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Explaining the Word: The Bible Project’s Digital Theology

This paper relates media theory to church history and doctrine; discusses how The Bible Project’s Protestant theology relates to other traditions; and suggests how we might ground digital theology scholarship in Imago Dei.

Published onJul 06, 2021
Explaining the Word: The Bible Project’s Digital Theology

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Introduction

The Bible Project (TBP) is a nonprofit animation studio that has since 2014 produced over 150 short-form videos that explore scriptural genres, characters, and themes. The videos have been collectively viewed over 100 million times and TBP has been featured in Christianity Today.1 The Project’s mission is to “help make the biblical story accessible to everyone, everywhere, for free.”2 The Project uses explainer videos—a relatively new genre of digital media—to tell the biblical story.

In this paper, I relate media theory to church history and doctrine; discuss how The Bible Project’s Protestant theology relates to other traditions; and suggest how we might ground digital theology scholarship in Imago Dei.

I take a wide view of media: data perceptible by the five senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. As a media and communication scholar and a Christian, I am primarily concerned with how media’s forms and functions affect (and are affected by) theology and, ultimately, orthopraxy.

Media and the Church

The history of the Church is comprised of various media handed down through the centuries. These include oral histories, scrolls, icons, mosaics, liturgies, catechisms, scripture, apocrypha, illuminated manuscripts, confessions, creeds, hagiography, hymns, architecture, art, vestments, incense, bread, wine, water, and more. These and other media not only constitute the Church’s story; they also provide the content of Christian doctrine and theology. The Lord’s Supper, for example, is mediated: Taste and see that the Lord is good.3 The different interpretations regarding the sacrament—between and among Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions—reflect the epistemic role that media plays in theological discourse.

Protestant’s reverence of scripture is due, in part, to the advent of new media technologies (i.e. the printing press) that emerged in the sixteenth century.4 Darrell Fasching writes, “That which desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality.”5 The Reformation’s broader theological implications) are evidence of media’s theological function. Since the Enlightenment, reason and scientism have displaced their forerunners in the sacred realm. Sea changes in technological capacities and systems, such as the digital revolution, when considered in light of contemporary theologies tell us much about media’s relationship to doctrine.

Many scholars have written about the evolution of technology and media in religious and secular contexts. Walter Ong, for example, sheds light on the fundamental cognitive and societal shifts that occur when preliterate, primarily oral/aural cultures adopt chirographic and then typographic methods of communication and knowledge production.6 Ong built on other scholars’ work relating literacy, media, and communication to psychological and sociological effects. He was especially influenced by members of the Toronto School (TS), which posits the “primacy of communication in the structuring of human cultures and the structuring of the human mind.”7 The most prominent TS thinker, Marshall McLuhan, became popularly known for coining the phrase “the medium is the message” in his seminal Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.8 The implication for TS scholars, then and now, is that medium and message cannot be easily disentangled; the channels and forms by which messages are communicated are just as—if not more—epistemic than content itself.

The emergence and ubiquity of digital technologies, especially, make such a perspective even more important. Although Gregory Ulmer is not explicitly tied to the Toronto School, his theory of electracy also asserts the primacy of medium. He argues that electracy is to digital media what literacy is to print.9 Writing from and for the digital age, Ulmer’s ideas have epistemological and ontological implications. He states, “What literacy is to the analytical mind, electracy is to the affective body: a prosthesis that enhances and augments a natural or organic human potential.”10 Electracy does not merely provide new modes of communication, that is—it engenders alternative ways of knowing and being. This is essentially the same argument made by Ong and the TS, albeit with a digital twist.

