The Bible Illuminated [review]

I can be bought.  In that, I mean that you are welcome to send me a copy of something of interest to me...then I'll give my honest impressions.
Such is the case with a new book The Bible Illuminated.  The media-rich bible project based out of Sweden has retained an American PR firm to do the promotions.  This savvy firm apparently decided to make paying attention to blog posts by pastors part of their media work.

Full disclosure: I wrote about the Bible Illuminated in a blog post (Two Edgy Bible Versions), and based on those few words, they contacted me and offered me a free promotional copy to review.  They were very polite and I recognized that impressions of an idea on a computer screen may differ vastly from actual material so I accepted their invitation.

So, done with the full disclosure.  I received the copy of the book last week at my church and showed a few parishioners and friends.


It is sexy.  Not in a "rock me sexy Jesus" way, but in a sleek sophisticated way.  High-glossy cover with copper metallic lettering on the spine.  It looks like something you would put on a coffee table or on a rack at a high flutin' style salon.   Which, of course, is the point: putting the text in a new form that is eye-catching that reaches new circles of people.

First, the specifics. The Bible Illuminated intersperses a New Testament with callout boxes of key passages and full-page or inserts of images that relate to key passages.  It reads like a magazine with text, images, and captions.

But it is a purer Bible than you might think.  The artistic license is not in the text (a standard Good News Translation) or in study content (no study notes at all), but in the choice of images to associate with particular texts.  This is a double-edged sword: The choice of which pictures to associate with which passages is both the best and worst of this kind of project.

There are many, many really poignant associations of text and image.
  • Mad props for non-whiteness of the imagery.  Matthew has a woman in a veil representing Mary.  Luke has an African woman and child accompanying with the story of the birth of Jesus, and the three Magi are African-American guys who would look right at home on a New York street.  
  • Acts of the Apostles starts out with images of a men's soccer (okay, football) team in Sierre Leone where all the men have one leg (most lost due to civil war atrocities).  That's an interesting twist to think of Acts of the Apostles being started by people who have been handicapped and hurt by the loss of their Jesus to violence...but push on anyway.
  • In Hebrews, when talking about the priesthood and the changing law regarding Melchizedek, there's an image of the first female priest in Sweden Margit Sahlin. The line is "when the priesthood is changed, there also has to be a change in the law."  I like the theological assertion that when God has called those who are outside the law, then the law must change...not the other way around.
  • In Revelation, there is an image of a man pumping gasoline with the Scripture "the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast." That line summarizes a few other images before it: post-Katrina New Orleans, environmental degradation, and a four-page spread on an animal slaughterhouse (field?) in Nigeria.  Very political and edgy and disorienting imagery..I like it!
The front inside cover and back inside cover are images from Dreamhack in Sweden, a four-day marathon computer festival that draws over 10,000 people.  I'm not sure exactly what the publisher meant by images of thousands of networked nerds with neon case mods, but it is sticking with me.  Maybe this closed network of media-oriented people is the mission of this Bible, hmm?

There are two special sections that bear noting:
  • The Gospel of Mark has a multi-section spread with famous people, from Mother Teresa, MLK Jr, Ghandhi, to Angelina Jolie, Bono, Princess Di, Bill Gates, John Lennon, and Muhammed Ali (amongst others).  The text?  "God said 'I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you.'"  These are associations with prophets, secular and religious.  Interesting...and as a friend said "very African-centered" which they hadn't seen in a bible before.
  • The Gospel of Luke is interspersed with a multi-section spread on the UN Millenium Development Goals, with a call to supporting them.  The pictures are vivid and the goals are outlined and well-written.  Any bible that includes social action (and supporting the UN, which isn't the AntiChrist supposed to come from it? Ha!) is awesome in my book.
Throughout, the emphasis on social conditions as lenses by which the text is interpreted are relevant and interesting.  One friend said that the "social justice aspect" was better than any other biblezine they saw.


