Over the last couple of years, I have come to love the work of the Bible Project, and their videos on YouTube, for a number of different reasons. The project is the brainchild of Tim Mackie, a biblical scholar from Portland, Oregon, and Jon Collins, a graphics designer that Tim met as a theology undergraduate, and they have been working on it full-time (funding by donations) since around 2015.
Overall, the videos are a wonderful combination of great theology and really good communication in graphic, video form. But underlying that is a conviction about what needs to happen in order for us to understand the Bible well, and I think this the project’s enduring strength. The repeated theme is that we need to understand that whole narrative of the whole Bible, and we need to relate that to the person of Jesus. In other words, the story of the Bible is primarily a story about God, even if different parts of that story focus on different individuals and groups. And if the climax of that story (see Heb 1.1) is the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, then the story only really makes sense when it leads to our understanding of who Jesus is.
But the project videos don’t follow this through in a naive ‘Where’s Wally/Jesus’ kind of approach. They take seriously the particular distinctives of each section of Scripture, attending to both the historical and cultural contexts of each text but also to their literary forms and place in the whole canon of Scripture, and this is the other major strength of the project. Looking careful at the detail of each text, then standing back and seeing the text in its context, are the two great skills needed in engaging with reading the Bible well.
Thus the project offers videos which look at particular books (in two forms now—one with a more detailed ‘doodle’ video, packed with information, and another in a more flowing narrative style, with different graphic styles to match), but also at the wider story of the whole Bible. There are videos exploring how to read certain kinds of literature, but also that look at particular themes and ideas, including word studies, theological themes, and ideas that run through the whole of the biblical narrative. The net result, if you watch all the different kinds of videos, is that you will be equipped with an intersecting competence in understanding the particular text you are reading, its canonical significance, be aware of key ideas and theological issues in the text, and put those all together into a theological reading of Scripture. In this way is addresses the range of questions we need to look at in reading the Bible well.
As just one example of this, a few months ago our church group (which currently meets on Tuesday evenings on Zoom) watched the doodle video on Leviticus, as someone had raised this as a difficult text to read and understand. In a manageable period of time and an accessible format, it not only helped us to understand the cultural context of some of the difficult elements of the text, particularly the logic of animal sacrifice, but it highlighted how important this was as background to understanding what the New Testament says about the sacrificial death of Jesus. The videos are also helped by their honesty and humour; this one begins ‘The Book of Leviticus. We know you’ve been avoiding it, because it’s weird. So let’s fix that!’
Alongside the Bible Project, Tim also travels and speaks, and posts quite a lot of that teaching online. I recently watched one of his lectures, and wanted to highlight it because it is so helpful. On his own channel, the video is called ‘Living and Speaking the Gospel‘, but a slight shorter version has been posted (which cuts the opening and closing chat and padding) actually highlights the real content: ‘What the Bible, Christianity and Jesus are all about‘. If that sounds a little ambitious, bear with me, and do take time to watch either version. There are so many things to like about this presentation.
First, Tim has a natural, personal way of communicating, and he carries that over into his discussion of faith and evangelism. It isn’t hard to talk about things that you love, so if you love Jesus, why wouldn’t you talk about him? (He thus spends a full five minutes talking about his favourite tacos!)
Second, he roots his approach to sharing faith in understanding the other.
The best way to find out what people think about Jesus is to find out what people think about Jesus! Just ask people what they think! Who doesn’t like to talk about what they think?…Here’s what will happen seven times out of ten. They will tell you what they think of Jesus and Christianity, and why they don’t believe in it—and it will provide you with an opportunity to say ‘I don’t believe in that Jesus either’ …Pray, and love people, and ask them what they think.
