Rupert Murdoch's biblical empire

How Rupert Murdoch profits from the Bible

July 15, 2011 | Viewpoints
Will Braun, columnist | Canadian Mennonite
Will Braun

Billionaire media titan Rupert Murdoch has made headlines over the phone hacking scandal that forced him to shut down his British tabloid, News of the World. But few people know that News Corp, the company Murdoch heads, also owns Zondervan, the world's leading Bible publisher.

News Corp, which took in $32.7 billion last year, also owns Fox TV, The Wall Street Journal, 20th Century Fox and dozens of other media outlets. It acquired Zondervan in 1988.

Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan sells over 500 styles of the Bible. And though you may not own thePrecious Princess Bible, Camo Bible (imagine "Holy Bible" on a camouflage cover), or the Stock Car Racing Bible, you probably have a Zondervan Bible in your house. Mine is a plain old New International Version (NIV).

The NIV remains a top seller; over 300 million copies have sold worldwide. That's good news for Murdoch because Zondervan owns the exclusive North American print rights to the NIV. Zondervan also publishes books by Christian authors like Rick Warren, Tim LaHaye, Jim Wallis, Eugene Peterson, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne.

But what are we to make of the mix of billionaire tycoonery, dingy tabloid dealings and the Holy Word of God? What are we to make of the fact that every time we buy a Zondervan product we fuel a media conglomerate that appears to care more about profit than integrity?

I asked Shane Claiborne. His books,Jesus for President (co-written with Chris Haw) and The Irresistible Revolution, are number 3 and 4 on Zondervan's top seller list. He has long been aware of the Zondervan-Murdoch connection.

I admire Claiborne, partly because he lives out his faith in the "abandoned corners of empire." His particular corner is the impoverished Kensington neighbourhood of Philadelphia. Given his relation to "empire," I wanted to know why he chose a News Corp company as his publisher?

"I want to have the broadest readership possible," Claiborne says by phone, "I don't want to be someone who just speaks to the choir." He says smaller publishers have their advantages but the books he has written for them cost "two or three times" what they would if Zondervan published them.

Claiborne says the key is to "protect the integrity of the message." If he is convinced the medium won't change the message, he will work with organizations despite not "[agreeing] with all of their approaches or decisions."

But even if the message is protected, his work helps enrich a rather well-maintained corner of empire. He feels "conflicted" about this. "I don't think that the world exists in 100 percent pure and 100 percent impure options," he says. 

There’s good and bad in each of us, he says, “we are called to work on the log in our own eye, and I’m sure as heck trying to work on the compromises that I make so that those are minimal when it comes to integrity.”

He makes a good point. Demonizing Rupert Murdoch or Zondervan is not wise. No rendition of the Bible would condone that. Nonetheless, I’m not ready to say, like Maureen Girkin did in 2008 when she was CEO of Zondervan, that “News Corp is a wonderful media giant.”

Nor do I think the Bible should be treated as a business opportunity. We should be able to read about “the least of these” without paying dues to the greatest.

Or perhaps Murdoch is just a gifted businessman who enables the distribution of important materials. Perhaps writers like Claiborne are subverting or redeeming something in need of redemption. Perhaps I overstate the link between News of the World and Zondervan. It’s just that I believe there should be no link at all. Bald greed has no place in Bible publishing.

Christianity does not require the help of an unscrupulous media empire. The Good News will be just fine without News Corp.

Part of me would love to see readers (and writers) humbly decline any participation in the big Bible business. But a Bible boycott feels odd. My colleague Aiden Enns – who once cut the Zondervan label out of the spine of his Bible in protest – suggests that every time we buy a Zondervan purchase we pay a 10 percent tithe or "sin tax" to a charity.

Personally, I don't want a penny of my money going to fuel the News Corp empire. Fortunately for me, the last time I crossed paths with Shane Claiborne he gave me a copy of the most recent Zondervan publication he collaborated on, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I offered him warm thanks – it’s a great book – then said with a smirk, “this way none of my money needs to go to Zondervan.”

Will Braun, a regular columnist for Canadian Mennonite, attends Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. A version of this article first appeared on Braun's "Holy Moly" blog on the Geezmagazine website (www.geezmagazine.org).

Will Braun

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