Forums
Featuring guest Tim Mackie

Tim Mackie | What is the Bible?

Tim’s transformation from West-coast skateboarder, to Bible student, to video producer may seem surprising, but his unorthodox journey to faith has given him a unique perspective and passion for the Bible.


Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
17 Comments
17 Comments
old bible

Tim’s transformation from West-coast skateboarder, to Bible student, to video producer may seem surprising, but his unorthodox journey to faith has given him a unique perspective and passion for the Bible.

Description

In this episode, Jim Stump is joined by Tim Mackie, one of the founders of BibleProject. Tim’s transformation from West-coast skateboarder, to Bible student, to video producer may seem surprising, but his unorthodox journey to faith has given him a unique perspective and passion for the Bible. Tim discusses the history of the Bible, explores the context in which it was written, and demonstrates what it looks like to bring the Bible into relevance for the people of today.

  • Originally aired on September 17, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Mackie:

For me, the Bible is a labyrinth that is worth a lifetime’s worth of discovery and I’m constantly learning things that I never thought to think before. And so for me, that’s where the action is. It’s actually in this content that is pretty central to all the streams of the Christian tradition and it’s like this treasure trove that’s right there that isn’t often explored for the way it’s worth.

Hello, my name is Tim Mackie. I’m one of the cofounders of the BibleProject but I’ve also served as a pastor for many years and as a professor at a seminary here in Portland.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

The Bible occupies a central place for Christians. It is the primary means by which we understand what God has done in the world, and what God expects of us. But its interpretation has been the source of much division among Christians. Since the Protetestant Reformation we have splintered into tens of thousands of distinct denominations around the world, each sure that their reading of the Bible is the correct one. That leaves many people unsure of what the Bible really says, and creates the demand for experts who make it their life’s work to understand the Bible better.

Tim Mackie didn’t grow up as a Bible nerd, though he’ll tell you that he did become one later in life. He grew up in a world that revolved around his skateboard, and his skateboard, strangely enough, led him to the Bible, which opened up a much larger world up to him. 

Today, Tim helps to run the BibleProject, a multimedia company which makes videos and podcasts communicating the story of the Bible to millions of people around the world. The videos have been translated in 29 different languages and have been a significant resource in helping many Christians approach and appreciate this ancient text and see its relevance for today.

In the episode Tim tells us the unlikely story of his transformation from skate punk to bible nerd, and then we talk about what the bible is, how it came to be, and what it does and doesn’t tell us about who we are and how we came to be. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Thanks, Tim, so much for talking to us today. 

Mackie:

Yeah, absolutely.

Stump:

As I understand your background, you went to a Christian college, then a seminary, then for a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies. That’s not the normal educational track for somebody who wants to start a big multimedia company, is it?

Mackie:

No. [laughs] That’s a good—I don’t think so. But I’m not sure what the precedents are.

Stump:

Well, let’s dig into your background a little bit. Maybe we can sort some of this out. So where’d you come from, what was your family of origin like, or your community of faith like?

Mackie:

Yeah, I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is where I live now, though, I had a long window of time living in the Midwest and Jerusalem. Most important, I think, for my identity formation was, well, two factors. One, my parents are amazing, and they’re followers of Jesus, they became Christians as the Jesus Movement worked its way up the West Coast in the early 70s. And so I grew up mostly with my family kind of being a part of a network of house churches, and then we attended a Pentecostal church when I was little. My parents also gave me my first skateboard and a subscription to Thrasher Magazine when I was 11, which is a skateboard magazine. And little did they know what they were putting in my hands. And so really for the next, all my teens and early 20s, skateboarding and skateboard culture was formative. It was the most informative environment for me.

Stump:  

How so?

Mackie:  

