By Charles Honey (Press Religion Editor)

Blair Underwood, who provided the voice of Jesus, teamed up with African-American stars to record the Bible. Underwood has had many roles in movies and on television.A chaotic crowd brays, "Crucify him! Kill him!" Jesus is led away to the sobs of women and the strains of sorrowful strings. To the sound of pounding nails, Jesus groans and whispers, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

In fact, it is veteran actor Blair Underwood uttering Jesus' painful last words in a dramatic new audio version of the gospel, "Inspired by ... The Bible Experience."

Just released by Zondervan, "The Bible Experience" assembles some of Hollywood's top talent and renowned clergy to bring the Bible to listeners' CD and MP3 players.

Underwood as Jesus, Samuel L. Jackson as God and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Judas are among the stars who bring the Good Book to life along with Bishop T.D. Jakes, TV personality Star Jones Reynolds and recording artist Donnie McClurkin.

The 19-disc, 21-hour New Testament hit Christian and secular stores this month, retailing for $34.99. An Old Testament expected to run more than 60 hours is due out in a year.

In all, more than 250 cast members, all African American, contributed to the project. Listeners will be able to hear Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta, give voice to Solomon's Song of Songs, Robert Guillaume build the ark as Noah and Angela Bassett portray the clever Jewish heroine Esther.

Producers hope the all-star cast of "The Bible Experience" will attract younger listeners who avoid the printed page like a biblical plague.

"They have fan bases who will check out anything they do, even if it means listening to the Bible," said Kyle Bowser, one of four Los Angeles executive producers.

Updated translation

Bowser and his Christian partners formed Inspired by Media Group to produce the project, which began recording last December. Zondervan provided financing and text from Today's New International Version, aimed at younger readers.

"What we're providing is the experience most people have had with the Bible through history," said Paul Caminiti, vice president and publisher of Bibles for Zondervan.

"The Bible was far more a book of oral transmission than it was of reading. My guess is when it was told around dinner tables and campfires, it was told with a certain amount of pizzazz and dramatization."

Resonant voices

The all-black cast was designed to attract an urban audience as well as other fans of some of Hollywood's biggest draws. Producers also wanted to break the traditionally white mold of most Hollywood Bible productions.

"We said it's high time this community have an opportunity to represent itself as part of that experience," said Bowser, a veteran TV and film producer.

Not all cast members are Christian, but neither were many people in the Bible, Caminiti said. "We have not broadcast this as an all-saints edition."

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