The Magazine

God's Polaroid

Sometimes a thousand words are worth more than a picture.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Bible Illuminated

The Book, New Testament

Illuminated World, 261 pp., $35

Over dinner in Stockholm, a few ad executives wonder why the classics aren't read anymore. Maybe, they surmise, it's because readers do judge books by their covers, and the classics--often published as pictureless books crammed with little black type--
simply don't appeal to the average reader, who prefers to trade in images more than in text, especially when the text is centuries old. So the ad men ask a second question: What if the classics ditched their dull look and became, well, fashionable?

A man at that table was Dag Söderberg, founder and former CEO of one of the largest advertising firms in Europe, and as a result of that talk, he founded a new company, Förlaget Illuminated (now called Illuminated World), for the purpose of reviving, or "illuminating," the classics.

Söderberg began his grand experiment a year ago with a cornerstone classic: the Bible. He published it in two volumes, one per testament, in the format of a glossy fashion magazine, and it looks like a slimmer, adless version of Vogue crossed with National Geographic. On one page there's cat-eyed Angelina Jolie and on the next page there's an Indian woman giving birth. Every iota of Bible text is published, but it's the photographs--edgy, aggressive, graceful, at times political--that dominate.

Söderberg's experiment has worked splendidly. Before Bible Illuminated: The Book came on the scene, only 60,000 Bibles were sold in Sweden every year. (In America, by conservative estimates, the figure is 25 million.) Before reaching booksellers, Söderberg's Bibles were sold in unconventional places like beauty salons and museum shops. Between the two testaments, Bible Illuminated sold 30,000 copies in its first year, thereby increasing the Swedish Bible market by 50 percent. And to herald its debut, Illuminated World held an outdoor exhibition of photographs from Bible Illuminated. Ten percent of Stockholm's population visited. More than 700 articles reported Bible Illuminated's story, as did radio and TV. The best indicator of Bible Illuminated's success? It got more press than a new Volvo model.

Indeed, Bible Illuminated did so well in Sweden that Illuminated World decided to publish it elsewhere--and looked first to the capital of the Good Book business, America. Our country is home to hundreds of English translations of the Bible, a small army of door-to-door Bible salesmen, nine major Christian publishing houses, and thousands of specialty Bibles, including a small crop of magazine/Bible hybrids called, fittingly, "Biblezines." (The Swedes say that when they first thought of illuminating the Bible they hadn't heard of American Biblezines, the first of which--Revolve, for teenage girls, published by Thomas Nelson--came out in 2003.)

The Bible business is one of the few that will flourish in America despite a steep downturn in the economy, for as a rule, Bible sales peak in wartime and in economic crises. Not surprisingly, Bible sales have been on a steady rise across the country since September 11, 2001. It's the book everyone already owns--the average American household has four copies--but that doesn't keep people from buying a fifth, or sixth, or twentieth copy.

Bible Illuminated stands apart from most Bibles because it's published without the hope of persuading a reader of the verities of Christianity. Revolve, by contrast, encourages teen girls to pray, to have a relationship with Jesus, to think of their sins being washed away as they scrub deodorant marks from their little black dresses. Bible Illuminated, as its website proclaims, does not "support a specific faith," and Söderberg--a self-described "spiritual but not particularly religious man"--says that he made Bible Illuminated to reacquaint "today's reader with one of the most important historical and cultural texts." By this logic, the Bible--and any other sacred text he might "illuminate" into a magazine--exists on the same (man-made) plane as the collected works of Homer, Ovid, Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare.

When I asked Larry Norton, U.S. president of Illuminated World, about the company's plans for the future, he talked about publishing not just the Bible in other countries--Spain and South Korea have expressed interest--but other books as well: "Picture a Shakespeare Illuminated, a Koran Illuminated, a Greeks Illuminated." In that respect Söderberg isn't too far removed from Albert Lewis Kanter, who recast such titles as Moby-Dick and Don
Quixote in comic book formats for kids in the 1940s and '50s. But what Illuminated World does have in common with most Bible publishers is the desire to get the Bible read, especially by the unchurched-but-curious 18-to-35-year-old crowd. To that end, Illuminated World has modeled every detail of Bible Illuminated to attract that particular niche of readers and, in so doing, meet them precisely where they are: namely, in pop culture.

Pictures of contemporary people and events, the medium of the magazine itself, and the colloquial translation inform the way a reader approaches the text. Accordingly, the translation used here is the Good News translation, which the American Bible Society crafted and first published in 1966 in what's largely regarded as the original niche Bible, Good News for Modern Man. (Its target audience was similar to Bible Illuminated's market: disaffected youths who haven't given up on the Good Book just yet.) The translation is notable for being the first to translate the Greek and Hebrew according to the principles of functional, rather than formal, equivalence, rendering verses "thought for thought" instead of "word for word." The result is a colloquial, easy-to-read translation that mimics the way we speak, and not the judgment of King James's committee of scholars. The Good News translation was so popular that, in 20 years, it eclipsed the King James in Bible sales.

Since the Good News translation is a proprietary text of the American Bible Society, Illuminated World had to obtain permission to publish it. Dr. Philip Towner, dean of the society's scholarly arm, the Nida Institute, says that although Illuminated World doesn't view Scripture as they do--as the sacred Word of God--it does want to "draw out the contemporary relevance of Scripture" and "present [the Bible] in those types of format and levels of language that will assure understanding." No matter how the text is dressed, or for what reason it's published, Towner believes that "the story speaks for itself."

