A super hip thing happened in July: Thomas Nelson's division of books for teens, Transit Books, put out a Bible-and-magazine in one. The head-spinning hybrid is called Revolve, to connote a different twist on the way the Bible is packaged. Think the allure of Cosmo, minus the sleaze, plus the easy-to-read New Century Version of the New Testament.
The secular media totally dig this, this … uhm—we need a new word—biblezine! Since its release, Revolve's marketing director has given "well over 60" interviews. Seventy percent of them were for mainstream media such as CNN, ABCnews.com, and Detroit Free Press. The media attention has been mostly positive. More importantly, teens, parents, and youth pastors are into Revolve, too.
In less than eight weeks, 40 thousand copies of the glossy New Testament have disappeared from bookstores. That's the number of copies that an average Thomas Nelson Bible sells in a year! An additional printing of 60 thousand copies should be in stores in the beginning of October.
But there are other, more and less conspicuous, facts about the hot 'zine. If you care about the Bible and about teens, you might like to know them. In true Revolve fashion, we present you with an exclusive list of Ten Things You Should Know About the New Girl Biblezine. Here's our countdown, from the most to the least obvious:
10) What a Girl Wants
In a survey of teens several years ago, Thomas Nelson editors asked them if they read the Bible. Laurie Whaley, New Century brand manager, summed up their answers in an interview with Christianity Today this way: "They don't read the Bible." They say, "It's too big; it's too freaky; it doesn't make sense." When asked about what they do read, the teens said they read "magazines, magazines, magazines," Whaley reports. Examples: Cosmo, Glamour, Teen People, YM, and seventeen.
This eureka gave birth to Revolve. The biblezine is what Paul G. Gutjahr, the author of An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States (Stanford Univ. Press, 1999), calls "a gateway Bible"—one designed to find new readers.
9) What a Girl Might Need
The rationale behind Revolve's extrabiblical wrap was this: The readers need common-sense advice about the usual things on the minds of Christian teenage girls: looks, dating, families, faith. It's offered to them in easy-to-digest chunks of text adorned with photos and illustrations, much like what you see in glamour magazines. Among the hundreds of sexy-but-in-a-good-way features are:
- quizzes ("Are you Dating a Godly Guy?");
- blurbs called "Guys Speak Out" (in which real-life guys surveyed by Thomas Nelson give their uncommonly saintly opinions—more about this later);
- the "Didya Know" stats (the data, such as "75% of teens think their parents understand their problems well" and "92% of teens say they are happy" are not attributed, but Whaley told CT that most of them come from Barna Research);
- beauty secrets (the clever pointers on achieving both inner and outer beauty include combining exercise with doing something for the good of the community, such as doing a car wash for charity or participating in the local cancer or AIDS walk);
- calendar (on November 28, the readers are told to "pray for a Person of Influence: Today is Anna Nicole Smith's birthday," on April 27, to "volunteer at a soup kitchen this week," and on October 9, to "campaign for world peace");
- the "Blab" advice column (in which Revolve editors answer the questions of teens who submitted them on a website);
- "Check It Out" features (mini profiles of social concern organizations such as the Salvation Army, DATA, and Feed the Children invite girls to volunteer);
- Bible basics;
- oh, I almost forgot: weaving its way in black type on a white background through the barrage of colorful splashes is the text of the New Testament.
8) Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!
Scattered throughout the biblezine are photos of broadly smiling girls. "You see lots of teeth," Whaley pointed out in our conversation. Why? "That's really what our focus is: showing girls that the Bible is fun, that there's a positive connotation with the Bible."
7) Ruth-less Theology
Once you get past the packaging, and start reading what the flashy blurbs are actually saying, you notice that they communicate definite viewpoints on various issues. Revolve's stance on gender roles caught my attention first.
In a sidebar titled "Top Ten Things to Know About a Revolve Girl," rule number one is that "Revolve girls don't call guys." In a September 14 interview in The New York Times Magazine, Whaley tried to defend this rule by saying: "There's no indication from Scripture that Mary Magdalene ever picked up the phone and called Christ."