This leads him into addressing one particular misunderstanding or distortion which he has found to be really common; I think this is true especially in the States, but I suspect is an idea that is common here in the UK too. Many people think that Christians believe we live our lives on earth, we might do good things or bad things, but that at the end God will judge us and we will head either to heaven or to hell. What is fascinating is that, in the observation about whether we have done good or bad, he wraps in an important comment: ‘based on whether we have held correct ideas or beliefs about who Jesus is.’ He is highlighting an important misconception here—that when we talk about ‘faith’ or ‘believing in Jesus’ or whatever else we say to express Christian faith, this is heard to be another ‘good work’ that people are supposed to do to earn merit before God.
The next move is the one I love best:
This is wrong. And the main problem with this is the Bible!
It reminded me of a comment that Tom Wright once made about his debates with ‘conservative’ evangelicals who questioned some of his theological claims. ‘I am not suggesting that they are too evangelical; I am suggesting they are not evangelical enough!’ The point both were making is that, in the end, our touchstone needs to be Scripture, read well. The best way to address differences of view between Christians is to return to the original source, which is Scripture.
Tim then exemplifies the approach of the whole Bible Project: he explores the whole narrative of the Bible by looking at one particular text in detail, in this case the opening verses of Mark’s gospel. And in doing this, he makes great use of humour: ‘Why isn’t the Bible saying what it is supposed to say?!’ And there is a realism which also characterises the whole project:
Is this simple? No…once you have the main storyline, it isn’t that hard to understand. But the Bible refuses to be domesticated. It refuses to be boiled down to half truths and summaries.
This then requires an attitude of humility and openness, reading to engage with Scripture as something quite different from us whose voice we need to listen to carefully.
This leads him (19.57) to the key issue:
The good news isn’t about us going somewhere, but about God coming here…the kingdom of heaven is not somewhere you go after you die, it is something that has arrived in Jesus.
And what is compelling about this claim is that Tim is reading this, in a fairly straightforward way, from the text of the gospels.
He then illustrates this by showing the Bible Project video about Heaven and Earth—what better way?!—and creates a new diagram to explain what the story of the Bible is all about. You could watch this short video alone if you don’t have the 30 or 45 minutes to watch the longer video, though I think you will be missing out on quite a lot! This highlights another aspect of the Bible Project approach which is really important: Jesus and the New Testament are primarily read as being in continuity with the Old Testament, rather than being in contrast with it. This is not only a key feature of all the canonical books of the NT, contrasted with those non-canonical books which generate all kinds of conspiracy theories, but it eliminates the possibility of unbiblical ideas which marginalise the Jewish nature of Jesus and the early Jesus movement.
As he draws this new picture of the story of the Bible, Tim does something fascinating, which is to talk about the nature of evil in a way which is not only compelling but potentially very appealing to people in the wider world.
Jesus wants to get the ‘hell’ out of this world, and he wants to get the ‘hell’ out of you. That’s good news, isn’t it? But it’s a double-edged sword. I want Jesus to get ‘hell’ out of the world, but I want him to do it without getting rid of me! This is the hard truth of the gospel…We have met the enemy and he is—me.
This way of expressing the problem of evil has lots of resonances with older, classical statements, including the apocryphal saying of G K Chesterton:
“What’s wrong with the world today?” and Chesterton responded simply,
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
The final things I was really impressed with in the video was Tim’s handling of the question of judgment, rooted in God’s commitment to our freedom to choose or reject his offer of living in a ‘hell-free world’. I think he correct to depict God’s judgement as the other side of the coin of his love and justice. And this means that the whole talk leads to an expression of the love of God made known to us in Jesus, and the invitation to receive that love, with all its blessings and challenges.
This story will still be challenging and offensive and difficult to talk about—but I am telling you it is a compelling story, because your friend who doesn’t believe in Jesus also wants this. Your neighbour wants the same thing that God wants.
In the end, doing all this theological work doesn’t make us into obscure and incomprehensible theologians; if done well, it enables us to share the story of Jesus more effectively. If it doesn’t, then something has gone wrong.
I confess I also like Tim’s style, which is slightly awkward and ‘geeky’, and anything but slick and polished.
For all these reasons, now that you have read this, take 30 minutes to watch the central message of this video. I think it will help.