Brian Chung was working as a campus minister with the national Intervarsity Christian Fellowship a few years ago at the University of Southern California when he decided something was wrong with the Bible.
Chung, now 30, would stand at the back of the room during Intervarsity events and hand out New Testaments. The reaction from college kids was always the same; they’d take the book and flip through the pages. Faced with small fonts and outdated language, they’d snap it shut, hand it back, or toss it, disinterestedly, in their backpack.
“That experience reminded of getting my first Bible and finding the book to be really intimidating,” Chung says. “Even the first few pages are usually just descriptors or maps, and don’t draw you in with any stories. I thought there must be a better way.”
Chung, who studied graphic design in college, grew up in a Buddhist household but converted to Christianity in college. He met another Christian USC student at Intervarsity, also named Bryan Chung, who was studying animation and digital arts. The duo became friends, and eventually business partners. In 2016, they debuted their company Alabaster, a brand that has redesigned the Bible for the Instagram generation and expects to sell $900,000 worth of Bibles by the end of this year.
Alabaster sells Gospels, Romans, and Psalms Bibles that have been artfully laid out next to original photography (the company’s Gospels of Mark and John are sold out). Its hardcovers Bibles sell for $78 and paperback softcover books are $38.
These are no ordinary religious books. They have that Kinfolk-inspired, vaguely Scandinavian vibe that has taken over coffee shops, fashion boutiques, and interior design Instagram. Their pages are clean and spacious, and the religious texts are placed next to original photography that’s solemn yet alluring: forests of trees, mysterious caves, a de-petaled rose, mist above the ocean, a woman holding a candle.
“We want these books to be true and relevant to millennials,” Bryan Chung said during a recent phone interview. “We are all on our iPhones, but we also respond really well to visual imagery, and so it has to really grasp our attention. If it does, it can change the way we think.”
Flipping through Alabaster’s Bibles is soothing, intriguing, and even inspiring. The pages are inviting from the introduction; describing Psalms, Alabaster calls the text “raw, honest poems from thousands of years ago” where readers can “learn about mourning, grief, lament, love, joy, forgiveness, and what it means to connect with God in the midst of our complex lives.”
Creating religious texts for the selfie generation might seem like something of a Hail Mary pass, considering this age group’s faith is waning drastically. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study from 2015, young adults born between 1981 and 1996 are much less likely than older Americans to attend religious services or pray. The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University last year found that 35 percent of Americans consider themselves “nones,” or atheists and agnostics, and almost half of that 35 percent are millennials. This is a stark contrast to 1986, when only 10 percent of young adults said they didn’t affiliate with a religion.
This has been dubbed an “exodus,” and it does not discriminate by religion. A Public Religion Research Institute survey from 2017 found that more than half of young Jews today say they “have no religion.” Young evangelical Christians are dissociating from their churches “at record levels,” while one study found that millennials are abandoning Catholicism at a faster rate than any other religion. Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which traditionally has a steady rate of membership, has seen a small decline from young worshippers.
There are a plethora of reasons young people say they are turned off by the religion they were born into, or religion in general. Some cite the conservative views of many faiths, like opinions on politics or same-sex marriage, as well as outdated structures of power. But the co-founders of Alabaster believe these issues shouldn’t be blamed necessarily on religion as much as its existing structures.
“Christian art and design can come off as really cheesy,” says Brian Chung. “But faith, like everything, needs to meet the culture where they are. So we’re creating materials that are approachable, and also represent the intersection of art and faith.”
Alabaster Bibles don’t just stand apart because of the hipster photography and typeset. They also specifically use the New Living Translation, which came out in 1996, as opposed to the King James Bible, which was published in 1611.
“A big part of faith is in the language,” Bryan Chung says. “It felt off to be reading and using words you can barely pronounce or understand. That’s not what will interest people.”
Although the Instagram generation that Alabaster, which first launched on Kickstarter, is designing Bibles for is hooked to tech, Brian points to the indie publication industry, where zines like the Gentlewoman, Kinfolk, Hypebeast, Drift, and Cherry Bombe have built cult followings.
“People love to say that print is dead, but specialty printing is very much alive,” Bryan adds. “Typically, Bibles in people’s homes are placed on a bookshelf and are not the centerpiece of a house. But people tell us Alabaster books are their new coffee table books. They sift through every page, slowly and carefully.”
“As a pastor that enjoys photography, I loved this Gospels set,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “if you love photography and Jesus, you will enjoy this set.”
“I’ve always wanted to own something like this,” an Alabaster customer wrote on Instagram about the company’s Psalms. “Thank you so much for using your creativity and working hard to make this happen. May your business and creativity keep prospering!”
Alabaster’s founders say their goal is not missionary — not outright, anyway. They do believe new forms of religious texts will help faith-focused millennials connect more deeply.
