'Bible Illuminated': The latest Word

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If God made man in his own image, then does God look anything like Arnold Schwarzenegger? That's a question you might mull over when you come across a picture of a much younger topless governator flexing in the pages of a glossy edition of the New Testament called "Bible Illuminated: The Book."

Created by a group of Swedish advertising and corporate executives, "Bible Illuminated" resembles a fashion magazine except that its cover model looks a lot like the creepy white-faced Satan in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ." Inside you'll find the text of the Good News translation of the New Testament without verse numbers, interspersed with a mixed bag of richly colored pop culture-driven photographs.

Published by the Swedish firm Illuminated World, "Bible Illuminated" stands out in the ever-expanding universe of look-at-me-I'm-super-jazzy Bibles in that it's made by secular folks for secular folks. If you can get past the secular-Bible oxymoron, a couple of interesting questions arise: In this post-ironic age, are the secular beyond the reach of religious rhetoric? And if not, at what point do marketing and aesthetics entirely subsume the message of the most vaunted narrative of Western civilization?

In the book, photos of stars like Angelina Jolie and Muhammad Ali stand in stark contrast to pictures of famine and poverty in the Third World. Random images -- such as underwear draped over high heels and a kitschy "Holy Family" set of plastic dolls -- are meant to draw the reader into the text via pull-out quotes.

Bible magazines aiming to tap the seemingly bottomless reservoir of faith, interest and money at the intersection of religion and pop culture are not a new phenomenon. Thomas Nelson Publishers, America's largest Christian publisher, introduced a flashy line of BibleZines in 2003 targeting the youth market with beauty advice and crush quizzes. But where these editions appeal to the Bible study set, "Bible Illuminated" purports to have no religious mission whatsoever.

"I'm not very religious, but I do think the story is important because we are leaning on it. It's a heritage and that I respect," says Dag Söderberg, a plump, jovial middle-aged man who is referred to as "Bible Illuminated's" "visionary/founder" in news releases. "The more I work with this the more respect I get for believers too." Söderberg was the chief executive of one of Europe's largest advertising firms before a dinnertime conversation between two of his friends about modern man's indifference to historical texts spurred him to put together a team of "people who are well known in the trade for their skills in picking out images" to create a Bible that is "relevant today."

Their work was a hit in secular Sweden. According to the Swedish Bible Society, the total Swedish Bible market is about 60,000 Bibles per year. Since "Bible Illuminated" was released during Easter of 2007 it has sold more than 30,000 copies, effectively expanding the Swedish Bible market by 50%.

When Illuminated World decided to try its luck in the U.S. market, the American Bible Society was more than glad to license the Good News translation to the company.

"This particular product . . . intrigued us because it was an effort in the Swedish market to reach outsiders, unchurched, people with no familiarity with the Bible, and this seemed like a wonderful product properly retooled for the American secular audience," says Robert Hodgson Jr., consultant and dean emeritus at the New York-based American Bible Society's Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship.

It could be argued that five ad execs sitting in a room discussing whether to juxtapose photos of Bono, Martin Luther King Jr. and Al Gore with quotes such as: "God said, 'I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you,' " might amount to little more than a cynical marketing ploy. But that thought doesn't bother Hodgson.

"We're not disrespecting traditional approaches to the Bible . . . but we know that there's an urgency to get the Bible out into society and culture in a way that takes us back to the future," says Hodgson. "When the prophets and Jesus preached and taught they often did it in the public square and marketplace; in other words, in the ancient equivalent of our sales, marketing and distribution venues."

No book has been repackaged for relevancy more than the Bible. It has enjoyed popularity via early liturgical and ritual dances and Passion plays, architectural and artistic depictions such as those found in the catacombs of Rome, Gothic cathedrals, the mosaics of Ravenna, Italy, and illuminated manuscripts. It was fast-tracked by the Gutenberg printing press and translated into accessible German by Martin Luther and into early modern English by William Tyndale.

"We were early advocates of the Bible on the radio, on television and now on the Internet and DVD," says Hodgson. "There are scripture comics, manga novels -- so there's an infinite procession of cutting-edge, radical re-imagining of what the Bible can be."

"The 'Bible Illuminated' . . . is a presentation of the text that's designed to take the biblical story and render it in a way that is understandable for all people," adds Nida dean Philip Towner.

So can society encourage deep spiritual dialogue using pop culture's iconography of consumption and fame? It may be that the pictures in the book aren't shocking or arresting enough to draw in a Gen X/Y demographic raised on hyper-violent video games and film. Even the most effective images -- such as the blood-soaked apocalypse suggested by photos of the Trans-Amadi Slaughter, the main abattoir of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, that appear in Revelation -- feel all too familiar.

"I see images like this all the time," says Mark Brinkerhoff, 25, who plays drums in a L.A. band called the Savages and was raised by "God-fearing" parents in Colorado. Brinkerhoff lost interest and faith in the church and is exactly the kind of guy the American Bible Society and Söderberg would like to reach, but as he flips through the "Bible Illuminated" he shrugs his shoulders and sighs. "I'd probably look at the photos and not read it. Mixing in all these pop culture references actually defeats the point of the Bible for me. Maybe bits and pieces would get through, though."

Bits and pieces are enough to hearten people who have a stake in keeping Christianity both relevant and lucrative.

"I think this generation is trying to have a real connection with God, and that's been lost somewhere along the way. And if they can connect through videos or graphics or music or whatever it is that makes a relationship with Christ more alive, then that's a good thing to have," says Jason Illian, 33, the chief executive of GodTube, which is the Christian equivalent of YouTube and gets 30 million page views per month.

Kurt Fredrickson, the director of the doctor of ministry program at Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary, agrees, as long as readers keep in mind that the photos are nothing more than one group's interpretation of the text. He is tickled and intrigued as he flips through the book. "What I like most of all is I think it could be a provocative piece that gets people thinking about the Bible not as some dusty old relic book that they can't understand, but maybe because of these images we have a better perception that ways of faith do integrate with and engage in the real world," he says.

He stops on Page 166 in the Book of Romans where there is a full-page picture of a Chihuahua sitting on a fancy pillow in the back of a limo with a giant gold dollar-sign chain necklace around its neck.

"Here's a disturbing picture, there's a little dog, what's this dog doing here?" Then he reads the quote tied to the photograph: "They say they are wise, but they are fools; instead of worshiping the immortal God, they worship images made to look like mortals or birds or animals or reptiles."

"That's classic!" he shouts, laughing. "That's so true!"

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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