Tom French, Weird, crude, funny, & nude: The Bible exposed. Sydney: Frendrussi, 2018.
Getting teenagers to read the Bible is hard work. Results of the National Church Life Survey (2011) reveal that Australian church-going teenagers (aged 15-19) are far less likely to read the Bible daily than those who are over 20. Almost half of teenagers (46%) report that they either never, or hardly ever, read the Bible in private. Bible Engagement among teenagers has been a concern and research interest of mine for some time. I’m willing to say that if more churches were able to teach the Bible the way Tom French does then more young people would be more interested in reading what it has to say.
Weird, Crude, Funny, & Nude: The Bible Exposed is a romp through fifteen passages of the Bible that are either weird (like Matthew 27:51-53 and the dead who come to life and walk around Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection), crude (like Ezekiel 29:19-21), funny (like Balaam’s talking donkey in Numbers 22:21-41), or involve nudity (like the young man who runs from the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:48-52).
These are classic go-to passages for exasperated youth leaders trying to wring some drop of interest from their junior-high bible study groups. Elisha’s ultimate fighting bears (2 Kings 2:23-25) and Ehud stabbing the fat King Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) are classics in the youth minister’s repertoire. Other passages Tom deals with are more obscure, but more fun as a result – like the only fart in the Bible (it’s in Chapter 8; you’ll need to buy the book to find the reference).
But Tom’s genius lies in much more than just being able to pick out some parts of the Bible that are more exciting than a genealogy. The aim is not just that young people might read some funky parts of the Bible, but that they would read the Bible, hear the voice of God, come to faith in Jesus, and live transformed lives as members of God’s kingdom. Weird, Crude, Funny, & Nude is a demonstration of the truth of 2 Timothy 3:16. All scripture, including those parts that are weird, crude, funny, and involve nudity, is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness. Tom ably demonstrates how these passages of the Bible teach us about Jesus, correct and rebuke our empty ways of living, and train us in righteous living, so that we would be equipped and ready for the good works that God calls his people to do.
Tom gets it. He gets what teenagers find interesting (particularly what teenage boys find interesting). He gets how to explain theological ideas in ways that teenagers will understand. He gets the issues that are important in teenage life and what the Bible has to say about them. He gets how to receive the Old Testament as Christian Scripture in light of the ministry of Jesus. He gets how the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything.
I’m sure there will be some people who might find this book inappropriate. Tom provides a quick test to identify his intended audience:
“I’m going to write a few words and if, by the end of the following list you are feeling uncomfortable, offended, distressed, or appalled, it’s safe to assume this is not the book for you… Here we go: bum, dong, willy, fart, poo, boobs, jiggly bits” (p.x).
At one level you could see Tom’s scatological humour as just a cynical pitch to the lowest of teenage levels of interest. But you’d be wrong. Rather than a superficial bid for attention, Tom communicates the gospel with young people in a way that chooses to not take himself too seriously while taking teenagers and their concerns very seriously (on this, take a look at Tom’s excellent Why Chris Pratt Talking About Poop is Very Important at the 2018 MTV awards).
This is a book that a lot of people should buy and read. If you’re a parent of teenagers and you’d like them to learn to love the Scriptures, love Jesus, and live lives of faith and faithfulness, then buy this book and leave it somewhere for them to find. If you’re a youth leader and you’re trying to learn how to communicate God’s word in ways that are engaging, relevant, and grounded in the gospel, then buy this book and learn from Tom’s example. If you really want to know where the only fart in the Bible is, then buy this book and turn to chapter 8. And if you’re intending to take my church-based youth ministry intensive class then buy this book because it will be a required text for thinking about teaching young people.
I’m hoping that this will be the first of a series of Bible expositions from this gifted teacher and communicator. I wonder if the next book could be titled Disturbing, distressing, shameful, and strange. It could include reflections on God’s command to kill women and children in Numbers 31:17; the pronouncement of blessing upon those who kill babies by smashing them on rocks in Psalm 137:9; the horrific story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19; or the perplexing story in Exodus 4:24-25 when God tries to kill Moses only to be thwarted by Moses’ wife Zipporah doing an emergency circumcision on their son and touching Moses’ feet with the hastily removed foreskin! Walter Brueggemann argues that the church engages with the Bible with a degree of “unguardedness”, particularly toward those texts that we find objectionable. “They are our texts and must be voiced”.[i] Following the example in Weird, crude, funny, & nude difficult texts of the Bible can not only be voiced, but heard, understood, and embraced as useful.
One final thought: Tom’s book is a demonstration of the value of serious theological education for effective youth ministry. Tom demonstrates the value of biblical literacy, and exegetical and hermeneutical skill (including constructive reference to original languages and secondary literature). Learning these technical skills amplifies rather than constrains or over-complicates Tom’s ministry. Tom’s book is also a demonstration of the fellowship of a community of practice in youth ministry. We get to see how technical classroom lectures get translated into creative pieces of frontline communication; and we also get the illustrations of Tom’s Youthworks College classmate Angus Olsen (who is the genius behind the extraordinary gift of I draw childhood cancer). This is where I ought to declare my conflict of interest. I’m the Graham Stanton who gets a kind mention in the acknowledgements section alongside my dear departed colleague Andy Stirrup. Tom was a student of ours at Youthworks College and I’m thrilled that what we were able to offer in that course could have somehow contributed to making Weird, Crude, Funny, & Nude a reality.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1993), 71.