Why Study the Bible?
This week on the indoubt podcast to kick off the new year is Tim Mackie – one of the guys behind The Bible Project. This week on the show we ask the question: why study the Bible? Tim has devoted his life to both studying and teaching the Bible, so we knew he’d be a great fit for this conversation. Also, he’s from Portland, Oregon. So he’s got that going for him.
Check out The Bible Project.
Check out Read Scripture. (The app Tim helped created).
Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.*
I have the privilege and honour of speaking with Tim Mackie today, all the way from Portland, Oregon. Thanks for coming on the show!
Absolutely, it’s great to be here.
Tim is a pastor at a Church in Portland, as well as one of the two guys behind The Bible Project, I mean, we only think it’s two guys, maybe there’s more! I’m sure there are. Why don’t you share a little bit about who you are as a person?
Yeah, sure. So yes, I’m Tim Mackie. I hail from Portland, Oregon, where I have a few too many jobs, but they’re all related to teaching the Scriptures, so that’s a dream come true. I serve on the pastoral team on a part-time basis, but mainly just teaching in a Church here in Portland called Door of Hope. I’m also a part-time professor of Old Testament at Western Seminary here in Portland. And the main thing I’m doing right now is part of a creative design studio called The Bible Project. I’m kind of the Bible nerd, so really what I do is I read a lot, and then I go into rooms with really creative people and we create short animated films that explore all the books of the Bible and main theological themes in the Bible.
That’s great. When I think of the term “Bible Study,” I mean, it’s thrown around a lot. Churches say “Hey, we’ve got these Bible Study groups” and so on. But I feel like a lot of people aren’t quite sure exactly what everything “Bible Study” means. So when you say to someone, “Hey, you should study the Bible!” what are you actually telling them to do? What does it mean to study the Bible?
Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, in one sense I don’t really ever tell someone to study the Bible. I’d more tell them to follow Jesus and that part of being a disciple of Jesus means immersing yourself in the story that Jesus saw Himself as a part of and as the culmination of. One of the main ways that I have access to Jesus, to become His disciple, is reading the accounts of His life and teachings in the New Testament. There’s a very close relationship between Jesus and the Bible. Now, I don’t have a personal relationship with the Bible. For me, it’s about knowing and following Jesus who loved me and gave Himself for me, and one of the primary ways that I do that is to read through the Scriptures.
So obviously they’re texts, so you read them. But we all know that you read and engage the headlines of a newspaper, a non-fiction book, and a novel, say, by John Steinbeck, in really different ways. We read different texts in different ways. So the Scriptures are a kind of text that’s very similar to just really high literary art – it’s theological art, but it’s art nonetheless. Just like how Moby Dick or East of Eden requires slow, pondering, and rereading – the Bible’s more a book like that but on steroids. You can just read it on a surface level, read a story about David or Abraham, and read one of Paul’s letters. But the way that the whole Bible is designed is to invite you into a whole different way of seeing the world. But, it’s from another time, culture and place, written originally in another language. So, there are all these steps toward greater depth and greater understanding that are required than just reading it on one pass in English.
I think it’s at least the best to create an analogy. If you finish a great work of art, like a mentioned Steinbeck’s East of Eden, you think “Woah, that was amazing…” You almost feel like you need to go read it again because you realize you almost certainly didn’t get everything. And that’s actually how most people feel like when they read the Bible, “I’m not getting everything.”
The Bible is the kind of text that is meant to be read, reread, reflected and pondered over the course of a lifetime. It’s actually designed that way. It’s designed to not give up its depths on the first read through. And so studying involves a lot of things. I think it involves turning to the body of Christ, the greater community of Jesus’ followers. There are going to be people in the Church community that you’re a part of, or in the worldwide community, that have been reading and studying the Bible for a long time.
A lot of it has to do with learning how to read the different texts – the literature in the Bible. There’s a lot of poetry, it’s mostly narrative poetry. Not everyone reads poetry, but a third of the Bible is poetry! It’s about learning to engage. There’s a great wealth of Bible dictionaries and commentaries and group experiences, but basically, it’s just taking a step further than just reading it once through and being like, “Okay, so that was good.”
It’s a book that’s designed for a lifetime’s worth of meditation.
Right. So if someone asked, “Well why? I’ve read Moby Dick three times; I get the story. Why would I need to keep going back to the Word? I’m not a pastor, I’m not a church leader, I’m just a Christian.” If someone said that to you, what would you say?
Well, I’d bring it back to Jesus. If you devoted your life to follow someone and if you’re trying to bring every part of your life to become consistent with their teachings, who they were and what they were all about, you’re not going to just read about them and their teachings one time, you know?
If you’re going to follow Jesus you need to immerse yourself in His story, the stories about Him and His teaching.
So that, in and of itself, gets you into a big section of the Bible. If I follow someone as the most important person, I’m probably going to memorize some of their most important teachings. I’m probably going to try and return to them time and again so that I know my way around them for when I come across things in life. Take relational conflict. “Okay, what did Jesus say about forgiveness? Back to Matthew 18.” So that’s just one thing. If you follow Jesus, it just makes all the sense in the world that you would make the stories and His teachings like a staple diet in your life. And then if you do that, you’ll discover something else.
