Although more widely known as the “StoryKeepers man” Brian D Brown insists he is just another Methodist minister called to preach the gospel. He pinpoints the origin of the special nature of his ministry since his ordination in 1962 to an experience he had teaching religious education not long after leaving university in Bristol with a history degree.
“I well recall the gazed look on the faces of my class of secondary boys in 1950’s Birmingham as I read them chunks of Thees, Thous and here beginneths from their school Bibles. My obsession since has been to find ways of making the Bible accessible, engaging and relevant to the likes of those kids I taught” he says.
During four searing years as Secretary for Younger School Leavers (those at the end of their Secondary Modern School life) for the Student Christian Movement in Schools in the North West, during which, whilst becoming fully involved with his colleagues in the “Honest to God and the teacher” debate, he became chaplain to a pop agency in Manchester and worked in the Cavern Club in Liverpool, earning the nick name “The Pop Parson”, his concern to communicate to the church-alienated, Biblically illiterate young became acute. This was followed by another formative experience working as a junior lecturer in Dudley College of Education alongside the legendary Bible communicator, another Methodist minister, Rev Alan T Dale as he completed work on his ground-breaking translation of the New Testament New World. Dale encouraged him to pursue his concern for urban young people and he began research alongside the late Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall into theology and working class culture in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham and the late American theologian Daniel Hardy with whom he continued to research after taking the post of Head of Religious Studies at the Lady Spencer Churchill College at Oxford. Further research with James Halloran, Graham Murdoch and Peter Golding at Leicester into mass communication and a teaching consultancy at the Luton Industrial College gave him the impetus to establish the Television Research Unit at Oxford Polytechnic in the 1980s where he advised BBC and ITV on their religious and children’s output.
His obsession with countering the Biblical illiteracy of young people did not go away. His research confirmed that 20 years after the publication of New World television had replaced the book as the primary source of new information for children. Animation was the most popular TV genre. So he reasoned that if he were to do what his mentor Alan Dale had done and successfully communicate the Bible, he should reach out to young people through TV animation. The rest is history he would say. The unprecedented word-wide success of the StoryKeepers on TV and video took everyone by surprise. 29% audience share; 49% of 4-9 year olds watching TV, viewing at least one of the thirteen episodes aired on ITV on Sunday mornings when the natural Sunday School-attending audience was in Junior Church; transmission on all the main channels in Europe and throughout the USA. StoryKeepers was followed by the 39 episode series Friends and Heroes, like StoryKeepers conceived in Oxford and produced by Brian and his writing teams in Hollywood.
Central to everything was his recognition that he was communicating to a Biblically illiterate generation. It was to research this further that with a grant from the Joseph Rank Trust he came to St John’s College carrying out a number of small projects. This work had focused upon the assumptions which lay behind Brian’s two animation series, StoryKeepers (1996) and Friends and Heroes (2007) and the implications they had for Biblical scholarship.
But some asked: where were the data to back up the assumption of mass Biblical illiteracy?
The doubters were silenced by the National Biblical Literacy survey (2009) conducted in face to face interviews with a sample of over 900 respondents gathered in shopping centres in nine centres across the UK. The findings created a media storm when released. The survey showed conclusively,
(i) that the Bible had become alien to the lives and experiences of large swathes of the UK population
(ii) That the language and format used to present the Bible were increasingly barriers to communication.
(iii) That to reach and engage people with the Bible we needed a new way in.
(iv) This resonated with the concerns being expressed among teachers of RE in schools when the government issued a facsimile of the first King James Bible to every school in England and Wales. Teachers began to say that what was needed was not an incomprehensible historical document but a version of the Bible they could safely put in the hands of children like the videos of StoryKeepers and Friends and Heroes.
However the animation route had been fully explored, new forms of media had emerged and digital and social media were now to the fore. They were found in other work going on at St John’s College.
One of the students training for the ministry at St John’s was one of the leading graphic comic artists in Europe, Jeff Anderson, now an Anglican curate. He had recently produced a world best-selling graphic Bible. Brian supervised his dissertation and leaned from him a new way in. Combining the “wrap-around” Bible story-within story developed in the animations the first such graphic novel Brian wrote, “The Secret of the Golden Casket” (Brian D Brown 2009) using this concept was devised. He devised two others in the same genre.
From that work at St John’s has emerged Brian’s latest (and he promises final) project, a new version of the Bible translated by scholars from Oxford, Cambridge and St John’s, transposed into the “broadcast” language of television by a team of top Hollywood animation screen writers, presented in Manga-style and classical comic novel style graphics and tested by the intended readership in 600 schools in the UK and schools in North America and Australia.
Pathfinder the first in the series of 6 volumes of The Bible For All (working title) is planned for release in 2016 to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of “New World”. Brian is hoping that the successors of that class in Birmingham will have a Bible which is accessible and relevant to them and engages them with the life affirming Word.