Column, Icons and Explainer Videos: Christian Media in Context, by Chase Mitchell

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Column: Image to Image: Musings on Faith, Media, and Story

October entry: Icons and Explainer Videos: Christian Media in Context

Column Description: Image to Image: Musings on Faith, Media, and Story is a monthly column that illuminates old and new ideas about media ecology from a Christian perspective. Dr. Mitchell will explore what it means to bear God’s image and Christian witness in a mediated world, with a particular focus on the relationships between theology, media, and orthopraxy across different Christian traditions.

By Chase Mitchell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Media and Communication, East Tennessee State University

October 2021 / September 2021

On October 15, I’ll present a CCSN webinar titled, “From Icons to Explainer Videos: Seeking Christ in media res.” The presentation will outline my research into The Bible Project, juxtapose that organization’s video content in relation to other forms of Christian media, and suggest how their use reflects doctrinal change across traditions. This October column entry provides context and serves as a primer for the webinar.

Explaining the Word

Explainer videos (EVs) were developed by Silicon Valley computer scientists and engineers to explain complex processes and products to potential investors and software users. EVs typically employ digital animation, narrative voiceover, and a playful aesthetic to communicate subject matter. Although EVs were originally used in highly technical disciplines, in recent years the genre has been co-opted by professionals and educators in more diverse fields.

The Bible Project (TBP) is a nonprofit animation studio that uses explainer videos (EVs) to tell the biblical story. Since 2014, TBP has produced over 150 videos that explain and explore scriptural genres, characters, and themes. The videos have been collectively viewed over 100 million times and TBP has been featured in Christianity Today. The Project’s mission is to “help make the biblical story accessible to everyone, everywhere, for free.”

What can TBP’s use of explainer videos tell us about the evolution of Christian media? First, we need some historical context.

Christian Media in Context

The history of the church is comprised of various media handed down through the centuries: oral histories, scrolls, icons, mosaics, liturgies, catechisms, scripture, apocrypha, illuminated manuscripts, confessions, creeds, hagiography, hymns, architecture, art, vestments, incense, bread, wine, and more. These and other media not only constitute the church’s story; they provide the content of Christian doctrine and theology. Holy Communion, for example, is mediated: Taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). The different interpretations regarding the sacrament—between and among Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions—are evidence of the fact that how we interpret media forms has a direct influence on how we perceive media content.

For Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, beliefs and practices continue to be shaped according to sacred media forms. Those traditions retain traditional views about the relationship between sacred medium and sacred message, i.e., media content is fundamentally dependent on form. Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, revere icons as “written images,” not simply artistic compositions but rather witnesses to the truth on par with scripture. Iconographers require specific tools and practice specialized techniques when “authoring” an icon, and deviation from authorized methods risks breaking with orthodox theology. Orthodox and Roman Catholic theological interpretation of media is still reserved for the ordained—the Church is the arbiter of what kinds of media carry theological weight, and how that currency is applied.

Changes in media technology around the time of the Protestant Reformation serve to illustrate how new media can function to alter perceptions. The invention of the printing press in Europe served Luther and the Reformer’s ends by desacralizing some church media—icons in the East and the rosary in the West, for example—and elevating individuals’ interpretation of scripture. The press also opened doors to new forms of religious media that were not subject to the capital-C Church. Luther was one of the early pioneers of mass-producing pamphlets, for example, printing over 300,000 during his lifetime.

The press also played a major role in the Enlightenment, paved the way for the American experiment, and, ultimately, laid the technological and ideological groundwork for Silicon Valley’s digital dominion. Interestingly, though, whereas the printing press ultimately moved society in a more secular direction, its technological descendants—including explainer videos—are now being used to communicate religious ideas. In effect, the democratization of media made possible TBP’s deployment of digital apparatus to talk about God. However benign the Project’s use of EVs may seem to our twenty-first century brains, it is possible only because of fifteenth-century technological innovations and Protestant theology that emphasize scriptural content over mediating form.

The success of The Bible Project is evidence, perhaps, of a new sensory reorientation. With the advent of the internet, humanity is moving (or has moved) into a post-literate age in which the digital is displacing the literate, typographic world of previous centuries. The proliferation of genres like digital animation—and explainer videos—suggest that people have become more attuned to dynamic and interactive media that stimulate the senses in new ways. As I’ll suggest in the webinar on October 15, 7 pm EST, such changes are cause for both celebration and lament.

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