RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There are those who might think the Bible can't be improved. And given the number of Bibles sold every year - somewhere between 450 and 650 million - you also might think it doesn't need much marketing. But two new Bible's are aiming for a young, even a secular, audience. One is a hip illustrated version of the New Testament. The other takes advantage of the popularity of the green movement. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: "Bible Illuminated: The Book," a visually arresting take on the New Testament, was the brainchild of a secular Swedish advertising executive, Dag Soderberg. He wondered why so few people actually read a book that had so much influence on our culture. So he set out to make it more appealing, with glossy photos to illustrate the text.
Mr. DAG SODERBERG (Swedish Advertising Executive; Author, "Bible Illuminated: The Book"): I did want it to be eye-catching, of course.
NEARY: The front cover is a close-up of a translucent green eye caked with black makeup staring eerily from the page. On the back is a photo of a faceless figure wearing a black, hooded sweatshirt. If you didn't know this was a Bible, you might think it was a Goth magazine or some kind of a coffee table book. And that, says Soderberg, is the idea.
Mr. SODERBERG: The Bible in itself is a - I mean, it's an object that is quite powerful. But a coffee table magazine is something that is read by the many every day, everywhere. So this is a way to make it as available as any other magazine, but it's a Bible.
NEARY: Inside, photos of celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Bono, and John Lennon are interspersed with pictures of heroic figures like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. A photo of an African woman, her head covered in an emerald-green veil, a young child leaning on her shoulder, illustrates the story of Mary and Jesus. Images taken from the news - both jarring and poignant - radiate a message of social justice.
Reverend JEREMY SMITH (United Methodist Minister): It feels like something that you would find in a doctor's office. And I think that's one of the purposes of it that you pick this up and you say, oh, weird.
NEARY: Jeremy Smith, a United Methodist minister, wrote about the book on his blog "Hacking Christianity." Clearly, Smith says, the book is intended to provoke discussion. He points to the images used to illustrate this quote from the Book of Revelation: "The whole earth was amazed and followed the beast."
Reverend SMITH: So they've got images of post-Katrina, New Orleans covered in water. They've got images of environmental degradation. They've got a four-page spread about an animal slaughterhouse in Nigeria. And then the capstone to all of it - which is my favorite - is an image of a man pumping gasoline. So, it's interpreting this with very political and edgy and, honestly, some disorienting imagery.
NEARY: Though skeptical when he first heard about the book, Smith says he found many of the images compelling. But equally compelling, he says, is another new Bible that takes a completely different approach, "The Green Bible," which is simplicity itself.
Reverend SMITH: But it also catches people's attention. I took it to a Bible study and set it down on the table. And people looked at it and said, what is that? And I said it's a Bible.
NEARY: "The Green Bible" has a beige cloth cover embossed with a picture of a green tree. Inside, passages that refer to the environment are highlighted in green. Mark Tauber, senior vice president at HarperOne, which publishes "The Green Bible," says it is made entirely of recyclable materials.
Mr. MARK TAUBER (Vice President and Deputy Publisher, HarperOne): We try to talk about it, this product, as both form and function. So the actual form of it, the actual Bible, we think, is a green product. And then in function, it performs the function of helping people to be better stewards, if you will.
NEARY: These two Bibles not only look radically different, they also have a very different purpose, says Reverend Smith. Whereas "The Book" wants to begin a conversation...
Reverend SMITH: "The Green Bible" is wanting to add to the conversation. Did Jesus say anything about recycling? Does God care what we do with the Earth? These are the existing conversations that are emerging that I think "The Green Bible" contributes to.
NEARY: And, says Mark Tauber, "The Green Bible" is not only becoming part of the conversation among Christians, it is also drawing attention in secular venues.
Mr. TAUBER: My personal example, the funniest is on the Earth First Web site. There were folks blogging about, you know, who knew all those crazy - something to the - I'm not quoting exactly here - but something to the effect of those crazy, whacko, religious people. But I guess, you know, if you have to believe there's something beyond this life, you know, this is probably a good Bible for you to read. So it was this backhanded compliment from a group that's, you know, not known for being so friendly to people of faith.
NEARY: Both "The Green Bible" and "The Book" are aimed at the young. But, says Soderberg, when they published the "Illuminated Bible" in Sweden, they found that it appealed beyond its target audience. In fact, he says, they expanded the market by almost 50 percent in a year. And there's no question, he says, that a new conversation about the Bible is under way in a lot of unexpected places.
Mr. SODERBERG: I've seen in offices who are very strict, they talk about the text of the Bible because everybody in the office flip through this magazine, and they talk about it during office hours. I mean that's also awesome. I mean that's cool.
NEARY: Soderberg says an illuminated version of the Old Testament will be published in this country just in time for Easter. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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