Just as Ong’s preliterate, oral/aural cultures’ reliance on cognitive mnemonics was absolved by the advent of script (and then the printing press), as literate societies become more electrate they depend less on the complex chains of reasoning afforded by typography. In creating more broad, diverse, and accessible modes of invention, and providing evergreen storage and networked retrieval, electracy is making us, as it were, post-literate. Our digital prostheses do empower us in some ways—digital imaging supports, for example, “extensive complexes of mood atmospheres beyond organic capacity”—but they also erode natural cognitive abilities.11

Just as the move from orality to chirographic/typographic technologies fosters new ways of thinking, knowing, and communicating, Western culture’s digital baptism in the late twentieth century created an entirely new paradigm. Digital citizens find it increasingly difficult to remember pre-electrate life or to operate in pre-digital modes—to unplug, as we say. For digital natives, with no analogue framework to reference, it is impossible. Too, we have no easy way of differentiating the secular and the sacred. If the sacred is mediated, what happens when the mediums by and through which we receive, understand, and share God are fundamentally altered? What happens when the stories don’t necessarily change, but the media we use to tell them do? Does it affect what we consider sacred; does it impact theology?

It is in this electrate, post-literate setting that we consider digital theology, and from which The Bible Project (TBP) was born. The Project employs explainer videos (EVs) as its primary media genre. EVs were originally developed as a device for explaining complex products and processes to Silicon Valley investors and engineers.12 One of the two-man founding members of TBP, Jonathan Collins, is one of the genre’s progenitors. Before partnering with Bible scholar (and college roommate) Tim Mackie, Collins produced EVs for companies like Google and P&G.13

Explainer videos typically rely on digital animation and a playful aesthetic to introduce, clarify, and/or expound on a given subject, object, process, or concept. They are in this way pedagogical and—since they adapt complex information for lay audiences—are a type of technical communication, or tech comm for short. Though its practice can be arguably traced to the Renaissance, tech comm as a recognized vocation is a relatively new field borne by the mid-twentieth century’s technological innovations.14 The Second World War and the post-war proliferation of home appliances created demand for instructional content for soldiers and then consumers who needed to assemble, use, and repair their new tools. As tech comm practice grew into academic inquiry, scholars began to ask how (and why) ostensibly technical, objective content functions rhetorically. Steven Katz’ “The Ethic of Expediency” is a notable example for its illuminating (and horrifying) analysis of how the Nazi’s technical language not only functioned in service of the Holocaust’s bureaucratic machinery, but how the regime’s ideology was reified by the rhetoric implicit in its technical documents. Katz shows, that is, how the Reich rhetorically deployed the ethic of expediency under the guise of efficiency.15

Jacques Ellul, another important twentieth century thinker, also wrote about the relationship between technology and efficiency. In his most important work, The Technological Society, he conceptualized technique—what he defined as a technology’s totalizing influence on society—and claimed that the technological project is ultimately concerned with efficiency.16 But Ellul affords even more weight than Katz to technology’s hegemonic power. Ellul’s argument is not that a society’s ends justify means, but that a society’s technique functions epistemologically to define cultural values. In other words, following Ellul’s logic, the Nazi’s ethic of expediency did not merely serve their evil project; instead, it is evidence of how the Reich’s technique deconstructed, deformed, and ultimately maligned man himself. He writes:

Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man's very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created.17

Leviathan desires efficiency and, when gone unchecked, can result in Katz’ ethic of expediency. This is especially dangerous because, according to Ellul, technique is ostensibly inescapable: “Man is caught like a fly in a bottle. His attempts at culture, freedom, and creative endeavor have become mere entries in technique's filing cabinet.”18

Taken together, these considerations—the medium is the message, and technique is inescapable—suggest that the Church (and religious organizations like The Bible Project) must find ways to “transcend” the technique of the day. Below, I briefly outline the ways that different Christian traditions have done that, and propose a new way forward in this electrate paradigm.

Theologies and Technologies

The invention of the printing press in Europe served Luther and the reformer’s ends by desacralizing the Church and its media—icons in the East and the rosary in the West, for example—and elevating scripture. These changes happened, in part, because of the theological divorce of church media’s message (or content) from its medium. Protestants retain a high view of scriptural content, but the introduction of new technologies/mediums—and with them new ways that biblical content is communicated (such as The Bible Project)—illustrate this phenomenon. The Reformation not only undercut the Roman Magisterium’s role in interpreting sacred scripture; further, it changed the way Protestant Christians viewed media’s epistemological utility.

