Rupert Murdoch: Bible mogul

The Bible Industry. From Geez magazine, Fall 2009. Credit: Darryl Brown and Aiden Enns.

Most people know now that Rupert Murdoch presides over the News Corp media empire, and that he is fighting for his reputation after being forced to sink his scandal-laiden British newspaper News of the World, the most widely read English tabloid in the world. But few people know that Murdoch also owns Zondervan, the world’s largest publisher of Bibles. For 23 years, the News Corp family has included the leading seller of the best-selling book in history.

I know many Christians see the Bible’s publishing stature as validation of their chosen faith, but a savvy entrepreneur could simply see it as a business opportunity. Or perhaps the 80-year-old Murdoch, like any shrewd businessman, wanted diverse investments – a diversity that in his case ranged from a cleavage-saturated tabloid that ran headlines like, “F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Hookers” to a publisher that offers Little Lamb’s Storybook Bible.

Zondervan, which is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, also sells Precious Princess Bible, Camo Bible (imagine “Holy Bible” on a camouflage cover), Soul Surfer Bible, Holy Bible: Stock Car Racing and 500 other styles of the holy book. The company owns exclusive North American print rights to the popular New International Version of the Bible which it says has sold over 300 million copies worldwide. Zondervan also publishes books by leading Christian authors like Rick Warren (over 30 million copies of his Purpose Driven Life have been sold), Tim LaHaye, Eugene Peterson, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne.

Biblical profiteering
For those us of who care about the Christian scriptures, what are we to make of this mix of billionaire media tycoonery, allegations of phone hacking and bribery, and the Holy Word of God? What are we to make of the fact that every time we buy a Zondervan product we contribute to Murdoch’s mogul-dom, which includes a personal fortune that Forbes pegged at $6.3 billion last year.

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 list of its top sellers. He has long been aware of the Zondervan-Murdoch connection and has considered it carefully.

I admire Claiborne, partly because he cares about ethics – he makes his own clothes and off-sets his air travel – and partly because he lives out his faith in what he calls the “abandoned corners of empire.” His particular corner is the impoverished Kensington neighbourhood of Philadelphia where he lives as part of The Simple Way community. Given his relation to “empire,” I wanted to know why he chose a News Corp company as his publisher?

The Zondervan advantage
“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” more than what they would if Zondervan published them.

Claiborne, who has preached his message via Esquire, Fox News (also owned by News Corp), Al Jazeera and many others, 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.

To judge, or not to judge
The ongoing News Corp scandal concerns him. “The current issues . . . in England raise all kinds of ethical questions,” he tells me, “and I would hope that a company whose mission is explicitly Christian, as Zondervan’s is, would take the opportunity to bear witness and to speak into the culture which is so terribly fallen.”

Claiborne is not sure if he will write for Zondervan again. He doesn’t rule it out.

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.”

Point taken. This is not about demonizing Rupert Murdoch or Zondervan. No rendition of the Bible would condone that. Nonetheless, I’m not ready to say, like former Zondervan CEO Maureen Girkin did in a 2008 Christianity Today article, that “News Corp is a wonderful media giant.”

Preferential option for the lucrative
The allegations that sank News of the World, and have now spread to other News Corp papers in the U.K., demonstrate something about News Corp. They do not demonstrate that ethical integrity trumps the drive for profit at News Corp. News Corp is an aggressive business; it’s motive is to accumulate and concentrate massive amounts of wealth. Presumably it acquired Zondervan because it saw profit potential.

But is the Bible a business opportunity? Does it belong in the News Corp fold? Can we not read about “the least of these” without paying our dues to the greatest?

Or perhaps Murdoch is just an entrepreneur who enables the distribution of important materials (after all, he was awarded a papal knighthood by Pope John Paul II in 1998). Perhaps the world is just too gray to worry about the ethics of Bible publishing. 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 absolutely no link at all. Bald greed has no place in Bible publishing.

Does God need News Corp?
We do not need to accept this arrangement. Christianity does not need to be about the best and biggest deal, and we can trust that the Good News does not require the help of an unscrupulous empire. Part of me would love to see some readers, writers and retailers engage in some respectful, humble, Gandhian non-participation with respect to the big Bible business. But it seems unbecoming to advocate a boycott of a company that publishes the books of a respected friend. It seems unbecoming to boycott the Bible in any way at all. Alas, I too feel conflicted.