Do I have reservations?  Sure I do.  They are the mirror image of the above pluses: the choice of what texts to popout and what images to associate.  It's all artistic license, but several images did not only disturb me (I would support that!) but downright offended me:
  • In Ephesians, they chose to popout from the text "wives must submit to their husbands."  Why that verse?  Further, they did not pop out the next line of "husbands, love your wives" to provide some semblance of balance.  That annoyed me greatly.
  • In 1 Corinthians, they popout the "long hair on a woman is a thing of beauty." Why? Is it to make it resemble a fashion magazine with biblical personal grooming tips?  Will the Old Testament version include Sampson's lack of mousse?
  • By far the worst page is In Matthew, where attached to "I come not to bring peace but a sword" there's an image of a child holding a gun to your face.  Dude, don't use children and handguns; that's not cool at all.  Every single person I showed this to said that was just wrong and, in fact, one person had to walk away from the table while reviewing it because of that image.  Shameful.
My difficulty with those particular above text popouts is that they fall short of the mission: to associate images with texts.  Popouts like the above do not fit neatly with their expressed purpose in making this Bible.  From their FAQ (in a google cache, as it's not listed anymore):
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.  

What do the highlighted passages and sentences mean?
Whatever the readers wants them to mean. They were highlighted and underlined for the reader to decide.
If the goal is conversation, great.  Well done.  But since this project is marketed to non-Christians, then popping out "women submit to your husbands" reinforces conceptions of the bible as anti-women and patriarchical.  Popping out "long haired women" passages reinforces the idea that the Bible is quaint and out-of-touch.  Without an image to discuss, there is no added benefit other than reinforcing stereotypical beliefs about Christians.

These are not the right type of conversations for a non-contextualized bible (meaning it doesn't offer any support or context for the bible verses like study bibles) because they do not meaningfully add to the conversation but reinforce what the echo-chamber says about Christianity.  If you view a line without context, it will only reinforce what you already think, and not start a conversation at all.  In this, while the images are powerfully and well done (save a few), the seemingly random text popouts do not work when they are not thought through.

I don't like bibles to interpret things for me.  I'd rather do the interpretation myself, thank you.  That's exactly what I wrote in my previous review, and I'm sticking to it.  I spend more time as pastor ungluing non-life-giving conceptions of the bible in people's heads, and I'd prefer publishers not to make my job harder.

However, every single parishioner I've showed this to loves this bible.  From newbies to longtime devourers of the Word.  The images draw forth an emotional reaction that reading the text doesn't always do.  I was pleasantly surprised at how different this biblezine was compared to the other ones I've read.  Perhaps it is a continental divide, as this mag based out of Sweden has a very different feel than the ones published from Nashville, TN, USA.

While I disagree with some of the image's appropriateness, the overwhelming emphasis on social justice and moral questions are excellent. Maybe I don't mind this interpretation because it fits with my ideas and matches my own lens.  Fine, the critics can say that.  But I challenge you to compare this text with any other "pop" versions of the Bible and not see how it is more provocative and emotive than teen magazine versions of the Bible are.

So, in short, I would highly recommend you take a look at this bible to see if it fits your context.  You can purchase it directly from the Swedish manufacturer, or get it on pre-order at (it comes out October 28th stateside).

Scripture says you can't put new wine in old wineskins.  But the Bible Illuminated is old wine, aged and rich, in a new wineskin that you may just want to pick up and flip through.  The project's choice of provocative images that expose injustice and human cruelty gives a face to the faceless survivors to whom a bible is not enough to save them, but action with biblical precepts may just change the world.  And that vision of the kingdom of God where violence is eschewed is what this project calls us all to.

Thoughts? Discuss.

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Warren October 20, 2008 at 11:59 AM  

First, Joseph Julian Soria (Hamlet in Hamlet 2...) is VERY VERY sexy :)

Second, this sounds very interesting. I am also intrigued by the publishers willingness to send it out like that. Very wise.

While, I haven't seen the child-gun image, I think i might like it. I preached on that text this summer, and one of the first questions I asked was that if Christ had been murdered by a firing squad would we have guns in the sanctuary and what would the liturgical movement be.

I think the image of a child with a gun is just as disturbing a cross hanging in the sanctuary.

Matt Shafer October 20, 2008 at 6:44 PM  

"it comes out October 28th stateside"
are you sure? because I saw it at the bookstore..yesterday. and yes. it was cool.

Rev. Jeremy Smith October 20, 2008 at 7:25 PM  

Thanks for the clarification, Matt. I hadn't seen it and was just going by Amazon's "comes out on October 28th" note.