It's a bad comparison however you look at it. But interviewer Deborah Solomon outdoes Whaley's anachronistic phone analogy. In an unmistakable sign that she got her Bible knowledge from that reliable historical source The Last Temptation of Christ, Solomon tells Whaley: "But Mary Magdalene, who was Christ's girlfriend, favored low necklines and loads of jewelry," and "You could argue that Christ was drawn to [Mary Magdalene] precisely because of her flamboyant clothing."
But at least one of Solomon's pronouncements is right on: "It's positively regressive for Revolve to suggest that God made men to be leaders in romance." Not only is it regressive; it's unbiblical. The "Revolve Girls do not call guys" rule sounds like something that belongs not in the Bible, but in a teen version of The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right," Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's manual that teaches women how to deceive the men they want.
In one of the few examples available to us from the Bible, the protagonist of the Book of Ruth takes the initiative. At her mother-in-law's suggestion, she lies down at Boaz's feet to let him know she is, ummm, interested. If she lived today, I'm sure she would pick up the phone and invite him to dinner.
Another giveaway of a hierarchical view of boys and girls' roles is a Blab column with this tip:
Q: Hey, my question is how do you tell a friend that's your crush that you're into him without ruining your friendship?
A: You don't. Sorry. You just don't tell him without it ruining your friendship. God made guys to be the leaders. That means that they lead in relationships. They tell you they like you. It is just an all around bad idea for girls to take on the guys' responsibility.
Add to this a great sense of caution over girls and guys praying—yes, praying—together present throughout the book. The editors published the opinion of a boy in "Guys Speak Out" who believes that girls and guys should not pray together before engagement! Another boy, when asked if girls and guys can pray together, advises everyone not to "get carried away."
I asked Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, what she thought of such advice. She said that "it might be more fair to the consumer if Revolve offered both perspectives on gender roles, because evangelicals are split on the issue. I'm not sure that a teenager is in a position to discern predigested theology."
The cautions about co-ed prayer and rules against girls' taking initiative in relationships "seem to be undermining healthy relationships. They're telling girls that they cannot communicate clearly and honestly. What better tool for it than prayer?" Why does it treat co-ed prayer as something suspicious?
Most surprising is Whaley's denial that these bits of advice intentionally propagate the view that girls should be followers and guys leaders in relationships derived from a particular interpretation of the Bible.
"We intentionally did not tie to Scripture passages in the features that weren't interpretation or application of specific Scripture," she wrote me in an e-mail message, explaining what she had said earlier: "Our aim is to help girls protect their reputations, so that they don't become perceived as teases, flirts or easy by aggressively pursuing boys at a young age." So it's aggressive to just call a guy? What if you're calling about homework?
"We're just giving girls at a very young and crucial age a guideline that says, 'You know what? It's just a crush right now. Let him pursue you, and most likely things are going to be okay.' "
Still, the no-call rule will be taken out of the next edition of Revolve: It's "not because we changed our seeing on it, but because, quite frankly, people like yourself have been asking about it."
Here's another irony: For all the hierarchical gender philosophy in Revolve's notes, the New Century Version avoids traditional masculine language for people where both sexes are being talked about. It uses inclusive terms instead. (For example, those passages in Paul's epistles originally addressed to "brothers" are here addressed to "brothers and sisters." And Romans 8:14 talks about believers as "children of God," not "sons of God.")
6) Judging the Bible By Its Notes
How much weight will Revolve readers place on the notes like the ones cautioning against co-ed prayer? Let's zoom out a bit: How do study notes in Bibles—which go back to the 16th century—affect the way people read the Word of God? Does the medium eclipse the message? Does it become it?
"Once you put something on the same page as biblical text, it credentials it," Gutjahr says, pointing to the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible in popularizing dispensational theology. "The really smart reader will know the difference between the notes and the biblical text. But I don't think every reader is that good at separating textual content from the formatting." Isn't an impressionable young reader more likely to blur that line?
"Absolutely," Gutjahr says. "And, I think that most people, when they read the study Bibles, are tempted to read the notes rather than the text itself. They let somebody else do the thinking for them."
"What I find really fascinating about Revolve is that it's such conservative theology in such a modern format. There's something there at work that I need to think about."