Oh, well, when it was just for me, it was never just a sport. I didn’t like team sports. And I really loved skateboard counterculture, it was underground and punk rock and it stood for everything that was the opposite of what my parents, what I thought my parents stood for. So that’s why I thought it was awesome. So Yeah, there you go. I was just a skate punk cruising around the streets of Portland. That’s how I spent most of my teenage years. But it’s significant for my journey of faith because there was a church here in Portland that built and opened up a skateboard park in it’s back lot of its property. It was a ministry called Skate Church. And they opened the park to skateboarders from around the city to come skate the park in the evenings on the condition that you, at some point in the evening, sit through a Jesus talk. Somebody, one of the staff, would get up talking about Jesus. So you know, I had sat through talks about Jesus for most of my late teens. And then when I was out of high school, about to turn 20, I had this whole series of events in the summer of 1995, where Jesus became inescapable to me. And those talks from the years—mostly I would sit in the back and make fun of whoever was giving the talk with my friends. So I started following Jesus. And it was just this whole shift in my life’s trajectory. And again, the why that’s significant also, is that the Christian college that I attended, Multnomah—it was a Bible college at the time—was across the street from the skateboard park. And that was about the reason why I started going there, was that three of my friends who I met at skate church, at the skatepark, we all became Christians through that ministry around the same time, and we signed up for classes together, across the street. And that close group of friends, all of us, ended up getting our PhDs in Hebrew Bible. And all are all professors somewhere, various things. And so that was the formative years of my faith was a skate park, evangelism, and then just immersed in biblical studies and just loving—the Bible was brand new to me. You know, I kind of heard it growing up, but I never read it at any length. And so it was all just a brand new world to me in my early twenties.

Stump:

So Christians end up doing all kinds of things professionally. But somehow, you becoming a Christian and you get this Bible in your hands, you say, “Well, I guess this is what I want to do with my life.”

Mackie:

Yeah. Yeah, to be honest. It was both that community—there was a high value about reading and understanding the scriptures as a really important part of following Jesus. And I didn’t know any different. It’s just that community around that skateboard park ministry. And so. And then too, there was a couple of professors at Multnomah that just captured my imagination. One, especially, who invited and taught people how to read the Bible as literature, as highly sophisticated literature, and then specifically as ancient Jewish literature. And so some of the first books I read in biblical studies were some of the great names and Jewish literary studies of Robert Alter and Adele Berlin and Meir Sternberg. And these are some of the first books I’ve ever read about the Bible. But I just thought it was captivating. And so that kind of set the trajectory of really wanting to understand the Bible and literary context, historical context, its Jewish background. And that was just kind of my default paradigm from the beginning. And I’ve always been so grateful that that was where I was able to start. Because I have so many friends now that I’ve met throughout the years who have all this Bible baggage from their childhood. And I just didn’t have that. I just—for me, it was awesome and exciting from the—well, actually, it was also bewildering. Because I was just trying to read this book and I had no—I didn’t know anything. And you know, the early pages of Genesis were like—spun my brain, for years. And I mean, just the Hebrew Bible as a whole, the Old Testament, and half the stuff Jesus says and does or that Paul does. And so for me it was just curiosity and excitement of discovery that was kind of driving the whole thing. Yeah. So anyway, in a nut shell.

Stump:

So you became a pastor for a while and even a professor for a bit. Can you connect the dots from there then for us for how all of that led to the BibleProject?

Mackie:

Yeah. Well, so one of the friends—another friend that I met—was a guy named Jon Collins, who I would much later go on to start the BibleProject with. But I felt a calling into ministry and teaching, but I didn’t know in what sense, like as a pastor, a professor, both? And so I went to seminary first because I really wanted to understand Christian theology, the church history more, before I took a deep dive into Hebrew Bible studies. And so I did that. And then I went, shipped off to the University of Wisconsin, in the Jewish Studies Department there to do my PhD. And my friend Jon went on to, like, develop employable skills [laughs] in videography, and video editing, and then he kind of happened upon—pretty early in the advent of YouTube and the short animated explainer video. And so we kept in touch over the years, but I was just going the full nerd route. And I got most of the way through my PhD in Madison, Wisconsin, I did a year study-abroad in Jerusalem. And it was just amazing. But as I came near to the end of my PhD, I began to realize that a career academic track in Biblical Studies didn’t quite—all I could say was I was losing passion for the academic career track. But what I was most excited about was translating everything I was learning into the life and mission of the local church. And so that kind of precipitated my move into local church ministry. And at one church in Madison, and then another church here in Portland, I served, just as a teacher and a pastor for about seven years. 

When I moved back to Portland, after finishing my PhD, was when my friend Jon Collins approached me with the idea of taking everything I was learning, and we had kept in touch and we’re talking over the years, and he gave idea to me, invited me to consider making a couple explainer videos about the book of Genesis, and things that he and I were talking about. And so that’s what we did. It was just a side project. We both had other jobs, but we raised some money and were able to make a first couple videos through the animation studio that he had started for his explainer video business. 

