Monday, October 27, 2008

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing or A Trojan Horse?; First Thoughts on Bible Illuminated: The Book New Testament

Title: Bible Illuminated: The Book New Testament
Creators: Illuminated World, Dag Soderberg
In partnership with: American Bible Association
Publication: Illuminated World (October 28, 2008), American release, in English
ISBN: 978-9197669443
Full Retail Price: $35.00

Summary Statement: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing or A Trojan Horse?

A publicist approached me to do a special sneak preview book review of the soon to be released book: Bible Illuminated The Book New Testament. The book was said to be the New Testament illustrated with contemporary photography. I imagined it to be a coffee table book with artistic photos representing in visual form, some of the content in the New Testament. I had hoped that artistic photos would make readers curious about The New Testament and that they would read it and discover if its words and the message of Christianity would have an impact on them in a positive way. I hoped Christians would start talking about the book and wondered if non-believers would be enlightened by what they read and saw in The New Testament.

When I viewed the book online (pre-publication, while hard copies were still being printed), I was a bit surprised by what I found. Knowing full well that photographers are artists with their own perspectives, and that illustrators interpret the text into visual forms, I was excited and wondered what types of images would appear in the book. (I can’t wait to get the hard copy of the book in my hands so I can read it properly, perhaps some of my impressions will change?)

The American Bible Association has given permission for The Good News version of The New Testament to be used in this publication, according to the credit and a two page spread that appears in the book that was written by The American Bible Association.

I was confused by many of the images selected and pondered for days what the source of my discomfort was and why I was reacting negatively to the book. I don’t feel that many of the images are not closely tied to literal interpretations of the text, but the images do one of two things. The first is just that some images just don’t seem to relate to the pages they are paired with. Even sometimes when a photo has an excerpt from the Bible I just don’t understand the matching of the image to the text, no matter how long I contemplate it. The second and more dangerous issue is that through the images and the added text a message comes across to the reader that is above and beyond the New Testament, this book seems to be calling the reader to take certain actions for social change as recommended by the United Nations (rather than focusing on issues that Christians feel are in The New Testament itself).

There are sections in the book which are new material, above and beyond the text of The New Testament, that speak of some social and cultural issues happening today across the world. There are messages in support of the United Nations initiatives, including an article “Eight Ways to Change the World” which is part of a plan created in 2000 called the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ which they hope will be realized by the year 2015. Readers are called to action by supporting initiatives of the United Nations and to donate their money (just one dollar you donate can help…) to such causes as improving medical care for pregnant women in third world countries to try to lower the maternal mortality rate, and also a call to action to get more prescription drugs for Africans with AIDS, to name just two.

A section has photographs of some people who have lived in this last century who the authors feel have done work to change the world for the better. Some include Angelina Jolie, Bono, Muhammad Ali, Al Gore, and Che Guevara. A bit unfair is the page that explains who the people are gives the least descriptions for those who seem to me to have done the most (Mother Theresa, Ghandi) and gives more praise to the celebrities. Even if we readers know who Mother Theresa and Ghandi are, they both deserve to have had a full paragraph like Angelina Jolie and Al Gore have.

The biggest message I received from previewing this book is a call to action, to act on certain highlighted issues of our times, such as global warming and some other environmental issues. The inclusion of two well-known photos, one of Al Gore in the famous photo at the podium with the Earth image from his book “An Inconvenient Truth” and another of the polar bear swimming (supposedly not having any icebergs left to stand on). This is in stark contrast to the usual intention of a Bible which is to read it and learn about what it means to be a Christian and to live a Christian life. The individuals highlighted in that one section are not just Christians, they celebrate the diversity in the world by showing Muslims and Atheists as well.

Other times I was left unsure of what I was being asked to feel or do, such as the inclusion of photographs by Ed Kashi of the Trans Amadi Slaughter that I learned after doing some research on the Internet, is a major source of pollution by the meat industry of the Niger Delta. I still do not understand how the quoted text from the Bible for one image relates to the issue of the meat industry and air and water pollution, “For the devil has come down to you and he is filled with rage, because he knows he has only a little time left”.

