Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Another What If... Using "Scripture" to "Teach" "Ethics"... and a whole lot more

I saw an interesting item a week or so ago in the Fairfax press; an opinion piece by David Hill titled "Churches don't have monopoly on the good life" and tagged 'Ethics Courses as Alternative to Scripture Classes in Schools'. It seems there's been an experiment in the NSW education system, a trial providing weekly ethics courses for school students in the government education system who don't attend the weekly religious instruction classes provided by the churches. These RI classes are called scripture classes.

It seems that the trial was a success and the participating students really enjoyed the ethics classes. It went down so well that the churches, especially the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations want the ethics classes to made available to all and not as an alternative to their scripture classes. In fact there seems to be a fear that the ethics classes might prove so popular that they even draw students away from the scripture classes so the churches have mounted a campaign called, very tellingly, Save Our Scripture.

Now I have no idea how these so-called scripture classes are run or what they're like. It's been a long time since my school days and I'd like to think things have changed a bit since then. What's more I was taught in the Catholic system, in my childhood by the Josephite nuns at the local convent school. Back in those days the entire education system, government and non-government, seemed designed to bore students so much that they would never get interested in anything to do with thinking and reflection. Religion was much the same. We had our penny catechism which we learnt off by heart - I've pretty much forgotten all of it now. We also had something called a Bible history which was an illustrated collection of stories from Old and New Testaments. It wasn't the actual text, however, just a retold version in the long tradition of children's bible story anthologies. As we got older the penny catechism was replaced by a more complex hard cover catechism and the bible history by a copy of Knox's Four Gospels translated from the Latin Vulgate. But we really didn't read that much scripture and what we read was embedded in a tight doctrinal matrix underpinned by the catechisms.

I'd assume that scripture classes wouldn't operate like that any more, at least for Catholics, and presumably Uniting Church and Anglicans. But then the Sydney Archdiocese is very conservative and then there are all those very conservative Protestant denominations (presumably the Orthodox and Jews and Muslims and other religions have their own 'scripture' classes too). So I wondered just how and how much scripture might actually be taught in these so-called 'scripture' classes; were they actually doing a very good job of turning the students off scripture altogether?

Maybe because I was Catholic and we Catholics didn't read Bibles in those days, and coming to biblical studies later in life, I have a much greater appreciation of these anthologies of texts called imperially The Bible and I realise just how important these stories, these collections of narrative and poetry and polemic, actually are, not least in cultural terms. And so I began entertaining another what if...

What if 'scripture' was used in schools as a basis to teach ethics and a range of other stuff too. I'm not talking about religious instruction, mind. Far from it. No, what I imagine is something like a regular reading group where students from the start of their schooldays would read the text in an atmosphere where they would be encouraged, according to what I understand (from a rabbi I used to know) is the best of Jewish tradition, that is to always ask why, what is going on here whenever they see something odd, puzzling, shocking or even boring in the text. Because lets face it, there's some pretty wild and puzzling and quite outrageous stories in these scriptures (and some boring bits too) and I think stories like these are the best for ethical reflection not to mention stretching the imagination.

English is the main language of Australia and so I would make the King James Bible, the text for this enterprise. That way students can be introduced to the rich cadences of the language, but which, being some four centuries old, will contain words and usages that are alien. It would also have to be the King James with the so-called Apocrypha, so as to cross over most of the various biblical canons, not just the standard Protestant one. What I envisage is not a denominational exercise. Furthermore I would want the students to read a good English translation of the Qur'an alongside the Bible. That way they can learn how the biblical stories have been retold and live on in Islamic cultures, too, making the stories and characters central to the imaginative life of a plethora of cultures, Christian and Islamic as well as Jewish, over time and space.

My childhood was in the days before Vatican 2 and so I lived then in the world of the Latin Mass. While I don't necessarily miss it as such, I am grateful for spending my childhood in a religious culture with another language to English. As kids we weren't taught Latin but we were schooled in the Latin Mass; we learnt the Latin responses and we could see what they meant in the English translation in our missals. I think that, albeit limited, bi-lingual environment was enriching. Jews and Muslims read their scriptures in Hebrew or Arabic putting them in a similarly enriching bi-lingual environment (even for Arabs - the classical Arabic of the Qur'an is different to the modern Arabics spoken today). Studying the Bible can also create an enriching multi-lingual environment, not just because the King James uses an older form of English but because the stories were composed and transmitted in several different ancient languages. So when the students read Genesis 1.1 in the King James - In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth - they can also be introduced to the older Hebrew, Greek, Latin forms of the text

Bereshit bara elohim eth hashamayim w'eth ha-arets

En arche epoieisen ho theos ton ouranon kai tein gein
('ei' pronounced as in vein or neigh)

In principio creavit deus caelam et terram

They can also be introduced to the Arabic opening - In the name of God/Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful - of the Qur'an too

Bismillahi r-rahman r-rahim

Both the Hebrew scriptures and the Qur'an are sung or chanted texts and so in the first couple of years the students can both read in English and sing or chant in Hebrew and Arabic or at least listen to these texts sung and chanted (and chanted in Latin and Greek too). And so they become exposed to other languages, their linguistic repertoire is expanded. And there is indeed a whole rich world of music around these texts that they can be introduced to, as well as a world of art, film and literature. The biblical world on the internet is vast as is the Qur'an's internet world. Scripture classes can also become great vehicles to teach young people how to work the world of the internet.

