When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a study Bible for a present. It was packed with supplements: book introductions, historical information, a version of Strong’s Concordance, and best of all, hundreds of notes that sought to explain the Bible’s more challenging passages. All of it was intended to make the Bible more accessible.

Eventually, though, I wanted something simpler. As interesting as it was, all of that extra information often got in the way of the Biblical text; I spent more time reading the supplements than actual Bible verses, and so I got a “traditional” Bible with just chapter and verse numbers and minimal supplements.

Aesthetic experiences are “visceral” in that they slip past our natural, rational “defenses” and cut us to our core, whether we’re talking about typefaces or flying buttresses, book binding or stained glass windows.These days, even such a “traditional” Bible might be too much. For example, Crossway recently released the ESV Reader’s Bible, which removes chapter and verse numbers altogether and presents the Bible as an unbroken narrative “for those who want to read Scripture precisely as it was originally written.” Such a Bible shouldn’t come as a surprise; digital Bibles already offer distraction-free reading modes. In an age where so much supplemental information is merely a Google search away, and where countless apps, services, and lifehacks seek to improve productivity by reducing information overload, the ESV Reader’s Bible is a natural evolution for the Good Book.

But then there’s Adam Greene’s Bibliotheca project, which is nothing less than a complete redesign of the Bible intended to create a more enjoyable reading experience. Similar to the ESV Reader’s Bible — and the complete antithesis of my old study Bible — Bibliotheca removes all numbers, notes, and supplements. As Greene explains, “Today, our contemporary Bibles are ubiquitously dense, numerical and encyclopedic in format; very different from how we experience other classic & foundational literature, and completely foreign to how the original authors conceived of their work.”

In addition to stripping the text down to the bare essentials, Bibliotheca treats the Bible as a work of art. To that end, Greene is sparing little expense: he’s using a layout inspired by the Ark of the Covenant’s dimensions, high-quality binding and paper (as opposed to the thin, transparent stuff usually associated with Bibles), custom typefaces, and thoughtful typography, among other things.

In a recent interview with The Verge, Greene discussed the project’s inspiration:

“Growing up with the Bible, there were so many interpretive lenses held up to it for me… As I grew older and learned more about its history, I began to see that it had been made to ‘say’ so many things to so many different ends over the past 2,000 years … I couldn’t quite pin down what the Bible was, or why figuring out what it was mattered to me.”

It wasn’t until Greene was introduced to writings like N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative that he began to see the Bible as a library of liturgical texts “compiled of masterfully crafted literary art, infused by its authors with needle-sharp significance, rich symbolism, and enthralling beauty.”

For even more on Greene’s approach and aesthetic, watch the video below:

There’s no denying that Bibliotheca is a true labor of love. The simple fact that, in order to create his custom typefaces, Greene taught himself traditional letterforms (he wanted to “mimic the reverence that’s given to text in Hebrew traditions”) should make that plainly clear. As a designer myself, I can’t help but applaud his attention to detail and desire for excellence. And I’m not the only one; his Kickstarter project has raised over a million dollars to date, far surpassing his original goal of $37,000.

But is this all really necessary? Must we approach the Bible like a work of art? Should we? What does hand-crafted typography have to do with “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart?”

Obviously, if any book deserved the sort of deluxe treatment that Greene describes in the video above, it’s the Word of God. You can buy lavish editions of The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, and even Calvin and Hobbes, so why not the Bible? But at the same time, it all seems so, well… lavish. Maybe even a wee bit idolatrous? We Christians hold the Bible in high regard, but we don’t worship it. Instead, we take “pride” in the Bible’s accessibility and common-ness: it’s not some arcane text that only a privileged elite can read and study. It’s available to anyone and everyone, translated into countless tongues, so ubiquitous that you can even find one in your hotel room.

So again, are Greene’s expensive efforts really necessary? Can such a finely produced Bible lend itself well to evangelism, to teaching, to proclaiming the Gospel?

Ultimately, this is a question of pragmatism versus aesthetics, and it goes beyond Bible design. An obvious parallel exists concerning church architecture. I once got into a discussion concerning Saint Cecilia’s, a massive cathedral that dominates Omaha’s skyline. I was praising the building’s beauty — and lamenting that Catholics always have the best architecture — when I was rebuked. Such grand architecture was unnecessary, I was told, and a waste of money — money that could’ve been used for a truly worthwhile ministry, like helping the poor or funding missionaries.

Similar things could be said about Bibliotheca. All of that time, money, and effort could be put towards something more practical and necessary, like translating the Bible into a language that doesn’t have it yet or printing thousands of cheap copies to hand out for free.

Such statements may contain wisdom, but they also gloss over the ministry that aesthetics and beauty can have, i.e., creating transcendental experiences that shake us from this world’s mundanity and point towards God. A ministry of beauty may not be obvious or practical, but it’s not unimportant, and can serve a singular role. Rod Dreher has written about this topic often, and usually in relationship to a religious experience he had at Chartres Cathedral that challenged his agnosticism — an experience created, in part, by the cathedral’s architecture. As he puts it:

[W]hen you have truth united to beauty, you have something very powerful indeed. Beauty is unsettling because our response to it is visceral, not intellectualized. We are not pure minds, but our minds are incarnate, inseparable from our bodies. Beauty seduces. The question of whether or not it seduces one towards truth and light, or towards falsehood and darkness, is a separate one, but not nearly as separate as we might think.

