- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

People complain a lot that the young and hip aren’t interested in religious things.

Have I got a Bible for them.

And it’s from the Swedes, one of the world’s most secularized people. Way less than 10 percent regularly attend church, but the Swedish masses snapped up “Bible Illuminated: The Book/New Testament” in huge numbers when it was published there in 2007. When the English version came out in the United States last fall, it advertised itself as “the greatest story ever told, illuminated as never before” with edgy photos.

The result is a marvel of deconstructionism, where the first-century meaning behind the text is reinterpreted into the 21st century. Certain highlighted passages signify “whatever the readers want them to mean,” says a press release.

Thus you have photos of Al Gore, Bill Gates, Princess Diana, the Dalai Lama, Che Guevara, Angelina Jolie, Nelson Mandela and John Lennon dispersed throughout the book of Mark.

Dag Soderberg, the advertising executive behind the effort, wants to rebrand the Bible for a consumer audience but not mess with the text, which is the 43-year-old Good News Translation. Still, glimmers of a worldview emerge: A text in the book of Hebrews about the priesthood shows a woman in clerical vestments about to be ordained.

The verse in Philippians about how the Gospel should be preached “whether from right or wrong motives” shows images of the 1978 carnage at Jonestown, Guyana, when 900 members of the People’s Temple cult killed themselves.

Formatting the Bible as a slick magazine with running text instead of verses, the originators wanted to create a product that looks like something most people read day to day (which a typical Bible with verses, study notes and Holy Land maps assuredly does not).

Photos appear as if they were plucked from the day’s wire services. A passage in the book of Revelation about the power of “the beast” is illustrated by a man’s hand filling a tank of gas. The flyleaves show young people glued to blinking screens during a Swedish computer festival. On the back of the Bible is the angel of death, wearing a hoodie.

Many of the photos (Hurricane Katrina damage, slums in Port Harcourt, Nigeria) showcase the world’s misery, the poor and how hellish existence is for the majority of the world’s population and, by inference, how God must long to transform it all.

“Repent and Sin No More!” screams a black-and-white Andy Warhol poster at the beginning of the book. An American soldier in Iraq feeding a small child is placed next to a verse from Hebrews about angels in disguise.

This is a Bible where artists have decided the Bible should not be left to Christians or Jews to define; that they as outsiders have a say in its message.

As for what the message is, well, it’s that traditional ways of understanding God need to be illuminated by the blinding reality of 24/7 news. Can God deal with this, the photos ask you.

One can find a depiction of a cross, but that’s about all one sees of Jesus Christ. And so the reader is tempted to despair, seeing no solution to the world’s pressing ills.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus pushed away demands to mend the horrors of his time, which included a brutal occupying army, mass crucifixions and the kind of life expectancies one might find in today’s Bangladesh. His kingdom is not of this world, he kept on saying. But the illuminated Bible is very much of this world. It shoves your face into its silent screams.

But it’s missing that radiant personality around which the entire New Testament is based. The illuminated Bible’s Old Testament version comes out this fall. Maybe it will reflect the God behind it, starting with the creation of the world.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column appears on Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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