Teaching biblical narrative in religious education
Using the Bible in RE can be problematic for a number of reasons. Students are often reluctant to engage with biblical material and teachers often lack confidence in their ability to teach the Bible effectively. The purpose of this section of the handbook is not to tell you how to teach the Bible in the classroom but to help you explore some of the issues surrounding teaching biblical narrative so that you will feel better equipped to use the Bible in RE.
What are some of the key issues?
According to research in RE*, key issues surrounding use of the Bible in RE include:
a) Negative or apathetic response from students (and sometimes from teachers)
b) Teachers’ lack of confidence in how to use the Bible in the RE classroom
The Bible is ‘boring’:
Clearly one of the biggest difficulties faced by teachers in the RE classroom is a negative or apathetic response from students. Research in RE suggests that at the heart of such a response lies the fundamental issue of the perceived irrelevance of the Bible for life in the 21st century. The Bible is seen my many as being out of date and therefore of little or no relevance to people’s lives today. Moreover, many students consider the Bible to have been ‘made up’ and its stories exaggerated.
Miracles present one of the biggest difficulties for many young people today. Claims made for instance regarding Jesus’ ability to heal people, walk on water, and raise people from the dead are often seen as nonsense as for many students, such claims conflict with their understanding of the way the world works. Miracles are simply not possible, therefore the Bible is wrong. This dismissal of the Bible in terms of its validity and reliability often leads to negative or apathetic attitudes towards use of the Bible in RE.
Interestingly, research in RE suggests that this negativity is more evident in students’ responses to the Bible than to other religious texts such as the Bhaghavad Gita or the Guru Granth Sahib. One of the reasons suggested for this is that when it comes to learning about Christianity in the RE classroom, students often perceive that they are being expected to believe what they are being taught.
If the idea of Moses being able to part the Red Sea lies outside their understanding of what is possible and therefore believable, students are likely to switch off and be unwilling to engage with the narrative. As RE teachers, one of the ways in which we can address this is by providing opportunities for students to explore questions such as:
a) What do we mean by ‘truth’?
b) Do all Christians understand the ‘truth’ of the Bible in exactly the same way?
c) What might it mean to say that the Bible is the inspired word of God?
d) How does a person’s understanding of what is true/believable/possible affect the way they respond to a particular biblical narrative?
How can we use the Bible more effectively in the classroom?
The Bible is a treasure chest of experiences and beliefs concerning what it means to be human and in relationship with self, others, and God. It asks fundamental questions about life, such as:
a) Who am I?
b) Where have I come from?
c) Where am I going?
d) How do I know what is right and wrong?
e) Who is God?
f) What does it mean to live in relationship with God?
g) Why is there evil and suffering in the world?
h) What is really important?
And like all good treasure chests, it needs a key. Part of our job as RE teachers is to provide students with the tools and skills they need to meaningfully engage with biblical material and consider what relevance it might have for themselves and for those for whom the Bible is a sacred text. As with any book, when reading the Bible (which is perhaps best understood as a collection of books), it helps to know a bit about its context. For instance, knowing that the Hebrew word for ground or earth is adamah might help us to understand why, according to the book of Genesis, the first human being was named Adam.
Similarly, it might help our understanding of the importance of the ‘calming of the storm’ (Mark 4: 35-41) for early Christians if we consider that Mark’s gospel was probably written around the time of the Emperor Nero’s attack on Christians in Rome. Furthermore, if we remember that for Jews only God had the power to forgive sins, then we can understand more easily why Jesus telling a paralysed man that his sins had been forgiven (Luke 5: 17-26) might have led first, to a charge of blasphemy and second, to Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. These context clues can be vital for an understanding of the ‘truth’ contained within the Bible not only for Christians, but also for other ‘people of the book’ for whom the Bible has direct relevance that is, for Jews and Muslims.
Of course another aspect of teaching the Bible more effectively is to do with the resources and teaching strategies we employ in the classroom. It is vital that we select and adapt resources carefully. For instance, a number of resources designed to teach primary school students about the Joseph narrative in Genesis chapters 37-50 focus almost exclusively on his multi-coloured coat and completely ignore the fact that the important thing about Joseph in this narrative was that he had dreams; that these dreams were from God; and that these dreams were prophetic.
It is important that as teachers we do our homework. Not only do we need a knowledge and understanding of the ‘story of the Bible’, that is, how it came to be, we also need an understanding of the Bible as a religious text; a source of authority and inspiration. To know for instance that the book of Exodus is used by the Catholic Church during the period of Lent tells us something about its significance for the Christian church. For Christians, the book of Exodus can act as a reminder of how God continues to lead people through the pilgrimage of life. A religious understanding of the Bible is therefore crucial.
We also need an understanding of the diversity of ways in which Christians themselves understand and interpret biblical narrative. For some, the Genesis account of creation contains historical truth, for others, its religious meaning is more important that questions concerning its factual accuracy. Furthermore, the fact that many of the key figures found within the Bible are significant for Jews, Christians and Muslims needs careful consideration as there are differences.
For some Christians, the events described in Genesis chapters 2-3 illustrate the ‘fallen’ nature of humankind. Knowing this helps us to understand why St Paul refers to Jesus as the second or last Adam (see Romans chapter 5). However, this sense of the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve is not found in Jewish interpretations of this narrative, neither is it evident in the Qur’an (Sura 20: 115-121.
Questions to consider
- What do we mean by ‘story’? If we talk about biblical narrative as ‘story’ are we implying that it is not ‘true’?
- To what extent do we need to believe something in order to be able to understand it?
Recently (2009), the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit was commissioned by the DCSF to undertake a piece of research as part of the RE Council's RE Action Plan. The overall aim of this research was to examine the materials available to schools and used by them for teaching about the six main world religions in the UK. The report entitled Research Report on Resources for Teaching RE This report includes an evaluation of the published materials readily available, consideration of the contextual and pedagogical factors that influence their selection and use in schools and classrooms, and the materials’ contribution to learning.
Some further reading
- Aylward, K. & Freathy, R. (2008). Children's conceptions of Jesus. Journal of Beliefs and Values, 29(3), 297-304.
- Dalton, R.W. (2009) Miraculous Readings: Using Fantasy Novels about Reading to Reflect on Reading the Bible, Religious Education, 104(4), 378-392.
- Freathy, R. & Aylward, K. (2010). ‘Everything is in parables’: An exploration of pupils’ difficulties in understanding Christian beliefs concerning Jesus. Religious Education, 105(1), 86-102.
- Loman, S.E. & Francis, L. J. (2006) The Loman Index of Biblical Interpretation: Distinguishing between literal, symbolic and rejecting modes among 11-14 year olds, British Journal of Religious Education, 28(2), 131-140.
- Pike, A.M. (2003) Belief as an obstacle to reading: The case of the Bible? Journal of Beliefs and Values 24(2), 155-163.
- Sigel, D. (2010) A model for teaching midrash in the primary school: forming understandings of rabbinic interpretation of scripture, British Journal of Religious Education, 32(1), 63-76.