- Press -
 Philadelphia Inquirer - 11 December 2003

"In the beginning" was a snap.
What if God was one of those little Lego guys?
By Daniel Rubin
Inquirer Staff Writer

If you feel called, as your 30s approach and your Web-design job has gone south, to illustrate the Book of Genesis using Legos, God will not make it easy.

There are about 2,800 different bricks, capes, bats, cats, arches, bridges, platforms and windows, etc., to create your masterpiece, but there is no supreme being in the Lego universe. Certainly not the fatherly Old Testament deity Brendan Powell Smith envisioned as he began to build the Garden of Eden in his California living room out of the interlocking primary-colored plastic pieces.

There's a white-bearded wizard in the toy-maker's castle series. But "for some reason, Lego has never come out with white hair," Smith said.

"It was either God was going to be bald, and that didn't seem right, or I was going to have to take a white [Lego] space helmet, cut off the chin strap and use a hobby knife to create some bangs.

The result can be seen on Page 11 of The Brick Testament, an eccentric volume released by Quirk Books, the Philadelphia publisher behind the Worst Case Scenario series. Hands outstretched, Smith's plastic God is forming man from the soil of the Earth, or, in this case, from dimpled yellow and black Lego bricks.

Over 176 pages, Smith illustrates 10 stories from the Book of Genesis, from the creation of heaven and earth to the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites. The text comes straight from the Bible. The tableaus are deceptively simple - and devilishly ingenious, such as the Noah's Ark retelling, where you see characters' raised arms and heads resting on a blue ocean surface, and in the next scene, just a few hands and heads.

What isn't simple is determining whether The Brick Testament is reverent or irreverent, which is what Quirk specializes in, publisher Dave Borgenicht said.

Quirk is about "books that leave you wondering whether [they're] serious or not," Borgenich said. And The Brick Testament "is both."

Insight into Smith's intent is found in his introduction, where the artist describes his epiphany at the local Taco Bell, when his burrito burst into flames and God's unmistakable voice told him "from this day forth you will illustrate for Me, My most holy of books, the Bible, completely in Lego."

But I'm an atheist, protested Smith, 30, who grew up Episcopalian.

"Then you are especially unqualified to question Me," came the response. "Now get to work."

Smith was designing Web sites and living with his girlfriend in Mountain View, Calif., when he attempted the Garden of Eden in miniature. Where God took six days to create the world, Smith took a month to build the six stories from Genesis that were the first to appear on his Web site (www.thebricktestament.com) in October 2001. Within a few weeks, his Web creations had drawn 20,000 hits.

A typical, dozen-page story takes a week of toil - reading the story, taking notes, developing a script, beginning the construction with characters, then props. In nearly all cases, Smith uses Legos exactly as they were molded. Not much tampering is needed now that the Danish company has been producing more expressive figures and better accessories, according to Smith, who owns about $5,000 worth of Legos and breaks his projects down after they're photographed.

Other artists have found a medium in Legos. On the Web are Lego Shakespeare, Lego Hobbits and Lego porn. The White Stripes were rendered in animated plastic on their video for "Fell in Love With a Girl." Given how much work animation requires, Smith cannot imagine doing what it would take to adapt his book to video.

One way or another, Smith has spent much of his life grappling with theological issues. He was reared in Norwood, Mass., where in seventh grade he acquired the moniker "the reverend" when a friend called his name in the lunchroom and a mouthful of sandwich transformed "Brendan." He would sign some of his school papers the Rev. Smith "to get a feel of my teachers, to see if they were the type to put up with that."

By college, at Boston University, where he studied philosophy and religion, Smith did a cartoon strip for the student paper called the Second Coming, which featured God, Jesus and the author.

A panel from October 1992 shows a child encountering Jesus in his yard and asking him the basic existential questions: Why is the sky blue? How did he get here? Do animals go to heaven? What is his favorite ice cream?

Answers: It's a nice color. He walked. Only hippopotami. Peppermint stick.

His book and Web site haven't struck too many negative chords, Smith said. "On any given day I might get a letter from an atheist saying, 'Hey, your site is great; it really points out how ridiculous these Bible stories are,' and then a minister, asking, 'Can we use some images to teach Sunday school?' "

And no less than the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has put The Brick Testament on its list of recommended Christmas gifts.

The Bible's more adult stories now bear parental warnings on Smith's Web site. He hasn't shied from violent or sexual content, but some of his viewers have.

His virtual creations go up to the Book of Epistles in the New Testament, and he's occasionally asked what he'll do once he's done.

"I laugh," Smith said. "The Bible is a really big book. I have notes on 150 stories I'd like to get to. Ask me again in 2011."

Smith makes it clear he is working without Lego's authorization. A company spokeswoman said "we would never disapprove of anyone's individual creativity. We would just hope it is with the Lego values in mind."

If the company ever objects, Smith has a Plan B. "I haven't had a crack team of Lego lawyers kicking down and dragging me off to jail," he said. "I'd just have to build my way out, I suppose."

"In the beginning" was a snap.
This is the text of an article that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 11 December 2003. It ran with accomanying illustrations, but I am not sure which ones. An online version of the article can be found here.

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