Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Book Review: The Bible Illuminated

Yesterday, I got a new book that has me absolutely mesmerized. It's called "The Bible Illuminated: New Testament." It is the entire New Testament in the form of a classy, glossy, picture-filled magazine.

It came about as a result of a dinner conversation between two men in Stockholm, Sweden about why more people don't read ancient texts. This is a subject that often saddens me. Some of the most meaningful books I've ever read are the works of the original authors, such as Augustine of Hippo and Justin Martyr. Yet people see old works and immediately think, "boring," then they learn as little as possible about these works by reading text book summaries of them, which, in my opinion, are incredibly dull compared to the original works themselves.

But the dilemma is that the Bible continues to be one of the best selling books in the world, yet people don't read it. They set them on coffee tables, or give them a prominent place in the book shelf, but they just aren't reading them as they should. You don't find them lying out open and in use.

The possible solution they decided to try was to take the same words of Scripture, and put them in a format that is more likely to connect with a modern readership. The company doing this, Illuminated World, is financed and managed by a Swedish consortium, chaired by Dag Söderberg, former CEO of one of the largest advertising firms in Europe and Jan Carlzon, former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines and author of global management bestseller; The Moments of Truth (1987). Both a New Testament and an Old Testament were released in 2007 in Sweden. The effort has been a huge success, with 10% of Stockholm showing up just for the book launch.

Let me offer some observations, pluses, and minuses of this format, as I perceive it.

- It really has the feel of a magazine. It is comfortable to pick up and thumb through. It has a multiple column format.
- It does not have chapter and verse divisions, though it does have section headings and very creative book divisions.
- It has absolutely stunning photographs. The pictures are from a variety of things, from major computer gaming conventions to historical photographs from during the civil rights movement.
- The translation used is the Good News Translation, which is extremely easy to read.

- When you see this book, you are simply drawn to pick it up. For those of you who know what a passionate '24' fan I am, I didn't get to watch the show Sunday night. I recorded it, and was intending to watch it when I got home yesterday. But despite how desperate I've been to start watching the new season, I couldn't get myself to put this book down long enough to turn it on.

- Rather than being a typical illustrated Bible, where each picture is supposed to be a representation of the historical event, a la Gustave Doré (who is a favorite artist of mine), most of the pictures selected are more about helping us visualize what the text might mean in our world today. I found myself astonished by how relevant some of these texts are, though I had failed to see it before.

- With large pages, it gives you an unexpected help in being able to visualize passages in context. With one page opened, you can see a great deal both ahead and behind the text you're reading.

- I really enjoyed the highlighted verses. Passages at random, which the developers saw as particularly interesting for thought and conversation are put in text blocks here or there, or highlighted, or sometimes included on top of an image chosen.

- I'm confident I can wear this thing out pretty quickly. As a magazine--a very expensive one at that--this will simply not have the toughness to last for generations, like a normal Bible can.

- Some people will be bothered by some of the social agenda included with the pictures. This comes out most strongly in Luke, where on the images apart from the text, it talks about lots of humanitarian efforts going on around the world, or about efforts that need to be going on. This is not a plain vanilla text-only Bible. Though the text is unmodified, there are some notes here and there that will challenge you to think about how the text is to be applied in our world. I wouldn't say this is an all out negative, but I am sure it would be a potential turn-off to some readers. Then again, the goals they are encouraging are all ones I'm confident Christians should be supporting.

- Some will be bothered by some of the picture selections. I think this will be because of a misunderstanding of the purpose of the pictures. The editors are not trying to push a specific doctrinal agenda, though it does appear they are pushing a humanitarian agenda. The images are there to simply spark some ideas in your mind. The goal is to get you to read your Bible. Your love of one image might drive you to think, just as your dislike of another one might do the same. As an example, Hebrews 7:12 is one of the verses used in conjunction with an image.
For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.
The image they chose is one from the late 1950's of a woman named Margit Sahlin, who is looking at the shroud she's going to wear when she becomes the first female priest in Sweden, appointed in 1960.

This immediately got me thinking:
- We are under a new Law in Christ, which is different than the Old Testament.
- Are they suggesting that the agenda of a new Law is putting females in this sort of role?
- Are they suggesting that putting a female in this sort of role is a violation of what Paul has taught elsewhere?
-What do I think about this?

Some will not care for images, such as the one I just mentioned. I didn't see it so much as a negative, because it challenged me to think about what the passage meant in the Early Church, as well as what it still means. It opens it up for your interpretation. As long as you understand the images are meant to spark your imagination, I think you'll enjoy them. If you cannot approach this without getting offended about suspected agendas of the editors, you will not enjoy this book as much.

Also, there are many cultural icons, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Angelina Jolie, the Dali Llama, and Mohammad Ali, who show up in various places. In one place, after several pictures, there is kind of a summary of some of the good things some of these people have stood for. Some will not like the idea of praising a non-Christian as a moral example. They don't really give them a wholesale thumbs up, but they highlight something the person has done simply say, "This is something that this person did that was very influential in the world." I like the idea that there is an underlying sense of right and wrong that much of humanity is able to understand, because we are made in the image of God. It challenged me to think about how I should be trying to make a difference in my own environment. Again, some will like this; some won't.

Final Thoughts:

Fortunately, you can try it for yourself! Here is a sample download of the Gospel of Luke in its entirety. I felt like Luke's Gospel was the passage that has the most humanitarian agenda pushing of all the text. Most of the book has images that are simply related to the subject matter. The images in Luke are a little bit more of a separate collection. So in my opinion, if you like this section from Luke, you will love the rest of the book.

I think this is one of the best things I've ever purchased. I think it's a great conversation starter. You can leave this out on your coffee table, in your cubicle, on your desk, read it on the bus or train, or anywhere else. You could get this out for your non-Christian friend and say, "Take a look at this!" without them feeling like you're about to try and corner them into a religious conversation.

When Carolina saw it, within 5 minutes she was begging me to get her a copy to keep at work, and insisting that we purchase the Old Testament when it is released. I'm sure that I will.

I hope that when they've released their Old Testament (see the cover on the left), that they will continue to make similar efforts with other ancient texts. I would love to see the writings of Justin Martyr or Athanasius put into a similar format.

Here is an interview with Dag Söderberg about the book.

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