Brendan Powell Smith says he was “shocked” by what he read in the Bible as a philosophy and theology student in his twenties. And as the most popular book in the world, he couldn’t fathom that most people weren’t aware of the Bible’s stories. “People look to the Bible as a moral guide, but don’t really know it well,” he says. That was a situation he figured he could fix. With Legos.
On the heels of last year’s The Brick Bible: The Old Testament release comes Smith’s New Testament version on Oct. 9, a Bible fully illustrated by Smith’s Lego creations. With over 1,000 full-color scenes covering all the Gospels and the books of Acts and Revelation, all built by the 39-year-old San Franciscan using his own techniques of Lego assembling, the nearly 300-page graphic novel turns the world of illustrated Bibles on its brick head. TIME chats with Brendan Powell Smith to learn how this project fit together.
TIME: How did you start making a Lego Bible?
Smith: When I first read the Bible cover to cover I was surprised and shocked at what I was reading. I grew up going to church and only 10 percent of the Bible is covered in Sunday school. There is so much in there that is really fascinating that most people, religious or not, are just not that exposed to. I thought this was a situation I could do something about.
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The project started as a website. It was 10 years ago now that I did my first illustration of Bible stories with Lego bricks. The website was popular in its own right and Skyhorse Publishing contacted me to do the entire Bible in book form. By that time I had hundreds and hundreds of stories on the website and it was mainly a process of organizing all that material into book form and creating over 200 new illustrations (for the New Testament version).
Who is your audience?
I’m always happy to see that my work tends to get fans across the spectrum of belief, from nonbelievers to the very pious and devout, which is kind of what I’m looking for. I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job right if only one side or the other was appreciating it. The books are in graphic novel format, so I feel like they are aimed at the same age range of people actually picking up the Bible and reading it on their own or with parental supervision, such as older children, teens and adults (Smith has started a series of picture books aimed at young children).
How tough is manipulating Legos into Bible form?
There are very different challenges, but it is all fun, even if sometimes there is a tricky build. When it came time to illustrate the crucifixion of Jesus, Lego people arms only go up and down, not out to the side. My solution was to take the arms completely off and then press those into a Lego plate, then with the arms pressed into the cross the friction held the rest of his body in place. The creative building challenges are both some of the hardest and most fun. The other challenges are just the scope of the building — especially some of the scenes in Revelation, which would take two days straight.
How do you pick the stories to illustrate?
I wanted my illustrated Bible to be different on a couple of levels from what was already out there. I wanted my selection of stories to be much wider and when I first started I had a bias for picking stories not found in other Bibles. My goal shifted to just go for it and illustrate the entire Bible in the Lego style and be the most comprehensive illustrated Bible out there. The other difference is how closely it sticks to the text. Other authors take a free hand in reshaping stories and adding elements to them. I think the stories are great as they are and bringing in a lot of your own biases or modern theological takes come across a little too loudly.
How true to the original text are you?
When I started, I was using the New Jerusalem Bible, which is in modern, updated language that struck a nice balance between easy to read and fairly close to a literal translation. When it came time to do a published book, because of copyrights, I ended up completely updating the website and doing the books with my own wording. I’ll base my wording on three or four public domain versions of the Bible and read seven or eight other English translations to see how everybody’s wording it. My aim is to get an average middle-of-the-road interpretation so people don’t take issue with it.
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What has the reaction been like?
Some people don’t like the idea of treating the subject in a children’s toy at all, so it isn’t so much the content of Legos, but the very idea of it. There are others who get down to the nitty-gritty and occasionally take issue with the way I illustrated a particular story. Sometimes they are right and I will reillustrate a particular verse. Since other illustrated Bibles stick to just 10 percent of the Bible, to bring the rest to light makes it seem like I’m doing something a little tricky or coming at the Bible from a strange angle, but I think the presentation is more straightforward.
How do you pick out a Lego Jesus?
It is interesting to see the number and variety of Lego faces and hair that have really exploded since I started working on this 10 years ago. There was just one smiley face until the mid-90s, so starting in 2001 it was a little limited. When creating God and Jesus, I just looked at using Star Wars and Harry Potter [sets]. Jesus is Qui-Gon Jinn and the robe is an Obi Wan Kenobi robe. God was a tricky one. I had a white beard from a medieval set, stern looking eyebrows from a samurai master set and a white torso and flowing white robe. For God’s hair—at the time I didn’t have any white hairpieces and I didn’t think God would look right bald—I ended up taking a white space helmet and carving the bangs for hairline and that became God’s hair.
Are these creations completely Lego?
When I’m illustrating, all the parts I’m using are Lego and pretty much straight up Lego pieces that came out from the ‘60s to today. People ask me if I make changes, and mostly that is not true 99 percent of the time. The pieces you see are creative combinations.
Is it ever logistically difficult?
When doing Revelation, the scenes are so precarious, especially with the seven-headed dragon. The seven crowns on the heads up front, made him very forward heavy. He kept falling forward on his face, so I used a weight on the tail just off camera to keep him up. I’m always trying to come up with new techniques to put Lego bricks together.