We’re squeamish about scripture
Every teacher should look at Eton’s ‘King’s Scholarship’ exam. It reminds you what is possible.
It’s the exam that boys take at the age of 13 if they want to stand a chance of becoming a ‘King’s Scholar’ (named after the school’s founder, Henry VI) and live in ‘College’ (the oldest and grandest part of the school). Apart from perhaps a similar test at Winchester College, this is about as hard as exams get for 13 year-olds in England. And it’s not for the faint-hearted.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The other day I was looking through and paused on one of the ‘divinity’ questions:
‘Is the Parable of the Lost Son really about the Lost Son?’
It’s a great question. Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ has been my favourite piece of artwork since I first saw it in the flesh in St. Petersburg when I was 18.
As I looked at the question on the paper I thought, yes, it’s partly about the lost son: the egotistical young man whose request for early inheritance is to say to his father ‘I wish you were dead’ at a time when a person’s financial security was inexorably tied to their land. For Christians, humans are often like that son: they step out on their journey of self-discovery and individual concern, even when, and often especially when, those closest to them are trampled underfoot.
But it’s also about the elder brother who stays at home to look after his father. He is the ‘socially respectable’ son whose sense of his own moral superiority and overweening pride separates him from a father who would gladly kill his prize calf to welcome back his feckless younger child. ‘He was lost and now he is found’, says the father, as he admonishes the self-righteous tendencies in us all.
For Rembrandt, the parable centres on the father. That’s why, in his painting, our eye is deliberately drawn to the father’s embrace of the errant younger son. The elderly man stoops down to pull in his shoeless child so completely that his arms envelop him; the father’s voluminous red cloak wraps around the pair like a blanket. In doing so, Rembrandt says to each person who gazes up at the vast canvass, ‘You, too, are loved unconditionally by God the Father. He welcomes you back even after you have tried to make your way in the world without Him’.
As I thought back to Rembrandt’s painting I wondered how many school children have the scriptural knowledge that would enable them to appreciate this painting? How many pupils know Genesis, Job and John as well as they know Harry Potter or Horrid Henry? And does it matter?
How many of them can understand Rembrandt’s ‘Tower of Babel’ – that great evocation of mankind’s hubris? Or Dali’s ‘Crucified Cross’? Or Caravaggio’s searching, discomforting depiction of ‘Peter’s Denial’? I don’t think it would be many. A great cultural treasure-trove impenetrable to a pupil whose own thought-world is so distant from that of the artist.
Doubtless some of the reason for this we can attribute to the decline of religious observance in Britain. Christian imagery no longer frames children’s upbringing with a force that it once did.
Yet it’s also about what’s going on in our schools. A biblical literacy that was once assumed of society and reinforced in the classroom is increasingly absent from society and spurned in the classroom. Scriptural squeamishness is what characterises the teaching of religion, where it happens at all, in 21st century Britain.
There is some good reason for this. As fewer and fewer British families identified as Christian after the Second World War, the apparent need for confessional religious instruction fell away. As it did so, a new form of phenomenology or sociology of religion took its place, gradually eroding the more partial disciplines of Christian theology and scripture.
This sociological turn was of course rooted in the wider post-modern concerns about truth and objectivity. If what I consider to be true is just my truth and not the Truth, then what right do I have privileging Christianity in my curriculum over Buddhism, Sikhism or Islam? Of course, this judgemental non-judgmentalism is self-defeating, because to say that all truths are equal is itself an exclusive truth claim.
And, now, the problem with this disciplinary turn is truly coming into the view: many RE teachers, either nervous of Christian scripture because of its truth claims, or now lacking any substantial knowledge of it, focus their pupils’ attention on the sociology or phenomenology of religion, as if understanding how and in what way someone practises their religion can be extricated from the why, and apparently oblivious to the reality that knowing scripture is the essential component of knowing religion.
More so, however, they have utterly failed to appreciate why Rembrandt painted this great scene in the first place – because he thought it was true. For Rembrandt, and Caravaggio, and Michelangelo and countless others, these stories contain a philosophical and psychological truth about how humans should live their lives. It is a call to action – an imperative – even if it is a literary invention.
The meaningful over the expedient
My consciousness of this has been heightened by the emergence of the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson. I have been fascinated for some months now by his YouTube lecture series on the psychological significance of the Bible. Some will undoubtedly balk at me having cited Peterson at all, not least because of his contentious views regarding sex and gender. I won’t go into that here. I’m simply interested in his biblical exegesis, which I find quite fascinating.
Peterson argues that to be truly literate in the Western canon requires a deep knowledge of scripture; one cannot truly describe oneself as ‘culturally literate’ without it. I have written here about the impact that this has for those educators who describe themselves as ‘Hirschians’ in any meaningful sense. If you want your pupils to be able to appreciate the Great Works of literature, art or music, you will have to give them an adequate scriptural education.
Much more fascinating, though, is Peterson’s contention that, in the way that they have become a repository for our communal wisdom, the books of the Bible are an essential part of our psychological health. Rebutting the New Atheists’ usual category error, Peterson argues that the Bible is neither history (as generally understood) nor empirical science. Rather, this library of books – history, wisdom, philosophy, poetry – is how Western civilisation has codified the right ordering of life. To try and step outside into a chaotic world without it, as if an errant younger son, is at the very least anovelty for a community that has drawn from this collected wisdom for the last 1700 years.
His most recent book, ’12 Rules for Life’ draws heavily from his research into the Bible. I recommend reading it. I cannot possibly do justice to the sheer breadth and depth of it here, but in one lovely bit of analysis, Peterson stops on Christ’s encounter with Satan in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-3 and Matthew 4:1-11). Satan first tempts the starving Christ to turn the desert rocks into bread if he is so hungry. Then he suggests that he throw himself off a cliff, calling on God and the angels to break his fall. But Christ responds to such temptations by saying that ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’
Peterson’s exegesis is simple: even under conditions of extreme privation, there are more important things than food. In the story, Christ could easily have chosen to create enough bread for the moment, or even enough money to solve the problem of privation more generally. But Christ aims for something higher: live as we should live, aim for a higher mode of being, and those around us will hunger no more. As Peterson says, ‘That would require each and every person to live, and produce, and sacrifice, and speak, and share in a manner that would permanently render the privation of hunger a thing of the past.’ To relentlessly pursue what is good, ethical and true is the way in which we all work towards the right-ordering of the world; it’s the way we create order out of chaos. We learn from the archetypal perfect man – even if he is just a literary invention – that we should pursue that which is meaningful rather than that which is expedient.
I think we should teach our pupils about these great stories from Bible, that much is clear. In the past, I have suggested we do so simply because a child growing up cannot be ‘culturally literate’ without them. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. Perhaps these stories, sharpened on the whetstone of the ages, are full of psychological and philosophical wisdom that we should share. Perhaps they can be meaningful as well as expedient.