Tuesday, 17 February 2009

bible in motion

Interesting article on the Today programme this morning about the problem that a lack of Bible knowledge is causing for the reading and study of English Literature. The Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and Professor John Mullan from University College London discussed the difficulties of teaching literature when students don’t know or understand the source material of the Bible and the Classics. Mullan teaches a course to bring students up to speed with some of the key material. You can find the discussion here. If you think that Motion and Mullan are exaggerating then watch an episode of University Challenge and see the students struggle to answer the most basic of questions about the Bible.

This is nothing new. In the early 1980s I studied English Literature at A level and was amazed at the way my fellow students missed references and imagery that I took for granted. Again and again our teachers had to explain a story from the Bible to which the author was alluding. It was essential for the older texts like Shakespeare and Chaucer and for the more modern texts of authors such as Joyce and Golding. The same was true during my Theology Degree at Durham. I took two papers in Literature and Theology with the English department, on a course developed by Dr Ruth Etchells, and many of my colleagues studying English Lit didn’t have a clue about the background primary texts for many of the works we studied.

Even more worrying, I find in my present role developing curricula for various education and training programmes that assumptions about basic student knowledge of the Bible can no longer be made. Every couple of years I have to look at where we start the courses and ask if we need to include more foundational material. At a Course in Christian Studies introductory day a few years ago there was one group of about fifteen students doing an exercise based on a passage from the Old Testament. At the end of the session the tutor came and told me that not one of the students had recognised the story of David and Nathan and where it came from. I do find myself wondering what is going on in some parishes when people don’t know the story of King David.

With the above in mind we developed some Access courses in the Diocese of Chelmsford for parishes to use, which cover the basic content and genres of the Bible and how to read the Bible both personally and with others. This Lent the diocese is running two Saturday courses called Walk Thru The Bible and these have already proved popular judging by the number of people who have signed up. If anyone is interested in these courses details can be found here and there is still time to book.

Jonathan Evens has posted more material on the topic here.
The Guardian has an article about Andrew Motion's concerns here.


paul said...

So glad you are working to nourish starved people in this regard, Phillip, but I am mostly left with the overriding question, "What in God's name have the clergy been teaching for the last generation?!?" Beggars belief, frankly!!!

Philip Ritchie said...

Paul, I couldn't agree more. And it isn't a generational thing either. I've been in situations where it is the older Christians who don't know the core stories of the Bible because it has never been seen as important in their church's life.

The good thing about Motion's argument is that it cannot be shot down as the ravings of a Bible basher; he clearly states how impoverished our understanding of literature is without the Bible.

The fact that the ignorrance is shared by so many, in many cases very faithful, Christians is deeply depressing. That's why I so welcomed David Ford's address at the Diocesan Clergy Synod last year. Not because he said anything new but because he stressed the importance of preaching with the Bible in one hand. My experience has been that if the clergy take the Bible seriously in their mission and ministry then their congregations take it seriously.

Steven Carr said...

I think on Millionaire, you could win 250,000 for knowing that Joshua was the 6th book of the Bible.

If only we could get more people to read the Bible…

It is hard to understand British culture without a knowledge of the Bible.

It is hard to understand why divorce was so frowned upon in Britain, until you know that Jesus said ‘But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.’

As for David and Nathan. very few people indeed know the story of God taking away David's sin, and then killing David's innocent child as punishment for David's sin.

You try telling them that that is in the Bible and they won't believe you!