Jesus in the world

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Terence Copley reports on a new survey of pupils' understanding of Jesus and looks at what it means for teachers

Whether we happen to be agnostics, atheists, believers in God - or just confused - Jesus remains by any reckoning one of the most important figures in the history of the world.

Whoever else might be in the Top Ten Humans, it would be difficult to dislodge Jesus from the list. He also pops up in every key stage in RE. Yet by key stage 3, where often an entire term in Year 8 is devoted to studying Jesus, pupil reaction varies from a suppressed or not-so-suppressed groan to pallid respect at best. Why? Has he been done to death in key stages 1 and 2? Have pupils lived through too many Christmases by the age of 12? Is Jesus just uncool?

The Jerusalem Trust sponsored research by Exeter University School of Education to find out more. Five hundred and forty-two Year 8 pupils from schools in Bradford, Devon, Leicestershire and Somerset were asked by questionnaire what they knew about Jesus in a simple test about biblical narrative and then asked what their attitudes towards him were.

The questionnaire used only words provided by pupils from a pilot study. No adult language about Jesus was imposed on them. A volunteer sample from each school was interviewed to follow up and sometimes clarify their written answers. The full results of this research will be published next week.

The results provide a mixture of surprise and more predictable findings. Few pupils doubted Jesus's historical existence (only 8 per cent), but many demonstrated confusion about him. Girls knew more about him than boys. Boys were more ready to see him as a rebel than girls, but most pupils were reluctant to identify Jesus as a rebel at all. In interviews they commented that it is because they associate the word with terrorism.

Many did not identify him as a prophet - Muslim children excepted - because they explained they did not know what a prophet was. Miracles were often confused with parables. Biblical narrative events such as Martha and Mary or Zacchaeus were also identified as parables. Parables were frequently interpreted in a secular way, for instance, the Prodigal Son meant "don't be greedy". The Boy who cried Wolf was one example of a parable thought to be by Jesus, along with Joseph and his Dream Coat. A large majority thought Jesus tried to help people, that he thought of others before himself, loved everyone equally and was a good listener - had they turned him into the ideal 21st century westerner?

Asked what they didn't understand about Jesus, the most common answers were the miracles and the resurrection. One of the most surprising findings was that when asked where they got their ideas about Jesus from, 87.4 per cent said they came from RE lessons. This applied even among those pupils who identified themselves as Christians. For them RE was still nominated as a stronger influence in their picture of Jesus than family or church. Peer group influence on attitudes to Jesus, which might reasonably be assumed to be high, was only rated by 21.9 per cent in this sample.

But the research into Jesus in RE didn't end with pupil opinion. A study of 37 agreed syllabuses revealed that little attention was paid to Jesus as a prophet in Islam, or as a Jewish figure, or in Rastafarianism or in the Baha'i faith.

The latest findings of New Testament scholarship were not reflected in syllabuses. In other words, some of the world's major religions, along with New Testament scholars, provide a gallery of "pictures" of Jesus, but these are not reflected in RE. There is a serious mismatch between the Jesus of RE lessons and the Jesus of Christianity and other religions that make claims about him.

So where has the Jesus of RE syllabuses come from? Even Jesus's position in Christianity is not well understood by pupils. "If he is sort of God, how can he sit next to him in heaven?" asked one. "Why can't he fly like Superman?" asked another. "If he really was the Son of God then why did he die? Why isn't he alive today?" But their interviews reflect thinking and a desire to debate Jesus. "I don't think he was a con-man, because I don't think he would have gone to such extremes like giving up everything if he were a con-man." "I don't think he showed people how to live, because he was accepting of what people did, how they lived... so he thought it was wrong to stop them being who they were." "Some stories I think may not be quite true, but most of them, because they've written about them, there must be some truth behind them." "I just can't understand how he like could be the Son of God, because God's... I thought his father was Joseph or whatever..."

It is not all bad news. Young people show a willingness to think about Jesus, even if the prospect of studying him does not initially excite. They bring into Year 8 their own beliefs, disbeliefs, opinions, thinking and confusion on this subject. They deserve a syllabus that reflects the Jesus gallery in world religions, not some mutation that has survived only in RE, and they need the sort of scheme of work that allows for debate, questioning and an entering into the theological issues surrounding the enigmatic figure of Jesus.

Since there is abundant evidence that children can philosophise we need in RE to help them to theologise. Or else they will do it on their own, less successfully.

To obtain the full report The Figure of Jesus in Religious EducationEmail: biblos@exeter.ac.uk

TEACHING TIPS

RE teachers should:

* check their understanding of religious language is shared by pupils (terms such as "rebel" and "prophet").

* allow children to raise questions about Jesus and the claims made by religions about him, for instance prophet and Son of God.

* check they are not making parables secular, divorced from their historical origin.

* check that Jesus's Jewishness is sufficiently emphasised.

Agreed syllabus revision should:

* co-ordinate the appearances of Jesus at each key stage to allow for progression.

* reflect what those religions with things to say about Jesus are saying.

* take account of recent New Testament scholarship on Jesus.

* examine theological issues about Jesus, such as what Christians mean by "the son of God" and what other religions mean by "prophet".

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