Spark+Echo Arts

Jonathon Roberts (Beacon, New York USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Jonathon Roberts is the co-founder of Spark+Echo Arts, a community of artists and patrons that is illuminating every verse of the Bible through the arts. He is a versatile composer; he has written for theatre, concert halls, slot machines, and indie bands alike. His latest album, “Cities,” is a song cycle personifying biblical cities. He also created the popular family podcast/YouTube series ComposerDad vs. Bible, in which ComposerDad accepts intense compositional challenges from a talking Bible. He lives in Beacon, New York, with his wife, Emily, and their two boys.

Illuminating the Entire Bible Through the Arts

Spark+Echo Arts is the coming together of thousands of patrons and artists from around the world to create a new work of art, music, theatre, poetry, dance, or film in response to every verse of the Bible. Emily Clare Zempel and I founded the project as a nonprofit arts organization in 2010 in New York City. Since then, Spark+Echo artists have created hundreds of new works illuminating over four thousand verses of Scripture.

In 2009, Emily and I, married for just a few weeks, spoke on faith and creativity at the "Creativity and Lutheran Theology in Media" Conference, hosted at Bethany Lutheran College by the Christ in Media Institute. Back then Spark+Echo Arts was barely an idea. Nine years later, I'm excited to return here to share how it has grown, our philosophy, and how we use media and technology to share the Bible.

The concept for Spark+Echo Arts partly grew out of my own creative practice. I loved making music and theatre on the Bible and found it to be the best way for me to connect with God's Word. Spending time creatively responding to the text brought it to life. The verses would linger in my mind and weave through my daily life. We sought to create a platform where other artists could have these kinds of transformative experiences.

Here is how the project works: Artists are selected to create for Spark+Echo Arts by our team of curators working across six disciplines — art, music, theatre, poetry, dance, and film. We also accept applications via our website. A commissioned artist then chooses a verse or section of Scripture that has not yet been illuminated in the project. The artist is given freedom to respond however they would like. They submit a preview along the way and ultimately a final work and related artist statement. The digital representation of the work appears in our online gallery at, woven into the text of the Bible. Artists are given a small honorarium and support along the way as desired (some request artistic feedback or theological resources, others work independently). We premiere a new work every Monday and promote it to our network and beyond through various online channels.

This brief promotional video concludes with an overview of Spark+Echo Arts from our artists:

Artists that have created for Spark+Echo work in a wide range of disciplines and styles and represent a diversity of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They are from across the United States and around the world. They are Christian, part of other religions, and secular. We believe the Bible is alive and relevant to all, that it speaks to everyone. Our commissioning process models this, and we are routinely amazed by what each artist brings to life. A different voice from mine can capture something in a verse that I may never have noticed.

A critical component of our process is giving artists the freedom to respond however they would like. We simply ask each artist to spend time in the Word, contemplate the passage, and create. This yields very personal works of art, honest responses that benefit us all.

We also hold high the concept of "respect": respect for the artist, the Bible, and the audience. We respect the artist by not censoring their work or process. We ask the artist to respect the Bible by responding to their chosen text directly and recognizing the importance of the Bible to its readers. We respect the audience by asking the artist to write an artist statement that will connect the audience to their process, particularly if we anticipate that the final work will be challenging. Likewise, we ask the audience to respect the artist by being open to consider what they created and their process, even if the final work is different from what they expected.

To GOWM conference participants reading this, our project may sound a bit "hands-off" in a typical "Christian outreach" sense. It is. This project is run by people who believe deeply in the transformative power of Scripture, and though it may seem counter-intuitive to some, stepping back and trusting the Word is part of that.

While our philosophy and mission has stayed the same over the last nine years, our community has grown to include many board members, dozens of curators, hundreds of artists, artists-in-residence, patrons, fans, and a worldwide audience. At the helm of our day-to-day operations for the last several years is our Program Manager, Rebecca Testrake. Rebecca personally guides each artist through the process while keeping an eye on our overarching vision.

People and relationships are central to our project, particularly in the curator-artist relationship. An artist who may have never considered the Bible relevant to their creative process is often more willing to create for a "Bible project" if they are invited by a peer they respect. When this is followed by professional care from our staff, artists can focus more deeply on exploring the text and creating their best possible work.

