By Wes Howard-Brook
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6.6-7)
What “words” do we keep in our hearts this day? What stories do we tell our children to give them hope and joy amid a world overflowing with violence and suffering?
Winter quarter was my final time teaching the Bible to college students at Seattle University after two decades. One might imagine that folks enrolled at a Jesuit Catholic university might start with some basic biblical literacy, or at least perhaps some curiosity about the stories that are supposed to be foundational for all Christian traditions. Yet I found almost the opposite to be true: most students were not Catholic or Christian in anything more than inherited label, and few had the slightest interest in engaging biblical narratives. I found my experience was common in many places.
Of course, it’s easy to know some reasons why this is so. Most folks born in the 21st century have hardly heard the biblical “Good News”. Rather, they have heard the Bible used as a weapon against virtually every social justice cause one can name. It’s no surprise that most young adults in college have seen the Scriptures as more of the problem than the solution.
Yes, this younger generation is good at sniffing out the BS. Their suspicions are not limited to the Bible or Christianity; they are equally questioning of corporate capitalism, patriarchy, racism (yes, many are eager to learn about “Critical Race Theory”). In other words, they are very good at knowing the stories that don’t work for them. But when I ask them, “What stories do you hold that give you a vision of what to live into?” they go blank. Having rejected the narratives of the free market, American exceptionalism/patriotism and Christianity/religion in general, they often have no foundation on which to rest their hopes for the future.
Despite everything, I remain stubbornly convinced that the stories of my ancestors, the variously-named “Israelites,” “Judahites” or “Jews,” are still a source of strength and power if we enter deeply into them. But as I’m sure RD readers know, becoming biblically literate takes work, just as does any constructive discipline. For the most part, such training has been available only through expensive and often elitist programs of “higher education” or occasional opportunities such as Word and World or the visit to one’s town of an experienced teacher. And if one doesn’t have time or money to access such resources, the only alternative has been often expensive, long commentaries that assume linguistic or other skills often beyond what beginners have. Finally, it’s been my experience that in our social media world, younger folks often find hardcopy books in general offputting. I know, I know: the feel of books and all that. But how many folks do you see reading newspapers these days? We can lament the loss of forms familiar to us older folk, but it’s futile to deny the direction in which the technological march is going.
So, what to do? For myself, I’ve decided to turn these lemons into lemonade the best I can by starting a new project: a YouTube channel called “Radical Bible”. During the pandemic lockdown, I was pushed to create short videos to introduce each class remote session. I found it fun and was actually pretty good at it! So I’ve taken those fledgling skills and begun to construct a new form of “Bible commentary” for the 21st century. I’ve started with four texts: Genesis, the books of Samuel, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Revelation. Each video is around 20 minutes and goes word-by-word, verse-by-verse, through the text, sharing the insights of scholarship I’ve gathered over the past thirty-five years as well as some of my own, along with sound and visual elements not available in a “standard” book commentary. The videos are available at no charge for anyone to use. In addition, I’ve set up a companion website (radicalbible.net) where one can download the PDFs used in the videos along with links to books and authors noted in each video.
My hope is that this channel can become both a reference shelf (“I wonder what the Hebrew of that verse is?”) and a starter for small group engagement, using the PDFs to help guide folks through a text. So far, I’ve done more than a hundred videos, with many hundred more to go.
I’m very excited about this project and hope RD readers will find it helpful, too. As it grows, my dream is that users will be inspired to claim or reclaim the Story that binds us together in discipleship of Jesus: the Story of a loving and generous God whose abundance overflows within and around all that is. I know I NEED that Story to keep my hope alive. May we all be, to paraphrase our mentor William Stringfellow, “keepers of the Story.” Lord knows, we need some Good News in the world today!