As the new president of the American Bible Society (ABS), Robert Briggs will balance the work of spurring Scriptural engagement in his own country with the ongoing efforts to complete Bible translations around the world.
A 20-year veteran of the ABS and a founding member of the steering committee of Every Tribe Every Nation, Briggs—who was announced as president this week—knows these causes well. He succeeds Bible translation veteran Roy Peterson, who came to ABS in 2014 after leading The Seed Company and Wycliffe USA.
Under his leadership, the society will launch a landmark historical center in Philadelphia designed to showcase the Bible’s role in the lives of the Founding Fathers and early American history. ABS itself exemplifies these connections, with John Jay, Francis Scott Key, and Elias Boudinot among its early leaders.
But its work is not only American. The society partners with national societies in other countries to collaborate toward global goals around speeding up Bible translation and access.
“This is deeply embedded in my heart, to be a part of, really unprecedented translation movement that is bringing God’s word in the entire globe,” he said in an interview this week with CT. “We’re watching a revolution happen right before our eyes.”
The ministry is also looking at digital packaging, social media, and new platforms to bring a revival of Bible engagement in its own country.
After President Donald Trump posed with the book in front of St. John’s Church in Washington D.C., ABS shared a statement about seeing the Bible as more than a symbol and launched a Bible giveaway
“Some of those people were getting Bibles for the first time. That’s really our emphasis—to provide the first Bible that people will actually engage with,” said Briggs. “Somebody might’ve received a Bible as a gift back when they got confirmed or had some events in their lives, but we want to provide the first Bible that people will receive at a moment in their life when they’re motivated to engage with it, consider its content, consider its message and, and live and choose to live in accordance to what they hear.”
What would you say has changed the most with how Americans understand and view the Bible over the past 50 years?
Fifty years ago, the proposition of truth, the declaration of objective truth, was recognized as a foundational lens through which we could understand God’s perspective and God’s view that could inform our lives.
Today, the confidence that there is a singular objective understanding of truth has lessened. Currently, the culture would view perspectives about the Bible is more subjective and more linked to your experience and not linked to definitive, objective truth.
What about with American Christians’ view of the Bible in the same time span?
For American Christians, there is a fresh recognition that this is a book that needs to be lived, not just known. Not that there wasn’t some sort of recognition of that in previous generations, but there was an emphasis on knowing and memorizing and expressing the content of the Bible and believing in so doing this would automatically bleed into the way your life was lived, which to some extent is true.
The emphasis now among the emerging generations is that it’s all well and good to know what the Bible says, but it’s way more important to demonstrate that you are living in a way that aligns and is consistent, at home, in church, at work, across the spans of your life.
Our country is still in the midst of a pandemic. How does this affect the time table of the opening of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center?
The pandemic has caused us to delay the opening. We were aiming for November. We had to shut down construction for several weeks. In light of that it didn’t make sense to open in the middle of winter. Our new target date is the end of April 2021.
We don’t exactly know what to expect, but we’ll be ready to open and facilitate the experience of leveraging the history of the nation, the story of the changemakers of the nation, and examining the ways that their lives have been influenced by the Bible. We’re eager to introduce that narrative here at Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, the heart of the history of the nation.
Frankly, we need to turn the volume up on that narrative. It’s not being adequately communicated and not adequately heard. We want to be able to tell the story of where the nation got it right, where the nation didn’t get it right, and how we need to correct the course on some fronts now in order to move to a more perfect union, which is the path that the founders set out on.
How does the center compare to the Museum of the Bible?
We are so enthusiastic about the Museum of the Bible. It’s so good for the cause. Their vision and their expression is way more comprehensive, and we love what the Museum of the Bible represents. It tells the whole story of the Bible’s history and its impact around the world.
The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is designed to tell a much more targeted and specific story about the influence of the Bible on the development of this nation, the influence that the Bible brought to the changemakers, who established the direction of a nation, and who altered the course of the nation as they exerted their influence. People come to Philadelphia to primarily explore history, so we’re leveraging the historical backdrop of Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell and the Constitution Center.
What prompted American Bible society to respond to President Trump’s recent Bible photo op?
We’re always watching for opportunities to promote engagement with the Bible. We weren’t really responding to President Trump as much as we were responding to the conversation going on about the Bible.