As for ethics, well lets start with the Genesis creation stories. Read together with their versions in the Qur'an opens up the world of plurality already but if the school's students are multi-ethnic and multi-faith then it enables the opportunity to share stories from outside the biblical/quranic matrix, Hindu stories, Buddhist stories, Chinese and Japanese stories, and, most importantly in Australia, indigenous stories. If the school is more 'mono' in its faith and ethnic profile then there remain the stories from Greek and Roman and Egyptian and other related mythology too. I remember learning about the Greek myths in the local convent school; for the life of me I can't remember why we learned those stories but we did. What I'm getting at here is cultivating an ethics of listening and sharing and appreciating difference. The Jewish tradition of the midrashim can further reinforce how the biblical stories have been retold and reworked, added to, enhanced, to thus foster an ethics of creativity and, again, appreciation of plurality.

As the students get older then the ethical questions get more interesting, more challenging. In Genesis 1, the text repeats the refrain 'and God saw that it was good' as the great tone poem of creation unfolds. Can we say that the universe is good? What does it mean to say that? Is the universe bad? or indifferent? What then are the implications? There are other ethical questions in Genesis 1 too. How do humans relate to, engage with the rest of the earth? Is it just there for us to exploit any way we like? Related to that is the fact that the vision of human life in Genesis 1 is a vegetarian one - 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat' (1.29). So what are the ethics of our treatment of animals? The Genesis text already provides a means for opening up discussion of some pretty weighty ethical issues. And then there is also 'God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them' and 'Be fruitful, and multiply' - how do we go about the ethics of gender and sexuality. And that's just in the first chapter!

These themes get reprised again in the Eden stories along with another biggie, truth and falsehood. Who's telling the truth and who's lying in these stories? God? the serpent? Eve? Adam? And we're still only three chapters in. The rest of the biblical world is bursting with stories that raise a suite of further ethical issues. Power is a big one, not just with David and Solomon and the kings, there's also Joshua and Ezra and then the whole deployment of power in the Gospel narratives. David Hill gives as reasons why parents don't want their children to attend scripture classes 'Others complain that little children should not be traumatised by stories of the crucifixion or the threat of spending eternity ''burning in hell''.' The crucifixion is ugly, terrible, vile, that's the whole point. The story in its various forms raises a suite of ethical issues about power, its deployment, how to respond to it. As a child I was horrified by Herod's massacre of the infants of Bethlehem. Power continues to be used every day to destroy people in brutal ways - and these stories remind us of that fact. And, as with the case of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus, they remind us that people can resist such power too. As for hell, well that's an interesting ethical conundrum in itself, one which I've discussed elsewhere on this blog. While there's little or no hell in the Old Testament and not that much in the New either, an allied question is the ethics of divinity in the scriptures. God is a character in these stories and therefore should not be exempt from criticism or ethical evaluation. Does God's behavior through the Flood, at Sodom and Gomorrah, does such behavior give warrant for genocide? And what about holy war and the ban, the massacre of Canaanite and Amalekite?

And then there is the whole tangled web of gender and sexuality. The love lives (or more appropriately sex lives) of Abraham and Jacob and Samson and David and Solomon, and the poetics of rape and abuse in the prophets, just to name some. What can be made of Jephthah's daughter or the concubine at Gibeah? This is not a Brady Bunch world of sugar and schmaltz (let alone Father Knows Best) but a bizarre and frightening and ethically problematic world, the perfect space to exercise and cultivate ethical reflection. And this world does not exist in a vacuum either. There is more than two thousand years of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other ethical debate and reflection around these stories. Was Lot right to offer his daughters to the mob? Jewish tradition offers an unequivocal 'no' but Christians and Muslims, are not so clear cut. Augustine's discussion of whether Lot was right or wrong to do so is a text that should be studied and evaluated in developing an ethical framework. Was Augustine right or wrong in his conclusions? And was Augustine uncomfortable with them? I think Augustine was wrong but I also think he wasn't happy with the conclusion he had reached or, at least, understood it was problematic.

Now I'm not proposing that students in grade 1 read Augustine. He, along with other Christian theologians and mystics and heretics, Gnostics, rabbis and kabbalists, sheikhs and imams and sufis, philosophers and the odd few Marxists, Freudians, feminists and other ratbags would come later as the students got older. They would be progressively introduced to these people throughout their school lives, along with the novelists, poets, dramatists, artists, composers and film-makers via the Bible and the Qur'an (which would be read beside the biblical texts in every class on scripture). Through the study of scripture students would be put in conversation with a wide variety of people, thinkers/artists, not just within the English language tradition but from a broad spectrum of cultures around the world and from across the last two to three thousand years.