You’ll discover that Jesus is constantly talking about the Bible.
He’s constantly quoting from the Scriptures that existed at His point, which is what we call the Old Testament. He explained Himself and who He was in light of those writings, and He invited people to see that the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures is what was pointing towards Him. He Himself tells you that if you want to really get who He is, then there are three-quarters of your Bible you need to really become familiar with. That’s a part of it.
I also think the Bible’s the kind of book that’s trying to mess with you. It’s trying to challenge your currently held views about the world, about who God is (if you do or don’t believe in God), who you are, what’s true in the world, what’s really wrong in the world and what’s right.
Those aren’t things you can just figure out on a one-year Bible read through. It takes a lifetime to sort all that out. The Bible’s a gift in that way, in that it’s really meant to shape every part of your life in different seasons – different things in the Scriptures will become more pronounced to you.
When I think of the point you made about memorizing Scripture because you’re following Jesus, it makes me think about when I’m at a family reunion and we all start talking about stories with our relatives. We’ve had these close relationships with our family members and we begin to tell stories about one another, “Oh yeah! and then Joe said this…” You can recite this whole story because you’re so invested in the people and these stories. So in the same way, I can kind of hear the same thing with the Bible and follow Jesus. It’s God’s Word and we’re invested into that.
Yeah, and we shouldn’t be naïve – we’re all actually doing that anyway. The question is: “what stories fill up the pool that we draw on to understand our world?” If you live in– well sorry, you’re in Canada! so I can’t assume. I’m an American, and so, from a young age I’m brought up in this American don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-don’t-tread-on-my-liberty-of-the-individual. You know?
It’s the same up here in Canada.
Yeah totally. We’re both Westerners, modern Westerners. And then of course if you grow up on the diet of Hollywood for kids, teens or adults, it’s filling your imagination with all kinds of other stories about what’s important in life, who are you and what defines success as a human being. We’re all drawing on stories – a story-world to make sense of our lives.
I think becoming a follower of Jesus means adopting a new story-world, the biblical story-world, and letting that start to become the baseline.
And that kind of life, heart, and mind transformation happens slowly and through habit – over the long-term. So you’re right, it’s exactly like a family history that needs to replace our currently held family history, so to speak.
People (including myself) who are listening and are being encouraged by this and want to learn more, memorize more, and want to be involved in God’s Word more, are excited – but the truth of the matter is that many young adults are busy. They have their relationships, social life, jobs, they’re taking five courses in the semester. All this stuff! And I get from what you’re saying that it’s about relationship – about following Jesus. So with that as the foundation, how can we actually achieve this kind of study of the Bible? What time should be allotted to it? How should we be doing this on a daily basis in the midst of our crazy lives?
That’s a great question. Part of it is our current technological culture. There are things crying for our attention in all of the empty spaces of our lives. It’s in our pockets – in our mobile devices. So that’s our empty time. But then there’s also this high-jacking of our spare time. So it requires enormous discipline – becoming a reader. Not everyone has to be a bookworm. This is about habits. In other cultures that are way more textual or they don’t have as much of the noise filling their time, it would be easier because texts were the main media in a culture like in Jesus’ day, obviously. It was a higher culture. In our age, it’s very difficult. But the thing is, if people who listen to podcasts find it very difficult to carve out time to read, much less read the Bible, they’re not horrible people. We’re Westerners. We’re 21st Century Westerners. So I think we’re faced with the decision about what kinds of media we’re going to allow to shape us as humans. And these devices in our pockets can control our lives in a scary way. In a big way, I think it’s revolting against the man, you know? And the revolt is saying “No, I’m going to prioritize. I believe I will be shaped as a mature human and as a disciple of Jesus through fostering this other habit that is archaic.”
Smartphones are only what, 15 years old now? We have no idea the effect that living this way will have on us. But we know the effect of what letting the biblical texts shape you do because we have millennia’s worth of amazing human stories of people living in light of the Scriptures. I think it’s a question of priorities. Personally, I have a daily habit of reading, but even more so, I have a couple times carved out a week where I can do more than just have a little window. These other times are when I personally carve out an hour to dive into the book of the Bible I’m currently studying. I know that sounds nerdy, but I think it’s a habit that the Jewish tradition and then the Jewish and Christian tradition through history has said: Humans are the most mature forms of themselves when they allow themselves to be shaped by time in these texts. And so, who am I to say they’re wrong? Anyways, you just have to do it – I don’t know what to say.
That’s good. I’m glad you said that. And I think the point you made about the whole, “We have thousands of years of history where people are being shaped by reading the Bible – like we’ve seen it prove itself over and over again, how the Bible being read on a habitual basis does change lives for the better.” And you’re right, we only have 15 years of the smartphone being used. We have no idea what that’s going to lead to, and we can only imagine. It’s kind of scary to think of. It’s a great point you bring up.