Geez magazine editor Aiden Enns – who once cut the Zondervan label out of the spine of his Bible in protest – suggests a self-imposed tax or tithe on Zondervan purchases. If you buy a $20 Claiborne book, give an additional $2 to a good cause (maybe the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility). Call it the “ethical compromise tax,” or the “sin tax” as Enns puts it. You could also look into whether your denomination has any News Corp investments. The Church of England is now publicly threatening to pull its $6 million share in News Corp.

As for non-participation, all I know for sure is that I don’t want a penny of my money going to fuel the News Corp empire, regardless of the path it takes from my wallet to Murdoch’s. 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, former editor with Geez magazine, Winnipeg, Manitoba (wbraun [ at ] inbox [ dot ] com)

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  1. Anna
    Dublin, Ireland
    July 15th, 2011
    6:57pm

    Brilliant insightful piece, never knew his claw stretched so far and shame it does. Agree with you Will and thank you for such opinion and for this God mag i have only discovered now, never too late and prob just in time..>!!

  2. Richard Pierard
    Hendersonville, North Carolina 28791 USA
    July 18th, 2011
    4:45pm

    In 1988 Robert Linder and I published a book in Zondervan’s Academie Book series entitled CIVIL RELIGION AND THE PRESIDENCY. An editor had asked us to do the book but he did not realize what he would be getting from us. It was vastly different from the holy history of America being promoted today by David Barton and the late Peter Marshall, Jr. It demonstrated how the US President was the central figure in the nation’s civil religion cult and was particularly hard on such darlings of the evangelical establishment at the time of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Without explanation, the book was abruptly withdrawn from print 15 months after it first appeared and remaindered. Bob and I were just firing up a campaign to get the word about the book since Zondervan’s promotional efforts had been anemic, to say the least. (Today copies are seldom to be found). I certainly saw the ideological bent of a firm whose authors included Chuck Colson and a number of “Christian” Republican legislators. Some mogul(s) obviously complained about the bias of this “liberal” book thathad unsuspectingly slipped into its product line. Thus selling its soul to Rupert Murdoch certainly fits in with the mentality of the people who had been running Zondervan. The bottom line is everything. I hope you will keep up the good work in exposing this operation.

  3. Dave
    Jersey Shore, NJ
    July 22nd, 2011
    4:08pm

    It is a knotty problem. As a Christian, I need to reflect the face of Jesus to the world. To be His hands and His feet. Holiness is an important part of that. That implies I need to be different like Jesus. At the same time, I need to be engaged. To be salt and light. And to be salt and light I feel I must engage with everyone God brings my way as best I can as I seek to do the work I feel He has given me to do. I do not check the morality of my dentist or landscaper or the restaurant owner where I dine. If I were a Christian author I would prayerfully consider what publisher would best get the job done. As of this time I would happily partner with Zondervan. Peace.

  4. Anon
    July 22nd, 2011
    10:29pm

    Asking if a Bible business is the “right kind” of business is like asking a rapist if he brushed his teeth this morning. Newscorp and Murdoch’s business practices are twisted and corrupt, but the root issue is far simpler than how strong the business connection is between Newscorp and Zondervan. Ultimately, Zondervan shouldn’t be SELLING the Bible at all.

  5. Richard Kaiser
    Fort Myers, Florida
    July 22nd, 2011
    11:20pm

    My reading this Article ensues me to concur with Will Braun’s rather drawn-out annotation dispelling non-conclusively; the Hand that feeds the Lion might get Bit on occasion especially when confronted by the Leavened Auspices left to fending off Capitalists’ Gainfulness with unrighteous Attributes Tending to Bring illegailities of Unsound Practices.

  6. Beth
    east coast
    July 24th, 2011
    8:27pm

    Here’s my beef – and it is a beef, so call me wrong if I’m wrong. I briefly followed Rick Warren on Twitter. He talks long about character over charisma – and it bothers me that if, as the media reports, he took a 2 million dollar donation from Murdoch, and if as the media reports, Murdoch is involved in building a pornography empire, there is an ethical problem. If he was a politician, the media would be all over it! The problem is there isn’t enough online to make connections and Warren isn’t talking, but Ephesians 5:3 speaks to that.

    Warren also tweeted Amy Winehouse’s death. Someone called him out for being insensitive for bragging that he got the news out ahead of CNN, and he said the network of Christians to local audiences is in the millions.

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