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Friday, April 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thus sayeth the Lord (in the voice of James Earl Jones)

Seattle Times staff reporter

"In the world, ye shall have tribulation. But be of good cheer. I have overcome the world."

John 16:33

Jesus' final conversation with his disciples in the Bible resonates well enough on its own.

But imagine James Earl Jones — the voice of Darth Vader, The Lion King and CNN — whispering them in your ear in his unmistakably rich baritone.

The voice is everything when it comes to audio versions of the Bible.

And TOPICS Entertainment of Renton could not have done much better than to re-master Jones' King James Version of the New Testament, a nine-hour recording he made in the 1980s.

The company has sold about 400,000 copies of "James Earl Jones Reads the Bible" ($49.95) since issuing it in 2002.

The weeks before Easter see a spike in sales for Bibles, both in print and in audio form like the Jones CD set.

And while audio Bibles still represent a small share of the overall Christian publishing market, their popularity is growing.

One of the reasons is that firms like TOPICS have become savvy about marketing the ancient text, adding musical backdrops, tweaking the language to suit modern listeners, offering versions that can be downloaded to portable media players and, most notably, employing celebrity voices.

But it's not just that Jones has a famous baritone.

"Even if he didn't do this Bible and you said, 'Whose voice sounds like God?' — it would be James Earl Jones," TOPICS President Greg James said.

"He just has such a beautiful, rich voice, it's amazing," he said, mimicking Jones' authoritative "This ... is CNN" promo for the news network.

"There are no pretty faces in this business," James added, no offense to Jones intended. "Nobody cares what you look like. It's how well you project an image of something."

Jones was so good at evoking "scenes in the mind" with his voice, James said, that TOPICS tried to lure the actor back to record the Old Testament. Jones' people said he wanted $1 million for the job.

"He was a little out of our price range," James joked.

James also tried to recruit his friend the raspy-voiced Seattle actor Tom Skerritt, but "he wasn't into it."

Recording the Bible can be an exhausting, time-consuming task. James said that a speaker spends about three hours in the studio for every hour of recorded material on a finished CD. For speakers who need to do more than a few takes, that ratio can go to 5:1.

TOPICS eventually secured Jon Sherberg, a former backup singer for Garth Brooks who has also done work for Disney and collaborated with the likes of George C. Scott and Charlton Heston on vocal projects.

Sherberg's Old Testament reading and Jones' New Testament are available from TOPICS in the newly released, 60-CD "Complete Audio Holy Bible" ($69.95).

The company is also planning a Spanish-language audio Bible to capture the growing Hispanic market.

Once again, they'll have to find that perfect voice, only this time from a celebrity born in a Spanish-speaking country but who has name recognition in the United States.

For a time last year, TOPICS courted honey-tongued actor Ricardo Montalban, aging star of the TV classic "Fantasy Island" and the former pitchman for Chrysler who made the words "Corinthian leather" sound like a come-on rather than a car detail.

Montalban backed out at the last minute because of health reasons, James said.

"We've been racking our brains to find somebody out there who is really good, so our latest possibility — and you may laugh at this — is Antonio Banderas," he said.

The Spanish-born actor would have to work for scale, though.

"We know it's probably a long, long, long shot," James said.

TOPICS isn't the only company banking on the appeal of audio Bibles read by celebrities.

Grand Rapids, Mich., company Zondervan, the world's biggest Bible publisher, has joined with Inspired By Media Group to produce "The Bible Experience," a dramatic studio recording of the New and Old Testaments featuring Denzel Washington as Solomon, Angela Bassett as Esther, Blair Underwood as Jesus and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Judas.

This will be the company's first foray into celebrity recordings in 10 years of releasing audio Bibles.

There will be sound effects and an original music score performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, along with some 100 celebrity voices in all.

It's a blockbuster-type undertaking, one conceived as a way to target a young, urban demographic that has disengaged from church and doesn't read the Bible, Zondervan Vice President and Publisher of Bibles Paul Caminiti said.

But Caminiti said he is certain of the project's crossover appeal, given the popularity of audio Bibles in general.

"Very clearly, audio Bibles are selling at a faster rate than our print Bibles, although they're doing well too," he said. "People today are time-starved, people are commuting, but now they can engage the Bible in their cars, they can engage the Bible on airplanes, they can engage the Bible on their iPods."

Zondervan also will introduce a Bible for iPod users this summer that will be the first Bible in any medium available at Apple retail stores.

But Caminiti is quick to point out that audio Bibles aren't exactly a novel idea. Before the advent of the printing press in the 1400s, Biblical teachings were part of an oral tradition.

"Up until then, people didn't read the Bible, they heard the Bible," sometimes accompanied by music, Caminiti said.

They just didn't have Blair Underwood or James Earl Jones in the lead roles.

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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