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Entries in divine knowledge (1)

Telling Tales: The Role of Religion in Today’s Schools

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your life without stories. Go on, try it! What would you miss most?

Those distant childhood recollections of much loved bedtime stories; trips to the cinema that made you laugh, cry and shriek in horror; or long travel journeys made special the companionship of a favorite author? Take stories away from your life and what do you have left, except a series of one-dimensional, disconnected events that make no sense.

The power of story for human existence cannot be disputed. Stories help us make sense of our lives; they give us our bearings and connect us to one another, our past and our future. Stories take away from the everyday, the mundane, and help us view the world, as a wise man once said, from some ‘more central region’. If you like, they are the medium by which, in the end, we come to know the truth about ourselves and our existence. In short, stories are the ultimate human playground that we never grow out of.

Talking of playgrounds, let’s think together for a moment about schools. Schools are full of stories, aren’t they? Well, yes, if you mean stories like The Hungry Caterpillar, Jack and the Beanstalk and Harry Potter. But what about those stories that connect us to something deeper? What about the stories which lift our eyes beyond the here and dare to speak of ‘God’ himself?

The role of schools in society has divided opinion since the time of Plato, particularly when it comes to the education of religion. I am thinking of my friend, for example, who owns a t-shirt which says: ‘Don’t pray in our schools; we will not think in your church!’. Clearly, even today, consensus is difficult to achieve and tends to give way to four, broad opinions:

  1. Total immersion: Faith-based schools that actively promote a particular religion or faith ‘story’. For such schools, acts of worship (celebrating the story) form part of the weekly educational programme.
  2. Total avoidance: Faith is banned from the classroom on the grounds that it has no place in schools. We simply have to leave our stories at the school gate.
  3. Total neutrality: Religion is introduced into the curriculum, but, in an effort to stay ‘neutral’, the great religious stories are reduced to a series of ‘top 10’ facts and memorized like the colour of our national flags.
  4. Totally unwrapped: Finally come from 70 different nationalities, from literally every corner of the globe. So the question we face every day is ‘Whose story do you tell?’, just as much as it is ‘Whose history do you teach?’. Indeed, what are we, there is the ‘candy bar’ approach. Here religious traditions are viewed a ‘wrappers’ – disposable trappings that can be peeled away from the true ‘essence’ of human spirituality. In other words, it is not the story that is important, rather the so-called ‘truth’ behind it.

Many of us may well already recognize our own classroom experience in one of these four approaches. For me, however, questions still remain.

Take, for example, a typical classroom at the school where I happen to work. Students from the International School of Brussels (ISB) to do?  Try and ignore it? Keep on pretending that we can somehow take up a neutral position on these issues? Set up a multi-functional space that can be used as a chapel one day and a synagogue the next? And, then, where do you stop? When we talk about ‘inclusion’, do we really mean to say that we welcome students who may wish to celebrate ‘stories’ that are generally considered to be violent, anti-social or inhumane?

There is no easy resolution here. But, then again, the ‘quick fix’ is what stories (good ones, at least) always deny us. They tie a knot, spin a web, leave us wondering, fill us with dangerous emotions and will not let us go. They leave us changed, not because we necessarily understand the story – but because we have dared to wrestle with it.

Good schools are places that teach students how to tell powerful stories – including their tales of faith and belief – in a complex world. The best schools, though, are those that also teach students how to listen to the stories of others, whereby we better understand our own. Philosophers call this ‘open confessionalism’: the tricky business of standing up for what we believe, yet having the humility to accept that sometimes we discover the truth in stories told by people who are different from us.

For further reading and discussion:


Books on Religious Education are easy to find. However, why not try a ‘novel’ approach and pick up a copy of Jill Paton Walsh, Knowledge of Angels (Black Swan, 1998). Set on a remote medieval island, this story will take you on a challenging journey, asking complex questions along the way about where truth comes from, the role of the church in society and how we know anything with certainty. For the philosophical background to this article, see my book: Divine Knowledge: A Kierkegaardian Perspective On Christian Education (Ashgate Publishing, 2001)





This article was published in (A)WAY magazine, Spring 2009.

Click here to download in PDF format.