In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was too long.
So Reader's Digest, which has been shrinking notable tomes for 32 years, has taken on the Bible itself, blue-penciling the Good Book down to a lean, trim 450,000 words -- the ecclesiastical equivalent of a greatest-hits album.
To transmute the formidable original into a fluid narrative for The Garfield Generation, editors whacked 50 percent out of the Old Testament, 25 percent out of the New. As a result, "The Reader's Digest Bible," to be published next week, is a full 40 percent shorter than the Revised Standard Version of 1971, which was used as the basic text. They didn't just chuck the begats and chop out a few massacres. In the Digest's high-compression engines, every passage has been squeezed to the minimum: Even Jesus' words have been reduced fully 10 percent to eliminate repetitions; and when God Himself gets a little windy in the Old Testament, He is simply cut off, as if interviewed by Sam Donaldson.
Gone entirely are thousands of redundant words, thoughts and incidents, and myriad snippets of genealogy, geography and architecture. Gone, too, are the double-column format and those colon-spotted chapter-and-verse numbers that are the bane of Sunday-school students. The text is laid out like a novel, with longer paragraphs the width of the page, crisp introductions to each book and a splendid index. "Now," boasts the Digest, "You can read the Bible cover to cover." Testaments without tears: Even at 799 pages, it just rolls along like "The Thorn Birds." No wonder Pat Boone felt compelled to warble his endorsement of this "eminently readable but still authentic Bible feast! . . . put my name on the list for one of the first copies!"
That's the reaction they were hoping for back in 1975, when John Beaudoin, head of the Digest Condensed Books works, had a vision: The Bible, although "the leading best seller of all time, paradoxically is one of the least read of all important books"; its 800,000 words and "often repetitious, unfamiliar style," prevented thousands from trying. There was already a host of redactions on the market: paraphrases; abridgments like the Shorter Oxford Bible; holy hybrids like "The Living Bible" (1971) combining translation and discussion; and pop renditions aplenty. But none, the Digest felt, was a "true condensation" leaving the structure of all 66 books intact.
And so it came to pass that when market research showed wide buyer potential, the Digest asked veteran editor John Walsh to serve as head of the project. Walsh quailed in "absolute consternation" at the mighty prospect, but later agreed. The group then engaged eminent Biblical scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger of Princeton as general editor, and obtained copyright permission to the RSV -- chosen, Walsh says, for its contemporary accuracy, wide acceptance and "stately, prestigious prose" -- from the National Council of Churches. (The Digest wanted a Protestant version, and the King James was rejected as "frequently archaic and obscure.") Walsh then got seven "of the most experienced condensation editors in captivity" who would end up working nonstop for three years -- 20 times the effort required to shrink a similar body of fiction, Walsh says -- constantly consulting Biblical commentaries as they tweezered out the prose.
Metzger, who also wrote the introductions, provided a preliminary list of "block cuts," whole sections of expendable text or mega-redundancy. (See chapter 7 of Numbers, Metzger says.) He also specified passages that could not be touched, such as the 23rd Psalm, the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer and -- woe unto modern backsliders -- every sub-clause of the Ten Commandments. After that, the scissor boys went to work, and some books suffered more than others. Big losers: Exodus and First Chronicles, both down 70 percent; and Luke took a 25 percent trim. But Ecclesiastes, Esther and Malachi survived at least three-fifths intact; and a generous 85 percent of John and Mark remain. Walsh says the hardest books to edit were Revelation, First Samuel "because of the many different strands of narrative" and Job and Isaiah "in the exposition."
The result is no slang canon. Heaven remains the "firmament"; the antique "knew" has been retained for sexual relations; there are still "pinnacles of agate" and "gates of carbuncles." And although 5 percent of the language is "new" -- inserted to stitch up transitions over the cuts -- editors took pains to use words that already occurred in the respective books. Still, the diction and sentence structure are often even more plain than the RSV text.
This is achieved at some cost to rhythm and tone. Ecclesiastes and Isaiah sound somewhat less gloriously indignant, and the Lord Himself seems even less imposing an orator than He does in the RSV. In fact, He can be downright prosaic. Consider the injunction to Noah. In the King James -- which even in 1611 was composed with deliberately archaic usage to give a feeling of venerable majesty -- it reads: "Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion thou shalt make it of: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits . . . And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shalt gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee and for them." A little florid, certainly, at 85 words, but decorous and grand. The RSV normalizes the syntax, changes the thee/thous to you, keeps the cubits, and actually ends up six words longer.
In the Digest version, it sounds like something out of a Hechinger brochure: "You are to make an ark of gopher wood and cover it with pitch. Make it four hundred and fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high . . . Also take with you every sort of food, and store it up for you and them." But you get the general drift, and the passage is shorter by more than half, with subsequent reductions obtained by simply deleting God's specific instructions regarding "clean" and "unclean" animals as well as the rest of Genesis 7:1-10.
Such excisions provoked no qualms in Metzger, whose approval was required at each stage of the work: "Whenever a minister preaches a sermon, he abridges. Any scholar makes a selection." Besides, the Digest Bible is only intended to supplement, not replace, the full text. "We are not keeping people from reading the Bible," Walsh says. "We are only encouraging those who ordinarily would not read it at all." Still, when word of the project got out, they were bombarded with hostile mail and many fundamentalist padres are still in a theological swivet. In 1979, Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote the Digest calling it a "serious mistake." "Metzger may be an able scholar," he said, "but his approach and conviction concerning the divine inspiration and absolute infallibility of scripture are suspect." He further charged Metzger with "violating" the warning in Revelation 22:18-19, which forbids altering "the words of the book of this prophecy." The Digest says that passage "really amounts to an ancient copyright notice" in an age of sloppy hand-copied manuscripts. Falwell will editorialize against the book in a coming issue of his church magazine.
The project was initially condemned by the head of New York State's Moral Majority chapter, whereupon he was given the Florsheim by the national. "A lot of your super-fundies" may cavil, says Moral Majority spokesman Cal Thomas, but "we don't have a position." And the book has drawn kudos from dozens of clerics, including Norman Vincent Peale for its "reverently innovative manner" and Oral Roberts for "keeping the general flow of the Bible going."
To promote the low-fat scripture, Reader's Digest, never averse to laying up treasures, will employ a $100,000 ad campaign, a direct-mail blitz and special displays for bookstores. Readers can choose the $16.95 standard edition with a sunrise over Mount Sinai on the dust jacket or the slipcased, leather-bound deluxe at $24.95, both distributed by Random House. With Christian interest on the rise and public literacy on the wane, expectations for the painless Writ are apocalyptic. "It could become," says Walsh, "the most valuable version of the Bible available to today's readers."