I can be bought. In that, I mean that you are welcome to send me a copy of something of interest to me…then I’ll give my honest impressions.
Such is the case with a new book The Bible Illuminated. The media-rich bible project based out of Sweden has retained an American PR firm to do the promotions. This savvy firm apparently decided to make paying attention to blog posts by pastors part of their media work.
Full disclosure: I wrote about the Bible Illuminated in a blog post (Two Edgy Bible Versions), and based on those few words, they contacted me and offered me a free promotional copy to review. They were very polite and I recognized that impressions of an idea on a computer screen may differ vastly from actual material so I accepted their invitation.
So, done with the full disclosure. I received the copy of the book last week at my church and showed a few parishioners and friends.
It is sexy. Not in a “rock me sexy Jesus” way, but in a sleek sophisticated way. High-glossy cover with copper metallic lettering on the spine. It looks like something you would put on a coffee table or on a rack at a high flutin’ style salon. Which, of course, is the point: putting the text in a new form that is eye-catching that reaches new circles of people.
First, the specifics. The Bible Illuminated intersperses a New Testament with callout boxes of key passages and full-page or inserts of images that relate to key passages. It reads like a magazine with text, images, and captions.
But it is a purer Bible than you might think. The artistic license is not in the text (a standard Good News Translation) or in study content (no study notes at all), but in the choice of images to associate with particular texts. This is a double-edged sword: The choice of which pictures to associate with which passages is both the best and worst of this kind of project.
There are many, many really poignant associations of text and image.
- Mad props for non-whiteness of the imagery. Matthew has a woman in a veil representing Mary. Luke has an African woman and child accompanying with the story of the birth of Jesus, and the three Magi are African-American guys who would look right at home on a New York street.
- Acts of the Apostles starts out with images of a men’s soccer (okay, football) team in Sierre Leone where all the men have one leg (most lost due to civil war atrocities). That’s an interesting twist to think of Acts of the Apostles being started by people who have been handicapped and hurt by the loss of their Jesus to violence…but push on anyway.
- In Hebrews, when talking about the priesthood and the changing law regarding Melchizedek, there’s an image of the first female priest in Sweden Margit Sahlin. The line is “when the priesthood is changed, there also has to be a change in the law.” I like the theological assertion that when God has called those who are outside the law, then the law must change…not the other way around.
- In Revelation, there is an image of a man pumping gasoline with the Scripture “the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast.” That line summarizes a few other images before it: post-Katrina New Orleans, environmental degradation, and a four-page spread on an animal slaughterhouse (field?) in Nigeria. Very political and edgy and disorienting imagery..I like it!
The front inside cover and back inside cover are images from Dreamhack in Sweden, a four-day marathon computer festival that draws over 10,000 people. I’m not sure exactly what the publisher meant by images of thousands of networked nerds with neon case mods, but it is sticking with me. Maybe this closed network of media-oriented people is the mission of this Bible, hmm?
There are two special sections that bear noting:
- The Gospel of Mark has a multi-section spread with famous people, from Mother Teresa, MLK Jr, Ghandhi, to Angelina Jolie, Bono, Princess Di, Bill Gates, John Lennon, and Muhammed Ali (amongst others). The text? “God said ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you.'” These are associations with prophets, secular and religious. Interesting…and as a friend said “very African-centered” which they hadn’t seen in a bible before.
- The Gospel of Luke is interspersed with a multi-section spread on the UN Millenium Development Goals, with a call to supporting them. The pictures are vivid and the goals are outlined and well-written. Any bible that includes social action (and supporting the UN, which isn’t the AntiChrist supposed to come from it? Ha!) is awesome in my book.
Throughout, the emphasis on social conditions as lenses by which the text is interpreted are relevant and interesting. One friend said that the “social justice aspect” was better than any other biblezine they saw.