What Gutjahr is hinting at here is the tension between the timeless message and canonical text breathed into life by the eternal God and the transient medium of a magazine. While "the Word of our God stands forever" (Isa. 40:8), much of the magazine content of Revolve will be short-lived—fittingly for a publication from Transit Books, the line branded as being "for the time of life when everything's moving fast."
So many things about Revolve are ephemeral: A year from now, celebrities such as Anna Nicole Smith and Kelly Osbourne, whom the readers are encouraged to pray for, might be working on second-rate shows in Vegas or starting their own purse design lines. The styles of clothes and hairdos sported by Revolve's models will be outdated in five years (when, perhaps, happy parents will hear their teens exclaim, "Showing midriff? That's so 2003!"). Should the enduring Word of God be packaged in such an ephemeral format? What does it do to the way we read the Scripture?
Some of us have already made up our minds. Dorothy Patterson, professor of theology in women's studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, told Baptist Press that "What we want to emphasize in Scripture are timeless principles," she said. "We don't need guys speaking out to tell us about that. We don't need tips for dating."
But what if the tips for dating are to young girls like bread to the hungry who came to see Jesus because of his ability to feed them? Who comes to God—or to his Word—with pure motives, detached from a desire for the Living Word to meet one's immediate, physical needs?
5) Whatever Works?
When asked how the packaging of Revolve may influence the way the girls read the Bible, Whaley says, "First of all, the effect that the packaging has on Revolve is that girls actually pick it up!"
True. Thomas Nelson got the teens to stick their noses in the Word. Whaley and her colleagues receive hundreds of messages and phone calls from parents and teens buzzing with excitement. We should not be so snobbish about the way we like our Bibles as to discount that. Whaley has already heard from some college professors who are going to use Revolve to teach their students how to sell ideas.
Revolve's wild popularity with the media "has to be a wake up call to Christians," says Whaley. We should show the media "the relevance of the Bible, of Christianity, as opposed to coming to them with an argument. … There has been no fighting at all in the media about Revolve. It has been so very, very warmly received." (The comments were made before The New York Times Magazine and the Baptist Press pieces came out.)
"With Revolve, girls are able to find a Scripture and figure out it is relevant to where they live today," Whaley says. "I believe Revolve will have a very positive influence on the way girls read the Bible and I believe they will be reading it much more than ever before."
That is a reasonable hope—if the tremendous success of Reach Out, an early-'70s edition of the Living New Testament prepared by Campus Life editors, is any guide. We won't know for another year or more what wins the bid for the readers' enduring attention: the Word of God or the blurbs.
4) Real Guys Talk Like That?
I had to ask Whaley where Transit Books found the virtuous guys who talk like this:
Q: What do you think about the way girls dress?
A: They should dress conservatively—they tend to be too revealing.
Q: What's your ideal body type for a girl?
A: It doesn't matter. It really doesn't.
Q: What do you think about the way girls dress?
A: There's way too much showing most of the time. I think that's really gross.
Turns out, there's hope for Christian girls everywhere. These are all real messages from real guys, sisters! Transit Books editors found them on one of its websites for teens, in youth groups, and in schools. May true love await them.
Whaley admits that if any of the respondents may have hinted that they liked the girls who dress provocatively, "we weren't going to put that in Revolve." The editors picked only the guys whose viewpoints would create in the girl readers "a hunger for inner beauty and a relationship with God."
"We really wanted to show girls that guys aren't completely obsessed with external beauty…and that we like girls in their natural state."
3) Eye Candy
Wait a minute! What then are all these cute girl models—some of them braless, some baring their midriffs, some pouting their lips, a few striking provocative poses, a few in bikinis, all with seemingly spotless complexion, only one of them with braces, 98 percent of them skinny—doing in the photos adorning Revolve? Since Revolve blurbs praise "modest," "conservative," and "classic" style, one has to wonder. Telling girls that their body type doesn't matter also seems to contradict the impression they might get from the photos. And the drawings of women in the Bible bios—images over which the magazine had more control than the stock model photos—show them as very thin, with disproportionately tiny, sometimes bare, waists. What's with that?
