The Death of Christian Education: Is the Writing on the Wall for Biblical Literacy?

writing on the wall

From the soundtrack to the new Bond movie, ‘Writing on the Wall’ (a reference to the Book of Daniel) to Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise which opens with the lyrics: “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of death’, all of it testifies to the reality that, despite the increase of secularisation, Christianity continues to permeate every area of society.

Yet it is a well-known fact that knowledge of the bible, and Christianity in Scotland and the UK is decreasing rapidly. Some research carried out in England and Wales revealed that:

Fewer than one in 20 people able to name all Ten Commandments . . . Sixty-two per cent didn’t know the parable of the Prodigal Son and 60 per cent couldn’t name anything about the Good Samaritan.

This has several implications. One implication that has struck me is the fact that western society is laden with Christian imagery, symbolism and connotations. The west may be post-Christian, but there are echoes of Christianity – everywhere. No matter how much we try to edit God out of the societal script – the reality is He is everywhere. We can’t escape our own history. History, literature, Art, Science, and the contemporary music and film industry all resound with the sound of Britain’s religious history.

But there is a problem. Many young people are growing with less and less Christian education. This is not just a problem for religion; it is a problem for society. In other words, many young people are not being given the tools to interpret their own social context. Lack of Christian knowledge is not just a spiritual issue; it is an educational and social issue. In order to understand the western world, and in particular, Scotland – we must understand the place of Christianity within the culture.

On the up-side, the Scottish Education system understands this. The Curriculum for Excellence documentation for Religious and Moral Education states, as one if its key aims, that young people are to “explore and develop knowledge and understanding of religions, recognising the place of Christianity in the Scottish context.” This is good. But, if the statistics quoted above are anything to go by, there is an up-hill struggle ahead of us.

I concur with the stats provided above. I’ve recently become aware of the fact that most young people do not recognise Psalm 23. They don’t recognise the reference or the psalm. This is pretty major – not least because it is one of the central motifs in Scottish life. A quick glance at Wikipedia shows just how powerful a cultural motif Psalm 23 has become.

“The text (Psalm 23), beloved by Jews and Christians alike, is often alluded to in popular media and has been set to music many times . . . In the 20th century, Psalm 23 became particularly associated with funeral liturgies in the English-speaking world, and films with funeral scenes often depict a graveside recitation of the psalm.” (Check Wikipedia for an impressive list of popular media references).

coolio psalm 23

Like scattered pieces of a jig saw puzzle, references to Psalm 23 are all around us, but for many people growing up in 21st Century Great Britain – there is no big picture by which we can place the pieces in context.

Further – what does this say about Atheism? If Atheism is a rejection of God, but more and more people are ignorant of central biblical themes, teachings and motifs – is it not the case that contemporary Atheism is simply a belief system based upon ignorance? Reject faith in God by all means, but at least find out what you are rejecting first.

So what does this mean for the church? I think it means that church needs to rediscover its call, not simply to proselytise, but also to educate.

According to research:

“many Christian children, whether in church or non-church schools, are apparently encountering more religion in School than they do at home.” (Teaching religious Education Julian Stern)

Whilst the responsibility for teaching the Faith should first and foremost be the responsibility of Christian parents, if this is not happening, then the church has to educate families and help families reconnect once again with the faith. Further, if Christian children are encountering more religion at school than they do at home, what about those who are non-Christian? How much more at a disadvantage are they?

The fact that young people are encountering more religion at school than they do at home is not a sign that schools are too religious, it is a sign that there is virtually no religious input at home. Further, in some cases, the religion that young people encounter in school, may not actually be helping their education, it may be hindering it.

One example of this is misinformation with Religious Education text books. It is not unusual for Religious Education text books to have completely wrong information. Let me show you an example. One Text book, which is supposed to introduce pupils to the basic beliefs of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Humanists, has a chapter entitled: What do Christian believe about God? The text book asks pupils to:

“Look at the following explanations of the Trinity:

  • ‘A Force that Christians believe can be everywhere and may even perform miracles in the world and act within the world.’

  • ‘Christians might think of God as a parental being or force, perhaps in heaven.’”

Now, to be fair, the Trinity is hardly the easiest Christian doctrine to explore. However, it is the most important. And whatever those two “explanations” are, they are not an explanation of the Trinity. In fact, those statements would be considered erroneous, heretical, and false by every branch of the historic Christian church – (apart from the Liberal churches that don’t care about doctrine anyway).

This is not a sectarian criticism. It’s not just that these definitions fall short of one denomination’s narrow view of the Trinity. No. These definitions fall short of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Protestant Church and the Independent and Free Churches.

What does this mean?

Quite simply, knowledge of Christianity is decreasing. The only place where some young people are encountering Christian and religious education is in school – and there is no guarantee that the information about basic beliefs is actually accurate. Consequently, it is possible that young people are being misinformed about core beliefs of the Christian faith (and other faiths too).

What does this mean for the church? It means we need to partner with families and schools to provide good Christian education. Again, I’m not talking about proselytization here, I’m simply talking about getting the basics right. Once people have the basic information, they can choose what they want to do with that information. They have the right to choose faith or reject it. But they should at least be given the correct information first. They should at least be empowered to know what it is they are rejecting. Further, they also need to be given the tools they need to interpret and understand their own culture and context. Does it make a difference when you understand that ‘the writing’s on the wall’ is a reference to the day of reckoning for an evil person? I think it does – I think the song, at the start of Spectre, is a clue into one of the major themes in the film – a reign of evil power coming to an end.

Knowledge and education are empowering – let’s get back to doing what the church has, in its greatest moments, historically done well. Let’s engage in education.

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