Sunday, 1 November 2015

Jesus and all that jazz

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.


  1. I think care is needed in approaching this presumed ignorance of things religious. There is an element of Ecclesiastes 7:10 ‘Say not thou, ‘What is the cause that the former days were better than these?’ for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this...’.

    There is a common held belief that sometime in the recent past the vast majority of the population was religiously literate and that wicked secularism (here read ‘liberalism’ in world of many of the swivel eyed loons over at Cranmer or Premier Radio or Anglican Mainstream blogs) has trampled Christianity under its feet. Yet if you read William Booth’s ‘Darkest England’ – you will hear of his concern that many people, particularly the poor or those from working class backgrounds had very little, if any knowledge of the Christian religion in 19th century Britain. And even among pew filling Christians today, I have noted some massive black holes in their knowledge of Scripture and/or doctrine.

    My mother was raised a RC Catholic and underwent the usual indoctrination endemic in RC communities in the 1930s – my father was raised a Methodist and similarly was sent to Sunday school every week – where the strap supplemented the Word of God for drilling the ‘truths’ of the Christian religion into children’s heads. My brother and sister (raised in the 1950s) were likewise forced to both Methodist and Anglican Sunday schools and were members of various church youth groups for a good decade of their childhoods. Yet ask my parents or siblings a few questions on the basics of the Christian religion and you’d be shocked by their ignorance – and I suspect this would be case for many who grew up in the shadow of the local church and attended Sunday school. Care is needed not to presume that just because religion was taught, everyone took notice! I think if we were to test adults on history or chemistry or maths or English literature – many, likewise, would be ignorant of these topics, despite the fact they were taught about them in school. I don’t see why the Christian religion should be any different.

    Gillan Scott also posted on this topic over at AB Cranmer’s blog. The general theme of Scott’s post was that it was the state’s role to inform children of the basics of the Christian religion. I find this ironic – particularly when the swivel eyed loons, endemic on that site, chime in, in agreement – as usually on that blog there is a bias towards maligning the state and its agencies and suggesting their role should diminish in their scope of influence and intrusion into our lives. Yet blaming others for the failure of Christians is a common habit on some religious blogs. In truth of course, any failing of the Christian Church to get its basic tenets known to wider society is the fault of the Christian Church – Jesus himself is reported as laying this commandment on his followers (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15).

    However, I wouldn’t get too worried about children’s ignorance of the Bible or Christianity. There is a habit in all societies and all in ages of falling foul of Ecclesiastes 7:10 and mourning for a past that probably never existed.


  2. I suppose I am one who does mourn the loss of a common knowledge of Christian heritage whether I should or not. It also makes it harder for them to pick up on a lot of the subtle nuances - and sometimes the very basic meanings of a lot of literature we study. You are right of course about the dangers of looking back to some supposed golden age of biblical literacy which most likely never existed to the extent we think it did. I do think there has been a noticeable shift across my lifetime though.

  3. Yes, I do think there has been a decline in a general understanding and knowledge of Christian ideas and history. Yet I would caution against seeing this as an ‘absolute’ ignorance - I would argue that it is just a less nuanced ignorance. Let me explain: even when the churches were fuller than they were today, this does not necessarily mean people were religiously literate in an objective sense. Rather they were more religiously literate in terms of their own denomination/culture and the mitigated place of religion in society. One of the arguments I have made both academically and in my blogging career, is against the putative belief that religion, up until recently, has been a free agent in society. In truth Christianity has been strongly linked to, and the subject, of political control since the days of Constantine. The first thing Constantine did, when he gave Christianity its official role in the waning Roman Empire, was to charge the Church with producing an ‘official’ Christianity – thus the various Ecumenical Councils which hotly followed his recognition of Christianity. ‘Orthodoxy’ - which spookily also supported the rights of Kings and Emperors – became the official form of Christianity and any variants were swiftly and cruelly snuffed out (remember, up until the early 18th century, political Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant could give ISIS a run for its money when it came to imposing its creed and creative forms of murder and torture!).

    Thus the Christian worldview of WASPs such as you and I is probably very different from the Christian worldview of say an Irish RC or newly converted JW. The religious metaphors of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake, George Elliot, D.H. Lawrence, etc. work well for you or I – but would they work for a Polish Catholic – they would at a superficial level, but at more nuanced levels I suspect the cultural symbolism would break down – we’d find we’re using the same words, but they have different meanings. Moreover, we ourselves can only access these metaphors and cultural references by use of a degree of imagination – and I would argue that it is almost impossible to wholly understand the world of Shakespeare or the earlier medieval worldview because we can’t put the genie back in the bottle - we can’t know what it is like to live in a world without religious and cultural pluralism – or a world where there is no ‘God’, or ‘unbelieve’ science, rational positivism and medicine.

    At the end of my (now completed and passed) PhD thesis I argue that a good deal of the renewed interest in and beliefs about faith-based welfare are rooted in a desire to re-enchant the world – that Western society desires to reintroduce an element of the mystical and spiritual to its institutions and agencies. I think there is a wilful desire on the part of some (academics, theologians, politicians, media commentators, etc.) to imbue welfare with Christian or religious attributes. However, I note that in many ways this is looking back to a past that probably never existed and that what we are seeing is not religion being given place in the modern world, but religion adapting itself to a new situation – as I suspect it has always done, throughout the history of humanity.

    Whatever religion is (and there is no consensus on a definition) it is not static, homogenous or exotic – it is dynamic and is really whatever we choose it to be. i.e. it is manifest in any human behaviour or institution where a spiritual meaning can be given to social and individual action. If this is correct then I am sure you will find many of your students may lack the vocabulary and symbolic and historical knowledge of Western European Christianity, yet this does not mean they are not ‘religious’ in the object sense of the word.


  4. I was saddened but unsurprised by this. The kids I teach at Oxford frequently know absolutely nothing about Christianity, the Bible, etc. In the course of my medieval teaching I have to explain very, very basic concepts. The same is true of classical mythology and literature though: the fundamental deep axis of our culture---running between Athens and Jerusalem---is basically completely gone in the under 25s. I know this sounds crusty---I'm only 35, after all!---but increasingly what I come across are intelligentish kids with absolutely nothing in their brains at all. No real knowledge of or interest in ANYTHING.

    It's late; I might be catastrophising. But, God, it's so depressing.

  5. I have to agree with this. I have seen a real decline over the last decade. I also ask myself if I am catastrophising. I honestly don't think I am.