David Bennett on a continuing need... and on current publications which aim to meet it.
At the end of January 1994 a Sunday broadsheet conducted a survey of 20 questions on religion which `yielded varying degrees of ignorance or misunderstanding'. Scores out of 20 for 10-11 year-olds averaged at 2.4; for sixth formers at 7.2; for university students at 8.8; and for 22-49 year-olds from the professional classes at 13.8.
On the same day I came across the report of a Nottinghamshire headteacher, who, at his school prize-giving, talked of living in a country `increasingly displaying ignorance of faith, of Christ and of Bible stories'.
The two model syllabuses currently in circulation seem to have taken this aboard already, since their first aim is to help pupils to:
`Acquire and develop knowledge and understanding of Christianity and the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.'
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) structures its first model around knowledge and understanding of religions, its second around knowledge and understanding of key beliefs in each religion.
Regular readers of BfK might remember I touched very briefly on this issue in the January '93 magazine in an article on Myth and Legend. Compared with the great debate on the Government's January '94 guidelines, that the time maintained schools devote to religious education should comprise a minimum of 51% Christianity, this might seem like a bit of an oblique bywater, but some biblical knowledge, religious knowledge of any kind, is pretty necessary if our pupils are to develop a fuller understanding of all kinds of literature. Fundamentally we are a western, and therefore a Christian, country with a Christian culture; our history has been moulded by Christianity; Old and New Testament references abound in significant numbers of the works we teach and call `Literature'. I'm well aware that other great religions make a contribution to the cultural and spiritual diversity of modern British society and that references to other religions also occur and need explanation, but an informed article on that will need another writer.
There are obvious texts like `Samson Agonistes', `Paradise Lost' and 'Absalom Achitophel' that ooze biblical bits. But should pupils know too that The Chronicles of Narnia are Christian allegories with Aslan as Christ, or that Z for Zachariah has its source in Zachariah chapter 14, verses 12-13? I suspect that for much of the time the answer is no, but it'd be a poor understanding of Edwin Muir's The Horses or of Charles Causley's Ballad of the Bread Man if the students never appreciated the biblical sources.
D H Lawrence is a good example of a writer who slips in biblical references that really need to be followed up for a more perfect understanding of where he's coming from. Sometimes they're as subtle as the parallels of the preparation of the body of Christ for burial to the body washing and laying-out of Walter Bates by his wife and mother in Odour of Chrysanthemums. On the other hand they can be crucial to a comprehension of his characterisation and the relationship between characters as with the two sisters in You Touched Me:
`Matilda was a tall, thin, graceful, fair girl, with a rather large nose. She was Mary to Emmie's Martha.'
My group completely passed this one over - not spotting the reference and not thinking to ask. I've encountered the same blissful ignorance with the obvious comparisons between Atahuallpa and Christ in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. The Inca king's entry into Cajamarca is an almost perfect Andean re-run of the entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, his age is that of Christ when he died, his attributed powers are not dissimilar and his death has a crucial, sacrifical dimension.
In the light of these few, brief comments, KS3, 4 and 5 Heads of English might wonder whether they oughtn't to reach for their order books and provide a few Bibles in their English classrooms, alongside the dictionaries, myths and legends, etc. Not such a fanciful notion... although essentially the acquisition of biblical knowledge and the fundamental beliefs of our culture should have begun much earlier in the child's school career. Obviously, after their 18 months of deliberation, those who are espousing the models of RE teaching for the future are underlining the fact that in the majority of cases schools will have to be the prime-movers because only a minority of youngsters will pick up knowledge and belief on Sundays in a House of God. In an integrated, planned curriculum all teachers, just as much as RE specialists, will be obliged to have a hand in delivering Moral and Spiritual education. Many of these folk will freely admit they need as much help with the factual side of religion as their pupils!
