Over the past 33 years I’ve witnessed a lot of conversations that followed this general pattern:
Parent: I’m amazed. Why do you want to choose this subject?
Son or daughter: It’s the way (she/he) teaches it.
It even applies to that oft-assumed bastion of boringness, the Bible. Now we find that not only does the way it’s taught determine whether it’s presented well but also young people’s interest level and gain.
I’m talking about November’s research of the month, Professor Susan Docherty’s brilliant BJRE article ‘A new dialogue between biblical scholarship and Religious Education’. Susan brings a very wide range of knowledge and ideas to our attention and I can’t reflect them all here, so I’ll concentrate on a few that were new or seemed particularly useful to me. I’m no Biblical scholar. I’m coming from the RE side of the dialogue and encourage you strongly to read the original article. Generally, Susan argues that you’ve got to pay attention to the Jewish context of very early Christianity, and to recent work on interpreting the Bible. She’s in no way trying to privilege the text – texts, that is – but to address the fact that whilst RE specifications now put more emphasis on texts, weak practices like proof-texting jeopardise the learning experience.
So, on the Jewish background, New Testament texts should be read as Jewish texts, and reference made to works outside the canon. The Dead Sea scrolls show how the Qumran community held possessions in common and celebrated a communal meal in expectation of the coming of the Messiah. Jesus’ movement was not unique in the Judaism of the time. If you’re teaching about the problem of evil, note that the extra-canonical text 1 Enoch gives an interesting theodicy, where angels rebel against God, come to Earth and mate with women to create sin. The story appears much more briefly in Genesis. Paul’s concept of original sin seems to have arisen through interpreting different texts, which offered him alternatives to sift.
Within the official Bible, there are different views on e.g. immigration. There are a range of views and no single position, something that RE teachers need to explore. This moves us on to the contemporary world, where different viewpoints are brought to bear on biblical materials, sometimes to reduce power imbalances or engage readers from outside churches. The work of Symon Hill is cited, where he discusses Jesus’ teaching on prostitution with sex workers, one of whom points out that the text in question (Matthew 21:31) does not actually say that they must give up their work to get into the Kingdom of God, in contrast to ‘traditional’ interpretations.
What’s clear is that passages in the Bible must be considered in context and different possible motives and interpretations examined. This reminds me of the idea of ‘desirable difficulties’ in cognitive psychology. It’s a lot more complicated than memorising the lines and which issue they apply to, desirably so, because it reflects the content, stretches the learner’s imagination and thus offers a genuinely memorable experience. It reduces fundamentalism and offers personal engagement to learners. How do you see it? Where do your perspectives come from? What are the points from which you view? The CORE report rightly says that interactions between individuals and traditions are influenced by a whole range of factors (page 36). I think Susan’s research suggests some ways for RE to learn to reflect that complexity. Don’t take my word for it, though. Read it and think about how you might make use of it.
Culham St Gabriel’s Trust are very grateful to Professor Susan Docherty for reporting her research at https://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/what-can-re-teachers-learn-from-contemporary-biblical-studies/ Please don’t forget to follow the link and leave your feedback. We are supporting further research into hermeneutical approaches to teaching religious texts, led by Dr Bob Bowie of Canterbury Christ Church University and Dr Farid Panjwani of University College London, as part of our Research7 series.
Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust