Perhaps you’ve seen an episode of our How to Read the Bible series where characters appear as jumbled collections of triangles and squares. Jagged shapes, lopsided features—you may start to feel like you’ve wandered into the wrong wing of the museum! (Wait, where’s the gift shop?) But you’ve simply entered the weird and wonderful realm of prose discourse.
The “How to Read” series divides all biblical literature into three categories: narrative, poetry, and prose discourse. This third category consists of essays, speeches, or letters, including the extended legal passages of the Hebrew Bible and the letters of the New Testament. Visually, we represent narrative with punchy comic-book illustration. Poetry is rendered with lush post-Impressionist brushwork. So we wondered what visual style would be appropriate for prose discourse, which is so cerebral and, well...abstract?
Leave it to the Prose
Biblical prose is abstract not in the sense of being vague or difficult to understand but in the sense of being generic rather than specific. Take a look at this incident from 1 Kings 21:3-4:
Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace [...] I will pay you whatever it is worth.” But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”
The crooked King Ahab and the doomed landowner Naboth are specific individuals. If we were going to illustrate this narrative in a video, we’d represent them as distinct characters (probably with big, bulging muscles). But this narrative is actually alluding to a law from Numbers 36:7:
No inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors.
In this piece of legal prose, the seller and the buyer are abstractions—non-specific Israelites who could be anybody, anywhere. Other prose can take the abstraction even further, as Paul frequently did. Here’s an example from Romans 5:20-21:
But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This passage doesn’t even concern hypothetical people; it’s about abstract concepts (until we get to the person of Jesus). Intellectual categories like “sin” and “grace” are infused with lives of their own. They can “increase” or even “reign,” almost like characters in an invisible narrative.
Good Artists Borrow; Great Artists Steal!
Some visual art, like portraiture or caricature, is concerned with capturing the likeness of a specific subject. But other art has the opposite goal—to convey the essence of a thing without its identifying details, or even to represent an “unrepresentable” idea. This was the path taken by many artists at the beginning of the 20th century. Cubists overrode the conventions of visual perspective and anatomy to depict startling, unnatural figures. Other movements, like Constructivism, went even further and created works of pure form, divorced from any type of representation.
That’s exactly what we needed for our videos on biblical prose: an art of ideas. So we cracked open our art history books and started studying. How did Cubists approach the human face? How did Futurists approach line, shape, and color? How did the Dada movement incorporate printed text into their canvases?
When we take inspiration from famous artists, we occasionally make references to specific paintings. This image of three Israelites from our video How to Read the Bible: The Law is a riff on Pablo Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” right down to the Harlequin pattern on the central figure’s robe.
We also hinted at Picasso’s masterwork “Guernica,” with its monochrome faces distorted in anguish, for a section discussing slavery in the Hebrew Bible.
One of my favorite hidden references is this little fish on a platter, hidden away in New Testament Letters: Historical Context. This is a nod to “Around the Fish” by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee.
I’m just a big fan of Paul Klee. His compositions bring a refreshing playfulness to the sometimes self-serious world of modern art. Here’s another instance where we borrowed directly from Klee.
Fernand Léger and Frantisek Kupka also influenced the look of these videos, especially the later ones. Around the time of World War I, these painters developed a fascination with the crisp edges and gleaming metallic surfaces of a world that was becoming ever more industrialized. We tried to infuse some of their mechanical angularity into our illustrations, but to really convey the energy of the factory floor, we needed to introduce motion.
The Machinery of Discourse
Inspired by the way Tim described “linear, logical arguments” in the Literary Styles video, we began to envision biblical prose as an enormous, sequential machine, in which each phrase or clause triggered another, and so on until the conclusion. Here’s a very early sketch outlining this concept:
Even if you’ve never seen his actual drawings, you’re probably familiar with the legacy of the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg. His name has become synonymous with complex and impractical chain-reaction machines, like the elaborate toasters and automatic egg-fryers in a wacky inventor’s kitchen. I was obsessed with these contraptions as a kid, and even devised a few of my own. I think part of their appeal is the way these devices make visible the process of cause and effect, which in real life is often subtle or imperceptible. “If you do that, then this will follow.” Watching them is watching causality in motion.
The mechanical animation style is probably taken furthest in New Testament Letters: Literary Context, where the apostle Paul becomes a literal engineer (complete with denim overalls), crafting a multi-part device to explain the good news. Humans are given new life, popping out of the grave like toast from a toaster, catapulted over the “dividing wall of separation” by Jesus’ powerful foot, and slotted into a rotating gear, which is actually the communal table of God’s one new family. A keen-eyed viewer can find relevant snippets of text from the letter to the Ephesians hidden all over this machine.
