In France, unless you send your child to a religious school, they do not do religious education as we might know it in England. I like this secular vision, but I’m not entirely on board with it for reasons I’ll explain. And recently, someone English was quite cross about the lack of religious instruction in French schools. She wanted the Bible teaching in RE classes. If anything, my response was that it should be taught in Literature classes.
I’ve become more strong in my opinion ever since a very good, very talented friend of mine was overlooked for a deputy-head-ship because he went to the wrong Catholic church. Either that, or the Governing Body were absolute dicks. Or both. They gave the job to the head of the history department – the least effective department, the second-least studied option in school, the department with the worst results. He’d managed three other people and because he went to the right church, he was made deputy over someone who’d already done a brilliant job in the same position in another school.
At this point, I was kind of okay with it. I just accepted that’s church-based nepotism for you. But then I got to questioning the guy. Did he believe in the literal version of creation? Yes, he did. How can you be a history teacher AND believe in creationism?!
Then came the crunch issues. Sex education was no longer mandatory. We were to teach abstinence not safe sex. Teen pregnancy rates went through the roof. It’s easier to go on the pill or wear a condom than it is to be a horny teenager and say no.
Then the Science department were instructed to teach Creationism. The head of science resigned. The union were involved. The Science dept had to agree to teach it alongside evolution and stress that evolution was a theory.
I left not long after for unrelated issues, but it was already beginning to grate on my nerves.
Firstly, let me say I did well in RE at school. I even did RS A level. I even thought about doing Theology at Birmingham University, except the job options seemed to kind of reach to ‘Vicar’ or ‘RE teacher’ or being Descartes.
I know my Bible. I know the history of it.
Let me extol some of its few virtues.
1. It has great stories in it, better than you see in the movies. Women get turned into salt pillars. Sodom – and let’s get this straight, was not a den of gaymen doing gay things. It was a den of iniquity. When Abraham and his brother turned up, the men of the village knocked on the inn door and said ‘come on out we want to get to know you (in the Biblical sense)’ Abraham’s response was ‘no, but we have some virgin daughters you can have’. How’s that for a story, being pimped out by your dad??!
2. It has crazy stories in it, like chariots of fire and men being swallowed by whales and the whole Jezebel story. They are great stories.
3. Getting past the humour, virtually every single earthly creation myth kind of goes the same, and myths or legends of colossal floods populate all creation stories the world over. Now that’s spooky.
4. If you want to read stuff, you have to know the Bible. You can’t even properly get The Simpsons if you don’t know your Bible. It’s kind of like those pictures in pop-up books. You lift up a drawer in Fungus the Bogeyman and there’s the Bible sitting right underneath. If you want to really get Shakespeare or Milton, Shelley, Steinbeck, you need your Bible to hand. A writer acquaintance of mine, Janni, says there are only seven stories ever told. She’s kind of right. But all of them are in the Bible.
And so it’s a great work that underpins much fiction. More sayings we use in everyday life come from the Bible than from Shakespeare. It’s part of our literary blood – more so than Beowulf or any other stories we’d kind of prefer to be our literary heritage.
And there’s the downside. It’s a piece of constructed text, woven together, edited badly and repurposed to meet the needs of the people who edited it.
Right from the beginning, there are several writers at work. And they disagree.
See it like this. Genesis. First book of the Bible. The beginning.
1. God makes the heavens and the earth, then he makes light and darkness, then day and night, then land and water, then vegetation on the land, then the sun and the seasons, then animals and stuff, then us. We’re last. He builds up to us. Plus, any idiot with half a brain knows that if he made us first, we’d be floating in an invisible universe willy-nilly. It’s a kind of sensible, logical account. And he makes man and woman at the same time. Good-o. No innate sexism there, then.
However, and here’s the rub:
2. Genesis 2, verse 4, some bastard retells it. In this version, it goes like this: God makes the earth and then goes ‘oh, no. There’s no-one to look after it’. Then he makes man from dust. Bit of an afterthought. And then he makes vegetables and a river. Only how does that work? We’d have died of thirst and starvation! And then, here’s the bit that kept we women in the kitchen for 4,000 years, he makes a woman to help the dust man. Except he doesn’t do that next. First, he makes animals for the man to name and mess around with. And then, afterthought of afterthought, he makes us women out of the man’s rib when the man is asleep. Ultimate insult.
