Parallel Bible: An Interview with Andrew Breitenberg
Parallel Bible is an exciting new experiment that takes an ancient text and anchors it in day to day experiences through crowd-sourced images.
I spoke to co-founder Andrew Breitenberg about the app and their Kickstarter campaign to fund the first printed gospel of Mark in which all of its visual content is sourced by its readers.
Jonathan: Hi Andrew! Before we get into the deep on Parallel Bible, can you walk us through your back story? What led you up to this point?
Andrew: The path after university started in New York City and wound through Amsterdam and Cape Town and many places along the way for shorter periods. I’ve always had a passion for seeing Scripture come alive in new ways – in Amsterdam my thesis work was a redesign of the gospel of Matthew, and in Cape Town I began spray painting Bible verses in huge letters on public walls (see selahmade.com). My brother and I had always wanted to take a big adventure together which we thought would amount to a month long train ride through India or something. But when the idea for Parallel came to me, I invited him along for the ride and it’s definitely been a bigger adventure than we ever expected…
Tell us about Parallel…
Parallel Bible is a Bible app for iPhone and Android phones – it’s a marriage between social media and Scripture. Think Instagram for the Bible. Create an account, follow friends, post pictures and tag them with verses. With everyone adding images to different verses, what results is a visually-rich Bible, illuminated by images and stories brought by its readers (you!). And more than this, we begin to see a Bible emerge that carries right alongside of it, stories of how it is being applied in people’s lives. A living concordance of the Bible’s work, parallel to the Scripture itself.
What was the red thread running between this and your previous work?
Essentially the work has always been about being a voice for the voiceless – so advocacy of some kind – with Parallel it’s amplifying the words of the Bible itself by unveiling where they are taking root in people’s lives. It’s also about organising and ordering – in this case ordering a massive series of images according to this sacred text. And Beauty. Always Beauty.
You’ve spent time living in the Netherlands and South Africa, In what ways did these places influence the progression of this concept?
Let’s see – NL was all about ‘killing my darlings.’ By which I mean – the little ‘preciouses’ – the elements that you treat with a bias because you like them subjectively – they are only clouding the true value of a solution. For example I created a typeface for this project which I loved, but its meant for big sized headlines – not small copy on an app. Letting go of that was hard but has improved the app significantly.
As for SA – Well what can I say – Cape Town is the birth place of this app – I had a studio on the ‘high road’ in Woodstock and watching the mass of human life passing my window all day had a profound effect on me. I think my fixation on the primacy of images has come from seeing people from every part of life walk by that window – and in realising the ability of images to communicate across languages, cultures, classes and denominations.
You talk about the format of the Bible remaining unchanged while our culture has undergone countless changes in rapid succession. Could you unpack that idea for us?
I think that the Bible apps we use today are essentially Gutenberg’s 15th century tech pasted onto a screen. We’re still looking at the Bible in terms of black text on a light background. The Bible was not always this way. For centuries it was simply spoken. You only got the Bible by listening, not reading. We feel that Parallel Bible is simply getting at what Jesus has done all along. Speaking in image-pictures. Jesus never wrote a thing down. He never said – hey go read this and you’ll have it sorted. In fact – he would sometimes tell his disciples to ‘speak not’ of what they’d seen or heard. This was about allowing the experience of the thing to simply have its moment, before letting it calcify into words. Parallel Bible is nothing new at all. We see it as a return.
Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message”. He felt that there is a message implicit not just in what is said, but the medium used to communicate it. How does this play out for PB?
I suppose I got to that in the previous question – it might be worth adding that besides screens, we are putting a social medium to work in the employ of our app as well – personal imagery, shared and commented and liked, friends followed…this new social media reflects well the idea that the Bible is to be lived – that we are meant to look up from its words and actually DO what it’s talking about.
There’s a tendency in the social media world to curate your own life, so that it appears far better than the real thing ever could. In what ways do you address this with the PB community? How do you ensure that authenticity is valued?
Such a good question – we write about this on our website – essentially all we can do is example it and ask for it. But we’re finding that the bulk of our readers understand this intuitively. We have a disconcertingly small percentage of selfies (: and the truth is – when you’re pairing a beautiful landscape from nature with a verse – it’s just not giving the same feeling as when it’s happening purely for likes. It sounds vague – but the general experience around this imagery being posted feels quite vulnerable and real. At this stage it’s probably because there are only thousands of readers on the app – so anyone posting for volume likes is not going to get them in any case… it will be fascinating to see how things develop.
Much has been said online about the tendency of smartphones to act as a distraction from inner growth, family and long form communication. It feels like Parallel is approaching smartphones from a different angle?
YES! We keep joking that we should just make an app that shuts down your phone for 10 minutes at a time. Seriously we are into exploring the idea of slow use – in fact it seems to be the biggest obstacle thus far in our app’s adoption. People generally seem to use their apps in a matter of seconds to check, scroll, swipe and close. We’re talking about spending 5 seconds on each post – at best a minute – looking, reflecting on the passage and story, and writing comments. It’s a paradigm shift for what the screen is capable of offering. And while it’s one of our biggest obstacles, it’s also one of the greatest opportunities.
Who have been your major influencers on this journey?
Well you mention McLuhan – he’s the godfather of social media so that’s obvious. AS regards the Bible we’ve been really inspired by the mentorship of Richard Rohr, a Catholic monk who writes a lot about the shifting milieu of the Bible across time was well as the practise of silence and listening which are deeply important to Bible reading. (Also along these lines we <3 Simone Weil, Thomas Keating). Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes about the possibilities of collective faith action which applies beautifully to a group of people doing this Bible in this way. And St. Francis – he has inspired us to walk our little path and persevere in what the Lord has called us to do with this project.
And from a design point of view, I am unapologetically Dutch. Create a system and let it play out to all its weirdest and most beautiful conclusions. Don’t arbitrarily edit anything. Have a reason rooted in your vision for any aesthetic changes made. Kill your darlings. Shoot your idea to pieces until it disintegrates or reveals the diamond.
How has the concept been received? Who have been your greatest allies so far?
The concept itself is received well and widely. Our greatest allies are people from the progressive Christian community who are most willing to think outside the box in terms of how we might introduce the Bible to the next generation. Also we have a large community of artists and creatives that have found an outlet for their desire to explore faith and visuality.
Tell us about your Kickstarter campaign…
Our Kickstarter project is to print the Gospel of Mark alongside all the imagery being submitted to it on the app. We see it as giving people a tangible example of what it is we are trying to do on the app. It will be the first community-illuminated Gospel ever made and (we hope) a book that draws people collectively to go and do the very truths that they are reading about.
Finally, what lessons have you learned in the process of creating PB that might be helpful for other people wanting to initiate change?
Patience. Perseverance. Play. Pray. Patience. (Patience.)