Taken in the vast open-air slaughterhouse in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the photos show crowds of young workers piling up mounds of dead animals amid toxic smoke from burning tires while Armageddon-like rivers of blood flow by their feet. Revelation, that Biblical book of end-of-days terror and desolation, has always fired artists’ imaginations. For the publisher of a new photo-illustrated Bible, though, actual images of the prelude to the second coming were not an option, and the Nigerian abattoir is an inspired stand-in. It’s also the sort of eclectic, often edgy, marriage of image and text—consider Angelina Jolie as one of God’s special messengers—that’s created so much buzz around the North American launch of Swedish ad executive Dag Soderberg’s Bible Illuminated. The two thick, photo-stuffed, $35 magazines (one per Testament) resemble nothing so much as spiritual editions of Vogue. But while the look is cutting-edge modern—old wine in new bottles, to reverse Jesus’s parable—the idea is as ancient as the Bible.
Christians have always been, profoundly, a people of the written word. Christ himself is the logos, the word that became flesh in the incarnation; when Jesus wished to declare that he was the beginning and end of all things, he described himself as “the alpha and the omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. But for most of the faith’s history most of its adherents were illiterate—hence the rich array of Christian iconography, including scriptural scenes depicted on church walls. Now, as the Western world enters into another image-dominant era, one not so much illiterate as post-literate, among the first to assume the mantle of Byzantine mosaicists and Italian fresco painters is a Swedish marketing guru. But Soderberg is well aware of his debt to the past. The title of his creation is a tribute to medieval monks and their hand-written and drawn Bibles.
Soderberg’s Bible sold 30,000 copies last year in Sweden—a remarkable 50 per cent increase in total Bible sales in one of Europe’s most post-Christian societies. Soderberg isn’t much of a Christian himself, but he had realized, he told reporters, that the Bible was “our history, our heritage—it shapes much of our moral codes.” Soderberg added that he had designed a version that people would want “to pick up, instead of hide away.” Before bookshops began carrying it, Soderberg sold it in places where Vogue would have been a more familiar sight—fashion boutiques, art galleries and design stores—and did manage to reach a non-traditional readership. As one enthusiastic U.S. reviewer wrote about the New Testament volume (the Old Testament won’t be available in English until next year): “One thing we can probably all agree on is how laborious it is to read the Bible.”
In Soderberg’s edition, the text itself is unexceptional, the solid workaday English of the Good News translation, provided by the American Bible Society. This Bible is indeed all about the images: a child pointing a handgun directly at the camera illustrates Jesus’s statement that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword”; a team of one-legged soccer players, all victims of Sierra Leone’s civil war, appear in the Acts of the Apostles, where Scripture describes seemingly powerless people doing extraordinary things.
And then there’s the glam shots, Soderberg’s most talked-about choices: Jolie, Bono, Princess Diana and others. Many observers assume he’s simply relying on the ad business’s favourite crutches, sex and celebrity. Well, sure. A sex-and-violence theme certainly dominates the cover of the forthcoming Old Testament, where the subheadings include “Driven By Desire” and “The First Murder.” But the famous people in the New Testament—who include Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela as well—are there to illustrate the Gospel of Mark’s announcement that “God says, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way.’ ”
All the portraits in that section are of people who topped a Swedish poll asking for modern-era figures respondents associated with goodness and compassion. Jolie is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, particularly active, like Bono, in African causes. This, in fact, is an unusually Africa-centric Bible, reflecting long-standing Swedish (and Christian) concern with the most troubled continent. Soderberg’s aim is the Bible as goad to social and environmental conscience, not road map to personal salvation, and the response of readers will turn as much on politics as faith. This is, after all, a Bible with—for God’s sake—a photo of Al Gore.