So… two accounts (in fact, there’s a third woven in there) and two re-writes. Only, like a really bad editor, the second editor put their bit first and forgot to take out the one that was already there. In one, we’re the pinnacle of creation and man and woman are equal, created at the same time. In the other, the animals and women are just a redneck-dream in order to keep men from being lonely.
And that’s in a verse and a half.
This is essentially what happened.
The priests kept the bits of script and re-wrote stories and re-worked them, added bits. And they kept doing this right up until our day.
A bit of scripture every student of the Bible should know is how our Bible was agreed – Old Testament and New Testament.
It was decided at an ecumenical council in the 3rd Century. Christianity had already divided into loads of different groups, not unlike the Life of Brian. In fact, the Life of Brian has more in common with the truth than the Bible might. The various Popes (there were several) got together in Nicene and decided many things. They discussed and voted. And if you voted on the wrong side, that’s it, you were out. Bye bye. It wasn’t exactly democratic.
So what did they meet over?
1. Whether Mary was a virgin, whether she was just an unmarried woman, whether she was married to Joseph, whether she was a virgin for life (poor Joseph!) and if she was a virgin for life (they decided she must be) then who the hell are all these blokes referred to as Jesus’s brothers?
2. The importance of John the Baptist. Some say he was the real inspiration and the Nicene councils did a good job of obliterating his message.
3. Whether Jesus was equal to or lesser than God.
They actually sat down and decided these things! Some blokes had a discussion that went along these lines?
“Was Mary a virgin?”
“I think the Aramaic and Greek mean ‘unmarried mother?’ ”
“Get out!” and a dissenter was hurried out.
“Let’s start again? Was Mary a virgin?”
Yes. Universal agreement this time. Hoorah.
“Was she a virgin for life?”
“No. She can’t have been, because it says here in this here Bible of ours that Jesus had brothers.”
“Let me ask it again. Was Mary a virgin for life?”
“Right. Next question. Is Jesus equal to God?”
and so on. And basically, the bloke with the loudest voice
forced got everyone else to agree with him. That’s what the Nicene Creed is. The minutes. What was decided.
So, they left gospels out, they included favourites. They picked out bits they liked and ‘forgot’ the rest as the ‘Apocrypha’. And that’s the basic story of the Bible. It’s part-instruction manual, part myth, part poetry, part drama, part story-of-whores-and-villains, part mushroom-induced mania, part burning bush, part history, part saga.
And this isn’t a secret. Anyone with eyes can read the first two verses of Genesis and see clear as day two different stories in completely different orders. So which do creationists go with? I’d love to know. That’s only the first two verses to a fairly-uneducated eye! And the Nicene councils (and the other ecumenical councils) weren’t secrets either. And yet when we say something is ‘gospel’ we mean it is the literal truth. And yet it is a truth dished up to us by the loudest-voiced men 300 years after Christ died. They decided what we would read and what we wouldn’t.
So teach the Bible, but make sure kids know about it and appreciate it for what it is: like a great big underblanket behind loads of our stories and poetry, but essentially in itself a tapestry woven of fabric made by hundreds of different people. Mainly men. That doesn’t make it wrong or right. It makes it interesting. It’s great.
So cherry pick the best moral messages, mix them with those of Muhammed and Buddha and Guru Nanak and Confucious and Lao Tze and Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela and appreciate that sometimes people have moral messages that get lost in something that’s more like the Life of Brian and that it’s your job as a reader to cherry pick the best of it all, just like that council did 1,700 years ago. Make it your personal code. That’s what these tales and speeches are supposed to help us with. Maybe then, people wouldn’t bicker over creationism or whether Islam preaches ji’had or not (it doesn’t) or whether dinosaurs were a cruel trick to fox the Victorians into doubt, placed there by the devil. Maybe if we taught RE like that in school, creating a nation of children who can identify their own moral messages, then we wouldn’t have a nation of children for whom adults are left wondering whether they need a bit of RE.
We wonder if RE needs a place on the curriculum because what we’re really worried about is our children’s personal morality. In a world where people cheer on their friends into killing men in cold blood, like the Stephen Lawrence case is revealing, maybe that’s why we ask the question. RE is not the answer. Teaching children to find the common thread in moral tales is perhaps the solution we’re all looking for.