RealityBites blog

'Religious Education: Realising the Potential' – Ofsted Report based on evidence from inspections of 185 schools, 2009-2012

  • Pupils leave school knowing almost nothing about core Christian beliefs.
  • Pupils are often exposed to Mickey Mouse Relgious Education that they find babyish and unchallenging.
  • Pupils are unable to think coherently about religious beliefs and how they shape our lives.
  • Pupils understand RE in almost complete isolation from the rest of the curriculum.
  • Pupils are rarely challenged when they spout nonsensical claptrap.

This is my summary of the recent Ofsted report on religious education in England. The report is accurate and insightful. It has one fatal flaw: it fails to alert the reader to the reality of contemporary education.

Young people are being indoctrinated into either scientism (everything is just physical and you are a selfish calculating machine) or relativism (you can think what you like about anything you like because you are completely autonomous). Notice this fragrant nuance. Some spout both without any critical distance!

Scientism and relativism are very dangerous worldviews because they are so rarely noticed and critically scrutinised. Like the Stealth Bomber they are very hard to see!

Sixth Form Conference in Newcastle

Yesterday I went with Gareth 'Taffy' Jones to conduct a sixth form conference at the Emmanuel School in Newcastle. The idea being that Taffy would provide an objective and distinctively Welsh perspective on the day's proceedings. I hail from Hertfordshire and my observations are often blinkered and half-baked. Taffy has assured me that this report is reliable and corresponds to what he saw and heard.

Oh and by the way Taffy has a PhD and is a very sharp lad.

We had a fantastic time! There were 140 sixth formers present and the head of RE Paul McKenzie introduced me in a gracious and friendly way.

I spoke for fifty minutes. I unleashed some of my best stories from the celebrity world. I included vignettes about Katie Price, Cheryl Cole, Russell Brand and Paris Hilton. I connected this celebrity circus to Hollywood mythology (follow your heart) and 17th century Wiltshire boffin Thomas Hobbes (you are a selfish calculating machine). I even did my impression of Count Dracula! I briefly touched on human trafficking and commodification. I then told the stories of inspiring Christians like George Cadbury and David Serunjogi, the amazing Ugandan pastor who has adopted 1700 orphans. I concluded the talk by challenging the students to think about the story they are living in.

There was then a half-hour session where the students asked me questions and grilled me about the Christian faith. I was able to talk frankly and boldly about my hope in the resurrection and my Christian convictions. The questions the students asked were absolutely superb. They had clearly been listening and reflecting.

Many of the questions focused on materialism, secularism and consumerism. One boy invited me to respond to the challenge of empiricism and the 'dogma' that 'only science gives you the truth'.

At the end of the conference two girls approached me and Taffy. They had loads more questions. Taffy was brilliant in this context and asked them some corking questions.

What a brilliant time we had!

Christian Education is not Bible-bashing

When people talk about Christian education, many people think about the archetypal Bible-basher. Someone who attacks you with Scripture.

This is tragic.

In my view Christian education should be about wisdom, discernment and understanding the brutal stories that ruin countless lives. Consider this.

I have met Christians who have no problem with rat worshippers. "Who are we to say they're wrong!" they murmur. Indeed they seem bemused and puzzled by this rodent religion. They seem unable to connect the biblical story to this strange way of life. It's almost as if the Bible has been hermetically sealed off from the world in which we live. Paul's passionate attack on idolatry in Romans chapter 1 is muffled and muted.

I have encountered Christians who fail to see a problem with 'following your heart'. They lap up films like Legally Blond without any critical discernment at all. Sometimes I bump into Christians who have no understanding about commodification and its powerful connection to the aggressive, materialist way of life. Thomas Hobbes would be smiling!

Occasionally I meet Christians who want to learn Mandarin for purely financial gain. They seem to be uncritical of consumerism as a faith. Learning a foreign language has nothing to do with loving your neighbour.

Today in Britain there is very little interest in Christian education. Let's get clear about what it isn't (in our view). It isn't Bible bashing. It isn't cliché city time. It isn't embarrassing, awkward and cringe-inducing. It isn't explicit and aggressive. Delete from your mind the image of the sanctimonious and earnest holy Joe who brings God into every nook and cranny of every possible conversation. "I've just bought some cheese. Praise the Lord!"

Christian education in its best sense doesn't pin you down and insist on Christian commitment. This kind of pedagogy is not like a spotty bully smothering you with his bad breath as he holds your arms behind your back. In its best sense Christian education is implicit, indirect, invitational and winsome. And Christian education is not just for Christian schools, or just for teaching and learning in Christian contexts. Christian education works in non-Christian contexts as well, even when explicitly Christian teaching (reference to the Bible, Jesus etc.) is not permitted.

