Worlds of belief;Reviews;Religious Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
RELIGIOUS EDUCATION: an interpretive approach. By Robert Jackson. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;12.99.

Robert Jackson's mission is to find authentic and ethical ways of representing religions and religion to children. His book operates at two levels - it applies recent developments in ethnography to religious education and explains the Warwick RE project, better known as Heinemann's Bridges to Religions series for primary children.

Jackson's book is not an easy read. Teachers with a recent degree in religious studies should be familiar with the issues, if not the literature, but the book underlines the subject's importance and exposes the risks RE teachers take. It is, in a real sense, about the subject's future, and although Jackson's standpoint may not be shared by the whole profession, everyone teaching RE needs to be aware of the issues he raises.

Fundamental to his thesis is that the RE teacher is an "interpreter", with the task of communicating about worlds different from his or her own. The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggests explaining other ways of thinking by evoking the situations in which they operate. Jackson draws from Geertz in seeing the interpretive task as closer to the way a critic illuminates a poem than how an astronomer accounts for a star.

The chapter on phenomenology may be more familiar territory. Jackson shows how the morphological, descriptive approach of the Sixties has been replaced by a more contextual one. Waardenburg, a "new style phenomenologist" whose work is extensively quoted, sees the researcher's role in attempting to reconstruct the religious world of the insider as close to that of an actor playing a part.

The problem for religious education, acknowledged but not addressed in sufficient detail, is how the projection of subjective experience can be managed - given the challenge of greater involvement with the living tradition in all its ambiguity and complexity.

Those living and teaching in multicultural areas will be fully aware of such issues. Jackson's chapter on the representation of religion, for instance, shows how much ethnographic writing is still "grounded in the logic of an unequal power relationship" (from colonialism and trade relations) and how the terms "religion" and "religions" are fundamentally Western and Christian with little relevance to other traditions.

Jackson shows the importance of studying an individual faith with a powerful case study of Anita, a Gujerati speaker who regards herself as a foreigner in India and an Indian in Britain. Her views on equal opportunities differ from those of her grandfather, but her exposure to the views of her wider society does not threaten her Hindu identity. Anita moves "skilfully from one cultural situation to another, exhibiting no obvious tensions and participating energetically in the life of the different groups in which she is involved".

This example demonstrates the importance of Jackson's attempt to find an interpretive methodology which can be true to personal experience and balance the variety of perspectives within all religious traditions.

The final chapters, as well as introducing the research base and the nature of the Warwick materials, make a convincing case for a religious education that is pragmatic and conversational rather than ideological.

Mark Williamson Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE in the London borough of Hounslow

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