Although the printing press’ most widespread and immediate effects served the Catholic Church—indulgences were the first thing Gutenberg printed—the Gutenberg Bible and its democratizing effects ultimately served the Reformers. Luther was one of the early pioneers of mass-producing pamphlets, for example, printing over 300,000 during his lifetime.19 The printing press also played a major role in the Enlightenment, paved the way for the American experiment, and, ultimately, laid the technological and ideological groundwork for Silicon Valley’s electrate dominion. Interestingly, though, whereas the printing press moved society in a more secular direction, its technological descendants—including explainer videos—are now being used to communicate religious ideas. In effect, the democratization of media (and with it the divorce of sacred message from sacred medium) made possible TBP’s deployment of digital apparatus to talk about God. However benign the Project’s use of EVs may seem to our electrate brains, it is only possible because of fifteenth-century technological innovations and Protestant theology that emphasizes biblical content over mediating form. Although some in more conservative evangelical circles do still defer to more “traditional” media—the King James Bible instead of the NIV, for example—in most cases it is simply an issue of preference. The difference is one of degree, not kind.

Protestants’ deference to Sola scriptura, borne with the Reformation, brought with it new and different interpretations of scripture—theological perspectives relatively untethered from the institutional Church. Some strands of low church Protestantism have relocated the sacred: from the institutional Church to the individual’s interpretation of scripture. Others in high church traditions—though at times taking issue with the fruits of their Protestant brethren’s scriptural license—retain a high view of not only scriptural authority, but also of the priesthood of all believers and the right of all to interpret the Word. N. T. Wright, for example, writes:

To place all or part of this book [the NT] within a sacred enclosure would be to invite a dominical rebuke: my house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations. Past attempts to keep it for one group only—the take-over bids by the scholars and pietists, the fundamentalists and the armchair social workers—have ended with unseemly battles, the equivalent of the sad struggle for the control of Holy Places in the land of Israel. This book is a book of wisdom for all peoples, but we have made it a den of scholarship, or of a narrow, hard and exclusive piety.20

In this agonistic context, in which various churchmen and women, scholars, and denominations wrestle with—and in some sense compete—for correct doctrine, Protestant theology necessarily takes the form of apologetics and, sometimes, rhetoric. Different scriptural interpretations require not only theological defense, but doctrinal promotion. The Bible Project’s EVs are well suited to fulfill those roles. The Project’s website notes, “Rather than taking the stance of a specific tradition or denomination, we create materials to elevate the Bible for all people and draw our eyes to its unified message.”21 Despite TBP’s claims of doctrinal objectivity, however, the considerations outlined above suggest that the medium itself belies that claim and reveals underlying theological presuppositions.

The videos are primarily exegetical and pedagogical and—given the diverse theological landscape in which they inhabit—they are also (necessarily) apologetical and rhetorical. Too, since the videos are digitally integrated within the electrate system—in both technological and ideological terms—the EVs are well suited to be shared across various online networks (i.e. promoted). The rhetorical nature of TBP enterprise is apparent because, although TBP is intentionally non-denominational in its approach, it is not hard to find dissent from other Protestant voices, such as The Gospel Coalition—an organization that otherwise appreciates TBP’s work—that suggests TBP’s teaching is weak on the doctrine of atonement.22

In sum, then, The Bible Project is the result of a Western, Protestant theology that locates the sacred in the biblical message/content as revealed in scripture; readily adopts nontraditional or unconventional media genres/mediums to tell the story; and does so for primarily exegetical, apologetic, and/or rhetorical purposes. Because the Reformation resulted in Protestant theologies that somewhat divorced medium from message, TBP’s creators—and indeed most modern evangelists—have readily adopted digital tools. For the ancient churches, however, theology and orthopraxy continue to be shaped and informed by what they consider to be sacred media forms.