And so we launched the first two videos, one on Genesis one through eleven. And the other one was a theme study of heaven and earth in the Bible in early 2014. And the response from an international crowd just in that first week was overwhelming. And we raised the money for the next video in just a few days. And so that pattern just kept repeating itself. And so for the last almost three years now it’s been—our full time efforts have been going towards making these videos and it’s been amazing. We’ve been able to create, I think over 150 videos now. We have one on every book of the Bible, about two dozen on themes going through the Bible, a series on how to read the Bible, and it’s a whole network, people around the world have rallied around this project and been really generous.

Stump:  

So what’s surprised you the most about all this?

Mackie:

Oh, man, you know, that two kind of like Bible nerd guys, from Portland, who met at a skatepark— It’s just Jon and I. Jon loves to learn. And somehow his brain interacting with just my love for Biblical Studies and the conversations that happen have led to years of just having conversations and learning from each other. To me that’s the most surprising thing, is that our conversations could be helpful for other people. But the team of artists we get to work with are just so awesome. And to watch a community emerge from around the world that’s both really benefiting and gaining a fresh perspective on what the Bible is and how it communicates, what it’s all about, it’s just really exciting to be a part of it. It’s a great privilege.

Stump:

Any disappointments along the way or at least things that you thought were going to be easier than they turned out to be? So, it’s hard to imagine there’s an organization as big and as visible as the BibleProject without there being some detractors, maybe what is it? What is it people object to about what you’ve done?

Mackie: 

Oh, well, you know, for creating, like Bible theology content to put on YouTube, we have had surprisingly little public critique in comparison to what I would expect. And part of that’s our strategy. We’re really trying to bowl down the center lane of the Christian tradition. So we don’t make videos about, like baptism, or you know, controversial hot topics. People would like us to. But what we want to do is create a library of resources that are just about the actual content and the main themes and storyline of the Bible itself in its own language and context. And in my own humble opinion, so much of Christians’ attention, especially in media production, gets directed towards hot topics or culture war topics. I just feel like there’s so many great qualified people to speak to that. But what isn’t invested in nearly as much or as often is the things that actually everybody agrees on. And maybe it’s because they agree on them that they don’t explore them, because they don’t think there’s anything new to understand. For me, the Bible is a labyrinth that is worth a lifetime’s worth of discovery. And I’m constantly learning things that I never thought to think before. And so for me, that’s where the action is. It’s actually in this content that is pretty central to all the streams of the Christian tradition. And it’s like this treasure trove that’s right there that isn’t often explored for the way it’s worth. 

Stump:  

Well, we will get to digging into the Bible a little bit more heavily in just a bit. But first, BioLogos is a science and faith organization, so I am contractually bound to ask you about science, too. What kind of experience did you have a science growing up?

Mackie:

Yeah, none. None. 

Stump:

Yeah, I mean, like I learned some laws of motion to survive at the skate park didn’t you?

Mackie:

Well I suppose so, but not in a conscious way, it was more in terms of muscle memory. No man, I almost failed out of high school and I got a D in the only chemistry class I ever took. No, so to be honest, it was after I started following Jesus that I had to fulfill some science credits for my undergrad. And at that time, Multnomah Bible College didn’t provide those classes, so I went and took three science courses at a community college here in Portland. And it was so amazing. It was community college and I remember so like the professor wasn’t actually that excited to be there and neither were any of the students. And I still remember just his lectures on the structure of the cell. And I was just sitting there with my mind blown and would want to go up and talk to him afterwards and be like, “this is, what, explain that again.” And because it just—the whole universe opened up for me when I started following Jesus. I feel like my brain turned on. And so I definitely had a new investment in understanding nature from a scientific perspective because of my kind of growing Christian worldview. But it wasn’t—there you go. That’s about it. 

Stump:

But you also then didn’t have some of the baggage lots of Christians have who were formed to think about science in a particular way, perhaps by their communities of faith that caused lots of problems for them.

Mackie:

Yep, totally correct. I didn’t grow up with any of those tensions at all. Yeah, not at all. So I remember one of my first Christian mentors was—he held his views as a young earth creationist really strongly. And so, you know, I wanted to learn from him. But at the same time, I was learning and gaining perspective on especially the Old Testament literature in its ancient Israelite context. And so I also had a lot of questions for him that I didn’t feel like his view quite fully accounted for. And so, yeah, I just didn’t have a lot of that baggage of science versus faith stuff. I just didn’t have it in my earliest years as a Christian.

