“Noah Catching Owl” – by Brandon Powell Smith

Is it a bird? Is it a parody? Is it blasphemy? Whatever else the “Reverend” Brandon Smith Powell’s work is, it is related to the Bible, is made entirely of LEGO’s and has fascinated millions of viewers.

For more than a decade, Smith has been totally immersed in the Herculean task of illustrating the entire Bible, all 66 books, with LEGOs alone. His efforts have resulted the most comprehensive Bible illustration effort to date, with close to 4,000 scenes, four books and immense attention from the press, web fans and even officials of the church.

It is interesting, if a little sad, that the “Reverend” is actually a self-confessed atheist. However, he would not be the first non-believer to find massive inspirational material in the Holy Book and to find it worth scrutiny and illustration, along with questioning.

Smith relates a Methodist upbringing with college classes in ancient Christianity and Judaism. Reading the Bible for himself, he claims a “sort of awakening,” although it may not have been exactly the one his Sunday-school teaching mother would have desired. He describes the Bible as a fascinating 1,200-page drama with “vivid, and even lurid” stories, the ones which particularly catch his attention.

“Death and Hades/Rev. 6:1” – by Brandon Powell Smith

Rev. Smith has a clear disclaimer on his website that he is not an ordained reverend and claims to be “widely regarded as being both highly presumptuous and extremely vain.” His humor is evident throughout this work and makes his sometimes harsh takes on God easier to take.

Smith insists he is not mocking the Bible and Judeo-Christianity, but questioning and exploring. His explanation for his choice of subjects and story commentaries was to create something “new, compelling and fun, and yet remained true to how the Bible itself told them.”

To enlighten others as to what the Bible is “really like,” Smith begins his quest with a fictional encounter with the Most High at a Taco Bell. His satirical version of events involves “flaming tacos” (a slight evocation of Moses) and the booming voice of God commanding him to illustrate the Bible with LEGOs.

“But I’m an atheist,” Smith objected.

“Then you are especially unqualified to question me!” God thundered. “Now get to work!”

An interesting and lighthearted way to approach his theological paradox, but that’s about as far as he goes with it.

“Tower of Babel” – by Brandon Powell Smith

To be fair, the majority of Smith’s illustrations are straight, true to the text, biblical depictions that should give no offense to anyone. They are extraordinarily inventive and fun to look at.

His Tower of Babel, for example, is a feat of artistic engineering. The glaring suspended angels with their sand-paperish wings disperse the Babelites, who appear racially diverse – faithful to text.

Other LEGO artists may work with more grandeur and sophistication or even on colossal scales. Check out Nathan Sawaya’s lions for the New York Public library or Sean Kenney’s free-standing bicycle. But Smith’s cleverness and simplicity of expression makes up for that. Considering that Legos are indeed child’s play, he is also staying closer to the intent and original audience of the medium.

For instance, his version of Noah’s flood has heads, body parts and Lego debris laying parallel to a flat blue base and is oddly believable as a Deluge. Who would have thought?

“Flood Genesis 7” – by Brandon Powell Smith

Smith uses about $5,000 worth of LEGOs dated from the 1960s on, to make his tableaus. They are unaltered with few exceptions, such as using permanent markers to change expressions (see God’s perennial frown) or occasional sawing or splicing. The only non-LEGO piece he claims to use is for backgrounds, such as a blue sky. Smith photographs the scenes and may slightly alter them, such as for focus.

With the few images of possibly offensive scenes or editorial comments, Smith is careful to use parental warnings for sexual content, nudity, swearing and violence. These may include mildly critical texts, such as this one related to circumcision: “God wants part of penis cut off,” which is factually true.

Smith correctly cites Bible verse and chapter for each picture and occasionally makes editorial comments, which are clearly marked as such. Other editorial asides are concerned with the justice of Bible doctrine in general and obviously reflect the artist’s personal issues with God.

Parents may want to preview his work first for younger children especially. Teenagers and adults would probably find no problem with Smith’s remarks. At least he still concerns himself with the Bible and finds it worthy, in the sense that he is dedicating his life’s work to it. A highly unusual undertaking for an atheist!

Smith’s commentary assumes general ignorance and deliberate avoidance of unpleasant Bible themes, but most literate Christians are highly aware of these things; they just don’t habitually make pictures of them. We are also much broader minded than our critics paint us, with Sunday school teachers and churches using Smith’s books and posters, atheist or not.

The Good Book has never been particularly prudish about sex, covering rape, marital relations, incest, prostitution and endless begetting. However, Smith may be the only one who has illustrated them with LEGOs. And yes, it is possible to be obscene with these blocks, but it takes a lot of work and doesn’t add much to the story.

Speaking of begetting, Smith has a new book due to arrive October, 2011 “The Brick Bible: a New Spin on the Old Testament.” LEGOs will cover the entire Old Testament, and it will be available on his website or at Amazon.com and other book stores.

The artist isn’t worried that his commentary will cause the faithful to turn away from God in droves – “I don’t think the Brick Testament could ever be a real force in changing people’s beliefs, whether as an evangelical tool or as a promotion of atheism or agnosticism” – and apparently the decade or more Smith has spent with the Bible hasn’t changed his beliefs yet either.

If this is disappointing to believers, remember the words of the Apostle Paul when he was warned that non-believers were preaching in Philippi: “But what does it matter? … Christ is preached.”

Whether intentional or not, the power of the Bible is still evident – even when translated into little plastic bricks.

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