The shapes on screen can be reassembled with almost limitless versatility. A pink ball can bounce into a character’s open skull to form her brain. An apostolic letter could become the sail of a ship or the engine of a locomotive. But this gimmickry needs to serve the message of the video. When an arrow proceeds from Moses’ pointing finger only to form part of the face of Jesus, we’re not just horsing around. The animation is reinforcing the biblical claim that the laws of Moses found their fulfilment in the anticipated figure of the Messiah.
Robert’s Rules of Order
So now we’ve thrown out every convention of representational art, and we can repurpose any object into any other object forever. It may seem as though we’ve given ourselves a boundless sandbox of complete freedom! Not so fast.
Robert Perez has been the Art Director at BibleProject since the very beginning. He guides the production team by helping us identify and define what he calls “rules,” a list of artistic dos and don’ts (mostly don’ts) that inform illustrator and animator decisions. These vary from video to video. For instance, in The Way of the Exile, the colors red, yellow, and blue follow a symbolic code. All other colors were off-limits because that would have muddied the message of the video.
According to Robert, “the rules of a video are created not as a hindrance but as a guide to make it right. They’re buffers to keep artists focused on the right parts.” These self-imposed regulations are explicit for the artists, but they may be invisible to viewers. “Rules aren’t always seen, but I think they’re felt,” Robert says. “When you take something away from one of our videos, it’s because we guarded the ‘teaching moment’ with protective rules.”
Cubism may seem lawless at first glance, but many of its liberties are actually requirements in disguise. In other words, while you don’t have to imitate nature, you also can’t do anything that imitates nature too closely. Sometimes our artists had to revise images that were accidentally too representational.
“Rules aren’t limited to illustration,” says Robert. “There can be rules governing animation, camera movement, the physics of the world, special effects, or even sound design.”
Even though the prose discourse videos were created entirely on computers, our animators used special techniques to simulate the tactile feel of older stop-motion animation, where paper cutouts were painstakingly adjusted and photographed frame by frame on a level surface.
This approach imposes more “rules.” The camera can move side to side, but it must never push in or pull out in a way that implies depth. Majestic tracking shots like the ones in Exile or Holy Spirit are strictly forbidden! Also, we never allowed one shape to “morph” into another shape, a technique that’s common in our other videos. Rather, we treated shapes like pieces of inflexible cardboard that could be repositioned or rotated but never altered.
A recurring image in the New Testament Letters: Historical Context video is that of Roman architecture coming to life. Buildings rearrange their facades into facial features of brick and plaster. The artwork that most influenced us here was “Revolution of the Viaduct,” a 1937 painting by Paul Klee depicting detached Roman arches that seem to plod forward with menacing steps.
What is the meaning of this surreal composition? Klee had emigrated to Switzerland in 1933 after the Nazi party put a swift end to his academic career. The party seized dozens of his paintings and even displayed some at a mocking gallery exhibition, “Entartete Kunst” (“degenerate art”). This touring propaganda show was meant to expose the crude (and implicitly “Jewish”) depravity of Modernism and to extoll superior “German values.” You can see Klee’s fish painting in the background of the photograph below.
With this backstory, it’s hard not to interpret the lumbering arches of Viaduct as a criticism of the Nazis, with their pompous marches and their pretensions as heirs to the Roman Empire (whose monumental architecture they imitated).
I’ll admit, that’s a pretty somber digression from the topic of Bible cartoons. But it’s precisely this provocative, political dimension of early Modernism that makes it feel so appropriate for the subject of biblical prose discourse. The prophets and apostles who wrote these sections of the Bible were not retreating into theological abstraction as an escape from the concerns of the world. Quite the contrary! They were fiercely engaged with the political and social structures of their day, often at great risk to themselves.
An Engaged Mind
Now, plenty of people have trouble with Modernist art—you’re not a totalitarian simply for disliking a painting! But there’s a reason Modernism isn’t immediately easy to appreciate, even a century later. By avoiding what was traditionally considered “beautiful,” these artists refused to let their audience drift into aesthetic complacency. Their unyielding rectangles and abrasive colors were almost confrontational. They seem to require our full attention to interpret. More than passive appreciation, they demand mental engagement.
Jon Collins has remarked on the BibleProject podcast that he finds the letters of the New Testament reassuringly familiar. Reading Paul is like enjoying a pithy sermon on a Sunday morning. But I confess I have exactly the opposite reaction. Trying to keep up with Paul’s logical “chain reaction” arguments nearly collapses my brain. What’s more, Paul’s criticisms and exhortations feel like they're directed at me personally, as if the apostle is reaching out from the page to grasp my collar and ask “are you paying attention?” It’s not a relaxing experience, but it is a rewarding one.
The authors of biblical prose invite us to activate our minds, to engage with their arguments, and to act on them in our daily lives. Even if their words are initially confusing or challenging, we eventually start to appreciate their wisdom and even their beauty.