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy retain traditional theologies regarding the irreducible relationship between sacred medium (or form) and sacred message (or content). Since the Protestant democratization of media did not affect the Catholic or Orthodox churches in the same ways, those traditions’ theological interpretation of media’s ontological and epistemological function is still reserved for the ordained—the Church is the arbiter of what kinds of media carry theological weight, and how that currency is applied. As well, doctrine is expressed in the sacramental and liturgical—that is embodied—nature of church media.

To be sure, the Catholic and Orthodox by no means suggest that revelation is limited to institutional decree or embodied worship; they also do exegesis, apologetics, and rhetoric (just as Protestants administer the sacraments and employ various liturgies). Rather, the ancient churches’ primary media modes are more directly invested with Church authority, including theological interpretation and ministry of sacraments, liturgies, icons, relics, and so on. Orthodox priest and writer Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:

The most institutionalized element of Orthodox Christianity can be found in its worship. We have documents describing, in some detail, the structure of worship from as early as the 2nd century. It is worth noting that the word “Orthodoxy” is perhaps best translated as “right glory [worship]” rather than right opinion or doctrine. What the Church teaches is primarily found embodied in its worship. An old Latin formula has it: Lex orandi, lex credendi. It means, “The law of praying is the law of believing.” It explains how it is that Orthodoxy’s primary word of evangelism is “Come and see.”23

Classical Christianity agrees with McLuhan that the medium is (in some real sense) the message. This is due, in part, to Christianity’s theological anthropology, which has always eschewed Cartesian dualistic notions of body and mind. Tripartite theology, considered an orthodox interpretation through the first three centuries of the Church, asserts that humankind is a composite of three ontological components: body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma).24 Some proponents of this view, including Luther, suggest that the Judaic Temple serves typologically to illustrate our triune nature: the outer court is the body; the holy place is the soul; and the holiest of holies is the spirit. In A System of Biblical Theology, Franz Delitzsch quotes a passage from Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat:

In the tabernacle fashioned by Moses there were three separate compartments. The first was called the holy of holies: here was God's dwelling place, and in it there was no light. The second was called the holy place; here stood a candlestick with seven arms and seven lamps. The third was called the outer court; this lay under the open sky and in the full light of the sun. In this tabernacle we have a figure of the Christian man. His spirit is the holy of holies, where God dwells in the darkness of faith, where no light is; for he believes that which he neither sees nor feels nor comprehends. His soul is the holy place, with its seven lamps, that is, all manner of reason, discrimination, knowledge, and understanding of visible and bodily things. His body is the forecourt, open to all, so that men may see his works and manner of life.25

Further, the five pillars between the outer court and the holy place have been identified with the five bodily senses. The senses’ role, then—in quickening the body, soul, and spirit—is critical to understanding how media functions theologically. The trichotomous notion of soul is essentially one’s psyche (memories, knowledge, reason, etc.), but not in the Cartesian sense of mind apart from body. Instead, our physical body is married to the soul in divine intimacy: a psychosomatic union. Indeed, many theologians have drawn analogies to the relationship between Christ and His Church. It is also why Christians look forward to resurrected bodies instead of ethereal heaven. Understanding the soul, then, requires thoughtful consideration of the body and, in particular, the senses’ theological function.

I suggest that the Judaic Temple serves as a typological, mediated “prosthesis” (using Ulmer’s term) that points to the New Testament revelation that man himself is the temple of God.26 Like the Temple’s sacramental and liturgical media, modern media like TBP’s explainer videos function prosthetically; they communicate spiritual truth by using the technological tools and media available to them. The difference is that the meaning derived from the Temple was medium-bound and sacramental/liturgical, whereas TBP is medium-unbound and exegetical. This has theological implications.

