By Paul J. Pastor
My screen fills with a glow of color, rich golds and reds blending and shifting. Particles phase into the outline of a DNA double helix, mimicking the pinpoint lights of the globe. A soothing voice speaks, and a story leaps into animated life: a man falling victim to a cosmic setup, a heavenly gamble with the reputation of God at stake. A whirlwind forms among the images, constellations flickering within like lightning or the synapses of a great mind. All morphs into a virtual tour of the universe. Sea turtles swim among the stars; the rings of Saturn give way to underground caverns prickling with crystals.
It plays on, until in just 4 minutes and 39 seconds I have “seen,” like never before, the Book of Job. It’s time I read Job again, I think.
I’m watching a video from The Bible Project, a Portland, Oregon, animation studio. With my viewing, the video will have been watched more than 3.4 million times. The Bible Project has more than 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube and over 90 million total views on their videos. I’ll soon be having coffee with Bible Project founders Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, old acquaintances, at their offices to hear the story behind their efforts to connect the world to videos like this—visions of the Bible as “a unified story that leads to Jesus.”
Since the Reformation, Protestants have held that a rich relationship with the Bible is central to the Christian life. But today, confidence in the Bible’s truth and reliability is rapidly eroding, questions about how the text came to us are at an all-time high, and even among scholars friendly to faith, there seems to be little consensus about how to read our sprawling, enigmatic, diverse, and often-confusing book. In an age of endless information, scriptural availability, and omnipresent teachings on the Bible, are we—“people of the book”—in real danger of losing it?
Many feel we are. We find ourselves in what Biola New Testament professor Kenneth Berding has called a “crisis of biblical illiteracy,” and the trends are not encouraging. According to The American Bible Society, the largest group of adult Americans (54%) are now “Bible disengaged,” a somewhat tepid term meaning they just don’t care. Since 2009, Bible reading has dropped off sharply among younger adults. And as older generations decline, national averages of Bible engagement shrink.
It’s not about access; nine out of ten Americans have a Bible. It’s not about interest; according to the American Bible Society, most people (66%) say they want to know more about the Christian Scriptures. The issue is perception. “Skepticism about the Bible,” Barna noted in 2016, “is gaining a stronger cultural foothold.”
So then why the overwhelming success of The Bible Project? Against these challenges to interest and infrastructure, a little studio in Portland has quietly built an empire of Bible content that’s drawing the world to the Word—by the millions. Something is working.
Tim Mackie met Jon Collins at SkateChurch, an urban Portland youth ministry that’s exactly what it sounds like. Both were from local Christian families in Portland and attended nearby Multnomah Bible College (today Multnomah University), whose pale-brick library boasts a brass plaque stamped with the words of founder John Mitchell: “Don’t you folks ever read your Bibles?”
While today Mackie holds two master’s degrees in biblical studies and a PhD in Semitic languages, he was not a stereotypical Bible college student. He’d never (voluntarily) read the Bible, he’d been expelled from a Christian school in fifth grade (ironically, that school met in the same repurposed church building that now houses The Bible Project’s studio), and he’d nearly flunked high school.
He was dissatisfied with Christianity. Instead, he found his passion when his parents bought him a skateboard and a Thrasher Magazine subscription: “Skating and street art became my life,” he says. His love of skating sent him seeking ramps and refuge from the Oregon rain in SkateChurch’s converted warehouse. There he had a powerful conversion experience during a “Bible talk”—an encounter with Jesus that he credits with saving his life. He soon found himself among a few other skaters enrolling just a couple blocks down the street at Multnomah.
His first semester hit hard. It included two classes from Ray Lubeck, whose dynamic, literary approach to the Bible awakened something in Mackie. For Lubeck (and his old teacher, evangelical exegetical powerhouse John Sailhamer), the Bible was not the haphazard bundle of mismatched texts many theological liberals seemed to claim, but textual and manuscript evidence still had to be considered honestly. The picture that emerged was much different from how Mackie had heard Christians talk. This was no monolithic book that had descended glittering from on high. It was a brilliantly crafted blend of divine truth and human artistry. Messy? Sure, but that was part of why it mattered.
The mystery tantalized him. Never motivated in school before, Mackie found himself excelling. He laughs today, recounting afterschool runs downtown to Powell’s Books to raid their used shelves for modern biblical scholars like Robert Alter, returning to talk text criticism and Hebrew with his skater friends. His passion soon led to a job—teaching courses on Bible study method under the guidance of Lubeck.
