Children don’t know Bible stories – is that for the best…?

There was a lot of coverage of the Bible Society’s report that children and parents don’t know Bible stories.

I had a letter published in the Telegraph with my own comment.

Letter to Telegraph Bible Society

The full letter as I submitted (not as printed) was as follows:

Sir,

The Bible Society flags up an interesting problem in the education of children and their lack of knowledge of Bible stories (Rising numbers of children ‘no longer read Bible stories’ 7/2/14). I regularly teach about the enriching nature of the stories and the need to understand their importance in understanding literature and history. However, the Bible is not always the provider of a sound moral framework, with religious fanatics successfully interpreting the text today and in history for immoral purpose. And let us not forget, there are many challenging parts of the Bible that should prompt significant debate in any classroom over their morality. Finally, I would add another layer to the teaching of the Bible and other religious texts, that of sophisticated literary and historical criticism. If the 21st century continues to be marked by conflict amongst religious fundamentalists, then our children must be given the skills to combat fanaticism intelligently.

Yours faithfully

Rabbi Neil Janes

I value the text of the Bible as a brilliant piece of literature,one of the formative texts in understanding what it means to be Jewish (by which I’m referring to the Tanakh for the purposes of Jewish identity not the Christian Bible), I recognise its significance in history and culture (an essential component to understand ourselves, particularly in the West). But you know what, it is no good if the stories and texts are taught uncritically (and note, I include other religious texts not just the Hebrew Bible): it’s no good if you end up believing that Jonah sat in a slimy whale (actually the Hebrew is ‘large fish’) as the letter above mine in the Telegraph hints, or that Noah really built an ark or that ethnic stereotyping and violence is acceptable.

Of course children can read other great works of literature and understand the stories are not historically ‘true’ even if they have a different type of ‘truth’. But (a) that’s not how the Bible (by which I include the Christian Bible) is frequently taught and read and (b) the Bible’s ‘truth’ is contested and there are plenty of literalists, fanatics and fundamentalists who think if the Bible says its TRUE then it must be (creationism is just one example). As a Liberal rabbi I don’t believe that uncritical position and given a choice between Biblical illiteracy and uncritical reading of the Bible, I’ve surprised myself in realising I know which I’d prefer.

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