Stump:

I want to dig in a little bit more to your views on the Bible itself and perhaps use some of those early chapters in Genesis in that ancient Near Eastern literature as a way into that. And you’ve mentioned already that very intentionally you try to steer down the center lane, as you said, and yet, I notice in, like, the videos on Genesis one through eleven, you don’t address the question of whether these things really happened, of whether Adam and Eve are real historical figures in addition to the literary place they have in Scripture, or whether the seven days of creation in chapter one are supposed to be read as literal time periods. What’s the reasoning behind your approach to those decisions?

Mackie:

Oh, it’s the same reason. So what I’m interested in is, I’m trying to tune in my agenda as I read these texts, the best I can to the agenda and communication goals of these ancient authors. And so as you enter into the narrative world of Genesis, for example, I’m just trying to understand these narratives as pieces of literary communication, which means taking into account the literary design, the structure and repetition and, yeah, the literary goals of the author. And so you can read these texts with that set of questions in mind and get the message that the author is trying to communicate by means of the narrative and hold a diverse set of views about the historical reference of the narrative. In other words, how the narrative refers to what we would call real historical events. You know, Christians have had throughout history, a broad and diverse set of views on that. But what I think everybody should be able to agree on is when we come down and sit down with the text and ask what the author is trying to communicate, I think we should all be kind of on the same level playing field there. And that’s what I’m after in these videos is to communicate what I think the authors are trying to communicate. So in my mind, they’re just separate questions. The question of “what really happened”, or “did it happen in the way as described” is a different project than asking “what is the meaning being communicated through the text?” They’re both important projects. But I think they’re different projects.

Stump:

So I recognize that your videos are not intended to be PhD dissertations or some published on Brill Press or something like that. But one of the themes you come back to often is that the Bible tells one coherent story, one overarching story. And I wonder if you have thoughts on that, compared to like Genesis 1 and 2, where most scholars would recognize these as different stories, probably arising in different communities, but in the videos you very much blend them into one story, right? You have thoughts on that?

Mackie:

Oh, totally. Yeah, totally. Well, a lot depends on what somebody means when they say the Bible is unified. The word unified is used in lots of different ways by biblical scholars. Sometimes what they mean by saying a section of the book of Genesis is unified is meaning it has unified authorship. Other times what they might mean is that it has been unified, even if it’s a composite set of materials that came from different places, and times and so on. So what I’m interested in is in the biblical texts as unified communicative works—unified works of communication. So an analogy would be the way that a quilt is unified, say a family quilt. A family quilt can be composed of, you know, fabric pieces that come from many generations of the family. But it’s unified, not in the sense that every piece comes from the same person or time but it has been arranged as a unified work of communication. That’s what I mean when I say the Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus. The Hebrew Bible is a remarkably diverse set, collection of scrolls, but I believe they have been given a unified compositional arrangement and goal. And so on a smaller level Genesis 1 and 2. I think there’s—yeah, there’s lots of compelling reasons to think that they are distinct narratives in terms of their origins. But the fact that they have been unified, in the way two pieces on a quilt have been unified and set next to each other through repeated word links and compositional devices, so that you now read them next to each other, they illuminate each other and give together a unified message that transcends either one of them by themselves. That’s what I think is really cool and worth talking about. 

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

I think some people get concerned when they hear some of those scholarly details behind the story. How do you think about—because it starts to sound a little too human perhaps for them a little bit to enfleshed in the non-divine. How do you talk about the relationship between the human role in producing scripture and what God’s role is? Isn’t this God’s word? 

Mackie:

Yeah. Yeah. So I think the interesting thing to focus on in that particular conversation is as much about our pre-loaded assumptions about what it even means to say that a literary work is a Divine Word to God’s people. So what that has come to mean for many Christian communities, living in the, especially at the latter end of the 20th century, early 21st century, because of so much of the—and I’m using like lingo here but—fundamentalist modernist debates—debates about the intellectual coherence of Christian faith throughout the 20th century, in Europe, but mostly in America—and this is tied up to the science versus religion debates and so on—was in an effort to defend the coherence and reasonability of biblical faith and to preserve a conviction in the divine authority of the Scriptures, an unfortunate byproduct has been that the human origins and nature of the Scriptures have been sidelined or minimized, and I think, actually for a motive that at its root, it’s right—to protect this important conviction that in these texts we hear a word from the God of Israel, who’s the creator of the world, who came among us in the person of Jesus. And I firmly, like, hold that conviction myself. But what’s happened is that the human role in the production of the Scriptures I think, has been unnecessarily minimized and sidelined. And so I sarcastically call this the golden-tablets-falling-from-heaven view of the Bible. In other words, the assumption is for the Bible, for these texts to really be a Divine Word, the human role, the role of human agency in the origins of these texts needs to be minimal or downplayed in some way to highlight God’s role. 

