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The Stories We Tell: Bible stories recycled and what we can learn from them

With the opportunity to construct a course for the Fourth Form within the remit of Philosophy, Ethics and Spirituality, I relished the idea of examining how biblical language and imagery is recycled in our culture.  That modest aim has developed into something more by leading me to examine what purpose such 'recycling' has.


At first I felt it important to give students some exposure to imagery and stories from the Bible itself, as over the years of my teaching career I have seen the amount of residual Bible knowledge that I can assume my students have, decline.  As a Religious Studies teacher that gives me the privileged position of sometimes being the first person to introduce them to certain Bible stories, and I see fresh, and sometimes startling, reactions from them as they encounter the ideas for the very first time.  As a biblical scholar by training, this aspect always fascinates me.


I was also interested in educating them with this knowledge in order for them to be able to decipher cultural clues and levels of meaning when advertisers, song writers, painters, sculptors, script writers and the such, incorporate a word or an image from the Bible into their artefact.  So, for instance, seeing the sculpture by Jordi Raga of (what looks like) an apple core with the title Paradise Lost, a level of meaning is introduced alluding to the second creation account in the Bible where Adam and Eve eat the apple with disastrous consequences, as well as to John Milton's epic poem of the same name and subject.


On reflection, however, those were very low level aims!  In fact, the danger of giving students a repository of wider cultural literacy, is for them to be able to distinguish themselves from others who do not have that knowledge, and so reinforce lines of discrimination, of differences in economics, or levels of education and the like.  I am not interested in that agenda at all!  What the objects of knowledge are, is not an especially important question for me.


So I needed to take a different view on things, develop a different rationale behind my teaching.  The changed view was this: firstly, that every artefact, whether text, painting or sculpture is the response of one person to some aspect of the human condition.  The question then, is, what response is being conveyed?  And can we determine what the issue is?  I may then also choose to see another person's response to the same issue.


I may ask other questions of the artefact at this level such as from what place is the response coming?  This is still at the level of the painter, script writer etc, but what personal story are they telling through it.  So, for example, Caravaggio's painting that portrays the severed head of Goliath after David's remarkable victory, is in fact a self-portrait which art historians interpret as being Caravaggio's expression of penitence and remorse for having murdered a man, while he seeks forgiveness (and patronage) from the Pope.  So through recycling that particular story Caravaggio is narrating part of his life.


Even so, all that analysis keeps the response detached from me and my personal engagement.


An important next step however, is to see if the response manifest in the artefact has anything to say to me; does it help me negotiate my way in life – that is often full of complexity – and especially facing this particular issue?  In our lessons I introduced the students to the song by Regina Spektor called Samson.  In it she refers to the biblical character who lost his strength because he gave away the secret of his power to Delilah: she cut his hair when he slept, rendering him impotent.  This song introduced the students to the legendary character of Samson, but the point I drew out for them, was the reason that Regina Spektor wrote that particular song (or the conjecture people make): that a former boyfriend developed cancer and lost his hair and also his strength during chemotherapy.  The story of Samson, then, leant words and imagery that were apposite in this personal situation: they were a ready-made way of narrating and negotiating this extremely difficult personal time.


And one step further still is to see how that can help me to incorporate meaning into a more wholesome world-view – something more permanent than helping in a specific situation and into changing for the better, the way I see, live, and orient myself in the world.  In our lessons we made tentative steps in this direction at the end of a series of lessons on the creation accounts in the Bible.  The Adam and Eve creation account – which scholars tell us is the more ancient one – has some considerable differences from the Seven Day creation account, in which God created all there is in six days and rested on the seventh day when everything was complete.  The Seven Day creation account highlights the awesome power of God over every element of His creation.  In this account humans are the high point of creation, and stand in the exalted position in all of the created order of being the ones who carry the image of God: 'male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them'; and in which the entire created order is 'very good'.  


This is a far cry from the Adam and Eve account, who, after their disobedience were cursed by God and in consequence of which Adam was condemned to toil and struggle all the days of his life, and Eve was condemned to painful childbirth and subservience to her husband.  The students saw the sexist overtones of the Adam and Eve account immediately, but then saw how the Seven Day creation account places male and female together in a place of honour and equality.


So what can these contrasting accounts teach us about ourselves and how can they influence our world-view?  In class we thought about this and concluded that people with differences can live together; different views can live side by side; we don't have to try to level out every different opinion and make them homogeneous.  The people in the ancient Jewish tradition who came to select the writings for the canon of Scripture did not erase all the differences that had been present in their tradition.  The Bible includes books that question the suppositions of other biblical books.  For example, the Book of Job famously calls into question the 'prosperity gospel' found in the Book of Proverbs.  Yet we see these two different views living side by side in the Bible.  The 'sexist' creation account outlining the Fall of Adam and Eve, lives alongside the glory of the equality of the genders in the Seven Day creation account. 


How can this help us?  We can be intrigued when we come across people who hold different views of life from us.  We can be curious as to what and why they hold the views they do, or live they life they do.  To live side by side we don't need everybody to be the same as us, either in lifestyle or views.


What riches and challenges we have found in our Bible Recycled course!  Not only in giving us a ready-made currency of language to narrate and frame personal aspects of our lives, but it can also help us to reflect on and develop our world-view.  As ever, what I the teacher thought I would bring to the students, has been more than matched by what the students have brought to me in their eagerness and responses.  What a great thing this broad education is!

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