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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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.