“Our favorite stories are about people who don’t consider themselves religious picking up our books and enjoying them. We like the idea that it’s opening up a dialogue for people who would otherwise not think about religion that much,” says Bryan Chung. “‘Convert’ is not a word we think about a lot at Alabaster. [But] we think religion asks deep and meaningful questions that people might not always think about on their own. Mixed with art, we think that’s really interesting. If our books contribute to that, we’re happy.”
According to the Barna Group, a research group that studies faith, 47 percent of millennials still use a Bible. And Alabaster has already proven there’s an interest. Last year, the company sold more than 10,000 Bibles and made $300,000-plus in sales; Alabaster believes sales will triple in 2019 with some upcoming wholesale deals.
Much of the hunger for its Bibles has come from abroad; the company’s largest customer demographics are in Singapore, Australia, Canada, and England. Alabaster also has an in with Hillsong, the evangelical megachurch that’s become popular among Christian celebrities. The co-founders of Alabaster became friendly with Hillsong creative director Cassandra Langton through Instagram, and the church agreed to sell the company’s Bibles at its Creative Conference last year.
The books from Alabaster, Elizabeth Angowski, an assistant professor of religion at Earlham College, points out, have extremely Goop-y vibes — in terms of both aesthetic and their Goop-esque markups. Their price tag, she notes, “strikes me as a feature of lifestyle brands aimed at audiences of a certain status.”
Costs aside, Angowski believes religious leadership shouldn’t take issue with Alabaster’s millennial-focused Bibles, although she does see how its rebranding of beliefs could ruffle some feathers.
“I do find it interesting that this company says it aims to give readers ‘a fresh visual experience and heightened level of contemplation’ by adding photos,” she says. “I wonder, in that statement, is it implied that textual sources without images — or even their specially chosen images — are then, by extension, somehow less conducive to higher contemplation? I think that form and content should be considered in tandem when it comes to reading and interpreting any literary work, but here we seem to have an argument that this newly designed form is not just about appealing to a particular subset of folks aesthetically. Alabaster makes it sound like a matter of enhancement of, possibly even a correction to, the reading experience.”
Modernized imagery may or may not help readers access a higher spiritual plane, but the Alabaster co-founders say they intend to remain a Christian company, and don’t envision printing other religious texts like the Quran or the Book of Mormon. Instead, they intend to keep printing books from the Bible. The company will debut Proverbs early this summer, and will likely move on to Genesis next.
In the meantime, buzz around the company is attracting investors like Daniel Fong, an entrepreneur behind the furniture company Million Dollar Baby, who invested $100,000 in Alabaster.
“I think there is a big need for a product like this right now,” says Fong. “It’s beautifully made, and there’s nothing else like it. From my perspective, there’s a hunger for unique ways to access religion, and I can see them becoming really popular, especially in China.”
To Fong, the business opportunity in alternative faith concepts goes beyond printing. A long-term goal for the company, he says, is to establish itself as a religious platform, where it can provide spiritual materials for study groups and workshops. The idea, he says, is to strip away the preexisting structures of faith. This is already happening in niche religious communities, like Orthodox Jewry, for example, where millennial Jews are meeting for Shabbat and High Holiday services on their own or in their own makeshift synagogues.
“The research says that people are looking for a different alternative to the church and its sermons,” he says. “Traditional Christianity is very church-based, but to provide manuals, or magazines, or reading guides for people to create their own environment? That would be very unique. That could change the way people think about faith altogether.”
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What happens when a gothic lit expert moves into a haunted house
Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of May 19, 2019.
Another thing about that first workshop was that I heard something about myself that I had never heard before: that my story was protective and civilized and carefully managed. These to me seemed the primary virtues of fiction that I loved and that I wanted to write. There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be. I left the workshop that night feeling like I had been struck by lightning. I was angry and ashamed.
Become a literary citizen of the world. Spend time in a foreign literary community by hatching an insane plot to launch a new Holy War against the infidels of Egypt, a plot so deeply deranged that when you finally manage to present your plan to Louis XIV, a king who enthusiastically led France into four major wars, he’s so appalled by the idea of a new crusade that he literally responds, “I have nothing to say.” Do all of this just to live in Paris for a bit.
“I don’t think the Times has ever seen this number of requests,” a veteran editor concurred, adding, “For department heads, it’s become almost impossible to manage.” The glut of big newsy projects that require essential beat reporters to take book leave is especially tricky. For one thing, there’s always concern among editors about balancing reporting that’s exclusive to books with reporting that can be published in the Times. More practically, as another Times journalist put it, “It’s kind of made the editors stand up and realize, holy shit, we have all these people writing books, and that’s an awful lot of man- and woman-power off the daily report in a pretty significant way.”
Books can be aesthetic signifiers, colorful set pieces of sorts, their spines telegraphing a certain gravitas — or a certain playfulness, depending on how they’re arranged. “I like to compare physical books to candles,” Mr. Blackwell said. “Light bulbs do the job, but there’s a strong aesthetic of a candle that puts soul into a room. Books do that, too. They create theater and drama.”