And for me, what really began to open, at least me, to a different perspective was actually just reading the Bible and seeing that’s not how the Bible provides an account of its own origins. If you actually look for the history of the writing of the Bible in the Bible itself, there’s a wealth of information that tells us about the origin of the biblical scrolls. And it’s not a golden-tablets-falling-from-heaven kind of account. And so, you know, that would be a whole long conversation about it. But it shows people in full possession of their faculties, like Moses or Jeremiah, sitting down and writing texts. But these are also people who have been chosen by God and empowered by his spirit. In fact, this spirit empowered nature of the biblical authors is what is being summarized by Paul in Second Timothy 3, when he says to Timothy, that all Scripture is inspired by God. And he’s using a little compound word in Greek, theoneustos, God-spirited. But if you look in the Hebrew Bible, especially when God’s Spirit is at work, aside from Genesis 1:2, when there’s no humans on the scene yet, every other time that God’s Spirit is at work in the Hebrew Bible, it’s through humans. It’s precisely through humans. And it’s not by sidelining their human agency, it’s actually making them become more human, as it were. So in my mind, the human and divine partnership in the origin of the Scriptures is a really crucial balance that we need to learn how to recapture. And so I think the historical origins of the Bible is some of the most cool and fascinating stuff. It was the subject of my dissertation research. I was really focused on the origins of the biblical canon and the manuscript history of the Bible for a lot of years. Because I just, I wasn’t given a paradigm that helped me encounter the actual historical data we have about the origins of the Bible. And it’s not threatening to a view of the Bible as God’s word. But it does, I think, adjust some of our paradigms or assumptions we have about what it means for a book to come to us from God.

Stump:

So that leads me to ask another question here, and one that we may have to cut from the episode if it turns out to be heretical, or maybe a stupid question of some sort. [Tim laughs] But I got thinking about this this afternoon when I was going through your website, looking at what you’ve done, and the question is—and then I’ll explain it a little bit more—but the question is, how clear of a distinction is there between “the Bible” and these videos that you’re producing? 

And what I mean by this is that I think too many of us tend to think of the Bible as this one book that was written up at some point in the past, or as you just said, the golden-tablets-from-heaven view that it just falls fully formed into the church pews in front of us. But when we understand it as people who were responding to what God had done, or bearing witness to what God has done, it starts to make us think that, in some sense, we’re still involved in that today in various forms, and that the Bible we have today is certainly not the original form of that. But the communities have shaped the story and told it again, in culturally relevant ways. Is that what you’re doing?

Mackie:  

Oh man, so there’s a number of things buried in there. I would frame the origins of the Bible in a bit of a different way. 

Stump:

Please do. 

Mackie:

I think the account that the biblical texts give of their own origins is that they come from a minority voice within the history of ancient Israel. It does not represent what your average ancient Israelite community believed. Within the Old Testament, the majority of ancient Israelites were polytheists, or more like the Canaanites than they were faithful to Yahweh. And specifically, it’s showing that from the beginning, as far back as we can tell the human—God’s whole purpose in the biblical story is to partner with his human images in ruling creation in a way that brings about flourishing and abundance and productivity for all. And what the whole Hebrew Bible is saying is, every generation as far back as we can tell, has been failing as God’s partners. And it’s generating hope in this promise that’s given on page three of Genesis for a seed, a coming seed. 

And then when you get to Jesus, it’s very clear he’s claiming and setting himself up to be that one to whom the whole story was pointing. And so there’s a privileged place there, that these texts have, in mediating Jesus’s word and presence and spirit and authority to his people, who are continuing his mission among the nations. That’s how I understand the role and the origins of the Bible. And so all we’re trying to do is create videos that help people tune into what the story is actually about, as opposed to what people think the Bible is or think it might be saying, but often is not quite on target.

