Book Review

The Gospel According to Söderberg

Katherine Eastland
Robert Wuthnow
Tuesday, September 1st 2009
Sep/Oct 2009

Rural Sweden is dotted with pristine, government-subsidized Lutheran churches whose pews and pulpits are mostly empty-even on Sundays. So it's worth taking a close look at Bible Illuminated: The Book, a new version of the Good Book that in one year has increased Swedish Bible sales by 50 percent and received more press than a new Volvo model.

Bible Illuminated is the elegant brainchild of Dag Söderberg, the founder and former CEO of one of the largest advertising firms in Europe. In 2007, he founded the company Forlaget Illuminated (now called Illuminated World) with the express purpose of making classic works of literature-including, especially, the Bible-more widely read. Toward that end, he undertook to present them in the casual and entertaining format of a glossy magazine. Söderberg wasn't the first to think of making a Biblezine. In 2003, Thomas Nelson printed the best-selling original Revolve, which it styled for teen girls.

Bible Illuminated did so well in Sweden that Illuminated World decided to publish it elsewhere, and looked first to the land of the Good Book business itself, America. The New Testament was published here in October 2008; and the Old Testament, featuring a black-and-white photo of a couple about to kiss on its cover, will come out this fall, at which time it will also go on sale in Finland. France, Germany, Poland, Spain, and South Korea have expressed much interest in printing Bible Illuminated as well.

Why is Söderberg's Bible so popular? Because it's the right mix of cool and polite. It's cool because it echoes the suave look and feel of other magazines. You can read it on the Metro ride home and no one would guess it's a Bible. The soft cover is embellished with metallic foil letters, the spine perfect-bound, and the volumes look like slim, ad-less versions of Vogue crossed with National Geographic. On one page there's cat-eyed Angelina Jolie, and on the next an Indian woman giving birth amid clanging bangles and bright cotton dresses. And although every iota of Scripture is printed, it is the photos—edgy, aggressive, graceful, at times political, and almost always contemporary—that dominate. Indeed, a good deal of reading Bible Illuminated is looking at Bible Illuminated.

The editors, working with the American Bible Society (of which the Good News Translation, used in Bible Illuminated, is a proprietary text), did establish a clear way to link photos with the verses they "illuminate." The verses are either 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. But, of course, having images connected to verses means that some sentences get read more than others. Which means that, in this revamped Bible, the natural autonomy of the book is undercut by the sensibilities of the editors. And while the images are there to catch the reader's gaze, they may distort (perhaps destroy) his or her effort to understand Scripture.

Bible Illuminated is selling well for another reason: It's polite, since it isn't religiously exclusive. Christianity is presented not as the only true religion but as one among many, and Scripture as world-class literature not as the inspired Word of God. This isn't surprising, given that Söderberg describes himself as a "spiritual but not particularly religious" man and says that he made Bible Illuminated to reacquaint "today's reader with one of the most important historical and cultural"-note he doesn't say religious’"texts." He says his version doesn't even "support a specific faith." Even so, it would be a mistake to think that Bible Illuminated lacks a message’indeed, a gospel.

Consider one of the most conspicuous sections of Bible Illuminated: a photo essay in Mark. It opens 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, Jr., 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: 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." This is the gospel of amplified action.

Thus does Bible Illuminated sever the Second Great Commandment from the First. The result is Christless Christianity. 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 Millennium Development Goals drafted in 2000 by the United Nations. 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.

The alternative to joining the "tide," according to Bible Illuminated, is inaction. On the Biblezine's inside covers there are tidy rows of people&$8212;between ages 18 and 35, the target audience of Bible Illuminated—sitting slack-jacked before computers at DreamHack, the biggest annual video game session in the world (and held in Sweden). Individual portraits of these people's faces appear in the Book of Acts, glowing red or green or blue by screen light. They're the perfect foils to the portraits of Gandhi and company in Mark. The choice the reader is asked to make is between getting lost in a vacuum of pretty pixels or helping others. Bible Illuminated does not address the reader as if he is in need of salvation; instead, it sees the reader as one who can save others.

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 even 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" as the popular phrase goes. 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 Söderberg's Bible. After all, the easiest way to forget sin is to forget the soul. Remember Flannery O'Connor's prescient novel Wise Blood, in which the protagonist Hazel Motes, before he founds "The Church of Truth Without Christ Crucified" (of which he is the sole member), comes to the conclusion that the only way to escape sin is to have no soul.

No book has been more tinkered with than the Bible. As one Shaker pilgrim said during the Second Great Awakening, "Ten thousand Reformers like so many moles / Have plowed all the Bible and cut it [in] holes." Since then, the moles and the holes have only increased. But what cannot change is God's Word. No amount of pictures or other visual static can alter the truth’that Scripture is clear and communicates directly to those who read or hear it. To paraphrase Martin Luther, Christ will open our understanding to understand his Scripture. We will not. Christ is the Word; and wherever the Word is presented in full’whether in the still small voice of the book or in the roaring pop culture chorus of a sleek magazine’there is room for his grace to abide and to be at work in us.

Tuesday, September 1st 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology