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Plugging the Planet Into the Word
Technology Vastly Expands Bible's Audience, Christianity's Influence

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 3, 2007

RONG DOMRIEX, Cambodia -- Tel Im, a barefoot 13-year-old, sat cross-legged on a bamboo bench, eager for her reading lesson.

"Please turn to Lesson 33," said a woman's voice rising from a Sony cassette player powered by two wires clipped to a car battery. The tape was the closest thing to a school in this village shaded by banana trees, where water buffaloes meander in from the lime-green rice paddies.

Im and her classmates flipped to Page 134 for a passage from the New Testament.

"The title of this story is: 'Jesus Was Crucified,' " said the teacher on the tape, slowly pronouncing the words in Khmer, the local language, as the children followed along with their fingertips.

Six months ago, Im couldn't read a word and had never heard of Jesus. Now, thanks to a literacy program run by the local chapter of an international Bible group, she has a book -- the Bible -- that she can read, and she says she wants to become a Christian.

Using technological devices ranging from simple cassette tapes to solar-powered audio players and an iPod-like gadget called the Bible Stick, Christian groups are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make one of the world's oldest books accessible in remote corners of the planet.

Complete versions of the Bible can now be downloaded onto cellphones in parts of Africa. To reach those who can't read -- nearly one-fifth of the world's population, according to the United Nations -- Christian groups are rapidly increasing production of audio and video versions.

Christian networks from the United States, Europe, Asia and elsewhere are working together, coordinating the efforts of people as diverse as a computer cartographer in Virginia and linguists in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

Since 2000, the Bible -- or parts of it -- has been translated into 600 more languages, making it more accessible to tens of millions more people, according to the Forum of Bible Agencies International. An additional 1,600 translation projects are underway that will leave only about 3 to 5 percent of the world's population without the best-selling book of all time available in their native language.

Building on generations of work to distribute the printed Bible, Christian missionaries said new multimedia presentations in hundreds of languages are vastly expanding the Bible's audience and spreading the influence of the world's largest religion.

"It's a movement to revitalize religion in the world, and it's huge," said Laurie Westlake of Faith Comes By Hearing, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that works in 92 countries.

This year alone, Westlake said, her organization has started 33,000 "listening groups" of people who gather to hear dramatic Bible recordings done by local people in their own languages. She said those gatherings now serve about 3 million people -- three times as many as two years ago.

David Hammond, who works in Nairobi for the British-based United Bible Societies, a network of agencies in 200 countries, said Bible formats are changing to suit a changing world.

"Audio," he said, "can be better than a big black book."

The 'Jesus' Film

Farther north in the Cambodian hinterlands, Elijah Lok zoomed down dirt paths across the rice paddies to the village of Trapain Ampil with the "Jesus" film strapped to his motorbike.

Tonight, as on most nights, Lok would be showing this two-hour movie about the life of Jesus, the most translated movie in history. He pulled two 16mm reels out of a metal carrier box, a big blue umbrella protecting them from monsoon-like rain.

Two other members of his team lugged a giant white screen, two loudspeakers and a generator-powered projector into this village with no electricity.

When the downpour eased, 70 people stood barefoot amid the muddy puddles and watched the story of Jesus told in Khmer. For most of the villagers, who live here in shacks built on stilts to protect against flooding, it was the first movie they had ever seen.

And in this nation where 90 percent of people are Buddhist, the villagers were familiar with Buddha and karma but not Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Originally released by Warner Brothers in 1979 for U.S. audiences, the Jesus film has been translated into more than 1,000 languages, with the voices of local actors dubbed over the originals. It has just been completed in Cham, which is spoken by several hundred thousand Muslims in Cambodia.

As Lok cranked up the projector, the film's soundtrack drowned out the sound of monks chanting in a nearby Buddhist temple.

"The Gospel has done so much for me and my family," said Lok, 26, who often sleeps in a hammock he carries with him from village to village.

Lok said he has found peace and contentment in his religion, but not everyone is receptive to his work. Some complain that Christianity is a foreigner's faith, an unwanted import from the West. Some take offense at the notion of Christians preaching to Buddhists.

"In some villages, drunks have beaten our staff," Lok said. "Sometimes people take slingshots and hit the screen."

But this night, children and adults were transfixed by scenes of the birth of Jesus in a stable and of him telling people to be like the Good Samaritan and help those in need. Some cried softly at the vivid crucifixion scene and began asking questions about his empty tomb and talk of him rising from the dead.

When the film ended, several people gathered to ask Lok questions.

"I would like to hear more about Jesus," said Heat Chean, 30, a farmer who held his infant daughter in his arms. "I'm a Buddhist, but Christians are good, too."