Stump:

Okay, so I’m I’m not making a pitch here for opening the canon back up and letting us add new—have some big church Council and add in some new books or something—but more getting at at this: so on your on your website, your mission is to make the “biblical story” accessible to everyone, not to make “the Bible” accessible to everyone. And I’m trying to probe that distinction there a little bit because in some sense, when I read an English translation, I’m already involved in the project that other people had of trying to make this story accessible to me. You’re now taking the story and making it accessible in a new way. And I’m just asking how clearly is that line between what you’re talking about there in “the Bible” and the original formation of these documents, as opposed to what it’s really about—the story—and you’re telling that story? You’re still telling that story aren’t you? Is that a fair question to even ask?

Mackie:  

Well, that’s interesting. So our mission statement is to create resources that help people experience the Bible as a unified story that leads to Jesus. But you’re right, we are trying to make that story accessible to as many people as we can, in as many languages as we can. What’s interesting though is right from the moment that the Jesus commissions the apostles to the nations, and from from Pentecost, when, you know, the mighty works of God are being, in a spirit empowered way, translated into the languages of all these people, cultural and language translation has been at the heart of the Jesus movement right there from Pentecost. And so in a way, it’s built into the logic of the story itself, that it has to be re-presented in different cultural forms and languages as it spreads and captures and invites the whole of the diverse human family into the story. And so the Bible has an inseparable relationship to the people of God as they spread the story through the actual communities. 

My experience was I encountered the message about Jesus through these skateboarders and over the years of getting to know them in relationship and it was only years later that I actually started reading the Bible. But I had already learned quite a bit about Jesus through people sharing the stories. And I think that’s how the movement is supposed to spread, is that the scriptures go along with a group of people living out the story. And so our goal is to provide the resources in a way that always excites curiosity to go open a Bible for yourself. So anyway.

Stump:

And you as a good Protestant, I’m assuming, still takes there some authoritative nature of the text itself, the sola scriptura way of understanding our faith and the Bible’s place in all of that.

Mackie:  

Yeah. Though again, here, I would bring it back to Scripture is an extension of the living dynamic authority of Jesus that’s being represented through the Apostles. When Jesus commissioned the Apostles, like at the end of Matthew, to go among the nations and teach them everything I’ve commanded you. And so what these texts are doing is mediating the authority of Jesus. And so, yeah, I’m a follower of Jesus. So I want to follow him. And I think the way that I do that is by yielding to the guidance and instruction of both Him and of the Apostles. And so yeah, I’m inescapably Protestant, I guess, in that way, but that now that begins a whole opens a whole other interesting can of worms. 

Stump:

Let me ask, just one more way of understanding this here to see if it helps because I’m obviously trying to sort this out myself too. So just as you just said there that scripture is mediating the authority of Jesus in some sense, are the BibleProject videos mediating scripture to us then? Are they— .

Mackie:

Yeah, interesting. Well, I mean, we’re trying to summarize and re-present what the biblical authors are saying and to the degree that we’re successful at that. But I really do think that—we are fully translating them into a cultural form and a language form and languages that are native to people’s own, you know, home communities. For me, one of the most important character shaping experiences in learning to read the Bible is actually by forcing myself to learn to adopt another culture’s way of seeing the world. That of the ancient Israelites and the Jews who made up the early Jesus movement. They talk different than I do. They spoke and wrote in different languages. They viewed the structure of the universe in a different way than I do. And so for me, just that learning to hear a voice that’s other than my own, and to listen to these ancient authors and to trust, you know, that God is addressing people of all places and times through this very particular group of people at a particular moment in history, to me, that’s been a really important character shaping experience. But we are trying to re-present all of that to people. I think because that culture gap is so huge, this is why the Bible is so hard to read for so many people is because of that culture gap. And so we’re just trying to create a bridge that can invite people into just the world of the Bible.

Stump:

So for lots of people, they respond to that with excitement and it’s enlightening for them to hear of this ancient Near Eastern culture, to understand that there were other texts around at the time, and we find in our scripture parallels to those and differences for sure. And it really opens up this new world. For other people, though it can be kind of threatening. And I already mentioned earlier about how sometimes people might feel like it’s now less special, or more ordinary, like other literature, but another kind of response that some people have is, well, how am I supposed to get anything out of the Bible now? Do I have to go get a PhD in ancient Near Eastern Studies before I can sit down and read the Bible for my own devotional time and get anything out of it? What’s your response to that second concern?