Aesthetic experiences are “visceral” in that they slip past our natural, rational “defenses” and cut us to our core, whether we’re talking about typefaces or flying buttresses, book binding or stained glass windows. And what could be so visceral as holding a book in your hands, feeling the texture of the paper and the solidity of the binding, smelling the ink, and letting the typography guide your eyes a little deeper into the story contained within its pages? If that can make for a powerful experience with a “normal” book, then how much more could that be the case for the Book of Books?


17 Comments

  1. The bookbinder in me hates being a spoilsport here, as I like thinking of scripture as raw material for rethinking the way we read, process, and produce physical texts.

    But I have a difficult time with the idea that this format is somehow better than texts that are organized for ease of liturgical use and general reference. Part of the language of scripture is the accretion of organizing marks and distinctions over many centuries. Claiming that the removal of these types of marks, distinctions, and embedded comments (particularly in the Hebrew Bible) enables us “to read Scripture precisely as it was originally written” is very misleading.

    This claim overlooks far too much historical detail regarding the production of Jewish and Christian scriptural to cram into a mere comment**, but it is important for us to resist the idea that this format of scripture is better or more authentic than standard editions. That overly dramatic claim makes for the same type of errors we see in fundamentalist conceptions of biblical inerrancy – which are very much responsible for the flaws in Bible reading the kickstarter author references in the Verge interview.

    Embedding utility in scriptural texts is not an error, it is a communcal process that celebrates the meaning of the text as a coherent resource for faith and practice.

    ** If one really wanted to reproduce NT texts as originally written and circulated, here is how it would work: You would give your address to someone and they would periodically send you little rolled-up squares of stiff, somewhat unwieldy paper. When you open these scrolls you will find a letter addressed to someone else, in an entirely different city. You would then read this letter the next time you get together with the other Christians in your area. But in the meantime… you have to copy this letter ten times and pass those copies along. And dodge the authorities in the process. Some kickstarter like that gets much closer.

    1. I know that your footnote includes a bit of hyperbola, but I agree with Adam that you overly criticize projects like these. I can broadly think of 5 “organizing marks and distinctions” in common English Bibles that were not present in original texts: Chapter divisions, verse numbers, section headings, paragraphs, and punctuation (periods, commas, question marks).

      Section headings vary between even the same translation in different editions.
      Some reference Bibles do not use paragraphs at all but hopefully we agree that starting every verse on a new line is a terrible way to read the Bible, even if occasionally one translation will want to start a new paragraph in a different place.
      Punctuation is also technically a translation issue but it would not be “English” (or any modern language) without it, and again translations agree on most of the important placements of punctuation.

      That leaves us with chapter and verse numbers, which are purely organizational and do not always contribute to understanding, sometimes they actually are a distraction to seeing the true context of a passage, so I argue they are not necessary in every Bible.

      The Hebrew Bible does have more distinctive marks than the ones I have listed, like line accents and divisions, but these are already hidden in modern translations so I do not know what you are arguing for.

  2. It seems to me that both the advocates and the critics are placing too much value in this.

    I do not think anyone is going to stop reading all other bibles because they get this. So the arguments about losing access to tradition or history or shared wisdom seem way over blown.

    At the same time I agree with M. Leary, that some of the advocates are also over playing this. It does appear like it will be beautiful and I do think valuing beauty and the arts both within the church and outside the church is important. So while I support this (and have bought a couple for Christmas presents), I don’t think it is going to fundamentally change our relationship to scripture.

    I have been surprised that several people that I have in other context heard speak about the need for developing the mind, supporting culture and/or taking scripture seriously have been dismissive of the project. While every project that comes along is not going to change the world, it seems that is way too high of a bar. James KA Smith was tweeting yesterday about how he thought that most would sit on the shelves unread. He is probably right, but most bibles as a whole sit unread. I am not a fan of the, “if just one person” argument. But I do think that there is nothing wrong with people spending their own money on a project regardless of how much they will actually read it. My guess is that Smith himself has benefited at least some from people that buy his own books because they are interested in the concept but don’t actually read them (even don’t finish them) because that is the nature of book buying.)

  3. I have no issue with the project itself (other than a few binding quibbles), just its theoretical framing. I could imagine turning to these volumes pretty frequently those issues notwithstanding. One can find something somewhat formally analogous to this text arrangement the Jesus Storybook Bible, which is so wonderful that we have kept copies on hand for others.

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  5. I’ve been thinking a lot about glory lately, especially God’s glory, and I know wisdom and beauty are two key areas we see glory manifested. So the idea of truth united to beauty really jumped out at me. Add to that the sturdier, heavier construction they discuss to tie in with the “weighty” meaning of “kabod,” the Hebrew word for glory, and I think you could say there would be glory in the project he’s working towards. I hope that the glory of his project helps people to look past the book and behold God’s glory even more!

  6. Yay! Another hero!” (Isn’t that what we need in today’s celebrity-driven ‘Christian’ Publishing? Another one?)

    Hype. Pure hype. (Excellent marketing, though.)

    Jesus certainly got it right when He called us “sheep”.

  7. I like the concept of this but one question it has left me is, what translation will it use? I just read an answer that it will use an updated form of the (1901) American Standard Version. Is this correct? If so it seems to defeat part of the purpose of this whole project.

  8. My only quibble is that it isn’t using the King James. Such aesthetic care is being taken with other aspects of the design that it seems like a tiny shame that the most aesthetically beautiful English translation isn’t being used.

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