And there are different ways to interact with the Bible. Not everyone needs to be a Bible scholar. But I do think being a disciple of Jesus means growing in my ability to read these texts, which means becoming a wiser reader and a more engaged reader. Knowing what the tools are that people have written – these give an even greater understanding. That’s all habit stuff. And that requires initiative and discipline.
You’ve been on this earth for a little while now, at least to study the Bible and to know it’s life-giving-ness to you. How can you, as a testimony, share how it’s shaped you? Not just to make you more knowledgeable, but how has it actually given you a joy unspeakable?
Yeah, well that’s hard not to make it into a long story! I started reading the Bible when I started following Jesus which was when I was nineteen, almost twenty. I was raised around Church-ish kind of culture and I didn’t like it. I never read the Bible very much – I kind of knew a couple of stories, the children’s versions. So I’m a new follower of Jesus. I’m all in for Jesus and I’m in my early twenties reading the Bible for the first time. And at first, I’m appalled and scandalized, because it’s just like, “What the—this is crazy! It’s so different than anything that I’ve ever read or engaged before!” But at the same time, I felt like I was being invited into a different world, and a different view of the world.
Within my first few years of reading the Bible, I signed up for some classes at a Christian university here in Portland and had the great fortune of having some amazing teachers that opened up the biblical story for me in a way that ignited my imagination. They opened up the way that the Bible is high-level literary artistry. They gave me skills for how to engage and read these texts in a more effective way. And I was looking for a new meaning in my life, that’s why I decided to follow Jesus because the version I worked with through my teens didn’t work out for me at all. It was a season of life where I was looking for a whole new view of the world, and the biblical world gave that to me.
The community that I was a part of really valued the habit of reading and studying and talking and learning about the Scriptures. My first mentor I had had most of the New Testament memorized. He was just an incredible influence. So I learned from him! If you’re a follower of Jesus, you read the Bible a lot. You talk about it with your friends. That’s just what you do. For me, it was actually absolutely life-transformative. Like, I don’t know what my life would look like without the Scriptures. It’s the way that I interact with Jesus on a meaningful level. To me, the Scriptures have been the greatest, most beautiful, and most life-giving thing ever. That’s why I probably ended up having too many jobs teaching the Bible here in Portland.
First of all, thank you for that little testimony, that is encouraging. Now moving into that, you obviously mentioned that your work at The Bible Project. Maybe explain a little bit more in detail what it is, and what the goal and the aim is of this ministry.
In very simple terms, we create short animated films that live on YouTube, so they’re free. They’re videos unpacking the design, message and core ideas of every book of the Bible in 5-8 minutes. Also, we’re creating videos that explore key ideas or themes that run throughout the whole Bible. We’re speaking non-religious language. Whether someone’s religious or not, we want them to at least understand and appreciate what’s going on in the Bible. We are creating films for people who are sympathetic to the Bible, but not necessarily religious. Or people who just want to learn more about the Bible.
We’re about 2 and a half years into the project. We have about seventy or so videos on our YouTube channel. We’re about halfway done – I think we have about 3ish more years of work, at least for our original vision of this video library.
Are you feeling the weight of that? Or just pushing through?
It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done. It’s so fun, it’s a joy to come do this – to crowdfund adventure. We’re a non-profit. At the end of the videos, we just say “Hey! If this was helpful to you, here’s the one we’re making next. You can help us make it. Become a supporter.” Over the past two and half years, we’ve been able to grow to a small studio and have a team of about a dozen people who are all cranking out writing and drawing and animating full-time. We have all kinds of other stuff as well.
We also partner with another organization to make a Bible reading app. It’s a free app that you can download, it’s just called “Read Scripture.” We’ve taken the whole Bible and broken it up into 16 chapters, like an epics narrative, broken up into 16 chapters. It’s a daily reading experience and the videos are woven into the reading experience. And anytime you go into a new book, or a new key idea’s introduced, you begin that day’s reading by watching one of the videos.
I’ll check that out, sounds great! It would totally fit in with someone who wants to grow more anyway.
Yeah, that’s right.
So what’s the next book you guys are working on right now? Or theme?
We have lots of things going on at any given time. We have one series that’s just power lectures. We have these very simple posters – cool animated drawings – for every book of the Bible. We’re going to have the entire Bible ready by the end of the year. We’re working on a 5-part mini-series exploring the gospel of Luke – the first one’s going to come out before this Christmas. We’ve completed a trilogy on the wisdom books. We’re currently (November 2016) working on a themed video about the Holy Spirit – that will come out early next year. So there’s always a lot going on.
That sounds great. Well, Tim, thank you so much for just sharing about Bible study, in a very general way – just scarping the surface. You brought in some great insight in regards to that, I thank you for that. Thank you for your testimony. And thank you for sharing about The Bible Project, and thanks for your work there. I hope to have you back on the show sometime soon. For now, I’ll see you later Tim.
Cool, thanks Isaac. Have a good day.