What happens when a Swedish ad executive sets out to make the New Testament relevant to a postmodern generation of media-drenched Westerners? Bible Illuminated: The Book, a lush and edgy presentation of the New Testament, packaged as a glossy color magazine hip enough to read on the subway and uncomfortable enough to keep you up at night.
As media-savvy editor and publisher Dag Söderberg told National Public Radio’s Lynn Neary in a profile late last year, the project came out of his curiosity about why so few people—young, urban people in particular—read the most famous text on earth. As Söderberg sees it, “A coffee-table magazine is read by the many, every day, everywhere. This is a way to make [the Bible] as available as any other magazine.”
But The Book isn’t just accessible to a young, cosmopolitan audience likely to identify as secularists. Once it’s in their hands, it speaks their language. The Book is heavily visual—and at turns uses that imagery earnestly and ironically—interspersing the American Bible Society’s Good News Translation with bold, frequently jarring photographs from around the world and portraits of Western culture’s golden idols. The full-color views into our excesses, our disparities, and the threads that bind us all together aren’t lighthearted fare. But they do tap into something in the original text that speaks compellingly to this moment in time.
An Andy Warhol poster and the ultrasound image of a baby with 47 chromosomes appear at the opening to the gospel of Matthew, adjacent to highlighted verses on the birth of Christ. A photograph of three young black men striking gangsta poses illuminates Matthew’s account of the three visitors from the East. Another small child, a bloody baby boy ravaged by a bomb in Iraq, appears in 2 Peter: “But we wait for what God has promised: new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will be at home.” A protester set afire in Santiago, Chile, in 2007 opens the book of Revelation. New Orleans under water, a celebrity’s toy poodle wearing a diamond choker, gasoline pouring out of the pump, a soldier with his head in his hands, a polar bear swimming in melting ice, a humble dirt-floored schoolhouse in Ethiopia. Bill Gates, Gandhi, Angelina Jolie. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing his bare bicep. Nine hundred dead with Jim Jones in Guyana.
Key passages, highlighted as if you took your yellow Sharpie to the page, provide an editorial bridge between the images and the narrative threads of the gospels. In this culturally relevant approach to the text, interpretation is more open than closed, more circular than linear, more provocative of reflection than it is prescriptive, a dialogue with the reader’s political consciousness as much as a didacticism. With this New Testament, the question is, “What are the questions?” not to mention, “What are the answers?” The effect, as Vince Anderson of New York City’s Revolution Church puts it, is that the Bible is allowed to breathe.
The Book has surely breathed new life into Sweden’s spiritual landscape. While the Bible may be a blockbuster worldwide, selling an estimated 500 million copies a year, it’s not so popular in this overwhelmingly secular Northern European nation, where very few contemporary Swedes self-identify with any religious faith at all. But 10 percent of the city of Stockholm was said to turn out for the public unveiling of the project in fall 2007, and Bible sales have increased 50 percent in Sweden since The Book’s release. Söderberg and the American Bible Society will introduce the Old Testament rendition of Bible Illuminated this fall.
If Söderberg’s Book has an agenda, it is to provoke. And that it does. (You’ll love it, or you’ll hate it. There will be no room for indifference.) If it has an ethos, it’s the unapologetic, unblinking ethos of social justice at the core of Christ’s life. Because its content and design issue political challenges, The Book is in step with the zeitgeist. The timing of its U.S. release couldn’t be more apt, in a climate of political change and the awakening of the political consciousness of millions of young Americans hungry for real dialogue about what they see in their world, here and now. Hungry to be provoked. Hungry for a meta-narrative that’s not hollow at the core—and one that’s not just introspective.
Sarah K. Masterson is a writer, educator, and communications consultant to nonprofit organizations. Her work appears in the anthology The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change (Seal Press, 2008). For more about The Book, see www.illuminatedworld.com.