It's an epic telling of the life of Jesus — an ambitious production featuring an all-star cast. But it's not a movie or miniseries.
It's a new audio Bible released by Zondervan, one of the world's largest publishers of religious books.
"Inspired By ... The Bible Experience: New Testament" features a large, all-black cast including some of Hollywood's biggest names. And in the world of audio books, it's a smash.
It has been at or near the No. 1 spot among the best-selling books listed on Wal-Mart's Web site since its early fall release. The retail chain Family Christian Stores say it's the fastest-selling audio Bible it has ever stocked.
The 21-hour production features the voice talents of more than 250 singers, clergy and actors, including Denzel Washington, Cuba Gooding Jr., Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard. Blair Underwood portrays Jesus, and Samuel L. Jackson, who played a Scripture-spouting hit man in "Pulp Fiction," is the voice of God.
"It's really good and it's transcending every barrier. We're thrilled with the way that the product has turned out," said Paul Caminiti, vice president and publisher of Bibles for Zondervan, a Grand Rapids-based division of News Corp.-owned HarperCollins.
70,000 sold since September
Zondervan started shipping "Bible Experience" in late September and has sold more than 70,000 units, Caminiti said. By comparison, Zondervan, which publishes the five best-selling audio Bibles in the United States, sells about 60,000 units each year of its longtime top-seller, the "New International Version Audio Bible."
"Bible Experience" is available on CD and in mp3 formats, with an Old Testament version due in fall 2007 that is expected to run much longer. It will feature many of the same well-known actors, although someone will take over for Jackson as God, a role that will balloon from about two hours to more than 70 hours.
The project is the brainchild of Kyle Bowser, a former television executive with a law degree. At Fox Broadcasting Co. in the early 1990s, he helped develop such TV shows as the sketch comedy series "In Living Color," a show with a mostly black cast that also propelled white comedian Jim Carrey to stardom, and the Charles S. Dutton situation comedy "Roc." Dutton is one of the performers on the new audio Bible.
A personal quest
Bowser said he recommitted himself to Christianity in 1997 around the time his wife, TV sitcom producer Yvette Lee Bowser, was pregnant with their first child. A few years later, he bought a 65-CD audio Bible that he quit listening to "after the first two or three discs" because he was not inspired by the storytelling.
"The production value was lacking and I thought, gee whiz, if we could do this and really capture people's attention, how much more impactful and engaging it might be," he said.
Bowser formed a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based production company called Inspired By Media Group with three fellow Christians: new media executive Ron Belk, music producer Louis "Buster" Brown and casting director Robi Reed, who was principally responsible for getting commitments from the talent.
About a year and a half ago, an agent representing the four partners approached Zondervan with their idea. The publisher agreed to provide financing as well as text from its Today's New International Version Bible, a conversational translation aimed at young readers.
Years in development
"Bible Experience" spent several years in development before recording started last December. Work on the entire New Testament, plus part of the Old Testament, was completed by July 1.
Underwood said in a written statement that he was proud to have worked on the project, which he said was a "unique and timely" version of the Bible.
The producers decided early on to cast only black actors and other personalities, hoping to attract a black audience, as well as fans of some of the world's biggest box-office draws. They also wanted to shatter the Hollywood mold of white Bible productions.
"I was particularly interested in developing a product that might resonate with the African-American community," Bowser said. "I've long felt that Christian product tends to ignore our perspective."
He called it "a gift from our community to the world to be shared and appreciated by all."
‘No one did this for the money’
"Bible Experience" features a complete, original musical score with selections performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Its state-of-the-art sound effects take listeners into the story.
Virtually every actor whom Reed approached immediately agreed to participate. All performers received union scale pay with a few of the biggest names promised "nominal" percentages of profits, Bowser said.
"No one did this for the money," he said.
There was some debate among the producers whether to restrict the cast to Christians. They finally decided not to, since the Bible is filled with both Christians and non-Christians, Bowser said.
"That way we availed ourselves to the best talent in the community," he said. "But I can tell you, whether they were believers or nonbelievers, everyone that participated came with a high degree of reverence and total respect for the significance of this project."