Collins’ struggle had been deep too, but quieter. “I went to church three times a week, Awana ‘sword drills’ and everything. I wasn’t rebellious,” he recalls, “but I didn’t understand my own faith. I didn’t feel safe asking real questions about the Bible.” Certain basic questions seemed off limits, like they were dangerous. “In Protestantism, there has been an amazing move to give the Bible to the masses—which is great,” Collins says today. “But as that turned to a culture of 20-minute devotions, confusion grew. I felt that.”
After graduating from Multnomah, Collins felt as confused as ever and awfully close to becoming what he calls a “post-Bible Christian.” “Looking back now,” he says, “I realize the answers had been presented. The problem was that I’d been taught the wrong questions.”
Then Collins moved into a shared house with Mackie while both were summer interns with SkateChurch. For the first time, Collins felt like he could ask someone anything and not be judged. “I wasn’t dumb. I wasn’t doubting,” he says. The pair talked their way into a quiet friendship. “Tim would talk about things no one else would,” Collins says. “He’d bring questions for my questions.” Once begun, those questions poured out:
Were the writers of the Bible stuck because they believed wrong things about the universe, like ancient cosmology? Why do they say things so differently or seem to come to different conclusions? Why didn’t the gospel authors do a better job matching up their accounts? Paul says a section of his writing is his opinion, not the Holy Spirit. So is that inerrant and inspired?
“It would have looked scary to a lot of Christians—we were asking ‘dangerous’ questions about the Bible.” Collins smiles now, remembering how long it took him to ask what he really wondered. “But the questions came from a desire to be faithful to Jesus.”
Many high-profile post-evangelical Christians have recently addressed the need to better understand what the Bible is and how it ought to be read, including new books from Rob Bell (What is the Bible? HarperOne, 2017), Rachel Held Evans (Inspired, Thomas Nelson, 2018), and Peter Enns (How the Bible Actually Works, HarperOne, 2019). They argue that Christian culture subtly discourages basic questions about biblical inspiration and interpretation and this is partly responsible for the crisis of biblical literacy we face today.
These questions matter, and their answers are not self-evident. Mackie and Collins are sympathetic to many of the concerns raised by post-evangelical voices but are reluctant to label themselves. They are quick, however, to express sympathy for the place modern readers find themselves. “If someone doesn’t understand the Bible, it doesn’t mean they’re dumb. This is the holy, tightly crafted literature of a past culture—no matter how much we believe it’s for us,” Collins says. “But video works. It’s a rich medium to understand rich ideas. Something clicks, and you can’t unsee it.”
Still, for all the visual depth, The Bible Project points readers right back to the book. The videos are meant to be a place to start, to gain context and vision for what you’ll see when you crack open the real thing—Leviticus perhaps, or Jude, or Haggai.
For Mackie, the habits readers need to build lie in the simple building blocks of literature, the techniques the authors themselves employed in writing: keywords, themes, plot, character, setting, and poetic devices. “The Hebrew Bible is a Second-Temple Jewish way of writing,” he says. “It’s meditation literature. The books are written to slow you down. They give their secrets up over a lifetime of rereading.” He adds that the Greek writings (the New Testament) that grew out of the Hebrew roots are designed much the same way, for an incredible literary whole.
The thematic connections that pop when you read this way make for many of the “aha” moments of The Bible Project’s videos—a repeated image or a theme introduced a few books earlier that’s returned to or reversed. The skill and creativity of the biblical authors drove their authorship and the later editing of the biblical canon—a careful, inspired, profound, but extremely human process.
“Early on,” Collins says, “I’d be uncomfortable when Tim talked about the ‘author’ of a biblical book. The emphasis growing up was only that the Bible was divine—God’s Word. If you pushed people, I’m sure they’d have admitted that inspired humans had to make the Bible, but they talked as if it fell from heaven.”
If overstressing the Bible’s divine nature mutes the difficulty we’re intended to encounter, it sets up an unnecessary dilemma with high stakes. “In an effort to protect the Bible’s divine authority, Christians tend to overemphasize the divine nature of the Bible at the expense of its human nature,” according to Mackie. “The further the post-Christian front advances, the more the institutions that normalized the crazy stuff in the Bible decline. As they do, the hard parts of the Bible aren’t buffered anymore. The violence, the sex scandals, the horrible people—which are most of the people in the Bible—all pop into focus.”
Mackie worries that, for many evangelicals, “the common assumption is that we read the Bible as a ‘moral handbook,’ or a ‘love letter from God,’ or ‘life lessons.’ ”
And if the Bible doesn’t fit our mold? “You quietly revise it.” Mackie continues. “You ignore sex, gloss over violence, try to explain away the cryptic riddles, the racism that the authors wanted us to see. You whitewash the horror of tribal violence. You turn heroes into cartoons. You preach a sermon series about Conquering Your Philistines. You lose the real Bible.”
SOURCE: Christianity Today