A few years ago my daughter Sarah’s most treasured book was Rick Riordan’s retellings of Greek myths through the eyes of his character Percy Jackson. I was impressed with the way Riordan made these stories come alive in language that older elementary and middle school kids found compelling. Suddenly my 12-year-old daughter knew more about Greek mythology than I had ever learned. I thought, “Why doesn’t someone do this with the Bible?”
I quickly realized why not: our culture is too close to it. The Bible forms the backbone of the faith of most Americans, even those who haven’t read much of it. Many adults feel threatened by approaches to the Bible that don’t seem reverent enough. Yet young people won’t read the Bible at all if they think it’s stodgy, old-fashioned, and boring. Wouldn’t a Riordan-esque approach be worth a try?
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I worried about losing touch with some members of our congregation, especially kids who will have to wait a long time to serve as acolytes or be in Godly Play again. And since she was small, Sarah and I have enjoyed recording “radio broadcasts” involving zany characters, fake commercials, sound effects, and lots of guest stars her age. Why not put those skills to work on the Bible and give a gift to the kids of our parish? So we identified a story that is brief, funny, and accessible for people of all ages: the Book of Jonah. Four chapters—four recordings.
Our approach to Jonah can be summed up by a quote from the first episode: “When it comes to reading the Bible, the best thing you can do is ask lots and lots of questions!” I wanted us to model an imaginative interrogation of the actual NRSV text, teaching methods that kids can use themselves when they read the Bible or hear it read in church.
I also wanted us to engage honestly with Jonah as fable, not historical occurrence. As with the Genesis creation stories and many other parts of the Bible, we need to teach our kids that fictional stories often carry more truth—and are more helpful to the living of our lives—than any scientific or journalistic account. Knowing that Jonah’s story is fictional only adds to its power. If we insist on it being literal, we get distracted by trying to prove that a human could live in a fish for three days—as if that were the point of the story.
I’ve also noticed that there’s a dearth of Bible stories for teenagers. Too often we hand them an NRSV at the age of 13 and then wonder why it gathers dust. I’m convinced that there’s room for yet another layer of imaginative storytelling. So during quarantine, I’m also working on retellings for older kids, including the Book of Esther and the Joseph saga. These stories have more sex and violence in them, but teens are ready to hear such stories without whitewash. They’re also ready to ask the kinds of hard questions that people of faith have always wrestled with—questions for which the Bible, in all its variety of literary forms, is a Christian’s most faithful conversation partner.
Sarah said to me, ‘The Bible can be serious but is also really, really strange sometimes. It’s enjoyable making fun of it!’ Yet this isn’t mean-spirited fun; it’s the kind of fun that deepens our understanding and love of the Bible. We’re calling these recordings Bible Stories for Snarky People,’ but we do ask our questions earnestly, trusting that whenever we hear and respond to the Bible, God speaks directly into our hearts.
[Editor’s Note: If you would like to listen to Josh and Sarah’s episodes on Jonah, you can hear them on Soundcloud HERE. —Allison]