Publishers appear to have foreseen the market and increasing numbers of titles relating to Bible stories are on offer. These should serve to support teachers and pupils and should enable them to gain the background required to make the most of literature at a higher level. But, be warned:
`Of making many books there is no end and much studying wearies the body.' Ecclesiastes XIII (12)
Here's a selection of the best I've come across in my researches. I've ascribed a key stage, but, as with most books of this type, they have applications right across the age-ranges.
KEY STAGE ONE
From Walker Books: The Amazing Story of Noah's Ark (1988), 0 7445 1469 X, £3.99 pbk; Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colours (1990), 0 7445 1788 5, £3.99 pbk; Jonah and the Whale (1989), 0 7445 1735 4, £3.99 pbk
Marcia Williams has picked up the lively adventure stories you'd expect for three busy, colourful and humorous picture books that read aloud well. There are masses of intricate details and jokey bits. Even the margins to the pictures are intriguing. The texts are uncluttered with the essential stories undiminished.
From Orchard: Noah's Ark (1990), 185213 206 X, £7.99; The Story of the Creation (1992), 185213 2817, £8.99
Jane Ray has also chosen Noah for a picture book and has used the Creation for a companion title. Her beautiful illustrations have a fascinating ethnic, multi-cultural quality that repays constant re-visiting. The language of Noah's Ark offers the poetry of the Authorised King James version of the Bible, which will require a confident reader. That in The Story of the Creation has a freshness and immediacy which makes it special and utterly engaging.
From Oxford: The Easter Story (1993), 0 19 279952 5, £7.95; 019 272286 7, £3.99 pbk
Now available in both hardback and paperback is Brian Wildsmith's sumptuous version of the Easter story. Some of the brilliant illustrations are as vibrant as italianate altar pieces, architectural backdrops lavish with golds, reds and purples. The conceit of having the donkey as a central character is masterful and lends an identifiable and commonplace charm to the wondrous last week of Christ's life. The text is as dignified as the presentation, reverent and without condescension.
KEY STAGE TWO
Collected reworkings of Bible stories, Old and New Testament, seem to start their proliferation here.
From Kingfisher: The Kingfisher Children's Bible (1993), 185697 115 5, £12.99
This version offers Ann Pilling's faithful retellings with Kady MacDonald Denton's relatively sparsely peppered illustrations. I don't think I've ever seen so many characters in profile in one book!
The ubiquitous double-page spread format, so beloved of most publishers, has been waived to give us 62 tales from the Old Testament and 32 from the New with very essential original source references. This is definitely one for the upper end and will require considerable personal reading skills.
From Frances Lincoln: Stories from the Bible (1993), 0 7112 0803 4, £9.99
Here Martin Waddell tells us he wants his 17 Old Testament stories to `be read with the Bible, and not instead of it'. So, where are the references? He's forgiven, however, because his style is so refreshingly intimate, breezy and pally:
`Eve had lots of babies. Adam must have been pleased!'
This is a near perfect introduction to the Bible that'll read aloud a treat. Shame about the illustrations by Geoffrey Patterson; only the Jonah one seemed less than flat.
From Viking: A First Puffin Book of Bible Stories (1993), 0 670 848719, £10.99
Puffin's offering in this area has a comic, enjoyment- enriched look to it with masses of Barry Smith's cartoon angels of mixed gender, race and epoch. Annabel Shilson-Thomas has elected to foresake strict chronology for a more thematic approach which she intends will `help children to see how the Jewish and Christian understanding of God developed'.
This ought to make a read-alone since the text is very child-friendly with short sentences and easy vocabulary.
Should you ever be asked `What's the only thinking bird in the Bible?' reach for Amazing Facts from the Bible by Betsy Rossen Elliott and J Stephen Lang from Joshua Morris Publishing (1857 24832 5, £4.99). It's whacky and great fun to dip into with an underlying very serious theme.
Bible Dictionary - A First Reference Book from Alpha (1872 059 84 8) plus its companion Bible Atlas (1872 059 82 1) at £4.99 each, are also well worth stocking. Both are by E Wilson and S Lloyd Jones with illustrations by S Schindler.
