6 Working with Sacred Texts

Julian Stern

Teachers of RE have always been exploring texts, and the best use of sacred texts in RE should be enlightening, imaginative, literate, provocative, and sensitive to context. However, this is inevitably not always the case, and the ways in which texts are studied in RE differ from the ways they are studied in history or English lessons.

Research on the use of sacred texts in RE can help teachers understand what is happening and what is possible. Research on the use of sacred texts can also connect contemporary RE to its past, as the detailed study of sacred texts is one of the few activities that teachers from centuries past might recognise in today’s classrooms.

The availability of sacred texts can help, as multiple, original, sacred texts are becoming much more easily and cheaply available, especially in electronic formats. On the internet, general sites include www.religioustolerance.org or www.sacred-texts.com/ and sites with access to key texts include www.buddhanet.net/ or bible.gospelcom.net/ or www.krishna.com/ or www.quran.org.uk/ or www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ or www.sikhs.org/granth.htm. However, the availability of sacred texts does not necessarily mean they will be used most effectively in RE classrooms (explored in Stern 2006, chapter 2, with Stern based at York St John University).

a_Pencils-11.jpg One of the biggest RE projects of recent years has been the Biblos project (based at the University of Exeter), exploring the uses of the Bible in RE. It is a superb example of the search for empirical evidence, to contribute to debates on the proper uses of the text, and there are several research reports on the project already published (including Copley 1998, Copley et al 2001, 2004a, 2004b, with Copley based at the University of Oxford), with classroom materials already coming from the project, and Copley and Walshe 2002, from a related project, involving trialling classroom materials.

For Copley, the Bible as a sacred text has a particular ‘problem’ in England, because it is regarded as a ‘heritage text’ more than as a ‘sacred text’ – just as people are more likely to visit cathedrals as tourists than as pilgrims. An example of the loss of the Bible, even from nominal ‘Bible stories’, is the Joseph narrative as tackled with 7 to 11 year olds. Joseph becoming an oppressor is not included in the narratives used in schools, and the central role of God in the Bible is suppressed, just as the central role of Allah in the Qur’an is at times suppressed. For example, in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, ‘any dream will do’. God appears not at all: Joseph is a ‘nice guy, who succeeds against the odds’. This, says Copley, is anti-RE.

a_Pencils-11.jpgThere are different ways of researching and teaching the Bible, such as those of Cupitt (e.g. Cupitt 1991), Erricker (e.g. Erricker and Erricker 2000) or Hull (e.g. Hull 1998, with Hull based at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham), all of whom are described by Copley as looking for meaning in the reader, at times more than in the text. The Biblos project is clearly ‘partial’ in this way, in looking first for meaning in the text itself, and yet the contrast between those looking at the text and those looking at the reader may be something of a false dichotomy, as the Biblos project, in common with the other approaches, looks at engagement between text and reader: nobody looks to the text or the reader alone.

Related work can and should be completed on other sacred texts. A good example of research on using the Bhagavad Gita in RE is that of Parmar (2001, with Parmar based at Krishna-Avanti Primary School, Edgeware), who has been researching the use of translations of the Bhagavad Gita to raise questions fundamental to human experience. Carrington and Troyna (1988) say that children should face controversial issues, and this is important in working with the Bhagavad Gita.

Although the work is clearly important, the difficulty appears to be getting teachers interested. Sometimes, new RE teachers see the subject as being about multiculturalism alone, without having a concern for the substantial sacred texts and other religious items.



  • Carrington, B and Troyna, B (eds) (1988) Children and Controversial Issues: Strategies for the Early and Middle Years of Schooling; London: Falmer.
  • Copley, C, Copley, T, Freathy, R, Lane, S and Walshe, K (2004a) On the Side of the Angels: The Third Report of the Biblos Project; Exeter: University of Exeter.
  • Copley, T (1998) Echo of Angels: The First Report of the Biblos Project; Exeter: University of Exeter.
  • Copley, T, Freathy, R, and Walshe, K (2004b) Teaching Biblical Narrative: A Summary of the Main Findings of the Biblos Project, 1996-2004; Exeter: University of Exeter.
  • Copley, T, Lane, S, Savini, H and Walshe, K (2001) Where Angels Fear To Tread: The Second Report of the Biblos Project; Exeter: University of Exeter.
  • Copley, T and Walshe, K (2002) The Figure of Jesus in Religious Education; Exeter: University of Exeter.
  • Cupitt, D (1991)_ What is a Story?_; Norwich: SCM Press.
  • Erricker, C and Erricker, J (2000) Reconstructing Religious, Spiritual and Moral Education; London: RoutledgeFarmer.
  • Hull, J M (1998) Utopian Whispers: Moral, Religious and Spiritual Values in Schools; Norwich: RMEP.
  • Parmar, N (2001) Using the Bhagavad Gita to Improve the Teaching of Hinduism at Key Stage 2; Oxford: Farmington Institute (and www.farmington.ac.uk).
  • Stern, L J (2006) Teaching Religious Education: Researchers in the Classroom; London: Continuum.