Interview: The Brick Testament’s Reverend Brendan Powell Smith!

A big thank-you to Reverend Brendan from The Brick Testament, for agreeing to be interviewed by Nexus, and for kindly giving us permission to feature some of his LEGO pictures here. Thanks, Brendan!

If you’ve never visited the Brick Testament before, we can highly recommend it as being both fun and informative. You can even buy Brick Testament books and LEGO characters (the Holy Ghost will crack you up)!

We have to ask: what put the idea of the Brick Testament into your head?

I’ve been fascinated with religion ever since I became an atheist at about the age of 13. Prior to that I had been a regular churchgoer and my mother was even a Sunday School teacher at our local Episcopal church. But as my childhood was approaching its end, I had this idea (I’m not sure from where) that it would be a good idea to “prepare for adulthood” by consciously trying rid myself of what seemed like childish ways of thinking. I recognized superstitions for what they were, and tried to turn away from “magical thinking”. I didn’t intend for any of this to affect my religious beliefs, but in the end it did in a profound way, and soon enough I found myself the only atheist I knew amongst my family, friends, and community. And being in that situation really made me wonder just what it was about religion that kept so many others believing.

So I studied religion and philosophy at Boston University, and that’s when I first read the Bible through for myself. I found that experience so full of surprises that I have never really gotten over the shock. I guess I must have been expecting something very dry and boring, but found instead that it was chock full of lurid stories, high drama, and terribly obscene behavior. I was realized that there must be very, very few people who have ever actually read this book. And so from that point on I knew it would be a worthwhile project if I could think of a way to retell these stories in a way that could capture people’s attention and still stay true to the original.

It wasn’t until a few years out of college that I happened to get back into LEGO building as an adult. But then it was only a matter of time before it occurred to me to try building some scenes from the Bible out of LEGO. And while constructing the LEGO Garden of Eden and designing Adam, Eve, and God, I came to see that this could be just the novel sort of medium I’d been looking for to bring a wider knowledge of the Bible’s stories to people unready or unwilling to slog through “good book” itself.

Did you have a lot of LEGO as a kid, or did LEGO-deprivation drive you to desperate measures?

Even though I grew up fairly poor, I was lucky enough to have had a pretty good size LEGO collection. It was definitely my favorite toy, but I wouldn’t say I was a stand-out builder as a kid. Around the same time I went through the period of “preparing for adulthood” by questioning my beliefs, I also decided I better put away my childhood toys, so the LEGO got packed away in my parent’s basement for the next ten years. My girlfriend, on the other hand, was truly LEGO deprived in her childhood. She had three older brothers who were always given given LEGO as presents, but she was only ever given Barbie and was terribly jealous. So once we moved into our own place and had jobs, she and I started buying up a lot of LEGO on this new website called eBay. We bought many of the cool sets that I’d missed out on from the late 80s and 90s, as well as people’s old LEGO collections that they were no longer using.

How much LEGO do you have, anyway?

I’ve never stopped to count, but it’s a lot. It’s not as much as some other adult LEGO builders, and actually, a lot of people get the idea that my collection is bigger than it really is because they don’t realize that I am constantly dismantling things I just finished photographing so I can use the same bricks as the raw materials for the next set of stories. Best I can tell you, it’s about $15,000 worth of LEGO, and that it’s enough to cover the floor of my living room in bins of bricks.

How long does it take to make a chapter?

I’ve illustrated 363 Bible stories so far, and an average story is told using about 11 or 12 still photos. One story takes about a week to complete, start to finish, including reading and scripting, building characters and sets, photography, photo processing, and website building.

Who’s your favourite character, and why? Go on, we know you have one…

It may seem cliche, but I have to say my favorite Bible character is Yahweh himself. I don’t think I would have been nearly as inspired to create this project if it weren’t for the continuous outrageous and depraved actions of the Bible’s main character. Power-mad, belligerent, masochistic, petty, woefully insecure, extremely dangerous and unpredictable (and seemingly not too bright) Yahweh exhibits all the worst attributes of man. As such I can only really consider him a “favorite” character in the way a Star Wars fan might consider Darth Vader to be their favorite character. But if you were to stop and imagine if Darth or Yahweh were real and not just fictional, you might be more hesitant to think of them as “cool” for things like blowing up a planet of innocent civilians, or ordering genocides and torturing people to death.

trinity_new_large

Have you ever been contacted by the company that makes LEGO, and if so – what do they think of what you’re doing?

