The potential for being less earnest

9th December 1994 at 00:00
TEACHING CHRISTIANITY, By Owen Cole and Ruth Martin, Pounds 8.99. 0 435 30150 0, Heinemann.

This is a very worthy book. Its aim is to persuade teachers, both primary and secondary, that Christianity can be taught and that all professional teachers of goodwill are capable of teaching it.

The authors are, moreover, committed to the view that, like any other religion, it must be taught within what they term "a world religions context". As they comment, "if we expect Muslim children to listen to the story of Christianity we must also expect non-Muslims to listen to the story of Islam".

That all sounds very reasonable, just as it sounds reasonable further on in the book to suggest that in a Christmas story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah the Jewish story is "not being distorted". As this is exactly what the use of the phrase, "Jesus the Messiah" does, and not using such a phrase would clearly distort the Christian story, there is need of the question: "How?" There are plenty of "hows" within the book. A great deal of space is devoted to a variety of content and methods, following the introductory section which spells out the present legal requirements against which all RE teaching takes place.

These authors know only too well the restraints. The amount of time now devoted within courses of initial teacher education will scarcely allow for a fast reading of this one book. When that is reduced to training in the schools in which, as the politicians keep reminding us, the subject is taught badly and too infrequently, it can only get worse. The call for Inset courses made by the authors is, consequently, a cry for an audience.

Teaching Christianity deserves to be read, or at least dipped into. However, I hope it will be read critically and I wish it were not so earnest. There is a joke (on page 81), but the sparseness of humour or even the light touch is, I fear, the legacy of so much Western Protestant Christianity. Jews do these things better and goodness knows they have had their troubles this century.

Is it really all so difficult? Did you hear the one about the Jew, the Muslim and the Hindu? Teaching religion well is never easy, but is it any more complex than the job of the playwright who looks at the world, the same world, through the eyes of a variety of characters on stage? At its best, teaching RE can be enormous fun, but the newcomer can be forgiven for missing this point on delving into this volume. It reads as if it were written from the perspective of the serious critic sitting in the third row of the stalls, critically evaluating one of the players but unable to join in the drama, the argument and the spirit of the encounter, which is just not true of these authors in the flesh.

Nevertheless, I cannot help thinking that a good medieval Mystery play with all its bawdy bounce intact might have more success in encouraging a wider range of teachers to exclaim: "I could teach that."

jack priestly Dr Jack Priestley is Principal of Westhill College, Birmingham.

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