I recently came across a Key Stage 3 RE textbook about the Bible, which is popular in the independent sector. The opening two pages offered an informative, useful overview of the creation story in Genesis 1. However, my optimism about the book began to diminish as I turned the page to find a double page spread on fossil fuels, over-fishing and environmental pressure groups – the rationale being that it provided an ‘application’ of the creation story.
This approach of alternating a double page about a Bible story with a double page on a contemporary issue continued throughout the book. The biblical account of the Fall of Humanity was followed by an article from a local newspaper about vandalism. The Ten Commandments led into a study of prisons, capital punishment and human rights. The story of King David sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah preceded modern abuses of power such as Robert Maxwell’s embezzlement of company money and Harold Shipman’s murders. The Israelites worship of idols was simply followed by a full-page photo of David and Victoria Beckham with the accompanying title, ‘Why are we fascinated by celebrities?’
Using Bible stories as a departure point for exploring a vaguely linked modern social issue disrupts any sense of biblical narrative and misrepresents both the Bible, by presenting it as merely an ethical handbook for modern day living, and also Christians as those who simply cherry pick Bible passages, in order to find answers to complex moral questions. Furthermore, by making a religious story or idea the route into a moral issue, or lens through which a moral issue is looked at, there is a danger that pupils are subtly directed towards specific attitudes, values or ideas about it. This use of religion as part of a character formation agenda understandably leaves RE vulnerable to serious criticisms.
Underlying this approach, there also seems to be a simplistic and damaging conflation of relevance with both that which is modern, and also that which pupils already know and experience. Yet, if the same pupils can learn about forces in Physics, compounds in chemistry, river processes in Geography and the feudal system in History without lengthy detours to supposedly more engaging modern issues, do they really need such an approach in order to engage with something as provocative as religion?
When studying the Old Testament at Key Stage 3, pupils should explore the characters, events and narrative and build a cumulative understanding of recurring concepts like covenant, sacrifice, sin, faith and the nature of God and humanity. They should consider the historical, social and religious context in which the texts were written and understood, and how understandings of them have been challenged, critiqued and changed through history.
This is not to say that a well-judged analogy or contemporary reference isn’t a valuable teaching tool in helping to build a bridge between a pupil’s experience and new, unfamiliar ideas. However, this is different to building a bridge from religion to a tenuously related modern issue, thereby limiting the time spent studying religious material, and potential depth of engagement with it. In this second approach, the focus on modern issues seems a sort of apology for the subject matter, leading to poor pupil perception of the subject’s relative rigour and value.
The study of religion is relevant to young people because it broadens the horizons of their knowledge through access to a rich landscape of unfamiliar, challenging ideas. It is relevant because knowledge of religion is necessary in order to understand our history, culture and language. It is relevant because religion remains a powerful force in the modern world. It is relevant because it helps us to understand the lives of human beings, the majority of whom are religious.
RE teachers are fortunate; what more provocative, timeless and truly relevant subject matter we could be given to teach about than religion, I do not know. We need intelligent and creative thinking about how to teach young people about it, not to teach them about something else instead. It is at the peril of the subject and of young people’s ability to make sense of the world they inhabit, that we disregard this very thing that makes RE both distinctive and valuable.