Mackie:

Totally, totally, yeah. Emphatically no. So you don’t have to go get a PhD. In fact, I strongly recommend that very few people do that. [laughs] But I do think it’s actually no different than like when I got married. When I got married, I was joining my life to a different culture and a different human community that is named Jessica. And I had to learn how to talk in a different way, how to see the world through a different set of eyes, how to adapt my habits. And some people experience that kind of adaptation to another person in a marriage relationship, sometimes they experience it as loss. I experienced it as both some things I had to lose, but it was because of what I had to gain, which was living life joined to another human, it enriched my humanity, it didn’t diminish it. And so I think there’s something similar, that what—in following Jesus, what you’re being invited into is a very particular story of a particular people. And it’s choosing to see this people’s story as my story, and the story of the family of Abraham, that leads to Jesus and so what it means is it’s going to require some effort. So I do think that learning to read biblical literature takes some investment and some effort and there’s a specific set of skills involved. And that in somebody’s growing journey of faith and following Jesus, that learning and developing those skills is really crucial. That’s very different than having to go get a PhD.

Stump:

It may mean though, leaning on or relying on expertise—

Mackie:

Totally. Totally.

Stump:

—which is not always naturally popular these days, is it?

Mackie:

Oh, I don’t know, I don’t. I disagree. I think if anything, the modern digital age is teaching us as a culture, the value of leaning on experts and of recognizing that reality is complex and that there are often so many factors in a given situation that it really pays to both invest in and highlight the work of people who really dedicate their lives to, you know, a specific area of focus. And I think this is what Paul the Apostle was trying to tell us in the letter to the Ephesians to say, a diversity of leaders to ensure the health of a local church, the profit, apostle, evangelist, pastor, teacher. And teacher. Like that, you know, not everybody has to be a Bible nerd. But I do think every healthy local community of Jesus followers needs someone who’s a Bible nerd, that can help people learn how to bridge their stories and their cultural context to the biblical story. To see myself and my own life as an extension of the biblical story, I need to actually know what that story is in the first place. And I think that’s, that’s the goal of the teacher in the body of Christ.

Stump:

Well, let me ask you about one—we’ve been mostly talking methodology or the meta level of—let me ask you one more specifically substantive issue in Scripture. So much of science in the Bible conversation has focused on origins of humanity. But at BioLogos we began paying a bit more attention to the identity of human beings. And we think this might make for less confrontation between science and the Bible so that instead of asking the Bible to answer the question, “how did humans come to be?” What happens instead when we ask the Bible ”what kind of thing are humans?”

Mackie:

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I really resonate with that way of reframing the question because I think it actually aligns us more with what the biblical authors are trying to tell us on pages one and two. 

Stump:

Give us a quick version of what they are trying to tell us there. 

Mackie:  

Well, so you know, we have these two literary units. There’s the Genesis 1 narrative that actually goes from Genesis 1:1 to chapter 2:4. 

Stump:

Why is that by the way? Because that’s confusing to lots of people. 

Mackie:

Oh, well if you just pay attention to the literary clues given by the author as to the boundary of the first narrative unit, it goes—Genesis 2, verses 3 and 4 are the conclusion of the narrative began in Genesis 1:1. It just so happens that the people who, in the medieval period, assigned our chapter numbers, didn’t pay attention to the literary clues given by the author. And so Genesis 1 is actually Genesis 1:1 to 2:4. It’s unfortunate that it happens on page one. Anyway. 

So the goal, the portrait of humans is climactic, it’s the last, it’s the sixth day, and the arrangement of the six days, it’s amazing. It’s mind blowing, the sophistication at work in the messaging of the arrangement of those days. But the fact that humans are the final creative creation of God, and then there’s a three line poem in Genesis 1:27, describing the nature and purpose of humans. And it’s with that phrase, the image of God. But then also in the surrounding sentences around that poem, before and after the poem in Genesis 1:27, the purpose of these human images is to rule, to mediate God’s rule over creation, and to do so through partnership, through representing God, through unity in diversity and then to be fruitful and multiply, just as God began the process of fruitfulness and multiplying in creation. And the fact that the word image is used as a signal word because that word is going to be activated all throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, in really important ways. It’s the main word used for idol statue, in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. And this has to do with part of the agenda of Genesis 1 which is to present the cosmos as a sacred temple, the entire cosmos. And so the installation of the human idols in the cosmic temple to embody and incarnate God’s rule on earth as it is in heaven, dude, it’s awesome. This is the role given to humans in Genesis 1, through the phrasing of that imagery. 

