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.