Does the Bible have a place in multi-faith schooling? David Self reports on a project that shows its relevance for everyone.
Strange how times change. A generation ago RE syllabuses were criticised for being bible-based and for ignoring non-Christian faiths. Now the reverse is more true. Many teachers of RE are reluctant to focus on the Bible in multi-faith situations. "If you enter a classroom with a Bible you are doing something unacceptable in modern RE," is how Terence Copley, professor of religious education at Exeter University, puts it.
Another problem, he points out, is that "schoolteachers do not know their way around the Bible and therefore find it difficult to select passages to share with students.
"So the same old stories are told over and over again. The Good Samaritan is a good tale but it may be told ad nauseam."
It is partly to solve these problems at key stages 2 and 3 that Biblos, a University of Exeter research project, has been launched (and of which Terence Copley is co-director). Working in contrasting schools in the London Borough of Ealing and Devon, the Biblos team started out by recognising that the Bible contains the stories of two religions - Judaism and Christianity - and features some of the prophets of a third - Islam. It also has echoes of Canaanite, Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek religious codes.
The Biblos project will be publishing curriculum materials based on this premise next year, together with an interim report on the methodology of its research. In the meantime, a spin-off from the project has already appeared. Splashes of God-light is an anthology of 19 Bible stories for audiences of all ages, retold by practising Jews and Christians, each story being accompanied by a note explaining its personal significance for the teller.
The stories are arranged under three headings - Vulnerability, Encounter and Destiny. So, for example, under Vulnerability are the stories of how Esther saved her people from persecution, retold by Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, and the healing of the paralysed man by Jesus, retold by a Methodist minister, Frances Young. Notable in this section is a lively and imaginative version of the gospel story of the healing of the Canaanite woman's daughter, which Kathy Galloway turns into a delightful feminist comedy called "My Mum".
Also in this section is the story of the curing by Elisha of Naaman, here narrated by Frank Gent. He is a lay minister at Exeter Synagogue, which is much involved in outreach work with children in the South-west. He points out that these cannot be simply tagged Judaeo-Christian stories - their significances differ between faiths. "We didn't get at each other for 2,000 years over nothing," he says. Even so, he is delighted to be involved in the Biblos project, considering it a measure of "just how far we have come".
The section on Encounters includes contributions from such well-known writers as the broadcaster and Methodist minister Frank Topping, Douglas Charing of the Jewish Education Bureau, and Radio 4's "Thought for the Day" speaker, Elaine Storkey.
In the Destiny section, the final story is Fay Sampson's "A New Day". She describes one of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples. A distinguished writer of fiction for children and adults, she is usually content to let her stories speak for themselves. But here she explains the "vibes" the story sets up for her. "This is the Son of God who is up before breakfast, cooking our breakfast on the beach," she says.
These retellings are unapologetically confessional, presented as evidence (so Terence Copley says) that "religious faith is still of vital importance within the lives of many human beings". Those assembly leaders more used to objective readings may hesitate before adopting this selection, but the introductory material gives wise advice on the stories' use in assembly and RE, as well as in faith communities and for private reading.
Fay Sampson describes it as a "patchwork". This is both its strength and weakness - the authors are not all natural storytellers, but the varying tones of their narratives add variety and sincerity. It is a pity, perhaps, that there is no Muslim retelling of a story common to all three traditions, but it is good to note that this project has been taken on board and published by the Bible Society - formerly the British and Foreign Bible Society, an organisation more noted for its evangelism than its multi-faith credentials. Copley stresses, though, that the partnership has been a mutually happy one and that the Bible Society is pleased to be involved in a project that is "educationally coherent and defensible".
While one Christian agency takes this inclusive position, Frank Gent says the real test of the book's success will come when Jewish schools consider its adoption and (this is apparently the big question) whether it will get a favourable review in the Jewish Chronicle.
Splashes of God-light. Edited by Terence Copley and others. Bible Society Pounds 5.99