The results into a survey by the C of E, Evangelical Alliance and "Hope" showing, among other things, that 40% of people do not think Jesus was a real person and that 59% of them find others talking to them about faith puts them off finding out more, really shouldn't come as a surprise- or at least not to any literature teachers. Most years I do a lesson on some basic Christian ideas that students are likely to come across in the texts we study. It starts off with a quiz tailored to whatever we are studying (Blake, Shakespeare, Marlowe) that checks students understanding of basic concepts such as the Fall, the Ten Commandments, even hell and devils (think Dr Faustus.)
Now, we have a thriving evangelical church near to college and if you happen to have members of our Christian Union in class then this usually helps enormously. It is not unusual to find the whole class has a secular background though and these are some examples of things which have surprised me in recent years:
- A whole class unable to complete the sentence, "Jesus told stories known as p________." Attempts included "prayers" and "preaching".
- Lots of students unable to relate a single parable. Attempts included the story of Noah's Ark as one of the parables.
- A class only able to come up with three of the Ten Commandments.
- A student who thought Jesus was crucified because he was a thief. "There were two thieves, Jesus and this other guy (couldn't remember his name) and they let one the other one off just because they felt like it..."
- Whole class who did not know about the 23rd psalm even when referred to as "The Lord's my Shepherd." We played it on Youtube, still all faces were blank (time for more repeats of the Vicar of Dibley perhaps?:)
- One student who asked,"Isn't sin meant to be something good? Like with Weightwatchers, it's a treat for if you've been good?" Understandable perhaps.
What they are still pretty good on is the Nativity story, although it has a few additions such as the donkey, innkeeper and wife. Moreover, some students still have a fairly detailed knowledge, but , in general, including among articulate and able students, knowledge of key Christian beliefs, concepts and stories is poor and seems to have declined significantly over the last decade. In addition, there can be a resistance to any kind of religious ideas or content- which is a real problem when studying literature.When you ask them about RE lessons, where they are meant to cover the tenets of the major religions, you often get responses such as:
" Nobody pays any attention in RE lessons","it wasn't a real subject", "it didn't make any sense", and " I switch off when it's anything to do with Jesus and all that Jazz."
Synod is apparently going to discuss the trend and look at ways to get the message across (without putting off the majority.) I think it may be a tough call.