As it says on the website and my published books, the LEGO Company does not authorize, sponsor, or endorse The Brick Testament. You can probably understand why they want to keep a certain distance from themselves and an art project using their bricks that depicts so much violence and the occasional sex scene. So they’ve never given the Brick Testament any sort of official stamp of approval, but neither have they condemned it.

On a very unofficial level, I have heard from individuals who work for LEGO that they are fans of The Brick Testament, so that’s always nice to hear, but obviously they only speak for themselves.

We see you had to put up a page dealing with reproduction permissions. Do you know how many Sunday schools use your stuff? Does it make you giggle into your pillow at night?

Starting a couple of years ago I noticed I was getting more and more permission requests from churches to use material from The Brick Testament in their Sunday School lessons and sermons. Before long I was getting 1 or 2 requests per day from religious organizations around the world, but especially in the UK, Australia, and the United States. I had been responding to these requests personally until the point where I found it was taking up too much of my time, so then I set up a special page of the website to try to automate the permission process (which generally allows for free offline, non-commercial use so long as they tell me where their church is and give a brief description of their proposed use). Now I don’t have to deal directly with these requests, but I check in on them every so often, and for example, February 2008 saw 51 e-mail requests from churches around the world.

It was fairly surprising at first to have religious people and religious organizations react so positively to The Brick Testament, given that my own reaction to these Bible stories is almost always a strong reinforcing of my atheism, particularly concerning the God of the Bible. But then again, I do retell the stories very faithfully in the sense that this is exactly what you’ll find in the Bible itself if you read it yourself. I make no demand that other people come to the same conclusions I have about the Bible or religious beliefs in general, but I do think everyone is better off making those decisions from a standpoint of increased knowledge of the Bible’s contents, so the more this project reaches religious folks and finds a receptive audience, the better.

{Ed: an example of Moses enforcing the will of God}

moses

How are the book sales coming along? Do you plan to put out any more books?

It has been wonderful to have many stories from The Brick Testament website get published in the three hardcover Brick Testament books, and to see those books get published in seven different languages. The first book, Stories from the Book of Genesis, did very well and is, in fact, currently sold out with about 35,000 copies in print. My publisher just informed me today that they are likely to order another print run of that one. The second two books covering the Story of Christmas and the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments have not been selling quite as briskly, and so my publisher has been holding off on continuing the series for now. Personally, I tend to think that there’s a very large and receptive audience out there who simply have not been made aware of the books’ existence. But then, I’ve never been the best marketer, and I have generally relied on word-of-mouth for the website’s popularity.

We love your “thought balloons of God”. How tempting is it to put in stuff that is, shall we say, less than accurate? How do you resist that temptation, Reverend? We don’t know that we could…

I try to be very careful in how much I insert my own non-Biblical text into the illustrated Bible stories. I’ve worked very hard to maintain certain standards so that people can trust that what they see in The Brick Testament is the same as what they’d read in the Bible. So, for instance, you’ll never find anything other than direct Bible quotes (with chapter and verse always cited) below each illustration to show that it is exactly such-and-such a part of the Bible that the photo above is intended to illustrate.

That said, within the illustrations themselves, I’ve adopted the use of speech balloons like the ones found in comic books to show which character is speaking. And on occasion I will have a character speak (or think) a line that is not a direct bible quote. Often times this is done solely for the sake of clarification, such as when the Bible reads “And King David explained all this to his son.” Obviously King David is meant to be saying something, but his exact dialogue is left out, so I’ll do my best to add in what seems most appropriate for him to be saying in that circumstance. You are correct, though, that in addition to these entirely innocuous insertions, I will occasionally add a piece of dialogue or a thought balloon that functions more as an aside to the audience for a silly laugh, or to draw attention to a puzzling or often-overlooked aspect of the story, etc.

I do try to restrain myself from such additions because I don’t want The Brick Testament to function primarily (or even significantly) as a venue for my own commentary on these Bible stories. I wouldn’t want these asides to give readers the sense that I am changing the story from how it appears in The Bible. For the sake of transparency, any and all such non-Biblical lines are put in medium gray text instead of the usual black.

One of our readers would like to know how you get the non-standard faces on your LEGO figures. What do you use to draw so small?

One of the things that drew me back into LEGO building as an adult when I discovered that the LEGO figures were now being made with distinctive faces instead of the one single “smiley face” I had known throughout my youth. There were maybe 75 different faces when I got back into LEGO, but each year the number expanded, and there’s probably more than 300 unique face designs today.

