Alabaster Co: Presenting the Bible to a visual generation
I first heard of Alabaster Co when one of the designers in my church shared their Kickstarter campaign on her Facebook feed. That was sometime in late 2016.
A brand dedicated to redesigning the Bible for a highly visual generation was largely unheard of at that point in time. The next time I came across this name, it had become an actual product, on bookstore shelves in Sydney’s Hillsong Church.
Bryan Chung and Brian Chung (they’re not siblings), founders of Alabaster Co, were both university students when the idea came to them. Bryan, then 23, was an art and film student while Brian, then 27 – and also Bryan’s mentor in their campus ministry – was studying business entrepreneurship and communication design.
Bryan, now 25 and the creative director of Alabaster Co, shared with me that in his university days, he struggled to see how his faith and field of study could ever intersect.
“I studied art and film and was also heavily involved in our campus ministry … but I always felt like those two parts of me were separate. I struggled with believing that God cared about my creative practice, or that art and beauty was an integral part of the Kingdom of God,” said Bryan.
That all changed one day when he read Real Life: A Christianity Worth Living Out by Pastor James Choung.
In the book, Pastor Choung describes how each generation asks a “spiritual question” that helps lead them toward Jesus. In the past, these questions have been: What is true? What is real? What is good?
Choung predicts that the next spiritual question younger generations will be asking is: What is beautiful?
The Scripture is a living document. It interacts with where we’re at in our own spiritual journeys.
“This felt so true. As our culture is becoming increasingly visual, bent towards an appreciation for aesthetics and good design, we have to ask the question, how do we show that the Gospel is beautiful?”
As a graphic designer myself, I’ve asked the same questions that Bryan had as well. Communicating beauty is our responsibility as creatives and artists – our garden to tend.
Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “In a world without beauty, good loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out, and truth loses its cogency.”
In Bryan’s senior year, he and Brian (now business director) began discussing ways they could show the Gospel is beautiful. Those discussions gave birth to Alabaster Co, and are the reason why the brand remains committed to the ongoing conversation about creativity, beauty and faith.
The name is inspired by the passage of Mark 14:1-9, where a woman breaks an alabaster jar of incredibly expensive perfume and pours it all onto Jesus’ head in an act of worship.
Bryan continued: “Many people in the room scoffed and said her act was a complete waste. But Jesus defended the woman saying, ‘Leave her alone, why do you bother her? What she has done is a beautiful thing.’
“This complete act of sacrificial giving – Kalos in the original Greek – literally means ‘beautiful as a sign of inward goodness’. We wanted to create something with the same level of intentionality and thoughtfulness as the woman in this story.”
The Bible Beautiful was their first project.
Filled with visual imagery and thoughtful design integrated within different books of the Bible, it launched them into the conversations of many Christian creatives. And since then they’ve released Psalms as well.
Bryan shared that the ideation phase for The Gospels began in May 2016. They spent the entire summer planning and compiling images and designs that would make up their aesthetic. In October 2016, they launched Alabaster on Kickstarter.
“We hit the launch button and honestly had no idea what to expect. By the end of the first day of the campaign we had already raised US$10,000. By the end of the campaign we had raised over $60,000 – exceeding our initial $35,000 goal.”
The initial response was overwhelmingly good, but the journey wasn’t without hiccups. Bryan shared that their biggest mistake was a typo made on the first print-run in the Gospel of Mark. It was easily anyone’s biggest nightmare – an entire line of text went missing in Chapter 5.
“It was incredibly disappointing. We reprinted the book and sent a new copy to all of our initial Kickstarter backers. It was painful. We lost a lot of money.”
Besides The Bible Beautiful, Alabaster Co also tells stories through The Journal: an online blog filled with stories and profiles of creators and other artistic content.
“We know the conversation doesn’t end with exploring Scripture. It continues through the stories of real people in the world today doing real work.”
I asked Bryan about their creative process: How do they approach ancient scriptures and transform them into modern visual imagery?
“We always start by studying the text. We look for insights into what each passage is saying, find connections between passages, and read different Bible commentaries.”
Bryan says that the images they create come out of an intensive study of scripture, mixed with their own emotional responses to the different passages.
“Humans have emotions … and in many ways, I think it’s the artist’s job to steward those emotional responses into something creative, authentic, and good. Some passages give us immense joy, while others make us feel angry or uncomfortable. There’s beauty in our raw emotions. The Scripture is a living document. It interacts with where we’re at in our own spiritual journeys.”
Bryan acknowledged that there are a lot of Christian artists who get paralysed in the creative process. Many of them feel the pressure to make sure they’re creating the “right thing”, or something that doesn’t seem offensive or controversial to the Christian community.
“But that’s the best thing about art! Art is provocative, it makes us ask questions, and think about the world in challenging new ways.”
For Bryan and his team, God taught them what it means to experience Him beyond words – they encounter Him through other formats in their creative process.
“So much of how we currently experience God is through words … We read scripture and Christian books, we listen to Christian music with words, and we listen to pastors who speak to us in words.
“None of these are bad things. But through our creative process God has shown us that we can experience Him in other ways too … beautiful and artistic visual ways that help us experience Him in ways we hadn’t imagined before.”
For the Alabaster team, things are looking busy for the next few months. They just launched the Alabaster Notebook on Kickstarter, a notebook designed to help inspire people towards prayer, reflection, and creativity. Bryan reveals that they also have a new book in the works, Romans, launching in the Fall.
“We feel beyond thankful for all of the love and support from our customers. We had no idea what to expect when we initially launched – we’ve been floored by the response. It’s showed us that this dialogue matters, and we’re excited to be a part of the conversation between beauty and faith.”
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