'We need to take the Bible back from the bigots'

A modern new guide to the Bible aims to improve religious affairs journalism

It's not every day that journalists are presented with a "style guide" to interpret the most enduring international bestseller on the planet. But the Bible is no ordinary book, and these are not conventional times, as religion hits the headlines like never before and the modern media slowly come to terms with it in a post-9/11 world.

The surprisingly punchy Bible Style Guide, released today by the Bible Society, aims to offer useful information to both religious affairs and general reporters. There is much in the Bible that continues to intrigue interest not only among Christians but among atheists and agnostics as well – partly, perhaps, based on people's love of mystery and conspiracy theory, a phenomenon demonstrated by the success of the author Dan Brown and the recently published thrillers by CJ Sansom. The Bible Style Guide attempts to tap into this, pointing out, for example, that "in every age, people have identified specific figures as the antichrist, depending on their particular standpoint. This has included Caesar Nero, various Popes, Martin Luther and Hitler. In our own time, the finger of suspicion has been pointed at Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden and even David Hasselhoff."

The "Bible Code", says the guide, is "a hidden code, allegedly found in the Hebrew text of the Bible, which is said to have accurately predicted a series of world events [including] Hitler's role in the Nazi Holocaust, Einstein's role in developing a revolutionary scientific theory and President Kennedy's assassination."

The guide also attempts to "translate" certain extracts. "And lo, the workmen didst walk a Sabbath's day journey", for example, becomes, "The workers hiked half a mile" – though it stresses that there is a limit to how much the Bible should be translated to adapt to the modern world.

It tries to appeal to the journalistic mindset by producing a series of droll "headlines" about the history of the Bible in English, including: "Dying monk writes 'chav' gospel", "Smuggled Bibles 'hidden in bales of wool'", "Asylum-seeker produces 'radical Bible'", and "Welsh language 'saved by the Bible'".

In the guide, the Bible is explained as a collection of poetry, legal documents, eyewitness accounts and advice, written on papyrus and leather scrolls over 1,000 years by a range of scribes, fishermen, kings, prophets and musicians, "as well as the odd doctor or tree surgeon".

There is a serious backdrop to the guide's release, though. In America, presidential candidates court the crucial Evangelical Christian vote. From Iraq to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, Islam and its relationship with democracy dominates the news. Jerusalem remains the geographical and spiritual centre not just of Christianity and Judaism but of the world's most intractable conflict, between Israel and the Palestinians. In the UK, multiculturalism and the place of religion in society – from Sharia to a barely visible cross worn by a British Airways steward – has emerged as arguably the dominant continuing narrative in the domestic media. From faith schools to gay adoption, from embryos to abortion, a fresh battle between church and state has swept through Westminster. In short, religion is the new politics.

The publication of the guide is a not-so-subtle hint on the part of its authors that religious reporting could use a little expertise. Though the pack of established religious affairs correspondents are expert – one, The Daily Telegraph's George Pitcher, is a practicing priest – religious coverage spills over into so many general news stories that the authors of the guide apparently feel that all journalists might benefit from a flick through it. It is also true – for better or worse – that there are, simply, fewer Christians in the media than there once were, and that media figures – like everyone else – are less likely than they were some years ago to have studied religious affairs, let alone Biblical scripture.

Pitcher says: "The trouble with the Bible is that it's very old and very long – for journos that means 'boring'. Plenty of people say that all human life is here and that it's breathtakingly beautifully written in parts. Fewer say that it's politically controversial – in all the debate over women bishops, for instance, no one seems to have got stuck into the gospels and shown that women were given socially revolutionary roles in the Jesus movement. And today, we have fewer women in Parliament than Iran and Aghanistan. Anything that gives journalists a quick insight and source for this material has to be welcome – and overdue. Especially when the Bible is badly misrepresented by bigots and fundamentalists pursuing their own narrow agenda."

The guide's 80 pages include facts, figures and explanations aimed to "help media professionals report Bible stories with confidence". It does not shy away from the controversial areas of religious coverage, such as how Christians deal with violent texts in the Bible. Its 20-page glossary of biblical terms and ideas goes from Abraham to Zionism, taking in creation, Judgement Day and Satan on the way.

It is produced by the British and Foreign Bible Society, a Christian charity that exists to make the Bible available throughout the world. David Ashford, the group's media development officer and the man who dreamt up the guide, is a 30-year-old Roman Catholic who shares a flat with an atheist. "The idea actually came from a former journalist who told me how useful a good style guide can be in a busy newsroom," he says. "I realised that in a globalised world, reporters needed something that contained well-researched, even-handed information about biblical issues."

Despite its usefulness as a resource, the guide occasionally indulges in the somewhat twee style common to Christians trying to preach in the modern world, and its purpose can sometimes seem unclear compared to other "style guides". It is augmented by the Bible Society's blog, which tracks coverage of the Bible in the media (www.bitemybible.com), running stories in which ancient and modern collide, such as the digitised copy recently made of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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