EDUCATION: ‘It’s like, for RE teachers and stuff’

by
02 November 2006

What do young people make of the Bible? Every year Terence Copley goes in search of the answers

WHEN interviewed about their thoughts on the Bible, one young person’s opinion about Jesus was that his preaching "drags on a bit". The miracles of Jesus and his gruesome death, however, and famous Old Testament stories such as Daniel in the lion’s den provided much more intrigue.

Every year children and young people’s opinions are sought on the Bible, and the difficulties they have in responding to it. Research originated in the mid-1930s, and resumed in the 1960s after the Second World War. The findings have never been anything less than fascinating and insightful.

Eight years ago, the researchers decided not only to interview pupils from different types of schools, backgrounds, and ages, but also to do half-hour, one-to-one interviews with a representative group, to provide a more in-depth view. This was the birth of the Biblos project — a partnership between the Bible Society and Exeter University’s school of education, with financial help from the St Gabriel’s Trust.

Interviews with 1066 pupils took place in 2004-05. They were aged 10 , 13 , and 17 , and chosen carefully to mirror the religious-affiliation statistics from the 2001 national census. Ninety-eight pupils gave something of their deeper thoughts.

The quality of dialogue ranged from lively and informed to hesitant and limited. Young people use very few technical religious terms. A general vagueness about the Bible was epitomised in the recurring phrase "and stuff".

Attitudes towards the Bible change with age, but are relatively positive, however. Pupils in Year 6 are the most positive; Year 9 pupils give the most negative response; but at Year 12, most are coming to a middle position. Most acknowledge the Bible’s importance, even if their knowledge of it is limited.

Young people do not necessarily take the Bible "on trust" or accept its authority to tell them what to believe and how to behave. They want to decide those things for themselves. But they do accept its cultural and historical importance, and they are willing to engage with its claims and narratives. It is very rarely rubbished. Only three out of 98 interviewed claim it is "not true"; only a handful think it has been disproved by science.

But while they do not dismiss the Bible as irrelevant, they pick out its integral difficulties, its "uncool" image, its often-unattractive presentation and sometimes poor presentation within RE, all as off-putting factors.

Its physical appearance and layout does not help, as one Year 9 pupil (age 13 ) with no religious affiliation identified:

Interviewer  You said the Bible is old-fashioned as well . . .

Pupil  Yes — the words in it and the language used are [. . .] weird.

So is there anything else about it that you think is old-fashioned?

The style of the book and how it’s made.

What it looks like?

Yes.

What sort of things?

It’s got really odd paper.

What — sort of thin paper?

Yes. And then it’s got all the different chapters and verses and stuff. That’s confusing.

A third of children and young people agreed that the Bible was old-fashioned, but an equal number said the opposite (the others don’t know or are confused). Many of those who thought it old-fashioned still displayed goodwill: "It’s be-come a little obsolete, but it still has its uses. You can still learn stuff from it," said one pupil. "Well, it’s not an important thing in my life, but for, like, some people, like the RE teachers and stuff, it could be important for them," said another.

Others attempt to see it in comparison to contemporary literature: "It’s been beaten by a lot of best-author books like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and things, and so it’s not best book in the library any more, is it?" Or "I suppose younger people these days want a bit of violence, action, fighting, and there’s nothing like that in it, so it does get a bit, I mean, it was all right when I heard it the first time, when I was in junior school, with pictures up, and stuff, they jazz it up a bit, but now when it’s serious and it’s, like, word for word, it’s a bit, you know, you’ve heard it all before in church. . ."

Pupils personally affiliated to Christianity and those attending Christian foundation schools speak with greater confidence and knowledge than those with no religious affiliation. And pupils from non-Christian faiths empathise with the Bible’s status and importance, because they appreciate the place of sacred writings within their own religion. Nevertheless, many puzzle over aspects of the Bible, such as this Year 6 (age 10 ) Muslim pupil:

Pupil  But then why did, if he’s his son, then how come God told him to come to earth? Because he. . .

Interviewer  It’s a difficult question, isn’t it?

Yes, because parents have to think the best for the child. So why did God tell Jesus to come to earth? If he knew that was going to happen to him?

Interestingly, family members, mothers in particular, play a key role in influencing children and young people’s views towards the Bible. Most families are divided — one with a keen mum said her dad was "less upbeat" about it. Friends and school are less influential, but still significant.

Many children have no context into which to put the Bible — as literature, as history, as a cultural icon. Its own history as a collection of books is also largely unknown, and children have been equipped with very few clues about how it might be interpreted.

The challenge of the report is that because children express goodwill towards the Bible, there is real possibility to develop better teaching of biblical narrative.

Speech of Angels, the 2006 report on the 98 in-depth interviews, is to be published this spring. The report by Terence Copley, Rob Freathy, Sarah Lane, Heather Savini, and Karen Walshe can be obtained (price £5 including postage) via biblos@exeter.ac.uk or The Biblos Project, University of Exeter School of Education, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU.

Boring bits

Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)

• Genesis

• Creation

• Noah

• Moses

• Laws

• Psalms ". . . which nobody really reads" and "is the most boring".

New Testament

• Joseph’s family tree via David to Adam

• the preaching of Jesus

• Feeding of the 5000 ". . . I’ve just heard it so many times"

• Letters ". . . they stick to facts and there’s no leeway"

Best bits

Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)

• Noah’s Ark

• Abraham sacrificing Isaac

• Joseph

• Moses: the Red Sea and the

Ten Commandments

• David and Goliath

• Daniel in the lion’s den

• Esther

New Testament

• Birth of Jesus

• Temptations

• Feeding of the 5000

• Transfiguration

• Healing of the paralysed man

• Turning water into wine

• Betrayal by Judas

• Trial before Pilate

• The crucifixion

• Pentecost

• Revelation

Speech of Angels, the 2006 report on the 98 in-depth interviews, is to be published this spring. The report by Terence Copley, Rob Freathy, Sarah Lane, Heather Savini, and Karen Walshe can be obtained (price £5 including postage) via biblos@exeter.ac.uk or The Biblos Project, University of Exeter School of Education, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU.

 

 

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read seven articles each month for free.