The society's licensing agreement, however, stipulates that the society can, as Towner puts it, "exert quality assurance control" so that the text "would be presented in a way that we regard as appropriate and according to our guidelines." For instance, the text can't be marked up or published in snippets, as Thomas Jefferson famously did--much to the chagrin of Elias Boudinot, first president of the American Bible Society--when, fashioning his own New Testament (in print today under the title The Jefferson Bible), he used his scissors to cut out stories relating the miracles of Jesus. Moreover, the society was quick to approve the company's wish to present the text without chapter and verse notations, for, as Towner notes, doing so would echo the "Greek text in the first century."

The more delicate matter, says Towner, was "the business of photos, captions, and pull quotes" since "once you bring the visual alongside the traditional, written text, all kinds of things can happen."

When drafting Bible Illuminated in Sweden, Illuminated World worked alongside the Swedish Bible Society, which subsists (along with the American Bible Society) under the global umbrella of the United Bible Societies. When work began on the American version, there was a precedent for defining a suitable relationship between photography and Scripture: All the verses "illuminated" with pictures are visually set apart from the text columns; they're highlighted in blocks of yellow, printed in red, or repeated in pull quotes. That way, readers can easily spot those verses, read them, consider surrounding verses--and so on. In this kind of ripple-effect reading, photos are intended to be like windows directing the reader past themselves and into Scripture. They also direct where reading is to begin.

It would be a mistake to say that the images are ancillary, or mere props to the text. These are not illustrations but "illuminations." While a Bible illustration has a precise, direct relationship to the verse it elucidates, an "illumination" relates to its verse just enough to have a foothold in it. The images aren't supposed to make immediate sense; if they did, why would any reader look at them for more than an instant? (In Exodus, after all, God caught Moses' attention with something new and strange: a burning bush whose leaves were not consumed.)

To attract readers' attention, many images here depict recent and recognizable people and events. Photographs of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are woven into Revelation (which opens with a sensationalist image of a man on fire), as is a picture of a man's hand gripping an overflowing gas pump, next to which runs this verse: "The whole earth was amazed and followed the beast." Likewise, the genealogy of Christ, as recorded in Matthew, is accompanied by an ultrasound image of a 25-week-old baby identified as having 47 chromosomes, and thus likely to have Down syndrome. John, the most philosophical book in the gospel quartet, has no color at all; images are in black and white only, and many are delicate--women's backs, swans, underwear folded over unbuckled velvet shoes, reeds.

Yet the images in Bible Illuminated are so large, so prevalent, so dramatic and strange that they risk dwarfing the text. Further, having images connected to verses naturally means that some verses get read more than others. Which means that, in this revamped Bible, the natural autonomy of the book is replaced and undermined by the prejudices of the Bible Illuminated editors, who decide which verses to illuminate and how. And while the images are there to catch the reader's gaze, they may distort (perhaps destroy) his effort to understand Scripture.

One of the most conspicuous sections of Bible Illuminated is a photo essay in Mark, which starts with a picture of Muhammad Ali warming up in his red boxing gloves. Next to him is a verse mentioning John the Baptist: "God said, 'I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you.'" What follows is a photo essay beginning with a somber picture of Nelson Mandela gazing skyward. Turn the page and there are portraits of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bono, Mother Teresa, Angelina Jolie, Che Guevara, Princess Diana, Al Gore, and John Lennon--among others. At the end their names are listed alongside their deeds. The message is loud and clear and, in fact, echoes Barack Obama: It doesn't matter who you say Christ is, savior or prophet or teacher; what matters is whether you love your neighbor as yourself and demonstrate that love, especially for "the least of these."

"Some people don't like that there aren't all Christians in the book," says Larry Norton. (In fact, that's a reason why several chain family Bible stores won't sell Bible Illuminated.) "But these people in the broadest sense are doing good," he continues, "and we just want people to meditate on that." So while Bible Illuminated may not "support a specific faith" it does uphold a straightforward gospel of amplified action--that is to say, the Second Great Commandment without the First. This gospel is articulated further in Luke, which contains the only significant extra-biblical text in Bible Illuminated: a section entitled "Eight Ways to Change the World," a spinoff of the eight Millenium Development Goals drafted by the United Nations in 2000. The goals include universal primary education and the eradication of extreme poverty and world hunger, and they're supposed to be met by 2015.

At the close of "Eight Ways" there's a special exhortation to the reader, "This Is Where You Come In," which says, in part:

We are not asking you to give us all your money, to wear a hair shirt, or to stop eating ice cream. We ask only that when you leave, you make a pledge to do one thing, just one thing--to help make the world a better and fairer place. Remember--every action, no matter how small, will create a tide that will help to change the world.

People of any faith, or of no faith, can agree that doing good is good, but they won't agree on God's name or whether He exists. Bible Illuminated seeks to find the common denominator most pleasing to most people. This is grounded in agreeable actions ("Eight Ways to Change the World"), not in exclusive beliefs, in "deeds, not creeds." It's probably no accident that the only image that directly speaks about salvation is an Andy Warhol silkscreen that declares, "Repent and Sin No More!" Nor is there much reference to sin and souls (outside the New Testament text itself) in Bible Illuminated. It's the Good Book made by and for people not of the Book, who would rather trade in deeds than in creeds, and in images more than in words. Anyway, talk of potential salvation or damnation is not what most people expect from a coffee table book.

Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.