Real people: The Word on the street

Read the Good Book recently? ANNALISA BARBIERI on how the Bible is converting the in-crowd

The Bible is trendy. I have been trying to skirt round this issue all week. During dozens of phone calls to professional theologians, clergymen and publishers of religious books, I have not been able to put these four words to them because it seemed ... disrespectful. Hence extraordinary sentences have been constructed to veil this premise in posh theories. "As we approach the millennium, do you think we are becoming more spiritual and seeking solace in theological matters?" was one. But the truth is that the Bible is enjoying a revival and it's about time.

Last week, in its May issue, Vogue ran a promotion for the Heartland Campaign, an organisation developed by clergymen and senior theologians to bring the Bible into the 21st century. In their first ever campaign they took up six pages, the theme being the return of the prodigal daughter, a spin on the more traditional version in St Luke's Gospel (15:11 for anyone interested). The promotion is entitled "The New Spirit" and it shows a girl returning home, wearing clothes available from the department store Fenwicks. Underneath the more contemporary prose ("Home is where the heart is, but will she find acceptance having chosen a different path?") there is the relevant text from St Luke ("I will set out and return to my Father"). Like many people, I flicked straight past it initially. It looked just like a fashion story. It wasn't.

"We've never done anything remotely like this before," says Vogue's promotions director Maria Carmody, who checked out Heartlands very carefully "to make sure they weren't some weird religious society that wanted to get their message across using Vogue". But they are very excited about it now. Blown-up versions of the photos will be in the windows at Fenwicks' Bond Street store for four weeks. For Maria, this promotion has had the desired effect: she's picked up her Bible again.

As a strictly non-practising Catholic, I was concerned that the biblical text printed beneath these glossy pictures might have been picked out by some Vogue girlie who didn't know her Old Testament from her New - Heartland had not been that bothered with having quotes from the Bible, thinking they might put people off, but Vogue thought differently. But because Heartland's main funder for this promotion was the Bible Society, their vice president, Tom Wright, the Dean of Lichfield, was the theological adviser on this project. And he saw nothing remiss about the Bible being in Vogue, as he told me from his mobile phone. "I was delighted. I've long believed that it is vital to get the main stories of the Bible into the marketplace. There's no point being protective; it's much better to risk being misunderstood than not to be heard at all."

What a fantastic attitude - sadly not shared by the people who think that the Bible should be read only by people with no minds of their own to make up. When the Pocket Canons, one of the most exciting things to happen to the Bible for a long time, were published last October, some bookshops boycotted them with claims that the introductions were "blasphemous libel" and "disrespectful". The Pocket Canons are a collection of 12 pocket-sized books taken from the Bible. They have punchy introductions by contemporary figures, some of whom have either controversial religious beliefs or none at all: Nick Cave did St Mark's Gospel; A S Byatt the Song of Solomon; Will Self the Book of Revelations. But the actual biblical extracts are from the authorised King James version and they remain unchanged. To date, they have sold a total of 840,000 copies, which is equivalent to 140,000 people each buying a biblical text each month since publication.

In November, another 10 canons will get the make-over treatment and this time the authors will include Ruth Rendell, P D James, the Dalai Lama and Bono, who will be giving us his thoughts on the Psalms. (If at this stage you are wondering what a canon is, let me save you looking it up as I had to: it is a book in the Bible that has been recognised as authoritative.)

This is all part of a larger "religion is cool" movement that is gaining momentum as the century comes to a close. It's something advertising agencies have been quick, as ever, to pounce upon, using religious iconography as a cheap shock tactic to sell their product. I'm tired of ad agencies using nuns kissing priests, dressed in jeans, nailed to crosses, carried by donkeys drinking fizzy orange drinks. It's bloody boring.

Why we're suddenly "rediscovering" religion, and the Bible, is due to simple cycles - everything goes in and out of fashion, even fringed leather. And some people are scared that, as the supposed year of Armageddon approaches, the sinners among us will be struck down. Dr Geoff Scobie, senior psychologist at the University of Glasgow, has done studies into the psychology of religion and social attitudes generally. He thinks that: "This sense of spiritual values is in the ascendancy, partly due to the millennium but also because of the lack of progress made by science and medicine. So people are 'looking elsewhere'."

The Bible is an obvious choice for people seeking reassurance, or enlightenment. When I was nine and my mother was in hospital, I borrowed my friend's colour-picture version and read fanatically every day on the way to school. This wasn't easy: it was A4-sized, with big print and it weighed as much as a phone directory. But the point is, I understood it; otherwise no amount of obsessive behaviour could have made me stick it. The Bible can be quite off-putting with its tricky syntax and its "thees" and "thous". When the Good News for Modern Man Bible was published in 1976 - a plain English version with drawings, free of heavy theological language - it went down a storm and has sold millions.

Last year, The Scrolls by Nick Page was published by HarperCollins, a large-format paperback version of the Bible story told in tabloid headlines: "Five thousand fed with loaves and fishes. Miracle or just very thinly sliced? You decide!" It has been highly successful. Hot on its heels in nine days' time the same publisher will put out a repackaged version of the King James Bible: The Word. On its cover is a naked couple whose modesty is spared only by the banner proclaiming the book's title. It has already caused controversy. Anthony Kilminster, the chairman of the Prayer Book Society, has said that "the Bible has survived since the 17th century without gimmicks" and thinks the cover may lead people to believe it's content is "pornographic".

For the Heartland Campaign, their foray into Vogue was the first of what they hope to be many such subtle skirt-tugs on the nation's spiritual conscience. "We may expand within the lifestyle area," says their press officer, Kathy Hasler. "Maybe into arts, politics, education. If this one goes down well it could broaden out into a wider campaign." And if this means that more people rediscover or are introduced to our greatest literary work, then bloody jolly good.

O COME ALL YE FASHIONABLE

! Last October the Pope brought out a range of sunglasses, signed Joannes Paulus PP II in his own hand and with the words 'Exist for Someone' printed on the frame.

! Diesel featured models in nun's habits and jeans, holding rosaries, with a statue of the Virgin Mary behind, also in jeans. 'Pure virginal 100 per cent cotton. Soft yet miraculous-ly strong' ran across the ad. It was ruled 'unacceptable to depict nuns as sexual beings'.

! Later this year, Alanis Morrisette will appear as God in the film Dogma, also starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

! In a fellow rapper's video, Puff Daddy played a cameo - nailed to the cross. Despite Puff's protestations it remained in the video for its US premier.

! Heineken featured religion in its Christmas 'what a refreshing change' campaign, with a nativity scene above which was the legend 'It's a girl'.

! Last month, David Beckham featured in Time Out, his hands outstretched. The headline was 'The Resurrection of Beckham'.

! Benetton ran an ad showing a nun kissing a priest. It was banned.

! Footballer Ronaldo mimics the pose of Rio de Janeiro's statue of Christ, in an ad for Pirelli.

! Last year photographer Terry O'Neill shot Raquel Welch clad in a bikini and tied to a cross.

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