Any particular images that jumped out at you? I enjoyed Revelation!

christinemm October 22, 2008 at 11:06 AM  

I am reviewing it too. I just want to say that what bugs me about the child image with gun is it appears to be a white child in black dress pants and white dress shirt and it is a POSED photo. I know of no situation where a white child in fine dress is playing with a real gun to point it at a person. If they wanted children with guns why did they not show the real children in the Middle East who are trained with real guns and given real guns to shoot real humans? Now THAT would be a real life image that would give readers food for thought.

I won't say anything else about your review. I have other thoughts and have not written my review yet. (So far I only have the online edition.)

Clix October 22, 2008 at 7:32 PM  

Yeah - some images can STIFLE conversation, rather than encourage it. I might be tempted to Jefferson that one pic...

Anonymous,  October 28, 2008 at 1:42 AM  

I agree with Christinemm that only Middle Eastern children are taking real guns. Also, Don't forget that The Guy with the Cross was also from the Middle East. The while kids are trained/educated to invent and produce guns and other sophesticated weaponaries. And, the while child, one day would fly a plane with 50K explosive to suck the lives from an area.

Anonymous,  October 28, 2008 at 1:49 AM  

I believe, word of God should not be so bitter to get sugar coated or illumanatged with images. It is a pitty we have come to this point where we have to fool people to read a word of two. It is a profitable product and marketable too as long as stupid people are around.

johny November 8, 2008 at 9:10 AM  

here are two different things happening here. One pertaining to health/healing, the other salvation. Both are being remembered. This is underscored by how doing it improperly brought getting sick and weak, and falling asleep (dying). I don’t know if the falling sleep is due to judgment in terms of salvation or the consequences of bad health (not being healed).
Opinion Leader

Josh November 11, 2008 at 12:36 PM  


I don't think it has anything to do with sugar-coating the Bible. It's about relating a 2000 year old book to our time. There are no shortage of people who "live by" the Bible, but have never read it and if this gets a single one of those people to read/understand the New Testament, I'm fine with it.

Scott,  November 11, 2008 at 1:42 PM  

Fantastic review! I'm with you on almost all the points. But there is one...

By far the worst page is In Matthew, where attached to "I come not to bring peace but a sword" there's an image of a child holding a gun to your face.

I agree, it's definitely a shameful image, but it's also a sad reality... personally, I'm glad the publishers didn't shy away from it.

Have you had the chance to check out the "Daily Illuminations" they have up on ? There's a new picture-with-Bible-quote up every day -- all pretty good, I think. Keeps the book's concept fresh.

Anonymous,  November 11, 2008 at 1:54 PM  

They're not "fooling" anyone. It is still the Bible; it's not like they made it an action/horror flick or anything. They took the text of the Bible and added pictures to it. They made it a lot more appealing and a lot more accessible for many people. Don't you want more people to read the Bible?

Anonymous,  November 20, 2008 at 11:06 PM  

the bible tells you not to add....Illumination? Haha why do they use that word? Its to mock us of our ignorance! Read up on the illuminati and if doesnt convince you read quotes from presidents and congressman who have tried to warn us.

Matt Oxley,  November 22, 2008 at 2:15 PM  

@ Anonymous

i was thinking Illuminati/Moriah also---

its a good way to maybe reach the generation of current young christians before they get into the wackiness that is fundamentalism

neither of which seem to be a good thing to me.

Anonymous,  December 4, 2008 at 11:51 PM  

First, illumination is the holy spirits job, not the job of pictures.
Secondly, Im not sure I agree with this quote:
"I like the theological assertion that when God has called those who are outside the law, then the law must change...not the other way around". The law has and will never change. The new testament fulfills the law (mat 5:17) illuminating misconceptions about it.
Truth is truth. there is no current or outdated truth. Just remember, whatever you draw them in with, you must keep them with. Draw them in with the gospel, not some pop culture phenom.

Anonymous,  December 4, 2008 at 11:55 PM  

the bible doesnt need to be dressed up it just needs to be read.. people these days always want to add glam and stuff to things that dont need fixin..