Our message was designed signal that while the Bible can certainly be a symbol and that’s not a bad thing, the Bible is way more than a symbol. We wanted to emphasize the fact that the Bible is a message. The Bible is an expression of the heart of God and a way that we can understand God’s character and God’s plan and God’s nature. We want to just continually invite people to not only see the Bible as a symbol, but in addition to that, see the Bible as carrying the content that can change lives and can bring hope and can bring healing, healing into the very kinds of historical times that we are living in and times that require attention to issues of justice and, and addressing issues of racial injustice in particular.
Was there any backlash that you guys received after putting out that statement?
Yes, here was some. There were some people that felt like we were not adequately celebrating a positive image of the Bible as a symbol.
We wanted to clarify that we weren’t trying to challenge the featuring of the Bible as a symbol but simply wanting to say it’s far more than that. We didn’t intend it the way some people took it as a negative statement about a leader. We intended it as a positive statement about the Bible as more than a symbol. But yes, there were a few people that wrote to us and said, “We think you could have mentioned it more fully.”
What is the role of the printed, tangible Bible in 2020?
Our mission is to provide the Bible in a language and a format that people can understand and afford. The format in which we present that changes in every generation. The Bible Society’s job is to discern what the preferred formats are or how people are wanting to engage. We’re leaning hard into digital delivery systems. We’re amazed at what we’re able to get done in terms of Bible provision distribution through digital means.
However, the predominant community of Bible readers still wants to have the option of a printed Bible in a format that they can hold in their hands and open and flip through the pages, so the days of the printed Bible are still very much alive. but supplemented by the added speed and accessibility and flexibility of digital delivery also.
We strive to be format neutral. We’re not the American Print Bible Society. We’re the American Bible Content Society, delivered through whatever format is the preference of the culture of the day. If we ever go back to scrolls, handwritten on manuscripts, then we’ll do that again.
I recently reported a story about local churches around the world seizing the initiative to translate the Bible. Have you observed this phenomenon as well?
Through Every Tribe Every Nation, we’re seeing this is an amazing thing happen where an alliance of Bible translation organizations is coming together with, with strategists and resource partners to take on this task of ensuring that every language group, every people group on the planet, will access to at least some part of God’s word by the year 2033.
We’re also recognizing that if we don’t adjust some of our methodologies, we’re going to miss the target date. We’re watching diligently for ways to leverage technology, including artificial intelligence and other methodologies, to increase the speed without compromising any of the quality of the translation. We have to maintain the quality of the translation, but if we can increase the speed, then that’s a win.
One of those methodologies to increase the speed is clearly mobilizing the native language speakers and equipping them enough for them to take on some of the translation burden themselves. Some of that is taking shape in church planting movements and among church communities. It’s a powerful accelerator. We’re enthusiastic about it and wanting to come alongside and make sure that we are providing the equipment and the tools and the training and helping ensure quality.
How does ABS understand its role and responsibility with respect to the global church?
ABS was founded by church leaders, commissioned by the church to serve the church and one really, really specific area: Bible provision and Bible engagement. We’ve got a really specific swim lane. We certainly do that work in the US context and serve the church.
The church is our primary partner in all the work that we do. That’s true in the US and in the global context, where we have sister Bible societies. Importantly, it’s the church across all her expressions and traditions. From Catholic to Orthodox, to mainline Protestant to evangelical communities, we want to serve the entire church, ensuring that the Bible is available and being engaged and informing the work of the church on all those fronts.
Our strategy in the global context since 1946 has been to has been to work through the United Bible Societies, which is a fellowship of some 150 Bible societies all led by indigenous leaders nationally, which gives it a powerful global footprint. Through this incredible fellowship and network we can collaborate with all designed to serve the church, but serving the church in their context. It’s not ABS independently dropping into Malawi and trying to figure out how to serve the church in Malawi. It’s ABS coming alongside the Bible Society of Malawi and helping to provide resources, strategies, and tools that that Bible society can bring to the church and their concepts.
What’s a new piece of technology that you imagine will have a major impact on how people use the Bible in the next decade?
Artificial intelligence will be the driver of increasing the speed of Bible translation and helping us ensure that we can get to the year 2033 and achieve what we refer to as the all access goals, where everyone will have access to at least some portion of the scripture in their own heart language.
In terms of Bible engagement, the digital storage and packaging and distribution of content which has made possible by way of the platforms that are available today, and social media related applications, will be the driver of what we pray will be a fresh revival of Bible engagement. Having content available as the preferred time and the preferred format on the preferred topic that aligns with people’s choices and preferences and walks along with them in their life, that’s the path that’s going to lead to increased engagement, particularly in the generations that are emerging.
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