Going by the Book

17th February 1995 at 00:00
The Bible World series: Volume 1: The Great Plan 0 7459 2171 X, Volume 2: Settlers, Warriors and Kings 0 7459 2172 8, Volume 4: The Life that Changed the World 0 7459 2174 4 Volume 9: Work and Society 0 7459 2179 5 Lion Publishing Pounds 7.99 each

In the past two decades many teachers in RE seem to have retreated from teaching about the Bible or using biblical material. This may be part of a conviction that in the face of a pluralist society, Bible teaching is perceived to be contentious or inappropriately missionary for the classroom.

When biblical material is used, it is often unknowingly secularised by the teacher: the Joseph story is often told in primary schools without any of its 37 references to God and without its punch-line so central to Jewish belief: "So it was not you who sent me here, but God." How many teachers or children could answer the question who said this, to whom and in what context? It appears that biblical material is used relatively rarely and often badly.

Lion bring to this situation their own extensive publishing expertise and interest in the field and a team of scholars with expertise in language, text and natural science to produce a series intended as a 10-volume encyclopedia for children "in the middle school years". Each volume is divided into 20 two-page units, lavishly illustrated with colour drawings based on the biblical text and photographs of relevant scenery or archaeological finds. Clear, user-friendly typeface and text sections and good quality paper which won't be yellow in five year's time, along with artistic depiction of Palestinian Jews quite unlike the white Anglican types to be found in books of this genre 10 or 20 years ago help the product. And God is not censored out of the story, which remains faithful to the text of the Bible in presenting God as the key player.

But the absence of a religious educator from the expert planning team was a serious mistake from the point of view of the classroom user of this series. For use in RE, even as a library resource, the text is not suited to the task. Volume 1 starts with Genesis 1 and not with the Bible and how its contents came to their position of significance for three religions.

The text varies from proper teaching about the Bible narrative ("The Bible story says that when people turned away from God, the whole world was affected and became a cruel place") to assertions that would only be acceptable to religious or perhaps Christian readers: "God cares for all the plants and animals and is concerned for their well-being".

Ancient world stories about floods like the Epic of Gilgamesh are referred to alongside statements about the Noah story like "Absolutely every living creature and person not in the boat was destroyed." It is not made clear to the child reader when the story is being re-told and when the reader is being presented with what is in effect one interpretation of it: literalism. Jericho falls at the sound of the trumpet. God always speaks clearly and is heard without difficulty. His existence is beyond doubt in this series. "Samuel was only a young boy . . . but God can use very ordinary people." Jesus tells a storm to stop and it does - just like that! Nowhere is the child reader introduced to the vital clue that even among religious believers there are different ways of interpreting this book, nor are readers provided with examples. Hermeneutic keys are largely absent.

David Hay said that religious education is always de-indoctrinatory because it increases pupil choice. What we have here in terms of biblical interpretation offers little choice to the reader. Take it or leave it. Faced with that choice, I think most pupils in the middle school years will continue to leave it.

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