Whaley pointed to two photos in which the girls don't look like models, adding that, "what we've done is scattered realistic images of people having fun." As for the artwork, done by one of Transit's designers, "it's very hip, it's very in touch with what girls like and gravitate toward, and they're all the same size. Since you say they're disproportionate, then they're all equally disproportionate. We've successfully shown girls as being really happy in life."
2) Is Having a Point of View Wrong?
But these images, as well as every other image and word in Revolve, convey a message. Again, says Gutjahr: "Whether [Transit Books] knows about it and owns up to it or not, there is commentary on the biblical text in their book. Once you start putting things—even pictures—next to the biblical text, you're helping the reader down a certain interpretive road. It's nothing new."
But even if we all agree that the blurbs and the images in the biblezine do get across the publisher's interpretations of the biblical text—wittingly or not—so what? What's wrong with Revolve having a point of view?
Commenting on Revolve for The Washington Times, Os Guinness said in his trademark style, "Never have evangelicals tried so hard to be relevant and never have they been so irrelevant. … This is a triumph of marketing over mission. Niche markets are death to taking the Bible seriously." Really? Are students of couples' study Bibles not taking the Word seriously? Are the ones who favor The Life Application Study Bible? Can we discount the seriousness of readers of the Ryrie study Bible? And what's to keep a Revolve girl from learning to love the Word of God through Revolve ?
We all know the answer: nothing can stop the Word of God from penetrating the human heart. Nothing can stop an unsophisticated reader of the Bible from coming to Christ through a piece of sound advice on inner beauty or even some slightly off-the-wall footnote. Nothing.
"What I'd ask Os," says Gutjahr, "is, 'What is his answer? … The best possible spin you can put on this … is that niche Bibles are actually reaching more people. If people are actually picking up this magazine and reading it, it can be a very good thing."
1) Top Ten Great Christian Books (You've Never Heard Of)
The Word of God can be a blessing because of and despite its Revolve wrapping. Even if the girls' eyes divert from the biblical text for a while and look at the sidebars, it can be a very good thing. It can be a very good thing indeed—especially for Thomas Nelson. Let me give you an example.
On page 186, the girls can find "Top Ten Great Christian Books." C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers haven't made the list. Top honors go to Witnessing 101 by Tim Baker and published by Transit Books. In fact, all of the top ten books have been recently published by Thomas Nelson, most of them through Transit Books.
Here's another curiosity: The eighth of the top ten great Christian books is titled Why So Many Gods? Its authors are Tim Baker and Kate Etue. Kate Etue is also the senior editor of Revolve. She was the one promoting the biblezine on CNN recently.
On page 231, in a blurb called "Issues: Religion," teens are told about "a cool book called Why So Many Gods? that will explain a lot of it for you." It's the same book that made the top ten list!
At the magazine I work for, things are a bit different. A top ten great books list containing only the recent books written by staff members could never be published. Or maybe it could—if the authors all paid for it, and if the list was clearly marked as advertising.
Of course, in Revolve, such rules don't apply. It's not a magazine. It's not a Bible. It's not even a study Bible, Whaley told me. It's "an inspirational and motivational Bible product."
The Word of God is not the only thing this product is selling.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other media coverage of Revolve not mentioned or linked above includes:
Bible gets hip for girls | Slick 'Revolve' magazine gives teens dating advice, beauty tips — and the entire New Testament (The Tennessean)
Also: 'Fun' bible is a hit, local girls say (The Tennessean)
Also: What's inside 'Revolve'? (The Tennessean)
A New Testament for teens | 'Revolve' fuses beauty tips, dating with Scripture (Weekend Edition, NPR)
A new spin on the Bible (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Magazine brings Bible to teen girls (Knight Ridder)
Teen Bible repackaged in fashion mag format (Religion News Service)
Teens: Thou shalt read this (Newsweek)
Going to extremes | New generation of Bibles caters to teen market (The Journal Gazette, Ft. Wayne, Ind.)
Sells like teen spirit (New York Post)
Metafilter, a community weblog, has a long discussion about Revolve.