If I’m going to be honest as a reviewer, I have to say that I didn’t want to like this book. That’s a terrible thing. First of all, I generally prefer not to review books I don’t think I’ll like. I made an exception for Wild at Heart. It seemed like the natural follow-up to Captivating, even though I didn’t like that one very much either, and I felt as though my opinion as a Catholic reviewer would be useful.
So, continuing in honesty, I wasn’t sure I would like the newly-published African American Catholic Youth Bible, from St. Mary’s Press (AACYB). Yet I’m a black Catholic book reviewer. I have years of experience working with youth and young adults (in addition to my own experience being one). Although I do not observe it for reasons much too complex for this blog, it is Black History Month. How could I pass up the opportunity?
Now, having reviewed this particular edition of the Bible, I’m glad I gave it a chance.
It’s been a while since I used a youth Bible—so long, in fact, that the most common Catholic translation has been revised! That translation, available on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website and from any Catholic bookseller, is the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE). The “Welcome” section of the AACYB (and, presumably, the NABRE edition of the regular Catholic Youth Bible) mentions that the NABRE is used in Catholic worship and informal settings. However, the NABRE is not actually used in the Mass, which is the highest form of worship. I have not heard anything about a revision of the lectionary (the book lectors and clergy read from during Mass) being underway; if I’m wrong, comment and let me know. That might be a small thing, but it threw me off early on.
The heart of any study Bible, though, is its unique features. The main text is the NABRE, with its accompanying footnotes. The specifics of that translation are beyond the scope of my reivew. For youth Bibles, it’s all about the special articles and sections. Here’s my comparison of the special topics for articles in the CYB versus the new AACYB.
|Pray It!||Take It to God|
|Live It!||Be About It!|
|Did You Know?||Check This Out|
|Cultural Connection||Black, Catholic, and Faithful|
|Catholic Connection||Know Your Faith|
|Catholic Social Teaching||(none?)|
|(none?)||Our Friends in Faith|
I matched those up myself. “Be About It!” and “Check This Out” seem a little offensive here. Is there some slang that is so reserved to people with brown skin that it wasn’t in the multicultural version? (The CYB has a whole “cultural” section.) If I never speak of anyone being “about” something (which I don’t), am I out of touch with my blackness? Is that even possible? The content is good, but the titles feel over-the-top. On the other hand, I think “Black, Catholic, and Faithful” is a beautiful way of describing the witness of many faithful Catholics who happened to be of African descent. (The description gets a little loose, though. Ruby Bridges is important, but not Catholic.) You can’t choose the color of your skin or the place your ancestors were born, but you can choose whether to live the Faith, and you must choose. I suppose the important Biblical figures of “Our Friends in Faith” could appear in the CYB, but I don’t know for sure. That seems like a large oversight, if not. The articles are all ground-level and printed near relevant sections of Scripture, which serves their ultimate objective. And there are articles specifically about hymns and spirituals. I like spirituals.
I also checked out the color insert section and the illustrations preceding each book of the Bible. I found the map of the African slave trade with the Americas not only realistic and historical (and sad), but also odd and contradictory. It’s relevant to being black, but how does it connect with the Bible? If anything, it makes the illustrations look worse. The art itself is lovely, but I couldn’t quite square the images with the Bible. They all show biblical figures with dark brown skin and curly hair. That doesn’t describe me, let alone Middle Eastern people. In 2015, when I think of what people looked like in the geographical locations of the Bible, I imagine Jewish people, Middle Easterners, and Egyptians. It doesn’t help me to see Sirach in Kente cloth, Esther with braids, or St. Michael with full lips. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a fan of depictions of Jesus long-haired and clean-shaven, either. Neither extreme seems quite right.
Moving beyond the special youth features, I dipped into the text. When I think of parts of the Bible that stick out because they have been featured in discussions of race, I think of the children of Ham (Genesis 9:20–27), the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt in Exodus, and New Testament verses on the treatment of slaves.
I was delighted to find a special article right at the story of Ham. Wrapping my head around it took a few readings, though. Part of the problem is trying to define what it means to be black. The note identifies the prophet Zephaniah as being from Egypt or Ethiopia. Those are pretty far from west Africa, which (as the map reminds us) is where the slave traders departed for the Americas. To accept Zephaniah as an example of a black person held in high esteem (not enslaved) requires the reader to (a) know who Zephaniah is, (b) consider being a minor prophet a highly esteemed role, and (c) think of Egypt as a country from which black people come. I don’t think I would have grasped all of that when I was a youth. I’m not totally on board with (c) now!
The article goes on to say that Canaan was the one whose line was cursed, not Ham. That negates the historical pro-slavery identification of Ham with the “dark” people enslaved in Africa. It explains that the curse on Canaan was why the Israelites “dominated the people of Canaan.” But why did they dominate them? The regular NABRE footnote offers some explanation, but since the article was about race, I was looking for a reason Canaan had to be destroyed (if not race). It’s their immorality and lack of worship of the true God. Canaan’s desendants become the Amorites and spread to Sodom and Gomorrah. Those should ring a few bells. Half an explanation is better than none, but I was left unsatisfied overall there.
In Exodus, the article focuses on leaders that empowered people suffering oppression. It mentions Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Romero, which didn’t surprise me, but it also mentions Saint Teresa of Avila, which had me stumped. It also leaves out any political elements of the oppression various groups have faced throughout time and civilization. In countries based on principles of democracy and innate equality, oppression based on something you can’t control (like the color of your skin) is the worst. That’s a conclusion I drew, though, not one I found in the article.
Finally, I turned to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:20–24. This is where I was most delighted. In these verses, Paul seems to encourage slaves to stay slaves, to support the system in place in his day (and, depending on how you define slavery, still in existence today). The nearby article notes that Paul expected the Second Coming and the end of time to arrive within his lifetime, so he might have written differently if he knew his words would be used to justify slavery up to two milennia later. The article notes that slavery is incompatible with the Gospel, which is a message of freedom at its heart. That’s a message and an explanation I can get behind.
Ultimately, I think this Bible was produced with a noble goal. Youth is about establishing identity and building relationships. If we want black Catholic youth to get on board with the Faith, we have to acknowledge the rest of their lived experience. It’s hard to find a balance between extremes: pigeonholing a group that is diverse in and of itself, ignoring the reality of American racial culture, and isolating faith and politics. The African American Youth Bible is a step in the right direction.
I received a free copy of The African American Catholic Youth Bible from St. Mary’s Press in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!