Even with all that variety, many of the LEGO figures’ faces are useless to a Bible illustrator because they’ll have things like printed-on sunglasses, microphone headsets, or more bizarre sci-fi stuff. So I will occasionally modify an official LEGO face to make it better suited for my purposes, but this is almost always done by taking something away from the face rather than adding something to it. I’m just not a good enough artist to draw my own faces. But I am just handy enough with a hobby knife to carefully scrape off things like the giant white sideburns that adorn the official version of the LEGO face I chose to use for Yahweh.

But most of the character faces you see in The Brick Testament are unaltered official LEGO faces that were from some LEGO set that came out between 1995 and today. When new LEGO sets are released, the first thing I always look for is whether or not there are new faces that I might use for The Brick Testament. It’s expensive and time consuming to try to attain one of every new face that comes out, but I very much want to have the maximum amount of choice available when I create the characters for The Brick Testament, so I do what I can.

Do you ever feel any sympathy with God when their little LEGO faces just won’t go right? Have those uncooperative figures ever been smote, or flung across the room in a healthy, cleansing rage? We ask because we think they should be used to it by now.

legosurpriseAs mentioned above, I don’t do much in the way of drawing on the faces myself–about the only example I can think of is this: Back in 2001 when I was first starting, there really wasn’t any official LEGO face that expressed shock. So when Adam and Eve realized they were naked, and I wanted them to go from smiley-faced to shocked, I had to resort to drawing a Mr. Bill style round open mouth. It’s only been in the last year that LEGO has finally made a shocked face I might have chosen to use instead:

What are the responses to the Brick Testament like? Have you gotten any hate-mail?

I’ve received thousands of e-mail responses to The Brick Testament, and I’d say about 99% are positive, but once every month or two I’ll get a negative response. I’m not sure any would truly qualify as hate mail. The thing that 1% of responders tend to complain about most is that I depict the sex in the Bible.

It always comes as a bit of a shock to me that someone could browse through The Brick Testament and it’s endless string of depictions of the Bible’s most horrific and grotesque violence (including stabbings, stonings, immolations, flailings, decapitations, massacres, mutilations, drownings, and public torture) and not bat an eye or worry that such things might be harmful for children to view, but at their very first sight of “naked” LEGO figures in a sex pose they feel great moral outrage.

I suppose I should have gotten used to that by now, but I’m not, and I don’t know if I’ll ever understand that worldview regardless of how widespread it is.

Finally, we’ve heard a disgusting and scurrilous rumour that you’re not really a reverend, Reverend. If in some ungodly parallel universe this was actually true, what faith would you choose to bestow your capacity for reverend-ness upon?

I take the term “Reverend” in its literal sense, as denoting someone who is revered. As long as there are a few people out there who feel a smidgen of reverence toward me, I feel justified using the title. In my mind it’s as silly and self-aggrandizing a term as “His Majesty”. I certainly don’t think ministers and priests are any more justified in their use of the term than I am.

Advertisements

6 Responses

  1. WOW how sad! Did you even look at this book? SEX, BLOOD, INAPPROPRIATE pictures? FOR KIDS? REALLY??? My kids sadly brought it to my attention. I wish I would have taken a better look at this “KIDS book” EEEKKK!!! You better take a second look at the Author and the books!

  2. I’ll first clarify that I am a Christian and I did buy the O.T. brick Bible for my 7 year old. We were a little taken aback by the very literal depiction. But, I guess ‘it is what it is’. The Bible doesn’t sugar coat or cover up the warts and flaws of the real people in the stories. I’m just not sure it is appropriate for a young child. The Bible presents issues we adults grapple with, and are difficult for even the theologically trained to fully understand. I think this book would be more appropriate for a teenager. I am disturbed that it was crafted by a self-avowed atheist but I respect that he maintained scriptural accuracy without an underlying bias.

  3. […] by atheist Brendan Powell Smith in an attempt to show the absurdity of Christianity by “accurately” retelling the stories through Lego blocks—has found its way into the children’s section of a […]

  4. God is not mocked. Your interpretation is just what it is. Your opinion of Yahweh is really what u r yourself. Your perception of Yahweh is sick and a lie through and through.

  5. […] With that being said, check into The Brick Testament before you purchase it, and determine if it reflects God as you know Him, and if these particular questions and stories are where you want your child to start.  Per his own words, Brendan Smith’s intent is to depict God as “Power-mad, belligerent, masochistic, petty, woefully insecure, extremely dangerous and unpredictable…“. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: