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.”
If a recorded conversation seems effortless, that’s a sure clue it wasn’t. Start a Bible Project video: Watch it flow, no second wasted, animation tied thoughtfully to every turning of the conversation. Part of the energy is the authentic rapport between Mackie and Collins. “We hope that our tone is disarming,” Mackie laughs. “We’re talking, because that’s been our journey together.”
That first summer of questions between Mackie and Collins, when the pair lived together, ended. Mackie moved out, continuing his studies and eventually entering the University of Wisconsin’s PhD program in biblical studies, which is part of the language and history departments. “Students were expected to check their beliefs at the door,” Mackie says. “But I had historical questions, and it was the right place to ask them.”
His research—deep in linguistic and manuscript studies—became a crucible of belief, shaping his view of the Bible. “I was forced to say, ‘I can’t deny there were human, historical, socio-religious processes and communities that shaped this text. But they’re claiming that God speaks, and that God is guiding that process.’ I could reject that if I chose. But I realized this process is something like photosynthesis. I can understand the physical and chemical mechanics of it. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a divine cause within the process.”
Rather than undermining faith, his hardest questions confirmed it. His work ruled out any return to simplistic understandings of the Bible. But it convinced him this extremely human book was also divine. “Someone was there,” he remembers. “The authors were talking in their texts. I was meeting other minds, and through their words, met the mind of God.” Tears well in his eyes. “That’s the mojo,” he says, blinking them back.
Collins and Mackie continued to converse by email during Mackie’s studies in Wisconsin, meeting in Portland about once a year. Every time, they instantly reconnected, picking up the old back-and-forth.
Collins had bounced around after college—working in a Christian school, then on a sailboat in Greece for a year, before finally returning to Portland for a short stint as a pastor. None of the ministry roles felt right. “I was seen as an expert,” he says. “I didn’t want that. I still had too many questions.”
Then it struck him. He could turn his inner life of questions into a career. Beginning with documentary filmmaking, he found himself in the right place at the right time to help innovate a phenomenon in the early 2000s: online explainer videos.
You’ve probably seen dozens of these “explainers”: narrated, with simple graphics breaking down a complex concept until you could draw it on a napkin. Collins laughs when I ask if he invented the genre. “No,” he says. But almost. The company he founded, Epipheo, “got there early and did it well.”
Collins’s endless questions were unlocking remarkable opportunities, but he still found himself restless. As an outlet, he began tinkering on the side with scripts explaining the Bible but felt out of his depth.
In time, Mackie moved back to Portland as a pastor and adjunct professor at Western Seminary, and the pair reconnected. Collins pitched an idea: to make a couple of explainers on the Bible. Mackie could research, Collins produce. They both could ask questions, nothing off-limits. “It was going to be one day a week,” Collins remembers. Each video—crowdfunded—would pay for the next. They rustled up money for two videos, hired a few freelancers, borrowed a studio, and, in the spring of 2014, The Bible Project began.
They planned to fully animate the entire Bible, alternating between scripts on specific literary sections and Bible-wide themes. They built a business model around a simple message: “We’ll make another video if you can help us.” And slowly, it worked. One video after another was released. The funding grew and with it a sense that the work was important to more than just the two of them.
Then, in January 2015, Francis Chan called. Chan was developing a home-church network, but good Bible training was the missing piece. Was there a way to equip lay leaders to responsibly teach the Bible—without seminary? When Chan saw The Bible Project’s videos, he knew he’d found what he was looking for. He just had one question: “Can you do the whole Bible in a year?”
“It would have taken ten,” Collins laughs.
Chan didn’t care. “His attitude was ‘Sweet, but can you just get it done?’ ” Mackie and Collins eventually decided they could—with simpler graphics. With Chan’s assurance that any gaps in crowdfunding would be covered, the team buckled down that summer.
The idea was to use the video content to drive people straight back to the Bible in their hands—or the one sitting dusty on the bookshelf. A reader could start in Genesis at the beginning of 2016 and have a video outlining and explaining every book by the end of the year.
Chan’s Silicon Valley network helped produce an app and get influential Bay Area churches to use the reading plan. It took off. After just a few months of gap funding from Chan’s network, the videos were bringing in enough support to sustain themselves—even at the increased rate of production. Christians worldwide were watching Bible Project videos and, more importantly, reading their Bibles.
“So many people read the whole Bible together in 2016,” Collins remembers. “It was powerful.”
By the time their 18-month push to complete the Bible finished, they had a partnership with YouVersion, the most popular smartphone Bible app, to promote Bible Project videos to millions of users. According to Ken Weigel, director of partnerships for The Bible Project, last year alone 2.5 million days of Bible Project devotionals were completed within the YouVersion app. Collins and Mackie found themselves with a fast-growing base of supporters, social networks lighting up with their content, and calls coming in from all over the world for more: videos, podcasts, books, partnerships, speaking engagements, endorsements. One day a week was no longer going to be enough.
Thirty full-time staff work for The Bible Project today, about half as animators, artists, and designers.
The team comes from a variety of backgrounds, including local animation studio Laika, Dark Horse Comics, and pastoral ministry. Besides videos, the team produces a popular podcast, a quarterly magazine, crowd-funded posters, and coffee-table books.
As of this writing, The Bible Project’s YouTube videos get about 120,000 views per day, a number rising steadily. By a conservative estimate, someone starts a Bible Project video every three quarters of a second. Their base of over 11,000 monthly supporters grows by hundreds each month around the globe. Captions and translations are in progress for other languages, funded by special supporters, and multiple daughter channels—Spanish, German, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic—all have active projects (their Spanish channel alone has over 140,000 subscribers and 105 videos).
Sixty-four percent of viewers are men, most aged 18–34—a demographic often dismissed as being disconnected from faith. The Bible Project’s impact in unique communities—such as among the deaf—is deep. Letters from viewers and supporters all over the globe flood their office, written by missionaries, educators, Sunday school teachers, seminary professors, and homeschooling parents. One supporter sent them a custom-painted skateboard deck, another a handmade Bible quilt.
“The number one repeated comment is ‘I had no idea the Bible was so—,’ ” Mackie says, filling in the blank—“ ‘unified,’ ‘coherent,’ ‘beautiful.’ Or, ‘I had given up on the Bible, and now it’s back in my life and important to me.’ Others say, ‘I’m 80 and have read the Bible my whole life. I’ve never gotten so much out of it.’ ”
“I used to feel alone in my questions,” Collins says, laughing. “I don’t anymore.”
Still, popularity is different than accuracy. What do biblical scholars think of this very 21st-century way of engaging the Bible?
Lubeck, Mackie’s former professor, still teaches Bible and hermeneutics at Multnomah. “The Project helps improve the questions people ask about the Bible,” he says. “Many people approach the Bible thinking interpretation means ‘identifying what it means to me.’ The Bible Project sidesteps that and somehow manages to be both deep and simple. That’s harder than it looks. What looks like a flashy video is undergirded by PhD-level research and gifted artistry.”
Craig Keener, professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, agrees. “They’re very informed on biblical theology with a remarkably wide knowledge of the canon,” he says. “They address genre and style very well. These guys read the right kinds of sources.”
With a fellow scholar’s attentiveness, Keener does note a few points of disagreement: “Their emphasis on Caesar sometimes reflects current presuppositions in New Testament scholarship but is also debated. I believe their ‘Son of Man’ video reads too much Genesis into Daniel 7. Consistent with their biblical theology approach, they read New Creation too much into Acts 2, missing more direct biblical allusions.” But he’s quick to stress that any specific critiques aren’t meant to discourage viewers. “Even possible missteps are worth discussing,” he says. “Their perspective challenges us.”
Tremper Longman, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Westmont College, cautions viewers to use the videos to return to their own reading of the Bible—not to let them replace it. “No interpreter is infallible. The questions we ask of the Bible will lead us to certain answers,” he says. “I think The Bible Project is asking the right questions and getting the right answers. There are dimensions of the text they may not address, but we shouldn’t expect any single work to do everything.”
When asked about the dynamic of presenting written Scripture visually, Longman admitted there are dangers. “Anytime I read, I create mental images of the characters, action, or metaphors of the biblical text. That’s unavoidable. With videos, those are provided. There are real dangers of picturing biblical characters in our image,” he tells me. “We just need to remember that they are not trying to give, for example, a realistic visual portrait of Jesus. I have to say that I would want people to watch the Bible Project rather than, say . . . picture biblical characters as vegetables.”
I ask about their end goal, and Mackie and Collins get quiet. “To change the church’s paradigm about the Bible,” Collins replies after a pause. They want people to understand the Bible as an incredible literary work tracing a single, majestic story. “We want people to enter that story,” Collins says, “and let it shape how they view the world.”
The team has five more years of content—about 100 more videos—planned. They’re launching a classroom initiative in Portland, where Mackie’s in-person teaching will be recorded for a free library of Bible classes. They are also innovating as well. I spotted a virtual reality headset on a visit to their offices—they laugh, wink, and say they want to keep their teaching on the cutting edge and to give them a couple of years.
But projects end. The pair doesn’t expect this one to last forever. “There will be closure at some point. Someday we expect to be done making videos,” Collins says. “We’re not trying to build a legacy institution.”
Still, a legacy is being made, in viewers by the tens of millions. But the journey is still personal—and maybe that’s the magic underlying all of this. “I’ve gone from being a post-Bible Christian to someone who finds incredible meaning in the Scriptures,” Collins says.
“I’m not afraid of what I’ll find anymore. My embarrassment about Christianity is gone,” he continues. “I’ve seen how much beauty there is in the story of the Bible. It tells the truth. This work, for the first time, has made me feel truly evangelical—in the sense of wanting to be evangelistic. Of wanting to announce something. I want the story of the Bible to get out. I want others to fall in love with it. I want it to influence every aspect of modern life. I truly believe that the message of Jesus in the Bible will save us. It will recreate our lives.”
“And to see what God has done with that journey—” Collins trails off. “A gift,” he says. “This is all a gift.”
Paul J. Pastor is the author of several books, including The Listening Day devotional series and Palau: A Life on Fire (with Luis Palau, forthcoming from Zondervan).
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