To highlight the global and pluralist dimensions of these scriptures I had considered banning the adherents of the religions based on them - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bahais, Druze, modern-day Gnostics, (and where do the Sikhs fit? [1]) - from having any role in teaching them. I would also include all those vigorous atheists of the Dawkins and Hitchens variety who by so striving to discredit these texts, in their very rejection make themselves as uncritically captive to these texts and hidebound as any fundamentalist Baptist or Salafi. So the teachers would have to be indigenous Australians or members of other primal indigenous traditions, Hindus, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Daoists, Shintoists, Jains, Cao Dai, etc, (and where do the Sikhs fit? [1]). I must admit I rather like that idea (even if it precludes such as myself). But then I felt that perhaps Jews should be excepted in honour of the rabbi who stressed to me that you must never be reluctant to ask why when you read these texts. So I have changed my mind. Instead I think the classes should be taught by a team of at least two, of whom at least one must come from a religio-cultural tradition not shaped by this Middle Eastern scriptural/religious matrix. Thus the cross-cultural dialogic framework can be reinforced. The other guideline then that I would place on these teaching teams is that it is okay for the teachers to disagree, even strongly disagree on any reading or evaluation of the stories and characters. Such disagreement could even be encouraged, so long as it was respectful. Here I'm mindful of the old saw 'put two Jews together and you will have three opinions'. And I guess I can't help but think of the yeshiva practice where young Jews argue and debate scripture as they study it and where in these debates if one party exhausts an argument the other party will help them to resume it by working out a critique of their own opposing position.

Obviously such secular teaching of scripture in every year of school could not then be the preserve only of the government school system. No, such teaching of scripture would have to become an integral part of the entire schooling system, public and private, secular and faith-based, school based and distance and somehow as part of home-schooling operations too. Indeed it would provide an essential corrective in schools run by more fundamentalist faith communities, Christian and otherwise.

Of course I realise this is a utopian vision and given the timorous and blinkered petit bourgeois mindset that dominates the politics of this country, as evidenced by the current election, these utopian imaginings have as much chance of success as a snowflake's in Hell (the old-fashioned traditional variety of Hell anyway). But given the singular importance of these scriptures in world history and imagination, not to mention our own Anglo cultural-linguistic trajectory, I don't think they deserve anything less. What's more I don't think children, young people deserve anything less either. These are the stories of their ancestors, of our ancestors, even much moreso now that we are a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-lingual society. These stories bring contemporary young people into conversation with those ancestors across two to three thousand years. These stories reveal to them the imaginary framework of their culture/s and language/s. And these stories give them the opportunity to enrich, explore and expand both their imaginative horizon and their ethical framework. Thus, I would suggest, they may become more fully human, surely the prime goal of any meaningful education.

[1] Not to mention Mandaeans and Yezidis.


  1. This is a very interesting field of potential for education. The NSW experiment is somewhat problematic because it makes ethics education an alternative to religious education, when in fact there should be a carefully structured linking of the two. Amongst other reasons, this would be an acknowledgement of the shift from Person-based religion towards a greater emphasis on values as a basis for faith.

    Did you know that Buranda State School has for some time been experimenting with ethics education and finding it beneficial in terms of pupil behaviour? What a surprise!

    I favour basing as much of ethics education as possible on everyday experience. We had some of this when I was lad at BBC, those many moons ago, and it was very well received. This could be the entree to further exploration based on stories of all kinds. The more culturally and religiously diverse the stories the better. What a great opportunity for cross-sectional learning.

    I'm sure Sodom and Gomorrah would find a place in there somewhere ...


  2. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is rich in ethical implications, Phil, especially if you include Genesis 18 when Abraham receives God/angels prior to the angels going to Sodom. In Jewish tradition, the story of Abraham's hospitality models two virtues. Abraham himself models the virtue of hospitality and demonstrates that by practicing hospitality one ends up entertaining God and angels. Thus hospitality is the queen of virtues.

    Also God here models the virtue of visiting the sick. Remember this is not long after Abraham is circumcised and so Jewish tradition understands he was recovering

    And then in Genesis 18 God tells Abraham what is about to befall Sodom and Abraham protests and argues with God to try and save Sodom or at least the good people living there - "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"

    All of this before we even enter the gates of Sodom in Genesis 19.

  3. Heavens Michael I can see that your Catholic upbringing had a hell of a Lot (hehe) more impact on you than mine on me!!

  4. This is a very interesting field of potential for education. The NSW experiment is somewhat problematic because it makes ethics education an alternative to religious education, when in fact there should be a carefully structured linking of the two. Amongst other reasons, this would be an acknowledgement of the shift from Person-based religion towards a greater emphasis on values as a basis for faith.

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    Regards, Johny.