The Bible Project is the brainchild of a couple of guys hailing from Portland, Oregon – Jon Collins and Tim Mackie. Collins has digital media and marketing flair (as well as a theology degree), and Mackie is a pastor and biblical scholar at Western seminary. This combination, of biblical scholarship and pastoral grounding in a contemporary form, gets a lot right. In their introduction on Youtube, “What is the Bible Project?” , they describe the Bible as a “profound and beautiful book” that can be hard to understand, and thus confusing or intimidating. Their mission “is to show how the Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus”; that the complexity is a rich tapestry “telling one complete story from beginning to end”.
They explore the biblical narrative in two ways via five-minute animated videos. Firstly, on the website the Bible contents are arranged book by book (Old and New Testament). Each book is a unique design and viewed as a whole in its structure, flow of thought; so you back up and get the bigger picture. Genesis, for example, has a brief introduction to its construction, ideas, and how it fits in to the bigger story.
Secondly, they take major themes or words in the Bible: heaven and earth, sacrifice, messiah, love, new creation and such like. A concise etymology in Hebrew and/or Greek accompanies a summary of the “lived” meaning for the community and its significance throughout scripture. I first encountered The Bible Project via the “Shema” series used as a clip within a sermon – an excellent idea; an engaging little piece. Helpfully, as I subsequently found, the project website is easy to find and negotiate and readily post-able on Facebook.
The Bible Project pretty much gets the balance right: it is not just good content; it is accessible and engaging, notably in the quality of animation, inventive touches and great diagrams (such as the apt rendition of a non-Caucasian Adam and Eve). I suspect it is catchy enough to help people negotiate some of the Bible’s complexity as a collection of diverse ancient writings; yet it evidences reflection, and depth. We could do with something to resource and inform the everyday punter, and perhaps even whet an appetite for a more attentive, personal reading of the text.
Of course the sheer catchiness and accessibility of The Bible Project makes it susceptible to potential flaws, so without being overly picky I must acknowledge a couple.
Firstly, the sheer brevity and conciseness of the clips (Genesis in five minutes!) runs the risk of being simplistic. Likewise the affirmation that “it all leads to Jesus”, whilst true in an important sense, risks conveying uniformity, rather than a more dynamic unity, or coherence. Certainly we may read scripture through a Christological lens, but with a “proper confidence” (Newbigin) that acknowledges textual nuances and contextual considerations. As a university chaplain I pastor those who find themselves no longer sustained – even damaged – by overly confident assertions of what the Bible says, and wonder, for example, if Jesus is so clearly the fulfilment of scripture, why is that not self-evident to Jewish readers of the first Testament?
Another flip side (and you can call me a Luddite) is that five-minute cute bites prove more attractive – but less effective – than other “slow boil” embodied disciplines that have historically sustained Christian formation. People really change and are impacted by scripture when attentive in prayer alongside other human persons in lived experience. There is probably no short-circuiting that. But if used well, The Bible Project could augment traditional media (as it was used within a sermon), and thus heighten awareness of and exposure to the multi-layered glory of the Bible.
Rev Dr Carolyn Kelly is the chaplain at Auckland University