Free Bibles, free speech

As a rule, newspaper readers do not protest when the Sunday edition includes free soap, toothpaste, shampoo, detergent, AOL software or a razor.

Then again, these products do not include pronouncements on sin, sex, money, marriage, heaven, hell and a host of spiritual issues -- including the belief that salvation comes through faith in a messiah named Jesus.

So International Bible Society leaders were not surprised that some people were upset by their decision to distribute 91,000 New Testaments in a pre-Christmas edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette. They were surprised when the project made national headlines, inspiring debate about free speech, religious tolerance and the role of newspapers in the marketplace of ideas.

"Whenever we try to put the word of God into people's hands there are going to be negative reactions. We have to accept that as a given," said Bob Jackson, head of this national project. "You're going to hear from atheists and agnostics. You're going to hear from people in other faiths and Christians who disagree with what you're doing. ... We know that this stirs up emotions that you just don't see when you are giving away packets of oatmeal."

Right now, the Colorado Springs-based Bible society is evaluating the results of this New Testament project, which was funded by 125 nearby churches, businesses and evangelical ministries, such as Focus on the Family and Youth for Christ. Jackson said it cost $125,000 to print and distribute the 200-page volume, with its cover photo of Pikes Peak and testimonies by local believers.

Some Jewish and Muslim readers protested, arguing that the "Our City" title implied that Colorado Springs was an all-Christian community. Other critics said it was wrong for a mainstream newspaper -- which was paid its standard fee for such an insert -- to distribute material that was unapologetically evangelistic.

After all, the back cover said: "The heart and soul of the Bible is its account of God's intention to bring all things back to Himself. That includes this great place. And that includes you. This New Testament is being given to you to help you find your place in this drama of restoration."

The New York Times reported that the Gazette received 195 positive reactions and 69 negative, with five readers canceling their subscriptions.

While declining to discuss the future, Jackson said he has received calls from supporters for possible efforts to distribute customized New Testaments in the mainstream newspapers in at least 20 U.S. cities. He would not confirm or deny press reports about Denver, Nashville, Seattle and Santa Rosa, Calif.

Meanwhile, the International Bible Society has been involved in another tussle in the mass-media marketplace -- Rolling Stone's refusal to advertise its new youth-oriented Today's New International Version of the Bible. While Modern Bride, The Onion, MTV and some other outlets cooperated, Rolling Stone cited an unwritten policy against religious messages in ads.

While avoiding obvious God-talk, the Zondervan ad did carry this blunt slogan: "Timeless truth; Today's language."

Rolling Stone balked and then, this week, quietly relented.

The bottom line, said Jackson, is that it's hard for religious organizations to take their messages into the public square without stepping on some toes.

The Bible society freely admits that its goal is to get New Testaments into the hands of people who are not already Christian believers. The goal is to reach "seekers" or even active opponents of the faith, said Jackson. Some may decide to read some of it, simply to "see what all of the fuss is about." Others may throw it in a drawer and then, weeks or months later, pull it out in the midst of some personal trial.

This is the hard truth. From the "Our City" team's evangelical perspective, the people who need to be reached are almost certainly the same people who are most likely to be offended.

"We really believe that we are trying to share the powerful word of God. We believe it can change lives," he said. "So we believe that we're doing what God has commanded us to do. We can't stop trying, because we sincerely believe that lives will be changed -- even among those who oppose us. You just can't reach the searchers without offending people."