What message am I to get from learning of that water pollution issue? Is it that meat-eaters are bad? Is it that the Nigerian government doesn’t care about water pollution? That we have little time left to ‘save the Earth’? That polluters are the Devil? I am not sure.

An example of the problem with this book is that the issues highlighted are not necessarily connected to what is in The New Testament that still are important issues today. What is not in the book is any kind of pro-life message. There could have been controversial photos of partial birth abortions to underscore Christ’s message about not killing. There could have been images of present day genocide to show readers that those horrors are still happening in some parts of the world today. Again this is an example of not using examples from The New Testament but just overlaying issues that the United Nations has deemed are its top priorities. Am I asking too much to think that controversial issues that appear in photographs would be about issues which Christ has opinions about that are all plainly laid out in The New Testament?

As creator Dag Soderberg states in his video promotional materials, “It touches you even if you are not a believer”. I took that to mean that the creators of the book seek to touch the reader through the visuals and highlighted text rather than to encourage reading the entire New Testament and walking away with a positive image of Christians, a believer in God, a believer in Jesus Christ and/or a conversion to the Christian faith. You have to admit that publishing a New Testament Bible with a mission other than to educate about the history of Christianity and how to live a Christian life is pretty gutsy. And therein lays the controversy as I see it.

So who are the creators or illuminators as they call themselves? From the official website, we learn that creator of “Illuminated World” is Dag Soderberg who “ is a spiritual but not particularly religious individual”. The others involved are investors and business people.

Dag Soderberg states in a promotional video available for viewing on the book’s official website and on asks if the Bible can relate to modern times. He states that he wants people to read the Bible and to display it in their homes and to read it in public (on the subway) and to talk about it. Soderberg states the Bible is powerful, more powerful and older than the churches and that we should know our history. But at times after viewing the preview I was left convinced that one of the motives of the creator is to show that some people in the world are living very different lives than the Bible prescribes.

The impression I received was that the Bible is outdated and perhaps not the best advice to take. I point to the spread (seen above) of what I thought was a gruesome image of a rich white woman tearing apart a roasted bird with her bare hands (would not a well groomed woman like that use a proper carving knife and fork?). The text that puts down what we now call ‘being a vegetarian’. Will that not tick off the vegetarian social activists out there and allow them to put down The New Testament as outdated and in need of ignoring? In another section the statement that women must submit to their husbands is highlighted but text about how a husband needs to treat his wife well is not highlighted. Another recommendation that goes against what many women choose concerns their hair length. Women without long hair are not doing the right thing. Why were those sections highlighted as worthy of our attention?

I have a feeling first and foremost the purpose of publishing this book is to make money. I bet the creators hope that the many who buy Bibles in America will buy their own copy of Bible Illuminated The Book The New Testament. Secondarily I feel the mission is of social change, to incite readers to social activism and to push the agenda of The United Nations, above and beyond hoping readers come away with positive beliefs about Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Are any of the founders or business partners of Illuminated World religious?
There is no religious mission here. We believe that the success of The Book will be driven by the fact that this is not coming from within any specific faith, religion or church. We are from many faiths, backgrounds and beliefs and ultimately trying to create something for the many and not just for the few.

My suspicions on the reason this was created were confirmed today when I was reading the official website’s News section.

What is Illuminated World’s agenda? What is the goal in publishing The Book and other “Illuminated” texts?
The goal is to drive an emotional reaction and get people to think, discuss and share. It’s meant to trigger bigger moral questions. It in turn will help people to understand the common heritage between all religions through the Bible’s text. We hope people will find the images, design and layout intriguing—intriguing enough to talk about the actual stories in the Bible and what the morals and lessons mean to them and to each other. The more you know, the more you can participate in discussions about the world and understand the bigger picture.

Bible Illuminated The Book New Testament was released in Sweden in 2007 and sold over 300,000 copies. I am told the publication in English in America is ‘highly anticipated’. In fact the Press section of the official website is already filled with pre-publication, positive reviews of the English edition of this book.

And What Next?

