Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's Jesus

He has spent the past 30 years battling Lex Luthor and protecting planet Earth from extraterrestrial baddies. Now Superman has a new mission: to save religious education from extinction in the nation's classrooms.

Clark Kent's alter ego is one of a series of cinema figures used by teacher trainers at Sheffield Hallam university to help make religious themes more relevant to 21st-century teenagers.

A report by the Bible Society and Exeter university last year, showed that teenagers were being turned off religion by boring RE lessons which make no reference to God. According to the 2001 census, 71 per cent of adults describe themselves as Christian yet only 8 per cent regularly attend church.

Helen Cook, head of the RE postgraduate certificate in education at Sheffield Hallam, said: "We teach a generation for whom religious symbol, myth and story are sometimes meaningless. Reading religious texts is not necessarily going to unlock insight for them.

"Around 40 per cent of teenagers visit the cinema at least once a month.

It's hardly surprising that their assessments of what is heroic and what is evil, possible and impossible, are partly based on the world experienced through TV and film."

This year, Sheffield Hallam's 16 RE trainees will be given tutorials on how to use popular culture to portray religious themes and traditions. Writing in the latest edition of RE Today magazine, Miss Cook outlines the parallels between Superman and Jesus: lBoth arrive on Earth in unusual circumstances after being sent by their fathers; lBoth move from relative obscurity to a prominent adulthood; lBoth are able to help the humans they are sent to live with; lBoth struggle to stand up for truth against injustice and evil.

Miss Cook, who recommends showing RE pupils film clips to illustrate the analogies, also believes Darth Vader can be employed as the ultimate embodiment of evil. The Star Wars villian dresses in black, hides his face and chooses the dark side, yet at the end of Return of the Jedi is redeemed when he kills the emperor and helps destroy the tyrannical empire.

Miss Cook, a former RE teacher at Yarborough secondary school, Lincolnshire, said: "Children who were not interested before are given some important points of reference, but this is only a small part of the lesson.

It is important they are not used in isolation and are backed up by the religious meanings they are intended to represent."

Last year, The TES told how the Vicar of Dibley and The Simpsons featured in a film produced by the Church of England to encourage pupils to consider a church career.

The Rev Dr John Gay, the CofE's RE spokesman, said: "Analogies, as long as they are used carefully, are a highly effective teaching technique - that goes right back to the parables."

Films with a hidden message

As used by Helen Cook...

Saving Private Ryan: Allows pupils to question if war can ever be justified and the doctrine of utilitarianism (is Private Ryan's life worth those of eight men sent to save him?).

The Truman Show: Helps explain the nature of God and if man is being controlled.

Minority Report: Helps pupils to appreciate predestination and free-will.

The Matrix: Helps pupils understand the notion that there is something beyond the parameters of "normal" life.

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