Technology plays a key role in this personal care. Though we have occasional live events in NYC and elsewhere, we are primarily an online project. Behind the scenes we use many online connectivity tools to stay close. Our artists are scattered, our Program Manager is in LA, and our Executive Director is in New York. Online tools keep overhead low and communication high.

While the works created for the project vary greatly, our administrative process, by design, is repetitive and consistent. With a new work premiering each week, we have many opportunities to refine every little step of the way from contract to premiere through promotion. It seems like a minor point, but using online tools to make the process run smoothly is crucial to artist-care.

Two years ago we started down a path to improve how our audience engages with the project. While caring for the artist primarily happened behind the scenes, our audience needed a better platform to engage with the works and Scripture. In 2017, with support from the American Bible Society and private donors, we hired Cantilever, a New Jersey-based digital agency, to focus on improving our digital presence.

Cantilever created a new platform at that elegantly weaves the works of art into the full text of the Bible. Now visitors can discover the art in context and connect more deeply with each artist and the words that inspired them. You can clearly see Scripture through their eyes, their pen or brush, tap shoes, guitar, or lens.

We offer people a different way of experiencing the Bible, a massive collection of works, and a thought-provoking devotional tool. Immerse yourself in the Word; listen, see, and feel it come to life in ways that will surprise you.

On this new platform we can also bring the Spark+Echo supporter into the commissioning process. Cantilever integrated Patreon, a fundraising platform that helps donors support the ongoing work of projects they love. Patrons who donate on our Patreon page can use their Patreon credentials to log in to our website and "spark" (i.e. vote, like) the verses they would like to see illuminated next.

Our community has illuminated nearly 15% of the Bible to date, over four thousand verses, with new works of art, music, theatre, poetry, dance, and film. On our path to illuminating all 31,102 verses, we plan to commission an artist in every state in the US, and every nation in the world (see our progress map). We also hope to partner with physical galleries, universities, and faith-based institutions across the country. These are big and evolving goals, but they are possible with a large, engaged audience. We plan to build upon our recent technology upgrades and give more opportunities for audiences and artists to discover and connect with Spark+Echo Arts.

I look forward to connecting with you through the discussion here, to answer any questions, and learn from you. Please explore the project via and share your thoughts and ideas here. You are part of the Spark+Echo community, too, and we hope that together we can bring the Bible to life in remarkable ways for new audiences.

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Kara Peter (Martin Luther College) 2018-10-25 9:42:36pm
Mr. Roberts,

The premise of Spark + Echo is amazing! The idea of illuminating the entire Bible with art is an impressive undertaking, and an exciting one. Your statement that, “spending time creatively responding to the text brought it to life” resonated with me. It is so easy to skim through Bible readings, especially the ‘boring’ parts but your project really emphasizes that every single verse is precious, and the direct Word of God.

God’s Word has inspired art and song for centuries. Would you consider including historical art, music or poetry to illuminate some of the verses? This could add depth to the project, an exploration of the impact the Bible has made throughout history.

In your article you mention that the contributors “are from across the United States and around the world. They are Christian, part of other religions, and secular.” I’m sure this project also receives attention from many unchurched viewers. God’s Word certainly speaks for itself and you mention that you have taken a “hands-off” approach but does Spark + Echo provide access or recommendations to resources for artists or patrons who want to learn more about their Savior?

Thank you for your work on this incredible project and for contributing to the conference!
Jonathon Roberts (Spark+Echo Arts) 2018-10-28 10:38:26am
Hi Kara,
Thanks for the encouragement! We have considered including historical art etc. in the past and surely will continue to revisit the idea. It would be a neat route to take, but a slightly different focus. We want to emphasize that the Bible is alive and relevant to today's artist, that it has something to say to everyone, everywhere, now. Always commissioning new works supports that better in my mind. We'll keep revisiting that, though. In the mean time, there is a great project we know of out of the UK that I believe has more of a historical and academic approach to Bible illumination:

As for your other question, we do offer resources/background info on their passage for artists if they request during their process (the artist's curator might help find info, or we connect them with pastor/theologian friends of the project for more info). It all kind of depends on what the artist is looking for. In short, yes.

