The Bible Reincarnated: Visually Arresting

Washington, USA - Martin Luther King Jr. graces one page, Angelina Jolie the next. A photo of a man on fire opens the Book of Revelation. And laid across a two-page image of gasoline spilling from a pump is the quote that begins, "The whole earth was amazed and followed the beast."

It's not the good book some may remember.

While the Bible has been recreated and repackaged innumerable times, publishers of the newest editions are using distinctly unique formats to capture the attention of readers.

"In general, Bible publishers have always been creative, but now they are scrambling to meet a culture where people are moving away from print reading," said Paul Gutjahr, an associate professor of English and adjunct associate professor in religious studies at Indiana University.

Secular as well as traditional religious Bible publishers are getting in on the act. Dozens of versions of the Bible come out each year for various niches: the outdoorsman, the married couple, business leaders. There are electronic Bibles available for the Kindle, iPods and handheld devices. There are graphic novel and comic book interpretations. There's even a new chronological version of the Bible coming out this fall.

It's difficult to capture how many versions of the Bible are sold each year. But the Book Industry Study Group estimates that Bibles, testaments, hymnals and prayer books were a $795.2 million market in 2007.

Experts say Bible sales tend to rise in times of war and economic crisis. And the Book Industry Study Group says a Bible publishing boom is indeed under way. The market size has grown steadily over the past several years and is expected to jump in the coming years. The group estimates that the market will reach $823.5 million this year -- growth other publishing categories likely would covet.

The Bible is reinvented quite often. While essentially the same book, Gutjahr said that for the past two decades, updates were largely focused on new translations. There are also versions that come out each year that are essentially the same book, with different covers and sizes based on people's wants. But he sees the next trend as one toward textual translation and visual translation.

"In a visually literate, advertising-skeptical age -- how do you grab people's attention?" Gutjahr asked. "Mixing the biblical text with Angelina Jolie doesn't surprise me."

First published in Sweden last year, "Bible Illuminated: The Book, New Testament" is the glossy fashion magazine-style publication that features Jolie. It looks like it might be more at home on a coffee table or the nightstand of the latest hipster hotel than a church.

The creation of former advertising executives, it pairs intense photo essays -- including images such as a child with a gun or beatings in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold's II's regime -- with passages from the New Testament. It is aimed at people who might not otherwise ever read the Bible.

"There is a large part of the population that considers themselves smart, educated, conscientious, connected people who are not particularly religious and have not regularly read the Bible," said Larry Norton, a former publishing executive and president of Illuminated World, the company that is putting out "Bible Illuminated."

"That group of people probably know it would be smarter, more sensitive to their surroundings if they read the Bible if they were religious or not," Norton said.

Illuminated World is quick to point out that it is not affiliated with any church or religion.

Norton said sales of "Bible Illuminated" in Sweden, where an estimated 60,000 Bibles are sold each year, reached 30,000 in its first year. They are hoping for similar success in the U.S. and plan to release the New Testament in October and potentially the Old Testament in March.

"We are living in the age of increased secularization and distance from traditional religion," said Robert Hodgson, dean emeritus at the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship that is responsible for the translation and quality control for the American Bible Society, which licensed the rights to the Good News version of the Bible to Illuminated World.

"It's about new points of entry in a modern world that is not ready to open its doors and windows to the traditional word," he said.