It is lined with red, marbled paper. On the inside cover, two skeletons hold a banner reading: “Statutum est hominibus semel mori,” or “All people are destined to die once.” It’s Hebrews 9:27, and it wouldn’t be nearly as ominous if it wasn’t next to 10 little drawers labeled with names of poisonous plants, and a mirrored shelf holding several little glass bottles.
The compartments bear the German names for hemlock, wolfsbane, foxglove, and more—all lethal, properly administered—and the suggestion seems to be that the little vials are there for a would-be poisoner to mix up their own deadly cocktails.
Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.
Of course, bookstores sell books, but these shops often serve other purposes as well. Leftist bookstores in particular commonly act as multipurpose spaces for local activists as well as stops for progressive and leftist authors’ book tours. In some smaller towns, these bookshops can be neighborhood or even city strongholds for locals who may not have many other places to safely and comfortably organize, or even just hang out. Bookshops that are not expressly political in their mission still frequently host authors whose work is political, and thus when these authors are targeted, often bookshops are as well.
This is the problem with white people, as Eddie Murphy assesses it in his 1983 standup comedy special Delirious: we stay in haunted houses, like idiots. We don’t heed the warnings; we don’t read the signs. In pursuit of the American dream of homeownership—the middle-class domestic ideal, the manicured lawn, the 30-year mortgage and its promise of equity and upward mobility—we colonize spaces, nominally vacant and hauntingly occupied, as if we belong there. As if it is our right.
Here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:
As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!
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Whales dying from plastic bags: The alarming trend, explained
Another dead whale has washed ashore with a belly full of plastic.
This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.
In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.
“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”
In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.
As the quantity of plastic humans dump in the ocean has reached obscene proportions, we’re seeing more and more sea life — including birds, otters, sea turtles, and fish — choking on it.
But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.
To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.
There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean
The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.
Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.
Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.
“Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” researchers wrote. “[G]lobal debris surveys, the majority of which are focused solely on surface debris, have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation.”
And the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is surging. Our current trajectory puts us on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.
So for the largest, hungriest animals in the ocean, plastic is becoming an unwelcome part of their diets.
Different whales face different risks from plastic
Whales are among the more intelligent creatures in the ocean, so why aren’t they smart enough to avoid eating plastic?
Well, one reason is that often plastic is in their food.
Small crustaceans like krill and tiny fish like anchovies often end up inadvertently consuming microplastics. Whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed, have a voracious appetite for these critters. A blue whale eats between 2 and 4 tons of krill per day.
Whales like the blue whale have baleen plates in their mouths that act as filters, trapping their small prey as well as small bits of plastic. This means they are less likely to ingest larger plastic waste items like bottles and containers, but the small plastic bits they consume quickly pile up.
“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”
Microplastics are unlikely to obstruct the digestive tract of a baleen whale, but as they build up inside an animal’s tissues, they can leach toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors that make the creature sick. This problem can affect all ocean filter feeders, including manta rays and whale sharks.
That means there could be large whales dying of plastic poisoning without obvious culprits like flip-flops and food containers in their stomachs, according to Bejder.
A study published this week in Royal Society Open Science also reported that plastic pollution is more dangerous to baleen whales than oil spills. “Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to [baleen whales] from plastic pollution than oil,” the authors wrote.
Toothed whales like sperm whales and dolphins normally catch bigger prey, like squid. But since they can swallow larger animals, they are vulnerable to larger chunks of plastic, like bags and nets.
“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said. A plastic container in murky waters could resemble a fish to a toothed whale, or a sperm whale may inadvertently swallow plastic garbage as it hunts for a meal.
Once ingested, the plastic piles up in the whale’s stomach. It can then obstruct bowels, preventing whales from digesting food and leading them to starve to death. It can also give a whale a false sense of being full, leading the whale to eat less and get weaker. That leaves it vulnerable to predators and disease.
We’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the whales being harmed by plastic
Part of the reason we pay so much attention to whales killed by plastic is because the whales themselves are very big and the plastic culprits are startlingly obvious. Large animals decay slowly, giving people plenty of time to figure out the cause of death, whereas smaller fish and crustaceans dying from plastic decompose quickly and are rarely investigated. Even for casual observers, a dead whale blocking a beach vacation photo is pretty hard to ignore.
Still, we’re missing a big part of the picture.
“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”
Many more whales could be dying from plastic poisoning without our knowledge. Around the Gulf of Mexico for example, 2 to 6 percent of whale carcasses end up on a shoreline. That means the vast majority sink to the ocean floor. This is likely the case for most of the world’s waters.
And the fact that whales are suffering shows that our marine ecosystems in general are in peril. “Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”
But with more plastic waste pouring into the ocean, the prognosis for the most mega of megafauna is grim.
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