An Atlanta publisher has recently added yet another specialty Bible to this market, the "Women of Color Study Bible" (Nia Publishing, $34.99), the first such book created by and for African-American women. "It's a knockout," said Phyllis Tickle, religion editor emeritus of Publishers Weekly, a magazine that tracks both religious and secular book sales. "The female market in religion is huge right now. And the African-American market in religion is growing." The Bible may not have the trendy allure of the latest John Grisham thriller, but it remains the best-selling book of all time. The United Bible Societies, a nondenominational group of organizations offering information on the Bible, reports that more Bibles have been printed than any other book and nine out of 10 homes in America have at least one Bible.
Specialty Bibles, aimed at groups that often feel excluded or apart --- teens, people in recovery, athletes --- have helped keep the Good Book popular. "They sell like hot doughnuts," Tickle said. "They take what is a fairly daunting thing, the Holy Scriptures, and focus a holy lens on it."
The new "Women of Color Study Bible" offers a detailed look at women in the Bible---Esther, Ruth and Martha, for instance---who were most probably dark-skinned and of African descent, the book's editors said. It also features essays from 200 female pastors who use the Scriptures to examine such contemporary subjects as domestic abuse, single motherhood and sexism.
The Rev. Cynthia Hale, one of the book's contributors, said African-American Christian women have long sought to have their presence recognized not only in the Bible but within their own religious community. "In the black community, there are still questions as to whether a woman should preach," said Hale, pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur. The Rev. Mary Anne Bellinger, another contributor, said the book speaks to all women who are tired of the Bible's tendency to ignore their full humanity. "Think of all the women in the Bible with no names," said Bellinger, an ordained Baptist minister in Atlanta. "Even the language is very masculine. Everything is a 'he.' "
In a similar fashion, African-Americans have faced exclusionary tactics by the Bible publishing industry, according to Melvin Banks II, publisher of the new study guide for women of color. Most companies producing Bibles are "lily-white," Banks said, and in the past published little material specifically targeted at people of color. "Over the years they have tried to insert us into what they're doing . . . but they always seem to miss the mark," Banks said.
He found little support at major publishing houses when he took them his idea for his specialized Bible. Undaunted, he decided to publish the work himself --- he'd published two previous Bibles in the '90s aimed at African-American children, both successful. Banks said he did little market research to support what he already knew --- African-American women wanted their own Bible. He recognized this desire every time he went to church. "Most people who go to African-American churches are women," he said. "It's really easy to see."
Banks' confidence only grew when, in the late '90s, he spotted another trend--a new and increased interest by publishers in the African-American community. Last year, the American Bible Society published the African-American Jubilee edition of the Bible, a book that traces the presence of Africans in the Bible and the achievements of the African-American church. The two largest Christian book publishers, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan, have also recently published Bibles aimed at African-Americans. Even a hip-hop Bible, filled with ebonics, was recently published, though it was not a big seller.
But it's the success of yet another Bible, the "Woman, Thou Art Loosed" Bible (Thomas Nelson, $59.99), that Banks and others point to when discussing the spate of Bibles aimed at women and people of color. "Woman, Thou Art Loosed" Bible, edited by Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Dallas-based evangelist, has sold more than a quarter-million copies since it was published 15 months ago.
Impressed by the quick sales of Jakes' Bible, Thomas Nelson is now planning to publish two more Bibles for women --- a "Women of Destiny" Bible, aimed at women in the charismatic movement, and a "Women's Life Bible," for women trying to balance the demands of motherhood and career with their faith. "There is a tremendous market for women's Bible content," said Craig Featherstone, marketing vice president with Thomas Nelson. "Women constitute the largest segment of the Christian book market."
Some Christians, however, think that specialty Bibles dilute the faith by tailoring the gospel for too many groups. The fear is that the universal appeal of Christianity will be lost as people focus only on parts of the Bible that they think apply to them.
Tickle disagrees. "Most of us come with a sort of lens to the Holy Scriptures anyway," she said. "It's better to have a lens as an addict reading the Holy Word than to not read it at all. And who's to say you won't accidentally slip and read another verse?"