Temple media—its architectural shape and liturgical forms—were revealed to Solomon for the purpose of embodied practice.27 Even if the full meaning of the temple partitions and sacrificial system were not yet fully understood, all five senses were engaged, and the attendee was completely present. Body, soul, and spirit were mirrored by the Temple’s spatial and sensory dynamics. This model was, in some sense, adopted by Classical Christianity and is still practiced today. Catholic and Orthodox sacraments, liturgies, architecture, etc. are, of course, different than the Judaic Temple model’s—because the message is transformed in Christ—but the primary mediums by which the ancient churches communicate spiritual truth are still spatiotemporal and embodied.

Conversely, although TBP’s content is designed to clarify meaning by relying on reasoned exegesis, its digital medium does not stimulate the bodily senses in the same way. The Project’s EVs explain the inspired Word, but they do so in a digital space that limits the embodied experience. The difference is due to the aforementioned theological shift, during the Reformation, that decoupled sacred media’s content from its form. As well, the Project’s reliance on cognitive and rational means are the result, in part, of the Cartesian dualism that has shaped Western thought since the seventeenth century. Though Protestant theology proper eschews gnostic dualism, many Christians hold dualistic notions of a body/mind split.28 Popular theology has distorted orthodox Christian anthropology, and as a result Christian media like TBP are increasingly cognitive and less embodied. To be clear, TBP is orthodox in its doctrinal refutal of Cartesianism. It does, however, utilize media genres—including explainer videos—that were born from Cartesian epistemology and that function primarily on the disembodied, rational plane.

If one takes the view of thinkers like Michel de Certeau, the TBP’s approach is not only necessary, but inevitable. In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau theorizes how individuals and organizations reclaim agency within an ostensibly totalizing system. He writes that institutions and structures strategically ‘produce’ technological apparatuses to serve their own interests, but that individuals may tactically ‘poach’ ostensibly hegemonic technologies and tools to act “in accordance with, or against, environments defined by strategies.”29 De Certeau’s argument is that:

[…] strategies are used by those within organizational power structures, whether small or large, such as the state or municipality, the corporation or the proprietor, a scientific enterprise or the scientist. Strategies are deployed against some external entity to institute a set of relations for official or proper ends, whether adversaries, competitors, clients, customers, or simply subjects. Tactics, on the other hand, are employed by those who are subjugated. By their very nature tactics are defensive and opportunistic, used in more limited ways and seized momentarily within spaces, both physical and psychological, produced and governed by more powerful strategic relations.30

In the Reformation, Luther and others co-opted the technological tools of the day—the institutional strategy of mechanized printing—and in that way deployed tactical measures to operate within and resist the Catholic technique. Similarly, TBP has commandeered digital technologies—that were born from (and are designed to) serve the secular American technique—and deploys them for evangelical enterprise. In doing so, TBP transcends electracy and functions within the existing paradigm. Although the genre (explainer videos) is native to the tech industry’s strategic project of secular innovation, it has been tactically co-opted by the Christian organization for religious pedagogy, and in that way transcends institutional production. Applied in an electrate context, then: even though tactical media is necessarily borne by the digital, Certeauian logic suggests that real agency is still possible. Most contemporary Protestant theologies adheres to such a view—though of course they do not express it in such terms—including The Bible Project and its deployment of EVs.

Imago Dei, in media res

Whichever view one takes of technology’s mediating role in theology, the differences across traditions are quite striking. But I’ve only juxtaposed the two examples above for illustrative purposes. Catholics and Orthodox also produce much exegetical, apologetic, and rhetorical media, as well as media that are “unconcerned” with medium/form. There are Catholic websites, Orthodox animated videos, and so on. Nor is TBP or other Protestant media merely exegetical or always disembodied. To various degrees, Christian traditions and denominations afford sacred reverence to different media forms. At least two sacraments, for example, baptism and the Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist, are shared by all orthodox confessions, even if their spiritual economies are debated. The point in drawing attention to the history, evolution, and differences between these traditions is to highlight how different theological interpretations of media—its content, form, and function—are influenced by the technological means of the day.