Currently being created is The Old Testament in an illuminated version to be released in the spring of 2009. According to the news section of the official website, future plans include translations of other religious books as well. If The Koran is published I wonder how that will be produced and how Muslims will react to it.

Other Thoughts

After skimming this book I was left wondering and wishing that someone would produce a New Testament with artistic photographs that more literally interpret the text and do not add a political and social agenda. I urge Christian book publishers to seriously consider doing such a project. I would love to see what Christian photographers and Christian editors would come up with including a New Testament that is beautifully and artistically illustrated in a modern way.

I’m left asking myself the question about the challenges and possible dangers of non-Christians publishing Bibles, especially those that seek to promote more of a ‘one world unity’ and ‘no one religion is right’. If there is any book in the world that should be pro-Christianity and speak specifically to people about what Christianity is, it would be The New Testament. It is what it is, a book promoting Christianity!

For more reading:

United Nations Millenium Development Goals

The United Nations Millennial Goals can be read here.

Official Website: Illuminated World (publishers of Bible Illuminated The Book The New Testament

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Jennifer said...

Scary stuff. When I see "Bibles" like this published, I always remember the warning at the end of the Bible: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." Revelation 22: 18,19

Sisterlisa said...

Excellent comment Jennifer. It's interesting to note that this book comes out at a time when Obama is close to winning this election and all the plans he has with the UN. Four prominent churches in my town closed their doors on Sunday to do a community clean up instead. Now we have a Bible that is so far from the original manuscripts? We are warned about calling good bad and bad good. I am just 36 years old and in my 36 years of life I have never seen us so close to the end times and I see now.

Bill Abendroth said...


I tracked you down from, where you posted a comment on my critical review of this New Testament. You mentioned that you did not want to write your own review, because you were afraid of being "flamed." After reading your review, I have to say I am beyond surprised--shocked, in fact--that our reactions to this Bible are so similar, given that we appear to be ideologically wholly opposites.

I was raised a conservative Lutheran, but now am an atheist. In fact, I am big fan of the United Nations, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and actively support viturally EVERY UN Convention (banning land mines, torture, cluster bombs, enforced disappearance, etc.). Yes, I AM a big bleeding heart liberal who gets teary eyed just thinking of the Barbara Streisand character in "The Way We Were' (and not just because it's Barbara Streisand). But if it helps, I also spent a long time in the Boy Scouts.......

So--what do I care about a supposedly new version of the New Testament? Shouldn't I just go back and re-read my well thumbed copy of Christopher Hitchens's "god (sic) is Not Great"?

I guess this is why I care. I don't see this "Bible" as a trojan horse or a wolf in sheep's clothing so much as a crass marketing opportunity--and that really offends me. A publisher puts out a supposedly new edition of the New Testament, and says "There is no religious mission here"? Get out of my face: the Illuminated World is on a mission from God (cf The Blues Brothers) to separate fools from their money. Second, like I mentioned in my review on Amazon, I think there really is a need for a new annotated version of the New Testament, one that addresses the various disputed sections of the Gospels (documented in Dr. Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus"), contains some additional commentary (See, for example, Jack Miles's "Christ, A Crisis in the Life of God"), and even includes some parallel quotes from the Gnostic Gospels (such as the views of Christ in John v. the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas). Instead, the Illuminated World is just an old (and readily available) translation, repackaged with some flashy new photography. Shazzam! (as they say where I come from). Talk about putting old wine into new wineskins (to coin a phrase).

Now, no matter how hard you and me think on this, we will never agree on Mr. Al Gore as a politician and a philosopher. Still, I think we can agree that the former vice president does not belong in the New Testament. But even more appalling to me are the pictures of Mr. Che Guevara and Muhammad Ali, apparently absent sufficient framing commentary. Here's why. Personally, I think Mr. Guevara is a good guy. His "Guerilla Warfare" is a good read from a historical perspective, but as any kind of manual, it's hopelessly out of date. His "Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War" is a great read, and actually very funny. But Che was no proponent of liberation theology, or really anything religious, so what is he doing in the New Testament? As for Mr. Ali--I am always shocked whenever I see someone like President George W. Bush give Mr. Ali some humanitarian award. I admire Mr. Ali for his refusal to be inducted into the army, his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, and for Mr. Ali's amazing success at pulling together the largely poor African American civil rights movement with the largely middle class white Anti-War movement. But is that why President Bush admires him? I doubt it. Moreover, Ali at that time was part of the Nation of Islam, and while Ali supported voting rights, he was not an integrationist. In fact, when Malcom X broke with The Messenger and became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and a Sunni Muslim, Ali pointedly stayed with the Nation, and supported the Nation's segrationist ideology. All in all, Ali was no Martin Luther King Jr. Be that as it may, what does that have to do with the Gospels? Beats me.