Mark Burger (Martin Luther College) 2018-10-26 12:50:26am
Mr. Roberts,

You said that so far, “Our community has illuminated nearly 15% of the Bible to date, over four thousand verses..”. I am amazed at how much work has already been done by this project. I am also very excited to see the finished project when all 31,102 verses are complete. By illuminating these verses, it will definitely help people to have a closer connection to the Word.

You have said that people can vote on which verses should be done next. I would suggest that it might be helpful if you grouped together the works by books of the Bible and tried to finish a book at a time so people could experience the art in the order that the verses come.

You had said that “They [the artists] are Christian, part of other religions, and secular.”. I agree with what you said concerning how the Bible is relevant to all. Do you think any of these other artists who have worked on this project have become Christian or may become Christian because of the verse they worked on?

Thank you for all of the work that you and your community have done so far to illuminate Scripture and I can’t wait to experience more of the art.
Jonathon (Spark+Echo Arts) 2018-10-28 3:21:35pm
Hi Mark,
Tell me about it! Looking forward to that day, too. Great idea on the voting. There a lot we could do with that feature and hopefully we can keep improving it. We have finished a few shorter books (off the top of my mind, Philemon is complete with six illuminations). By the end of 2018, we'll have at least one work in every book so that will be a fun milestone. Maybe we could next try to complete several individual books, using the voting system to choose which ones. Any requests?

For your last question, it's not something we measure, because I think it’s unmeasurable. Some artists will publicly share info about a spiritual journey in their artist statement, or with us privately via our exit survey. As you know, the Bible talks about the Holy Spirit working in people's heart as they read God’s Word, but exactly how that plays out over time is mysterious. Many artists, Christian or not, have not created directly in response to the Bible, and we want to create a culture where that process is enjoyable, something you might come back to in your career.

Thanks for your note!
Alexis (Martin Luther College) 2018-10-26 11:42:41am
Mr. Roberts,

I really appreciate your community including a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I especially liked the statement that “a different voice from mine can capture something in a verse that I may have never noticed”. Bringing this expanse of people you’ve reached around the world together through the word really highlights the sense of community you can feel through the arts.

When I was reading about your patreon page, I thought that it was a great way for supporters to support the creators to keep doing what they love. I feel that you could reach more people is you did more social media outreach to reach more artists who would potentially have something to create.

After reading your article, I was curious if you had done any social media outreach that you had not mentioned in the article. What have you done in the past to reach out to artists that may want to create?

Thank you for your contribution to the conference!
Jonathon (Spark+Echo Arts) 2018-10-29 6:13:04am
Hi Alexis,
Thanks for your kind words! You're right on about the social media outreach. We are on all the major platforms, but would like to do more community building within those platforms. Hopefully we can expand our team to be more active and engaged. Something we started recently that I didn't mention in the article is a Facebook group called "Echo the Bible". As opposed to our site where artists are selected by curators or through applying, this group invites any artist to join and share works they are creating on Scripture.

What other ideas would you like to see on our social platforms to connect to artists and new audiences?

Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2018-10-31 11:03:04am
Jonathon, I am truly impressed (if I were younger I would say "blown away") by your website. It allows you to express and portray your mission and your work so seamlessly and effectively. I hope everyone visiting this conference takes a look at it, not only for the wonderful content but also as a model for how well a website can work to convey a vision. Did Cantilever design that from scratch? My impression is that custom web design is very expensive, and you risk big problems if it needs updating and the original designer has become unavailable. Any concerns about that?
Jonathon (Spark+Echo Arts) 2018-11-05 7:03:03pm
Hi Tom,
Thank you! That’s encouraging. Yes, Cantilever built it from scratch on Craft CMS. It’s highly customized though, particularly the way the art and Scripture weave together and the patron integration. The good folks at Cantilever are friends of the project even from before we worked on the site so we aren’t concerned about them going anywhere. That would be something to consider otherwise though. Our old site was more DIY and we had trouble keeping up, so we are happy to be working with an outside team now. We had additional support, particularly during the development process, from American Bible Society and Matt Steinruck of BigPicture.Studio. Yes, It can get quite expensive to have a custom site, so we all had to prioritize features on this initial design. We plan to continue building upon it. We learned app design can be even more costly, so we started with this desktop and mobile-friendly design. Baby steps!