Infographics, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Periscope, Snapchat: our social understanding is more and more enamored of the visual. Image sharing is de rigueur. What if the Gospels were reimagined with modern depictions that combine truth with beauty? How would original artwork inspired by—and embedded in—Scripture impact readers of the Bible?
Bryan: Brian and I both went to USC (University of Southern California). I was a freshman and Brian was entering his first year as a full time campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. If I recall correctly, Brian and other InterVarsity leaders were passing out care packages to meet new students, and when I introduced myself as Bryan Chung, Brian shouted, “No way! My name is Brian Chung too!” We’ve been friends ever since.
What is Alabaster and why did you see a need to create it?
Bryan: Alabaster is the Bible beautiful. We set out to integrate visual imagery and thoughtful design within the text of the four Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke, John]. Our culture has become incredibly visual. Everyone now has access to a camera and digital media is available at our fingertips. We curate everything and share our everyday moments with the click of a button. We’ve become a society that cares about beauty and is visually engaged.
There’s a famous theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, who in his notable work, The Glory of the Lord, states the importance of beauty in fully understanding who God is. Balthasar describes three fundamental realities—beauty, goodness, and truth—as realities that must exist together to paint a full picture of God. Without beauty, goodness “loses the self-evidence of why it must be carried out,” and truth “loses its cogency.” Something about beauty reflects the goodness and truths of God in a more holistic way. We saw a need to show a part of that beauty and the biblical text felt like a good place to start.
When we look at Bible design, it’s remained relatively the same. There have been few attempts to integrate imagery, typography, and layout design with the biblical text to engage with our rapidly growing visual culture. Similar to old master Renaissance artists, who looked at the Scriptures and created beautiful pieces of art from them, we wanted to do the same and wanted to explore what that would look like in our modern culture.
Why the name Alabaster?
Bryan: The name Alabaster is based of one of the few times Jesus calls something beautiful (Mark 14:1-9). In an extreme act a woman breaks an alabaster jar of incredibly expensive perfume onto Jesus’ head. Many people in the room scoff at her and say what she’s done is a complete waste. But Jesus defends the woman saying, “Leave her alone, why do you bother her? What she has done is a beautiful thing.” It is this complete act of sacrificial giving which Jesus calls beautiful. In the original Greek, Jesus uses the word kalos, which literally means beautiful, as a sign of inward goodness. We wanted to have this same level of intentionality and thoughtfulness as the woman did as we created Alabaster.
Describe the image process and design process of your project.
Brian: In terms of our image process we wanted to explore the visual language of photographic images and how it could give a new lens into the biblical text. Together, we have a decade worth of ministry experience in teaching the Scriptures. We started our process with an in-depth, inductive study of the Gospels, looking over key themes, repetition and contrast, chiastic structure, cultural commentary, and scholarly commentary before diving into the creative process. We then let the Scripture inspire us, as we prayed through and thought about what images we wanted to make. We did a mock 96-page layout to see how everything would fit, and then started making the images and design of each page.
Bryan: That being said, the process was inherently intuitive and creative. It was eye opening. We felt as if we were experiencing the Scriptures anew, but in a nonverbal, non-word oriented way. Our hope is that the art ultimately creates conversation—that it’s wrestled over and contemplated with—and through that process every person would experience God and his beauty in some unique way.
We wanted our design of the book to serve as the mediator between the visuals and the words. Our layouts are extremely simple, so the reader is not distracted from focusing on the images and the Scriptures together. For the interior of the book we’re using a thick 80# text uncoated paper. We believe strongly that beauty is tied to touch just as much as sight. We wanted a paper that felt natural, not necessarily glossy or overly manufactured.
Will your volumes include the full text of the Bible?
Bryan: Yes, it will include the full text of the four Gospels.
How do you define “passage” when you say you intend to include an image for each passage of the Bible?
Bryan: In our modern Bibles, chapters are broken into subsections by a title for each of these sections. For example, if we look at Mark 4 there are five subsections: Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed, Parable of the Lamp, Parable of the Growing Seed, Parable of the Mustard Seed, and Jesus Calms the Storm. When we say each passage will have an image, we mean each of these different subsections.
Will your images be more abstract or more overt in evoking the meaning of a passage?
Bryan: There’s going to be a good mixture of both. However, on the larger spectrum of “Christian art,” I would describe our images as more abstract. Our images are not a historical recording of the events that took place within the Scriptures. Thus we will not be capturing literal images such as people dressed like they were in Jesus’ times. Instead, we want our images to capture the emotion, tension, and complexity of each passage using the aesthetics of our culture today. Ultimately we hope this creates fresh conversation and contemplation with the text.
What Bible translation are you using and why?
Brian: We’re using the New Living Translation (NLT). With so many Bible options out there we don’t see Alabaster as people’s primary Bible, but rather an alternative visual way people can experience the Scriptures. Alabaster is more of a visual Bible than a study Bible, so we chose a version which would best compliment that fact. In terms of the spectrum of translations from word-to-word to thought-to-thought, we wanted to lean more in the middle of the spectrum with a bent towards thought-to-thought. We believe the NLT compliments Alabaster the best: a modern English translation that stays true to the original meaning of the text.
What is your projected date of completion for the four Gospels? And are you planning to complete the entire Bible? If so, won’t the bulk of it be overwhelming?
Bryan: The four Gospels will be completed in April 2017. At this time we’re not planning on completing the entire Bible. That being said, we do think it would be awesome to do other books. Genesis would be our next book if we did.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Brian: Bible Gateway is an incredible tool for biblical study. I use it all the time. In this digital and mobile format, Bible Gateway allows us to easily explore the entirety of the biblical text, in numerous translations, with a diverse amount of commentaries all at once. That’s powerful. Bible Gateway has actually been key in the formation of this project. It allowed us to read different translations and quickly look through various passages of the Bible as we studied it.
Bryan: No analog version of the Bible can match the mobility and variety of information digital tools such as Bible Gateway is able to provide. I believe that the combination of digital forms of the Bible such as Bible Gateway, and analog forms—such as what’s being created with Alabaster—can be powerful. There’s still something profound about the tactile experience of holding something beautiful in your hands, but nothing can compare to the study abilities provided within digital forms of the Bible.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Bryan: We’re incredibly thankful for all the support Alabaster has received so far. It’s amazing to see so many others resonate with the belief that beauty is integral to our faith. I think the most rewarding thing about the project is the positive responses we’ve gotten from people who don’t consider themselves Christian and are spiritually seeking. Since launching Alabaster, I’ve had friends, who are not Christian, share about the project. Friends of mine who are Christian and have shared the project have gotten into spiritual conversations with others who saw it. I believe this is because beauty has power, and it has the potential to bring us together as a humanity, regardless of where we’re at in our walks with God.
Bio: Bryan Chung is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California where he studied Animation and Digital Arts. He grew up loving to paint, take photos, and tell lots of stories. Since graduating, Bryan is now a campus minister at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA and a freelance artist/ photographer. He’s passionate about the intersection of beauty, art, and faith.
Brian Chung graduated from the University of Southern California in 2010 with a degree in Entrepreneurship and a minor in Communication Design. Afterwards, he spent a couple of years as an entrepreneur, helping other startup companies, while also volunteering his time after work doing campus ministry. He became a full-time campus minister in 2013 at USC, leading a ministry of about 200 students. In 2015, he became the lead director of the campus ministry. He’s taught and led Scripture studies for hundreds of students and is passionate about students experiencing God.