So, I don’t know, I think it’s the coolest thing in the world. But what it doesn’t do is address most of the questions that people have thought of throughout church history as to well, how exactly are humans different? And what makes them different than animals, for example? And the biblical authors just that’s not on their agenda of things to talk about. [laughs] They want to talk about humanity as an embodiment of divine rule and presence on Earth as it is in heaven. And once you leave the page, once you leave Genesis 1 and go into the Eden narrative, what you’ll probably notice is that the first humans up to bat for the job fail. And no other human ever actually embodies that ideal role of the humans on page one. And so the role of Genesis 1 is to actually tell us that there is an ideal purpose for humans, but that no human has yet realized that purpose. And then this is the role of the story of Jesus. And that’s why Paul the Apostle calls Jesus the image of God, in Colossians, or in Romans or Ephesians. Jesus presented himself as actually the first human, the first real human to embody the image of God in a way that no one else has up to this point. So it’s a good example of how the biblical authors had a set of goals in what they’re trying to communicate, and it raises all kinds of fascinating questions that we might have. But what I first want to tune into is what they care about and what they’re communicating, which might be different than what I was expecting to hear in the first place. And I think the image of God is an interesting example of that.

Stump:

Do you allow yourself to speculate at all then beyond what the biblical authors are telling us to think about how this may relate to the natural history of Homo sapiens? How and when does this image conferral come to be on us as a species? Or does it, at least what—I guess I’ll ask it this way—does our understanding of what it means for us to be image bearers place any parameters on the scientific theories we might accept about human origins? Or does that even matter?

Mackie:

Yeah, that’s a really great question. You know, I’ve kind of had an armchair type of interest in those questions, but I think I think there are certain parameters. I think both on for example on Genesis 1 but also in the Eden narrative. In Genesis 1, it’s the phrase ”the image,” because God also blesses the animals and tells them to be fruitful and multiply and then blesses the humans tells them to be fruitful and multiply. What sets the humans apart is that they are uniquely given the vocation of imaging God to the rest of creation. The portrait of human nature in Genesis 2 and the Eden narrative is that humans originate from the dirt, outside of Eden, in Genesis 2, but then—and to have your origins in the dust is the, like, most common biblical image to talk about human mortality. I mean, Job says he comes from the dust. But he also says another passage he comes from his mom. These aren’t mutually exclusive to say that someone comes from the dust means to say that they’re a mortal creature. But what God does is he takes the creature from the dust and he elevates them up into the Garden of Eden and gives them access to eternal life. And so that’s the image is that humans are a creature that are meant in their ideal state to be places where the divine and human meet together in one place, or places where God’s heavenly life meet together with mortal life here on Earth, transforming it into eternal life. And so it’s this bridging of earth and heaven. And so however we—those are the categories that biblical authors use. And so what you’re asking is how do we translate that into a set of guideposts that allows us to go out into what we can learn from scientific study of nature and human origins and genetic history, about the origin of species and how does that guide us? So that’s a wonderful question. And the moment you ask that question, I say, I listened to a great interview on this podcast, and I think there’s other people who are just way better equipped to answer that question. But for me, I think it’s this conviction that humans are meant to be a combination of divine and human of earth and heaven. And I think that’s kind of the biblical core conviction about human nature. But how humans became capable, you know, of being creatures who could contain or receive the life of heaven on earth or embody it in one place? I think that’s an open question because the biblical authors just simply don’t give us the information that we wish we had about the physical processes involved. And so that’s why I love reading people who are experts in that and listening to this podcast here.

Stump:

Fair enough. Well thank you for your generosity and sharing your time with us today and talking about these things. This was fun. And for people listening that may be new to the BibleProject, where’s the best place for them to start?

Mackie:

Yeah, you know our website, bibleproject.com or you can look us up on YouTube. Just go to YouTube and just google BibleProject and our videos will pop up there. And yeah, there you go. If you go to the website, you know, you’ll be guided into our content in a little bit of an orderly way to help you see the whole library, how all the videos and resources work together. But yeah, just go for it. What we recommend is just kind of go for it. If you find the videos helpful, they’re all for free. So enjoy them.

Stump:

Well, this is such an ambitious project and one that is so sorely needed in our biblically illiterate world. So thank you so much for doing it. And thanks again for talking to me today, Tim.

Mackie:

Yeah, absolutely. Jim, thanks so much for the invitation. 

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Tim Mackie

Tim Mackie

Tim Mackie is a writer and creative director for BibleProject, an animation studio that produces videos to help make the Bible accessible to everyone. He has his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

17 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation