NEWS | Kaley Payne
Tuesday 27 October 2015
A Bibles in schools symposium heard last week that you can’t be an educated person without knowing the Bible.
The symposium brought together academics, teachers and Christian providers from around Australia to discuss the possibilities and effectiveness of teaching the Bible in schools.
“Bible literacy is at an all time low,” said Bible Society Australia’s CEO Greg Clarke, who convened the meeting. He told Eternity after the symposium that research from the UK, US and Australia suggests that a student’s Bible knowledge is insufficient for understanding the basic texts they will encounter in the classroom.
“Coming to an English literature classroom without a basic knowledge of the Bible is like stepping up to the cricket crease without your bat,” he said. “There’s nothing there to help you play the game properly. From early high school onwards, there starts to be an educational deficiency and disadvantage for a student if they don’t know the Bible.”
Perhaps even more serious, said Clarke, is that there is now a “generation of teachers who don’t know the Bible well enough even to be aware that they are unaware of its influence.”
Discussion about the Bible in school has centred recently in Victoria and increasingly in New South Wales on Special Religious Education or Instruction, and because that topic is so politically fraught, it’s hard to move beyond it.
“It’s no secret that scripture in schools has been a very difficult discussion – a hot potato issue to deal with,” said Clarke. But he said to improve how the Bible is taught and understood, there are two other threads about Bible in schools that need to be picked up, which the symposium explored.
The first thread is basic Bible literacy – “how to teach the stories of the Bible, the unfolding nature of the Bible, why the Bible is shaped the way it is, the characters, the symbolism and how all of that has been important to literature, music, art, the rise of the sciences and so forth,” he said.
The second, Clarke said, was how to bring the shaping influence of the Bible in Australian history and its institutions into discussions on the Australian curriculum.
The symposium heard from Kevin Donnelly, co-chair of the most recent Australian Curriculum review. Donnelly addressed the symposium on the challenges of creating a “balanced” and holistic curriculum and his views on the place of religion, and Christianity in particular, in education.
“No curriculum is neutral … every curriculum will have a particular value system or underlying philosophy. The question, for me at least, is what is informing it and where is it coming from?” said Donnelly.
Clarke said that his aim as the head of Bible Society was to provide resources that enable those who care about the place of the Bible in education to “use it effectively and confidently without being tied up in the culture wars that have often muddied the waters in what happens in our schools.”
In doing so, Bible Society has been in discussion with American educationalist and entrepreneur Dr Chuck Stetson, who founded The Bible Literacy Project in the United States and also addressed the symposium. The project developed a textbook acceptable to high school systems in many US states, to assist in the task of improving Bible literacy.
“We collected research from high school English teachers in the US and asked ‘Do they need to know the Bible or not?’ 98 per cent said that kids are disadvantaged in studying English literature if they don’t know the Bible. Then we asked English professors from top, secular US universities. 100 per cent said an educated person knows the Bible,” said Stetson.
Stetson’s focus is on the academic reasons to learn about the Bible, and acknowledging the role of universities and teachers rather than the church as those concerned to make an argument for Bible literacy.
Clarke said there is much Australia could learn from the project.
“It’s been helpful to hear about the American experience, to note the differences in Australia but also to pick up on the way in which the resources Chuck has developed are communicated as legal, suitable and effective in the classroom.”
The symposium also heard from Dr Meredith Lake, who has been commissioned by Bible Society to write an academic history of the Bible in Australia. Dr Lake shared some of that research with the symposium, suggesting that the Bible has been a core part of our colonial inheritance and a key reference point to the type of society we are building. Her research resonated with the audience, highlighting historical facts not often referenced today.
“It would be a mistake to see the influence of the Bible as a mere hangover from old Europe, or a strange import from North America. We do get these clichés in our public conversations. But people here on the ground in Australia have drawn on the Bible to build the institutions we have today and to debate the direction of this community,” argued Dr Lake.
“Bible-believers forged some of Australia’s largest financial institutions,” said Lake. “People like Presbyterians Thomas Holt and John Goodlet, who were leaders in their respective churches, created the Australian Mutual Providence Society (now known as AMP), established in 1849.
“Its original purpose was to enable people to band together and provide themselves with life insurance for the support of their families … It was an early Australian expression of an evolving British model of financial support for the working poor. Its very nature as a mutual organisation suggests to me that it’s not an unbridled self-reliance; there’s a value for community too, banding together to do those things. It involved bearing one another’s burdens, which is an idea straight out of Galatians in the New Testament.”
But it was the Christian foundations for Australia’s trade unions and Labor Party that most delighted and surprised symposium attendees.
In 1892, one of Australia’s early union leaders, William Guthrie Spence, gave a lecture to a meeting of socialists as they planned the union movement, saying, “The aim of the new unionism is a grand one, a noble one. If asked to give a short definition, I should say it’s an effort to give practical effect to the teachings of the founder of Christianity, by making it easy and natural for men to act justly, truthfully and honestly. If I understand anything of the teachings of the founder of Christianity it’s that he came to bring heaven on earth … an ideal state where we can escape all the ills and sorrows that we experience here.”
Further on Spence added, “I don’t want to preach to you, but I will ask you: In reading his life – and I suppose all of you have read it – did it ever strike you that it’s possible to live as he did? He went about doing good.”
“Imagine that!” Lake said. “Assumed reading for the socialists of the 1890s – the Gospels. We need to grapple with this.”
When the Labor Party was founded soon after, nine out of the 35 first elected Labor representatives were Methodists and 12 were, what Dr Lake calls, “convinced evangelicals of other Protestant varieties.” She quoted the Catholic paper, The Freeman’s Journal which, at the time complained that the “Labor Party is largely composed of pulpit punchers and local preachers.”
“These aren’t the stories that circulate in our normal narratives,” said Lake “But I think they’re worth knowing.”
Greg Clarke agreed. “The Christian underpinnings of so many of Australia’s institutions needs to be revealed and remembered,” he said.
“In fact, even our education institutions themselves depend very much on elements of the Christian worldview. It’s time to have a broader, sensitive discussion about the ways in which we can do the Bible in education better, and tell these stories.”
Anyone interested in the development of Bible literacy educational projects in Australia can contact Greg via email at [email protected]