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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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.