Spreading the Word

More than 9,000 miles away in Virginia, Christopher Deckert tracks where the Bible has gone -- and where it still needs to travel. As children ride scooters and bicycles outside his single-family home in a leafy suburb of Richmond, Deckert works at his computer in his den. Paintings of people from around the globe surround him.

The computer cartographer, relying on information from sources such as Wycliffe Bible Translators and Google Earth, creates colored maps that show the progress of efforts to bring Scripture and the Jesus film to every last patch of the globe.

Deckert's maps, available on the Internet at http://www.worldmap.org, hang on walls in Third World mission offices and in wealthy donor churches from Seoul to Atlanta.

"There is not a country in the world where missionaries haven't gone or looked at the language needs" in order to bring the Bible there, said Deckert, who works for Campus Crusade for Christ, which distributes the Jesus film. Like many of the major Christian groups working abroad, it shares information, maps and translations.

"It's an awesome opportunity" to help bring the Gospel to all nations, he said. "Tens of thousands of people are out there working."

The Bible, with its parables and centuries-old figurative language, can take as long as 30 years to translate, at a cost of as much as $1 million.

Sometimes a missionary's biggest challenge is sickness, such as malaria or dengue fever, said Fredrick Boswell Jr., head of the translation group at the Forum of Bible Agencies International. Other times it is wrestling with how, for example, to translate stories about the 12 apostles into a language with words only for "one," "two" and "everything more than two" -- such as the Tok Mari language in Papua New Guinea.

Then there is the hostility that missionaries encounter in some parts of the world. Officials from several Christian groups said they do not disclose the location of some of their workers in predominantly Muslim areas in North Africa and the Middle East, out of concern for their safety.

In nations such as Burma, Saudi Arabia and China, where the government restricts or forbids the import of Bibles, multimedia versions are increasingly important. Evangelists said it is far easier to import a single CD, which can be copied repeatedly, than to import large containers of printed Bibles.

They are also employing new technology, including the solar-powered MegaVoice digital audio player and "Talking Bibles" that look like a book but at the touch of a button tell biblical stories. In the past two years, tens of thousands of them have been distributed in countries from Egypt to Sri Lanka.

Even the phone is now delivering the Bible. In South Africa, more than 20,000 people have signed up this year to download the entire book onto their cellphones.

ChristianMobile, the firm that offers the service, said young people particularly like the cellphone Bible, which allows them to search for and read passages while waiting in line or on a bus.

A Right to Choose

Some Cambodian Buddhists have complained that Christian missionary groups are too aggressive.

In June, government officials issued a public reminder of a ban on door-to-door proselytizing and the offering of food or other aid only to those who join churches.

Thousands of Christian missionaries have flooded into Cambodia, which is about the size of Oklahoma, since the early 1990s. Devastated by the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s, during which an estimated 1.7 million people were killed or died of starvation, and by the decade of war that followed, the nation remains impoverished, with many workers earning just a dollar or two a day.

The U.S. State Department estimates that only about 2 percent of Cambodians are Christian but that the number is growing and there are now about 2,400 churches in the country.

The country remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, with 4,000 gilded Buddhist temples filled with saffron-robed monks.

"We are getting used to globalization, but it is important to maintain our identity," said Nguon VanChanthi, director of the national Buddhist Institute. "For centuries and centuries we have been Buddhists."

But, he added, people have a right to choose their religion, and the government is grateful for the medicine, food and manpower that Christian groups are bringing. As for the Christian literacy program, he said, "If Buddhists worry about it, they should teach children to read, too."

Literacy programs similar to the one here are currently underway in many parts of the developing world, according to Bible agencies.

"It was unthinkable to have a church near a pagoda" in Cambodia a decade ago, said Arun Sok Nhep, who runs the United Bible Societies' Asia Pacific office.

But he said the globalization of religion means that there are now more American Buddhists and more Cambodian Christians.

In Rong Domriex, the farming village where children play knee-deep in the rice paddies, a local Christian pastor said he believes maybe half of the 11 children in Im's literacy class will become Christian.

"Whether they follow Jesus Christ or not is up to them," said Dom Saim, the pastor and a former Buddhist.

Im's father, Sum Tel Thoen, 37, a fisherman, said he didn't care that Christians were teaching his daughter. "It doesn't matter if my daughter is Christian. My focus is education," he said. "I can't read or write. I want my daughter to."

He said he was pleased that his daughter was dreaming of getting a job someday, now that she can read, instead of spending her days collecting firewood. Brushing her black hair away from her large brown eyes, she said matter-of-factly, "I am too poor to go to school."

Her father said that he, too, was learning about the new faith from Im. He stood next to his daughter as she described Jesus.

"He says, 'Don't steal other people's property, and if someone scolds you, be silent and don't scold back,' " she said, holding tightly to a paperback Bible, the first book she has ever owned.

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