Anonymous,  December 5, 2008 at 4:46 AM  

PLEASE I APPEAL TO ALL WHO SEE THIS TO TAKE A MOMENT TO READ MY HUMBLE COMMENT AND RECONSIDER THE NEED FOR SUCH A BIBLE.THANK YOU It fills my heart with sadness that some people in this world can be so careless about the decisions they make. Where as it's stated that the path to Heaven is very narrow, People are trying to make it much narrower by blindly and shamelessly telling GOD in his face to COMPROMISE HIMSELF so that HE can be 'appealing' to us. How dare such people. Were as there is always a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment in dedicating yourself to interpreting the texts of the bible and trying to get closer to God, now by stripping the bible slowly out of it's purpose,turning it into a mere magazine, and caring less about us WEAK and defenseless people who seek for answers not in the words of people perceive such as displayed in this 'magazine' but in the message of a higher entity which we believe exists. If you people can be so feeble minded as to expect God to answer all the questions about degradation of the moral fabric modern society as well as human cruelty or climate changes, then keep asking and asking and asking and seeking.Whether or not the images appeal, you don't need fancy pictures to get you going. For religious magazines,illustrations are fine to draw a note across, but the BIBLE is also a book of DISCIPLINE, for both young and old, don't drag your feet complaining till some guy decides to play the deliverer and starts to put in fancy imagery that will not only cloud our 'simple' minds for years to come but will downright twuart the true purpose of A BIBLE. Your eyes are the only pictures you'll ever need, or do you think that God didn't know what he was doing when HE gave us EYES. Don't make excuses like modern society requires that the bible be changed to fit us,if so then let why don't you just ask God himself to step it up a notch personally. I mean,it's His word isn't it,and if HE wishes it to change then that's HIS call not ours nor those behind the making of this bible. Did anyone even care to ask if they are even christians.Don't be so gullibe because in truth,anyone can make a bible 'ANYONE'. We draw line when are choose to put in their own bits of message of what they think is right, 'WHAT THEY THINK', what happened to what GOD is really trying say. So please, don't be like cry babies who want their bottle so badly that they are prepared to take one from even a perfect stranger who looks like their mom but isn't,,,but rather stand firm and strong,both beleivers and nonbelievers alike,as we are all equal and imperfect that even if we don't get all the answers, it is in the challenge of striving to get the answers and get closer to God that the 'TRUE REWARD' arrives. As babies,we had to crawl,then stand and fall, stand and fall ,stand and fall, and again and again and again, until that just that very first step ,when we saw for the first time, the greatest gift of ourlives, Our moms withopen arms and a warm,weicoming smile saying, "come to me" . People, please don't let this bible,if you wish to call it that(your choice), take that reward away from us, and don't let the WORD OF GOD be slowly revamped into the word of man. I humbly beg of all of you. Even though the images are right on the bat, our lives are full of these images,we are all both ugly and beautiful in side, both light and dark. But God already knows that,hence He wants us not to look at ourselves for answers for we'll be surely sucked in by the obviousness, but to look up. If you want to see real images of the manifestation of the beast, then we might as well the place the true pictures and stated in the Old Testament, that there will be a GREAT QUAKE,,and thus our world wars were we all became monsters and beasts, killing each other without quarter,ever relentless or about the beast in drugs and weapons and the internet.and so on and so on. So people,the beast is here and we might as well keep giving him a reason to smirk at our feebleness and carelessness. So now, you all need to make a choice, Are you going to let people who sadly believe they do but rather don't know any better, will you let them strip you of your weapons and armaments( your BIBLE and your FAITH) against evil. Making them dilute your faith and blunten your bible, confuse you with eyecandy and a cheery on top bible or will you do the right thing and walk away from that book. God gave you the right to make a choice,so my brothers and sisters, choose wisely and not foolishly.

Rev. Jeremy Smith December 5, 2008 at 6:25 AM  

@ Anonymous #14, you are right that Truth is eternal. But given the specific mission of this site, which is to address how we create our own echo-chambers and don't let anything dissonant in, then examining this kind of bible is relevant.

Ace January 13, 2009 at 11:46 AM  

Chill out ya~ my brothers n sisters. Peace be with us all here who are so concern about this book.

Smile and be humble ^_^
Not to judge coz we don't have that authority. Commenting is good but we have to be considerate. Being too 'righteous' might later turn boastful.
I still remember there is one saying - "If they are not against us, they are with us." I think this Bible Illuminated is definitely with us. Some might hate it and some might like it. Just like God n Jesus. Not everyone on earth will know how to appreciate His graceful love ...but it is our decision to make.

We all are created with free will ...hence we can voice as we like.

Take it easy. Let the Bible Illuminated run it course. I guess those who open their heart may feel His love n truth there, those who open their eyes may see His awe, those who open their ears may understand well ... the clarity in their mind is His blessing.

Hallelujah, Amen...

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