What do young people really think about the Bible? RE teachers need to find out, says Terence Copley
In 1963 Richard Acland wrote We Teach Them Wrong and, using pupil-derived survey evidence from the Taunton area, added to a growing feeling from the 1930s onwards that the Bible was being badly taught.
One legacy of the old Bible-bashing days in RE is that some teachers now are scared that if the Bible is used, pupil boredom will follow. Mention the Bible and your pupils fall asleep. Or they may be hostile if they think they are expected to believe something that no one with an IQ in double figures can accept. The place of the Bible has correspondingly shrunk to random stories often taken out of context, with God, the star of the narratives, edited out. Or the Bible is now reduced to gobbets.
Gobbets - sounds like an offshoot of "vomit" - are short passages used for key stage 4 exam quotes for moral and ethical themes, but read without the overall context of the book from which they are taken. It is rather like using one-liners from Shakespeare in PSHE and thinking you are teaching English literature at the same time.
But is the Bible really the kiss of death for RE? The Biblos Project at Exeter University was set up with funding from the Bible Society and other educational trusts to see whether the Bible could be taught in RE in a culture which prides itself on being plural and is rather less aware of its own secular assumptions. The starting point was that the Bible matters to three religions: it contains the Hebrew Bible (to Christians the Old Testament, although not in the same book order), and the Christian Bible. For Islam it deals with some of the prophets from Prophet Adam to Prophet 'Isa (Jesus). It also has a lot to say about human nature. By not asking RE students to accept that the Bible is something for Christians only, that pupils are not permitted to question, a way to teach it opens up.
But what do pupils themselves think? The views were sought of 730 KS4 comprehensive pupils studying biblical material as part of an accredited course in religious studies in a wide range of chools in varying locations. Only 15 per cent admitted to being interested at the outset, against 26 per cent indifferent, 30 per cent not keen and 27 per cent unsure. Seven per cent of the interested group claimed to be committed Christians. For most of the others, it was experience of previous study or just curiosity that aroused their interest. Fifty-three per cent of the not-keen group said that the Bible was boring or they were not religious.
Pupils were asked whether they identified with a religion. Those identifying with Islam were more positive about Bible study than those identifying with Christianity. But a huge majority showed traditional British pragmatism, accepting that the Bible would be helpful for their exam coursework. However, 41 per cent identified difficulty with the language of the text as a major problem. Where did it leave them at the end? Fifty-nine per cent felt that the Bible had some relevance to people today, citing its moral teachings, or its relevance for religious believers, and 43 per cent felt that they were personally influenced by what it says. Yet only 19 per cent thought a particular passage had made an impression on them. The Christmas and Easter stories were well down this list. Parables of Jesus and vague references to his teachings, including the sermon on the mount, were the chart toppers. Cultural and historical change was given as the main reason by those pupils denying any relevance for the Bible in the year 2000.
Analysis of this data continues and caution is needed in generalising from the sample. Recommendations will be sent to agreed syllabus planning groups and to OFSTED and the QCA. The full report of the current phase of the Biblos project will be available in September (e-mail: email@example.com). We need to listen to what student "consumers" are making of the Bible, to assessing what is being taught and what is being learned. If the "best-selling book" is not sacred for most pupils, more are encountering it than one might expect. We have to teach them right.
Terence Copley professor of religious studies at the University of Exeter