In the beginning

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Today's Issues and Christian Beliefs, By Simon and Christopher Danes, Lion Pounds 7.50. O 7459 2521 9. Jesus: A New Approach, By Kevin O'Donnell, Hodder Stoughton Pounds 8.50 O 340 59293 1.

Jack Priestley discusses approaches to teaching the Jesus story. Both of these books are intended for the GCSE market. Today's Issues and Christian Beliefs is written in a lively and engaging style. As is to be expected from this publisher, there has been a generous investment in terms of layout, illustration and production generally. It is also exactly what it claims to be - a study of contemporary issues from a Christian perspective. Or is it from the Christian perspective?

My curiosity was awakened when I discovered that here was a school textbook carrying, of all things, a bishop's imprimatur, stating that the text is free from doctrinal error. "Imprimatur" in my dictionary is, "an official licence to print, now used of works sanctioned by the Church". I am sure that this is only something done for marketing purposes, but it sits awkwardly with my concept of education and heightens a suspicion which had already begun to form.

This book is persuasive. It has the appearance of critical openness but there are small and disturbing signs that, in fact, the framework is more than necessarily restricted. The first chapter is a cock-shy at a cluster of easy targets. Hedonism, egoism, utilitarianism, communism and nazism are dismissed in quick succession. This paves the way without further ado for a more detailed but less critical consideration of, "Christianity: The Love Principle". As this book is intended for syllabuses on Christianity this seems perfectly fair but the engagement remains superficial.

The bulk of the book then consists of four great issues, the family, citizenship, responsibility for others and world issues. The treatment of all of these is comprehensive for the target audience and a significant number of facts and figures are given.

At this level the contents are anything but superficial; it is the blandness of the engagement which concerns me. There is too high a degree of consensus and genuine differences are smoothed over beneath a layer of nice reasonableness. It is the Christian dialogue of the well-mannered dinner table; the issues may be raw out on the streets but they have been given a good antiseptic spray before being brought indoors.

I tend to resist attempts to merge the great faith stories when looking explicitly at religions. Mish-mash is for the toothless. Here, however, I would rejoice to see Muslim, Jewish or Hindu teachings alongside the Christian, not in order to pretend there is no difference but to set up a genuine contrast of views, thus clarifying the Christian position(s) and encouraging real classroom dialogue.

In Jesus: A New Approach Kevin O'Donnell seeks to spell out the Christian faith story. It is certainly a book about Jesus. It also claims to be a new approach which makes me feel young again.

For anyone writing up the Jesus story the first question is where and how to begin. The four gospels all start in different places. O'Donnell opts for the synoptics and for Matthew's starting point so that we begin with a chart of the synoptic problem, a picture of the earliest fragment from the John Ryland's library and a photograph of Cliff Richard - all pretty ancient stuff. Then we go to Matthew's chronology and pick up the story from Abraham and his covenant.

It gets better. The pictures change as well as the text. There are some good reproductions from classical art and the writing subtly switches from a historical to a more theological approach. By that I mean that it mixes the two. I found this fascinating although at times maddening. There is a stylistic inconsistency and the flow is constantly interrupted by unexpected comment.

I imagine that the "new approach" of the title is meant to lie in the last four chapters, which consist of modern application and theological commentary. There is a hidden message in this book but unlike Today's Issues I felt it was an unconscious one and, consequently, I feel much more kindly disposed to it. The author is on the verge of a genuinely new approach in today's market but it is as if he could not summon up the courage to go all the way.

It is, in fact, an old approach which needs to be made new. O'Donnell tries to tell the Jesus story but, in fact, it is the Christ story which keeps breaking through. For that he should have gone back to John and the pre-existent Word, rather than to Matthew's chronology, and been theological from the start rather than feeling the origins of his narrative lay in digging up Palestine yet again.

The point of the Christ story is that it is the all embracing myth, in which the text overtakes us so that His-story becomes part of our story. The post-Enlightenment Jesus of history narrative breaks that up and foreshortens the ending to long before our time.

This book is well produced, with some excellent illustrations and passages but teachers will have some problems in handling the text unless they themselves are aware of the nuances of style and approach.

Dr Jack Priestley is Principal of Westhill College of Higher Education, Birmingham.

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