Consider a cheeky spiel about Brian the fly. Brian, the handsome bluebottle was riding his bike to work. Unfortunately he had to get off his cycle when he got a puncture So what are flies? Are they gods? Are they prisons for souls? Are they just commodities? Were they made by the Father for the Son? This series of speech acts could easily become a lesson or an assembly. An educational experience that challenges without irritating or offending.

You could develop intriguing spiels about human trafficking. Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg, a convicted trafficker, once said, "You can buy a woman for $10,000 and make your money back in a week if she is pretty and young. Then everything else is profit." Point out that Tarzan is a faithful disciple of Thomas Hobbes. Unleash some probing questions. Should Tarzan follow his heart? Is he just a machine who has no free will? Are his victims just worthless commodities? Is he dead in his sins?

Unleash cheeky, entertaining and imaginative speech acts about mafia hit-men. Jimmy "the weasel" Fratianno was a born again man of honour who strangled people for a living. Check him out on YouTube if you don't know his story. Should Jimmy follow his instincts? Is he just a chemical robot who has no free will? Should he consult his horoscope more often? Should he leave the mafia and become a fireman?

Bob Lavelle was a banker who loved God and neighbour but suffered at the hands of cyber thieves. Should bankers worship the money god? Should bankers be true to themselves? Should bankers hire fortune tellers to help them maximise their profits? Can bankers learn from Bob?

Unleash speech acts about electricity and faith!

Shot putter Olga believes in the power of electricity to transform humans into superheroes. Is Electricity a saviour? Should we rejoice and be glad that electricity can make us moral giants? Is electricity a demon of darkness or an angel of light? Can electricity help to heat your home? Have you ever had an electric shock and lived to tell the tale?

Notice that these narratives and questions can be delivered in any educational context. Nobody can complain because there is no preaching going on. There is no proclamation. There is no epistemic arrogance. Rather there is an invitation to think about different interpretations of the world. A challenge to imagine a different world. An overture to reflect on secular, pagan, and Christian visions of life.

When we help people to discern the many deadly cul de sacs that life throws up, Christian and non-Christian people often enjoy this unique educational experience. People want to know about the nasty, bullying narratives that mug people on a daily basis.

Folk want to know about George Cadbury, Susie Hart, Pastor Pete and Bob Lavelle. They are thirsting to hear narratives about friendly crocodiles, thoughtful elephants, kind-hearted rats and ravenous cannibals. Through these narrative people can find bridges both to God's Word and His grace. Through these stories people can unearth biblical wisdom in gentle and non-threatening ways.

So what is wisdom? In its deepest sense wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7 and Revelation 14:7). Wisdom trains us to discern idolatrous ways of death and delight in faithful, fruitful ways of life. Christian education in its best sense, opens people up to life, wisdom, shalom, flourishing, laughter and the Word made Flesh.

Hollywood Mythology and Christian Education

When we talk about Christian education at RealityBites we are not talking primarily about explicit biblical teaching. We are not urging Christian educators to 'Bible-bash'. Rather our concern is to help adults and young people to understand the powerful Worldview Stories that shape and mould our imaginations and lifestyles.

Consider for a moment the powerful Hollywood perspective that repeatedly urges us to:

Trust in your instincts!
Follow your heart!
Follow your dreams!
Have faith in yourself!
Be who you want to be!

This powerful religion is the central theme of Legally Blond and many other Hollywood films. In the words of billionaire talk show host Oprah Winfrey: "Follow your instincts. That's where true wisdom manifests itself."

Is Winfrey aware of the hidden trajectory of this 'wisdom'? Should budding paedophiles follow their instincts?

These powerful mantras are frequently invoked in Hollywood films and yet few people, including Christians, are able to discern the hidden romantic worldview here that urges us to embrace our individual autonomy as the supreme purpose and goal of life.

In its best sense Christian education should be 'implicit' and encourage people to be critical and discerning about the beliefs and commitments that shape western people, like Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps surprisingly, both Christian and non-Christian people enjoy this kind of education that challenges without offending or irritating. It stands in stark contrast to the aggressively explicit Bible-thumping devotee.

Are people able to critically evaluate a romantic worldview that affirms the original goodness of the human heart and yet rejects biblical teaching about sin? Can we detect the human trajectory of Hollywood mythology that sponsors unethical and destructive behaviour? In short, should Al Capone be true to himself?

