Bible videos attract a large, young audience

April 15, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Hey kids, haven't read the Good Book yet? Now you can skip right to the video.

Action-packed and rich in moral fiber, the Bible has become a home entertainment blockbuster.

"Noah's Ark," "Samson and Delilah," "Queen Esther," "Paul the Mighty Convert" and other tales drawn from the Old Testament and New Testament are selling by the millions.

Hanna-Barbera Productions -- the folks who brought you the Flintstones, Yogi Bear and Scooby-Doo -- as well as such production companies as the Family Entertainment Network, have discovered video is the ideal medium for pre- and post-literate generations in need of religious education and spiritual guidance.

For example, anyone uncertain of what happens to Jesus after the Last Supper can brush up with "The Easter Story." Produced by Hanna-Barbera, now a subsidiary of Turner Home Entertainment, this video climaxes with a dramatic cartoon version of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It is a seasonal best seller, re-released at a specially reduced $9.99 just in time for Easter.

The non-profit, New York-based American Bible Society (ABS), which publishes the Scriptures in 66 languages, soon plans to release its own live-action Bible video, a contemporary urban translation of a story from Mark, in which Jesus -- portrayed as a laborer -- performs an exorcism on a young man in a baseball cap. The video will come with its own interactive software.

For those of the Jewish faith, there are videos produced by Jewish Education Video, based on the Talmud, the body of work that constitutes Jewish civil and religious law.

Videos make up about 3.1 percent of gross sales in the $3 billion Christian retail market, says Linda Vixie, associate editor of Bookstore Journal, a trade publication that tracks Christian publications, as well as video and audio cassette productions.

Most of those videos are animated stories from the Scriptures designed for children. "It's a growing market. It's a very young market," Ms. Vixie says. "In just the last two or three years, we've seen companies putting major dollars behind their productions. Before that it was of pretty low quality."

As of January, Hanna-Barbera's slickly produced "Great Adventure: Stories From the Bible" series, which features the voices of actors such as Tim Curry and Joe Spano, had sold 2 million cassettes, according to Bookstore Journal. Of that number, 500,000 were sold in Christian bookstores and other retail outlets, Ms. Vixie says.

The New Testament series of videos produced by Family Entertainment Network -- and marketed mainly through TV advertorials -- was expected to earn $25 million in 1991, according to Ms. Vixie.

Other production companies, including Tyndale Christian Video and Multnomah Productions, have also weighed in with Bible video lines. Less professionally produced Bible video stories abound as well, Ms. Vixie says.

If Jennifer Pierce, 9, had to choose between reading or watching the Bible, "I would probably watch the video," she says. "The video helps me see more and kind of gives you an idea of what it looked like back then and still tells the story," says Jennifer, a student at Liberty Christian School, as she browses in Peter & John Trustworthy Bookstore in Randallstown.

Jennifer's mother, Jane,is all for Scripture in any form. "It is like throwing enough spaghetti against the wall. Something's bound stick," she says.

Linda Treuting, a clerk at Peter & John's, has seen video inventory expand greatly over the past five years. But she doesn't think videos will discourage patrons from reading the Scripture. The Bible has "always been there for so many thousands of years." It won't disappear, "just because another medium has come around," she says.

For the Bible to continue to draw an audience, the ABS must depart from its ancient medium, says David Burke, director of the 175-year-old society's translations department. "We have committed to bringing Scripture to all people. There is an increasing segment of the population in this culture that is reading a lot less; some are not reading at all and wouldn't be inclined to pick up a book Bible." By producing a video, "We're suggesting that we will go into the medium of their choice," Mr. Burke says.

"Religious book stores used to be completely books. They've now shrunken the number of books and expanded the number of audio and video resources and gifts. It's kind of a sign of our times," says Jim Larson, a teacher of religious education and counseling in the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary, and president of the Center for Renewal, a Columbia consulting firm.

But videos as an educational tool are problematical, Mr. Larson says, "My concern is that there are families that buy these and use them at home. The videos can enhance the family experience of Biblical enrichment, or they can become just another form of passive entertainment [A family may] want to be entertained and that detracts from what the Scriptures are all about: life and faith and change."

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