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From Bill Gates to Thomas Aquinas: Bible software company spreads the Word

- - Wednesday, May 2, 2012

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Logos Bible Software might seem an odd company to bring the previously untranslated works of Thomas Aquinas to the masses. Indeed, it might seem an odd company to bring us holy books, period. Then again, perhaps it is only fitting that in the quest to bring ancient religious writings into the modern digital age, Bill Gates' progeny shall lead us.

Most of Logos' 300-odd workers are spread over three buildings in downtown Bellingham and one new campus in Arizona. The office layout is open, with a few glassed-off offices and meeting rooms. If there is any dress code, it apparently isn't rigorous. There are treadmills and some stand-up desks. Employees can take breaks to play pingpong or foosball, or take a stroll around Bellingham's downtown core. The whole enterprise has the feel of a mid-1990s Internet startup.

That shouldn't be surprising, given the firm's genesis.

The company was founded in the '90s by fully vested Microsoft workers Bob Pritchett and Kiernon Reiniger, along with Mr. Pritchett's father, Dale, who initially took care of the business end. The dot-com bubble has long since burst for many of those startups, but not for Logos.

The company's first product was primitive by today's standards. It was a plain-text King James eBible with an innovative but crude search function. The company's software is now in its fourth edition, with intelligent search and chain-linked cross-referencing for every Bible under the sun, as Solomon might put it, and thousands of related books as well.

Unlike Microsoft, Logos makes its money not from the software, which is free, but from content. Logos now has sales offices in most major metropolitan markets. It conducts business with about 1 million people and has 100,000 active users of its website's forums. Many of its customers are evangelizers for the product. The company's Facebook page has been "liked" by more than 44,000 users. Logos launched the print Bible Study Magazine in 2008 and now ships more than 20,000 copies of every issue.

With the large market the company has built up over 20 years come great economies of scale and the resources and reach to tackle otherwise impracticable projects, such as plans to bring out new translations of Aquinas, selected works previously unavailable in English that could have a revolutionary effect on Catholic scholarship over the next few decades.

The head of all things Catholic at Logos is Andrew Jones. Mr. Jones was a graduate student at St. Louis University who came to work at Logos in July, in part because he wanted to get back to Washington state. Logos was doing a brisk business with its evangelical Protestant base, but it wanted to appeal more to Catholics who, after all, also venerate the Bible as the word of God.

Mr. Jones had made limited progress at customizing packages for Catholics. He recently showed the range of library packages offered for Protestants and Catholics. Protestants can choose from nine packages ranging in price from $150 to a little over $4,290. Catholic options are limited to three sets, at prices of $250, $490 and $790. These are libraries, and customers get discounts for buying in bulk. Collectors can always add books piecemeal.

All of Mr. Jones' packages offer various Catholic versions of the Bible, cross-referenced to the catechism and other church documents. The more a customer spends, the more access is given to documents including the writings of the church fathers, proceedings of church councils, papal encyclicals and popular Catholic writings.

The Logos Catholic division's job is to expand the product line, but it frequently runs into snags: material that has never been translated into English.

"It's outrageous," Mr. Jones declared in one of the regular staff brainstorming sessions, noting that several of the works of Aquinas, the most influential theologian in the history of Catholicism, hadn't been translated from Latin. This led to the idea: Why doesn't Logos do it, and profit from it? After all, Mr. Jones reasoned, translation is a regular part of what the company does: "If there's a demand for it, if it's not in the right language, we'll do it."

To gauge interest, Logos puts potential products on its website and asks users to "preorder." Preorders are not binding. They are simply "votes" by the site's users in favor of the product. Just before publication, all of those who expressed interest are sent e-mails asking whether they are still interested and offering the books at steep discounts.

Logos announced in April that it was considering translating Aquinas' separate commentaries on Isaiah and Jeremiah, along with his "Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard." In a little more than a week, they had enough preorders to undertake translation of the biblical commentaries, to offer to Logos users at $29.95 each, and were well on the way to justifying a translation of "Commentary on the Sentences," to be offered at $150 a pop.

The company releases books in electronic form. Given the unique nature of this project, it may bring out print editions as well. Mr. Jones predicts that Logos' translation project will "open up Thomistic studies" for a new generation. It will do so by showing Aquinas to be a more rounded figure than readers who aren't fluent in Latin could discern.

Translations of Aquinas' massive Summas, heavy on systematic theology and philosophy, have been widely available for a long time. But the commentaries show another side of the man, a more practical priest whose thinking was firmly rooted in the text of the Bible.

Readers also will be able to better trace this Doctor of the Church's intellectual development. "The Sentences," clocking in at 1.4 million words, was Aquinas' first major theological work. It's the place where the 13th century Scholastic philosopher really spelled out his theories of the church, the sacraments and the relationship between Aristotelian philosophy and Augustinian theology. There also may be a pasta recipe tucked in there somewhere.

Translation projects of this scale used to be undertaken by college religion faculties and academic publishing houses over decades, Mr. Jones said. Logos has the resources and financial incentive to move faster. The Bible commentaries should be released next year, he said, and "The Sentences" a year later.