The Bible has long been one of the world's least-read bestsellers. According to pollster George Barna's January 2005 survey of more than 1,000 adults, 45 percent said they read the Bible during a typical week. But publisher Zondervan said that while 91 percent of Americans own at least one Bible, only 22 percent have read through the entire text. Fewer still seem to understand it. About 12 percent of Americans think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc, according to a Gallup poll.

Proponents of a new trend, however, hope to make God's word digestible for the masses not in years, but in weeks, days, and—yes—even minutes. The BBC reported that The 100-Minute Bible, published last September, has already sold 100,000 copies.

How many purchasers are actually reading it—and what they are getting out of it—are other matters.

Including The 100-Minute Bible, three new options for accelerated Bible reading have just hit the shelf, all based on the premise that reading it the old-fashioned way is just too hard or takes too long.

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For the person who want their speediness to be at a relaxed pace, The Bible in 90 Days might be a good choice. With an interactive website and cross-country encouragement, it is both a Bible and a curriculum (www.Biblein90Days.com site run by Zondervan) developed and field-tested by Ted Cooper, a Houston businessman.

Six years ago, Cooper and his wife were professed agnostics. They started attending church for their children, and Cooper began to be skeptical of his own agnosticism as he read the Bible. "I thought if there is a God and I get started reading it, he's going to want me to finish it," he said.

A computer industry consultant and businessman, Cooper read the Bible in three months. He said he "became a Christian in the Old Testament" and started telling people about the transformation.

Cooper developed a class on Bible-reading for his church. The basic premise of "The Bible in 90 Days" is to read 12 pages of the NIV Thinline Large Print Bible every day, which takes between 45 minutes and an hour, and attend supplemental classes either in church or a small group.

Cooper estimates that more than 1,000 people have gone through the program, across denominational lines.

And how many have finished? About 54 percent, Cooper said.

A national launch began on January 1.

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But if 90 days seems like 89 too many, then The HCSB Light Speed Bible may be about your pace. William Proctor, the Bible's editor, took the Holman Christian Standard version and paired a speed-reading technique with the text to allow the reader to get through the entire Bible in a mere 24 hours.

Proctor said people want to read the whole Bible, but lack the skills and time. "People can revolutionize their Bible reading." Proctor added headings, subheadings, and underlinings to the text in order to "focus on important people and facts."

Interestingly, the 24 hours don't include just one skim through the volume's 1,500 pages and 4,000 years of biblical history, but three passes: light speed (four seconds per page, reading headings), landmark (eight seconds, headings, subheadings, underlinings), and learning (one to two minutes, every word).

Proctor said the volume, which came out in October, isn't a substitute for in-depth study, but "an essential adjunct to Bible teaching."

Some Bible scholars express unease with turning the Bible into an Evelyn Wood course. Richard Schultz, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, said that "the Bible is God's eternal inerrant Word, not a quick read."

Schultz served on translation committees for both the Holman Christian Standard Bible and the New Living Translation. "[The Bible] is intended to be read slowly, studied, memorized, and meditated upon, rather than becoming the object of a slick speed-reading course," he said.

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Proctor disagrees. "If you focus only on individual verses or chapters, you don't get a sense of the broad sweep and trends of the entire work," he said. "My secret goal is to see whole Bible reading increased exponentially."

Paul Gutjahr, religious studies professor at Indiana University and author of An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880, wonders how much content speed-readers can retain. "But," he said, "the upside is that at least people are reading it."

On the other hand, Peter J. Thuesen, professor of American religious history at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and author of In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible, said speed-reading actually helps improve retention because it requires more concentration. "If speed-reading helps some people comprehend the whole Bible in a new way, I don't see a problem with it. But I see it more as a study technique than as a way to use the Bible devotionally," he said.

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Then there is the British-published 100-Minute Bible. Michael Hinton, a retired Anglican priest, has condensed the Bible to approximately 20,000 words in fewer than 60 pages. The volume has made a splash in both the religious press and the broader media, according to Thomas Yap, a suburban parish priest in North Yorkshire, England.

According to Yap, the hope is that the reader will become interested in the God of the Bible and thereby begin to engage with the Bible as a whole. "For this reason, I thinkpublications like The 100-Minute Bible … areuseful," he said.

Schultz is less encouraged, however. "If people only have 100 minutes to spare for the Bible, let them spend it reading through Philippians or James several times rather than deluding themselves by thinking that the condensed Bible version that they have read is really God's word," he said.

Yap acknowledged his concern that these types of publications "are not seen as the only diet for the growing Christian."

"If we only use [a] bite-sized-chunks Bible as a growing Christian, we will never get the whole counsel of Scripture." For example, The 100-Minute Bible condenses Jesus' three-chapter Sermon on the Mount to six paragraphs and 413 words.

IUPUI professor Thuesen noted that any condensed Bible "is going to involve interpretation, so in that sense a condensation is a book about the Bible rather than the Bible itself." Edgar Goodspeed and J. M. Powis Smith published The Short Bible in 1933 and "made something of splash at the time," he said. "Many Christian churches for centuries have used a lectionary, or cycle of appointed readings, for every Sunday of the church year. The lectionary doesn't cover the whole Bible, just the passages that the church has judged the most important.

"Let's face it: Some passages of the Bible are more theologically significant than others."

Yap concedes that fast Bibles can be a "dumbing-down of Scripture" but points "significant growth"of interestin the Bible through introductory courses such as Alpha or Emmaus. "I would heartily encourage accessible Bibles for my non-Christian friends and then as they grow in discipleship, engage them with the Bible as a whole," Yap said.

Mark Strauss of Bethel Seminary San Diego said if The 100-Minute Bible increases Bible knowledge, then he is in favor of it. "The Bible at its heart is a message from God, and so our goal should be to get that message into our minds and actions—any way we can."

How useful the new crop of quick-read Bibles will be is anyone's guess at this point. But one thing is certain: We won't have to wait long for the answer.

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Related Elsewhere:

The Bible in 90 Days and The HCSB Light Speed Bible are available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 and In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible are available from Amazon.com and other book retailers. And the 100-Minute Bible is available from Amazon.co.uk.

News elsewhere includes:

100,000 copies of new Bible sold | A compact version of the Bible has sold 100,000 copies since it was unveiled at Canterbury Cathedral last September. (BBC, February 27, 2006)
SMS Bible launched in Australia | The Bible has been translated into text message-speak in Australia to allow its lessons to be disseminated more easily. (BBC October 7, 2005)
Christianity in a nutshell: Britain's '100-Minute Bible' | It may be the word of God, but that hasn't spared it from regular man-made tinkering. From 15th-century printers to 20th-century modernists, every age has sought to adapt the Bible. (The Christian Science Monitor, September 27, 2005)
A hundred minutes of banality | The 100-Minute Bible is not a translation but an attempt to render Christian doctrine and biblical narrative simply and succinctly. Its failure was almost certain, and is already obvious (Oliver Kamm, The Times, London, September 23, 2005)
Vicar launches '100-Minute Bible' | A Bible designed to be read in 100 minutes by people who haven't the time or inclination to read the whole book was launched today at Canterbury. (Times, London, September 21, 2005)
'100-minute Bible' is launched | Ideal for plane journey, say creators (CNN, September 21, 2005)