I posed this question on Twitter the other day: ‘Why would you start your religion curriculum with anything other than Bible stories?’ In this blog, I will make the argument that:
- A basic knowledge of the Christian Bible is needed to be genuinely fluent in the English language.
- Knowledge and understanding of these stories is necessary to access a range of other disciplines: English literature, history, art and music, to name the most obvious.
- Together, they represent some of the most powerful stories ever written.
‘No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible’ – E. D. Hirsch
One of the lesser-known appendices to Hirsch’s tome ‘The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy’ is ‘Appendix B: Supplement on Biblical Literacy’. That Hirsch did not include biblical literacy in the body of his work can in part be explained by the complicated relationship between religion and the State in American public life. I’m not going to delve into that philosophical bear pit right now. What is important here is that Hirsh does not see teaching about the Bible as an apologetic activity: for him, and for me, teaching about the Bible is something that we do because it produces ‘literate and historically informed citizens.’ I think there is more to it than that, but I’ll explain more about that further on.
For the moment, stop to consider the number of allusions made to biblical stories in newspapers, books or in casual conversation. You’ll see the extent to which knowledge and understanding of such references dramatically affects our comprehension – a point that Daisy Christodoulou and others have made much more effectively than I can. Consider, for example, this cover of ‘Newsweek’ last year.
Add to this some of the phrases that we use in our everyday speech. Consider, for example, what it means, literally and figuratively, to cite ‘chapter and verse’. Or what it means to say someone is a Good Samaritan? Or – as Colonel Tim Collins warned his troops before the Second Gulf War – to take care not to take life needlessly for fear of the ‘Mark of Cain’? In each case, a basic knowledge of a biblical story dramatically empowers the listener. When I read Tim Collins’ speech for the first time (and I’d thoroughly recommend you do) I couldn’t help wonder whether all of his soldiers would have understood this reference, and how damaging their ignorance of this might have been.
I also think that Bible stories make the teaching of other subjects more enriching. I am very fortunate to be at a school where we think very hard about curriculum design and how we can dovetail subjects that are too often considered to be totally discrete. You can read more about this in Joe Kirby’s blog here. I’m not going to spend the next 20,000 words writing a thesis on the myriad ways in which a basic knowledge of Bible stories supports teaching in other subjects. But here is one example:
Katie Ashford is currently teaching ‘Tyger, Tyger’ by William Blake to her Year 7 groups. This is a challenging poem to do with Year 7s. But it’s even more challenging if pupils’ knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology is so poor that they have no purchase on the poem. It’s for exactly this reason that many English teachers would shy away (I think understandably) from teaching it. This in turn impoverishes our curriculum, which in turn impoverishes their learning. In Katie’s case, the discussion was that much more enriching because of the knowledge the pupils brought into the lesson: they understood that the ‘Lamb’ was a metaphor for Jesus and why it is a symbol of innocence. What could have been a totally impenetrable poem was made that little bit easier because of the knowledge they had to bring to it.
Most importantly, though, you should teach Bible stories because they are some of the most powerful stories that have ever been written.
Hirsch is right to say that children should learn about Bible stories because it makes them ‘literate and historically informed citizens’. But to justify their inclusion in the curriculum simply on these grounds is to neglect the intentions of their authors and power of their message. You do not have to believe in God to find the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac one of the most arresting in the whole of the human story. Such was Abraham’s devotion to God that he was prepared to sacrifice his only son. Now that’s something for the pupils to chew on. And if you can’t make a lesson on that interesting, frankly, you’re in the wrong job. Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it – Fear and Trembling – in which, among other things, he seems to argue that Abraham was right to suspend the normal ethical rules because of his absolute devotion to God – what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. It is a terrifying argument: as powerful and pertinent now as it was when Kierkegaard first wrote it.
Next time, I’ll be discussing curriculum design in religion, how important this is, and suggesting some possible ways forward. I’ll be looking at the teaching of religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition and what ‘philosophy’ might look like at Key Stage 3.