And you don't even mention the photo of Andy Warhol in the Revelations of St. John. Andy Warhol?

That is what makes me angry enough to not only write a long review on Amazon, but also write an unasked for letter at you (as opposed to "to you"). The world (and not just the West) could use a new accessible, well written and researched annotated version of the New Testament. In "Misquoting Jesus," Dr. Ehrman points out in 1707, John Mill (a fellow of Queens College, Oxford) published a Greek edition of the New Testament, noting that there were over 30,000 substantive variations among the different manuscripts he had access to. Bible scholars today have access to a greater number of ancient writings, and have compiled literally hundreds of thousands of variations. For example, Dr. Ehrman points out the clear concensus among Bible Scholars that the story of Jesus intervening in the stoning of an adulteress ("Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone") was not part of the original Gospel of John, but is a later addition. Dr. Ehrman says that what motived him to write "Misquoting Jesus (in 2005!) was the complete absense of a mainstream book about something that Bible scholars have struggled with for over 300 years. A New Testament that addresses some of that controversy, as well as how what Dr. Ehrman calls "proto Christianity" struggles against three major heresies (the "Adoptionist," the "Docetist," and the "Separationist") would be useful and interesting.

Additionally, Jack Miles (who won the Pulitzer prize for "God: A Biography") gives a fascinating background to the stories of Jesus meeting with Nicodemus (John 3), Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the Devil confronting Jesus in the desert (Luke 4). That background not only makes the text come alive, but also shows how rich and profound the language really is. That kind of framing of the text--as opposed to pictures of Bill Gates and Bono--would make the New Testament relevant to the hip hop happening groovy cats of nowsville.

Ah well. Such is life.

By the by, "Sister Lisa"--Talking about all the Signs pointing to the End Times, you might want to look at Mr. Hal Lindsey's "The Late, Great Planet Earth." Mr. Lindsey's thesis was the parable of the fig tree in Matthew 24 meant that the Second Coming (and end of the world) would happen about forty years after the founding of the modern state of Israel--or some time before 1988. D'OH! I guess you can pretty much find anything you want to, if you just look hard enough.

Bill Abendroth
Samsara Samizdat

christinemm said...

Bill thanks for sharing your thoughts and all the recommended reading.

Yesterday afternoon I was working on my 'regular book review' of the Bible Illuminated New Testament as I had promised the publicist I'd do a regular review after the hard copy was received. Now that I have it a few more things trouble me.

I was editing down my long "first thoughts" post (this one) and I had actually cut out the parts about the 'making money motivation' as I thought perhaps I had gone too far to over-analyze this.

I am letting my draft sit a while to simmer while I clear my head and hope to finish polishing that review tonight or tomorrow. I want to get it done, blogged, and over with.

I also talked about the Amazon review with my DH who says I should publish it even if I am just one of two people who are rating it a 1 star book. I do not want to open myself up for being slammed as I have been on some parenting book reviews and homeschooling book reviews.

I didn't go into detail about why I didn't like some of the people highlighted as I thought I was ranting on and on with my "first thoughts" post. I was very bothered by Che Gueverra.

I also will share that I started to listen to the audiobook edition of "Misquoting Jesus" and the idea of the bad translations and changes really bugged me. I found it too hard to concentrate on that book in audio form so returned it to the library and told myself I'd do better with the text/normal book and reading it. I do plan to finish reading that some time as I feel there is a lot I can learn from it.

Thanks for sharing!!

I am glad I am not alone in my critique of the book.