jesus to the relationship of Jews and Samaritans to roadside inns, musical settings of the parable, interviews with the translators and media scholars and links to other material on the Web that addresses the parable. The team also worked on the design of the Web site, offering visitors a variety of ways to navigate through the material. As with the other translations, they created both Spanish and English versions of the entire site.

The story of the Resurrection, as recounted in John 20, offered another way to attempt the audiovisual translation. Alternating between darkness and light, unbelief and belief, absence and presence, the diptych of the empty tomb and the upper room framed the resurrection. The translation team eventually chose to use a narrative performance, in which one person (actor Jim Caviziel) narrates the story to a group of mourners gathered to await the dawn during a night vigil. The video imagery of a storefront church picks up images from the other videos to create visual continuity with the life of Christ as seen in the other videos in the series. The emphasis on the voice of the storyteller highlights John’s emphasis on hearing over seeing ("Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet believed").

Each of the projects begins with the original language text, just as a print translation would. But the characteristics of the target language made the translation team attend to aspects of the New Testament they might have overlooked earlier: the sound quality of the text, the rhythm of the vocabulary, the pace of the biblical narration, the visual tradition within Christianity and so forth.

While calling attention to aspects of the Bible that translators do not usually consider, the overall project raised unexpected, and much larger, issues for the translation team: Can we accurately speak of the language of film or video? Is translation possible from one medium (here, the written Bible) to another (video)?

Therefore, in addition to the actual work of translation, the A.B.S. created its Research Center for Scripture and Media (http://www.researchcenter.org) to investigate these questions while it also managed the experimental work. This arrangement encourages people to reflect systematically on their practical experience of translation and media production. Drawing together scholars in fields as diverse as translation studies, communication, art history, musicology, Greek, Hebrew, theology, computer science, philosophy and cinema, the research center has published two books attempting to lay out the theoretical foundation for translating across media. (Both books have Sheed & Ward as co-publisher with the American Bible Society: From One Medium to Another [1997] and Fidelity and Translation [1999].)

But is it the Bible? The research team is wrestling with the distinctions among a translation, an adaptation, a performance and an illustration. Each category can apply to biblical material, and each differs from the others. How people experience and use the Bible may play a role in how they accept a video as a translation, or as an adaptation, or as an illustration. The question will become more and more important as our culture places less emphasis on traditional print literacy and more on visual literacy.

Whatever the value of the New Media Bible, its more enduring legacy may well come from the scholarly attention it has generated. The videos themselves have met with enthusiastic reception from some youth ministry and catechetical leaders, teens and young adults. Others have remained cool to them, disliking particular aspects of the videos. However, almost everyone expresses appreciation that an organization like the A.B.S. would attempt this kind of project.

The video projects have spilled over into other media projects as well. Using what it learned about video work, the new media translations team, with the support of the research center, has taken on a prototype project on behalf of the A.B.S. for a children’s biblically based cartoon program called "Kingsley’s Meadow" (co-produced with Tyndale Entertainment and SonyWonder). Building on its appreciation of the sonic qualities of the biblical material, the research center has also done prototypes of a songbook based on the Contemporary English Version translation of the Bible. These settings include musical styles ranging from Cajun to country, from rock to romance. (Interested readers can listen to samples at the research center Web site and vote for their favorites.)

Whatever else it does, the New Media Bible opens up another way for people to experience the Bible. In the words of one of the video producers, "This is the Word of God. How can we not make it known?"

Paul A. Soukup, S.J., teaches in the communication department at Santa Clara University; he also works as a consultant to the American Bible Society’s Research Center for Scripture and Media.

Paul A. Soukup, S.J., teaches in the communication department at Santa Clara University; he also works as a consultant to the American Bible Society’s Research Center for Scripture and Media.