I suggest that the many of the hang-ups between different traditions are the result of making theological lynchpins of anything other than Christ Himself. In our fallen state, we are perpetually distracted by the new (or old), and in our forgetfulness make false theological idols. We must remember that all media both derive from and point to the sui generis Man/Christ. Such theological anthropology has informed Christian witness down the centuries—sacramental, liturgical, exegetical, or otherwise. Christ Himself is the center and cornerstone of God’s good creation31, and we can only love our neighbor rightly when we recognize his or her value as God’s image bearers. Where two or more are gathered, He is there among them.32 When we give a cup of water to the least of these, we serve Him.33 He is the great Mediator. C.S. Lewis’ observation in The Weight of Glory rings true: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”34

It is not helpful, indeed it is heretical, to adopt a deconstructionist approach that desacralizes and relativizes all media. The tradition and witness of the ancient Church—its sacraments, liturgies, saints, indeed its faithfulness—not only teach us much about the revelatory nature of God’s work; they remind us to take seriously Christ’s dictum to “do this in remembrance of me.”35 At the same time, we should be attuned to “unorthodox” ways that the Spirit reveals Himself. If we are to do digital theology well, we should consider, in humility, how the Spirit speaks in new ways in the twenty-first century. How does God mediate, uniquely, in an electrate world? What theological insights does electracy afford to contemporary Christians? The tongues of Pentecost reveal the Spirit’s unbridled communicative power; digital languages, too, serve Him. We must be careful, though, as unsound doctrine and overreliance on technology can become idolatrous. Freeman writes:

I often think that in our contemporary times we are tempted to become “electric Christians.” […] But prayer and matters of the Spirit are not electrical forces (nor even like electrical forces). The Holy Spirit is quite silent for the most part (Jn. 16:13). Nevertheless, the Spirit is a person – not a force to be used. It is not for us to create such false images in an effort to explain what cannot be known.36

It is a matter of discernment, aided by the Spirit and mediated by the technologies at our disposal. The Judaic Temple mediated Christ’s coming by foreshadowing things the Jews could not yet understand. Now, in this already-not-yet age, God has revealed Himself in Christ, but we still seek His face. Our media (traditional and digital) point both backwards—to Christ’s life—and forward—to His return. In doing so, they mediate His presence through the Spirit. However we might disagree about media’s theological modes—how the Spirit works in and through media—we should always remember that our fellow man/woman is the closest thing we have to divine Media. When we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste in fellowship with other Christians, we perceive, in and through the Spirit, Christ Himself.

Lewis wrote that all media is transpositional; it always points to something else, something beyond:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.37

But Christ is not transpositional because all media point to Him. The Incarnation is unique in His perfect and eternal mediation of the triune God. He is the perfect Image Who is both infinitely adaptable and eternally unchanging, and in Whom all truth, goodness, and beauty live. In media res, though, we can only receive Him—and point to Him—through a glass darkly.38 Whence we find Him, our bodies, soul, and spirit are complete. As yet, though, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.”39

Bibliography

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Pastor, Paul J. “How the Bible Project is Using Video to Get People into Scripture Again.” Christianity Today. March 15, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/april/bible-project-tim-mackie-jon-collins-scripture.html.

Porter, J. Joseph. “Christianity and Cartesian Dualism.” The Harvard Ichthus. June 12, 2009. http://harvardichthus.org/2009/06/christianity-and-cartesian-dualism/.

Pringle, Kathy and Sean Williams. “The Future is the Past: Has Technical Communication Arrived as a Profession?”, Technical Communication 52, no. 3 (2005): 361-370.

Sweatman, Richard. “Review: The Bible Project – Brilliant but Flawed.” The Gospel Coalition. May 6, 2018. https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/review-bible-project-brilliant-flawed/.

Ulmer, Gregory. “Electracy and Pedagogy.” University of Florida CLAS Users. Accessed July 2, 2021. http://users.clas.ufl.edu/glue/longman/pedagogy/electracy.html.

Ulmer, Gregory. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman, 2003.

Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

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