Do I have reservations? Sure I do. They are the mirror image of the above pluses: the choice of what texts to popout and what images to associate. It’s all artistic license, but several images did not only disturb me (I would support that!) but downright offended me:
- In Ephesians, they chose to popout from the text “wives must submit to their husbands.” Why that verse? Further, they did not pop out the next line of “husbands, love your wives” to provide some semblance of balance. That annoyed me greatly.
- In 1 Corinthians, they popout the “long hair on a woman is a thing of beauty.” Why? Is it to make it resemble a fashion magazine with biblical personal grooming tips? Will the Old Testament version include Sampson’s lack of mousse?
- By far the worst page is In Matthew, where attached to “I come not to bring peace but a sword” there’s an image of a child holding a gun to your face. Dude, don’t use children and handguns; that’s not cool at all. Every single person I showed this to said that was just wrong and, in fact, one person had to walk away from the table while reviewing it because of that image. Shameful.
My difficulty with those particular above text popouts is that they fall short of the mission: to associate images with texts. Popouts like the above do not fit neatly with their expressed purpose in making this Bible. From their FAQ (in a google cache, as it’s not listed anymore):
What is Illuminated World’s agenda? What is the goal in publishing The Book and other “Illuminated” texts?
The goal is to drive an emotional reaction and get people to think, discuss and share. It’s meant to trigger bigger moral questions. It in turn will help people to understand the common heritage between all religions through the Bible’s text. We hope people will find the images, design and layout intriguing—intriguing enough to talk about the actual stories in the Bible and what the morals and lessons mean to them and to each other. The more you know, the more you can participate in discussions about the world and understand the bigger picture.
What do the highlighted passages and sentences mean?
Whatever the readers wants them to mean. They were highlighted and underlined for the reader to decide.
If the goal is conversation, great. Well done. But since this project is marketed to non-Christians, then popping out “women submit to your husbands” reinforces conceptions of the bible as anti-women and patriarchical. Popping out “long haired women” passages reinforces the idea that the Bible is quaint and out-of-touch. Without an image to discuss, there is no added benefit other than reinforcing stereotypical beliefs about Christians.
These are not the right type of conversations for a non-contextualized bible (meaning it doesn’t offer any support or context for the bible verses like study bibles) because they do not meaningfully add to the conversation but reinforce what the echo-chamber says about Christianity. If you view a line without context, it will only reinforce what you already think, and not start a conversation at all. In this, while the images are powerfully and well done (save a few), the seemingly random text popouts do not work when they are not thought through.
I don’t like bibles to interpret things for me. I’d rather do the interpretation myself, thank you. That’s exactly what I wrote in my previous review, and I’m sticking to it. I spend more time as pastor ungluing non-life-giving conceptions of the bible in people’s heads, and I’d prefer publishers not to make my job harder.
However, every single parishioner I’ve showed this to loves this bible. From newbies to longtime devourers of the Word. The images draw forth an emotional reaction that reading the text doesn’t always do. I was pleasantly surprised at how different this biblezine was compared to the other ones I’ve read. Perhaps it is a continental divide, as this mag based out of Sweden has a very different feel than the ones published from Nashville, TN, USA.
While I disagree with some of the image’s appropriateness, the overwhelming emphasis on social justice and moral questions are excellent. Maybe I don’t mind this interpretation because it fits with my ideas and matches my own lens. Fine, the critics can say that. But I challenge you to compare this text with any other “pop” versions of the Bible and not see how it is more provocative and emotive than teen magazine versions of the Bible are.
So, in short, I would highly recommend you take a look at this bible to see if it fits your context. You can purchase it directly from the Swedish manufacturer, or get it on pre-order at Amazon.com (it comes out October 28th stateside).
Scripture says you can’t put new wine in old wineskins. But the Bible Illuminated is old wine, aged and rich, in a new wineskin that you may just want to pick up and flip through. The project’s choice of provocative images that expose injustice and human cruelty gives a face to the faceless survivors to whom a bible is not enough to save them, but action with biblical precepts may just change the world. And that vision of the kingdom of God where violence is eschewed is what this project calls us all to.