KEY STAGE THREE
From Lion Publishing: Settlers, Warriors and Kings (1994), 0 7459 2172 8, £7.99; The Life That Changed the World, 0 7459 2174 4, £7.99
Just issued are the first two titles in this new `Bible World' reference series. Ten volumes are being introduced between March 1994 and February 1996. Five books cover the Bible story and five more `Provide background information for understanding its meaning'. `Finding Out More' reference sections and handy indexing, plus double-page spreads should make them user-friendly. Pupils will like them, too, for the illustrations. The ones I've seen (above) capture the drama of Bible stories and the additions of back-up information and maps culled from recent scholarship, plus photographs used to illustrate scenery and artefacts, provide plenty for youngsters to pore over.
The series, with well-crafted texts by John Drane, should form the backbone resource of the school Bible reference section and will have currency well into Key Stage Four.
From Hamlyn: The Children's Bible (1993), 0 600 57412 1, £10.99
David Christie-Murray has retold the Bible for a lavish gift edition, presumably aimed, like many others, at the parents and grandparents market. There is a worthy information page, `People of the New Testament', and background maps. The quality of the storytelling is modern with no condescension. Andrew Wheatcroft's often arresting illustrations give the stories tangible flesh and blood, and are no doubt designed to catch the eye of would-be present givers looking for a quality production.
From Collins: Children's Bible Story Book (1992), 0 551 02080 6, £7.95
The cover of Jennifer Rees Larcombe's Bible Story Book doesn't exactly thrill, yet inside Alan Parry's pictures are startlingly focused on the characters; literally warts-and-all in the case of Job, whilst King Hezekiah wouldn't look out of place as a contender for the `strongest man in Jerusalem' context. The telling is given life and personal interest by plenty of vivid dialogue to engage the listener. It's not surprising that these started out as stories told to the author's young family.
[Ed's note: The audio version of this title is reviewed on page 13]
From Conran-Octopus: Cliff Richard's Favourite Bible Stories (1993), 185029 519 0, £8.99
Cliff Richard's chosen Bible stories, retold by Sue Shaw and illustrated by John Brennan, also have a tape version. The 42 stories have been modernised and simplified, with a pacy dialogue at the core of the chosen style, lending them energy and humour. The vibrant drawings took a bit of adjusting to because primary colours leap off the page and the artist seems to delight in surprising the reader by coming in from unexpected angles. The Noah illustration has a tremendous impact for it captures the overcrowded ark with an infectious humour that left me smiling for quite a while.
KEY STAGE FOUR
Very little seems to be aimed directly at this level, but we do have
From Dorling Kindersley: The Children's Illustrated Bible (1994), 075135113X,£14.99
This is a painstakingly researched and edited illustrated Bible, which serves well as a succinct reference book. I could see pupils being directed to it when Bible allusions crop up in the literature lesson. Its production has many visual similarities to the `Bible World' series. A bonus is the `Who's Who in Bible Stories' section and the 'Introduction to the Bible' at the beginning. Some of the pastel-coloured drawings by Eric Thomas look a bit flat and static, but Selina Hastings' oral storytelling style is vigorously geared to capturing the listeners' interest and keeping it.
This is the one I'd recommend as a single copy of the Bible for the English classroom.
As well as being a regular contributor to BfK, David Bennett is a senior teacher responsible for English and Modern Languages at George Spencer School in Nottinghamshire.
Open Books Open Minds
is an annotated list of fiction, compiled by librarians from Library Services for Education in Leicestershire, to support RE in primary and secondary schools. The stories included are not religious ones in the accepted sense. They are titles which have been chosen to illustrate a wide range of topics covering such issues as family relationships, friendships, environmental concerns and the effects of prejudice and war. Titles can be accessed via author, title or theme.
Copies are available from Library Services for Education, Thames Tower, 99 Burleys Way, Leicester LE1 3TZ, at a cost of £3.50 each (inc. p&p).