RealityBites in Perth

Here is a brief report on my trip to Perth.

I delivered two lectures to more than 900 Christian teachers. I also led three workshops with smaller groups. I focused on the power of storytelling and worldview awareness to transform Christian education. I spent time outlining Jesus' pedagogy and the importance of crafting imaginative and non-cheesy speech acts.

The other plenary speaker, Rod Wilson, President of Regent College in Vancouver amazed me with his brilliant and powerful accounts of his struggles to parent a very difficult daughter. He and his wife Bev are such warm and gifted people. It was an honour and a privilege to meet them.

I was also invited to Carey Baptist College and I delivered an assembly on William Carey to about 400 teenagers. One of the highlights of my trip was teaching several classes in the school. I was particularly encouraged by leading a discussion on the Hollywood and Buddhist worldviews. Teacher Karl Najjar welcomed me into his classroom and we had a wonderful time talking about animal stories that evoke awe and wonder. The children seemed entranced by the story of Pocho, the friendly crocodile and Jasmine the nurturing greyhound who loves other animals.

I was also very moved by another teacher who asked her class to sing a praise song for me. It was a poignant experience and I had to fight back the tears!

Thanks so much to the warm and wonderful hospitality of Ray Dallin and Jacqueline Bartlett-Day who did such a great job organising and delivering the conference. The food, vibe and conference location were superb!

Here is my talk on Inspiring Disciples and Christian Education:

RealityBites goes to Perth

This Friday I am flying to Perth in Australia and will be delivering two keynote lectures to approximately 600 Christian teachers. I have been invited by Christian Schools Australia to do this work. I have been reliably informed that sharks and jelly fish are hostile to reckless bathers and caution will be maintained at all times.

Dr Rod Wilson, President of Regent College in Vancouver, Canada will be the other keynote speaker.

I love Australia. The people are so friendly and hospitable. RealityBites is honoured to visit this huge country. Despite my love for Oz I am still supporting England in the Ashes series.

I hope and pray that sledging and foul play will not surface.

For those interested my talks will be as follows:

  • Keynote – Bond and Rat Worship
  • Keynote – Telling Inspiring Stories
  • Workshop – Try learning from Jesus
  • Workshop – Working on your Speech Acts
  • Workshop – Telling Stories that re-enchant the world.

The Calling of the Midwife

A few delightful thoughts about the vocation/calling of midwives.

One of the few instances [in the Bible] of what we now see as professions is the story about the two Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.

In this story, these midwives undoubtedly have a solid grasp of what their practice requires of them, pertaining to their personal characteristics, their methods, and the desired outcomes. However, they find themselves in a pluralistic context. They are confronted with an authority, the Pharaoh, who tells them – for political reasons – how to do their work: he tells them to pay close attention to the babies' gender. (As this is surely one of the very first things any good midwife does, this must be a case of humour from the writers of the Bible at the expense of the Pharaoh!)

Realising, however, that Pharaoh's expectations would amount to the worst kind of care – i.e. killing the babies – they use a professional argument (Hebrew mothers are stronger than others) and find a way to keep their practice in lijne with God's expectations of them – i.e. to save the babies.

This insightful passage comes from Bart Cusveller's excellent paper, 'Bridging the Gap between Christian Commitment and Professional Nursing Practice in a Pluralistic Society'. This paper can be found in Bridging the Gap: Connecting Christian Faith and Professional Practice in a Pluralistic Society, proceedings of a IAPCHE 2009 Regional Conference.

Inspiring Norwegian Bloke

Our Cumbrian friend Henry Vyner-Brooks unearthed this great story from Norway. We love Cumbria and the Vyner-Brooks family!

Norwegian Christians draw inspiration from early pioneer Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), a poor farmer from the Oslo region who was used by God to ignite a revival, both spiritually and economically, and paved the way to Norway's independence. Hauge spearheaded a movement that profoundly influenced the development of a people that for centuries had been steeped in poverty, collective hopelessness, and suppression by its neighbors.

In 1796 he had a decisive encounter with the Holy Spirit. God ignited such a fire within him that in the next 7 years he walked 15,000 kilometers across Norway to reach all cities and counties. He started house churches and helped people develop businesses. Whilst walking to the villages he knitted, and on arrival gave villagers hats and scarves and then, rather than immediately preaching, rolled his sleeves up and began working with the farmers out in the fields. Hauge helped the farmers develop more advanced planting techniques that he had learnt in Denmark.

A movement of common people started that was deeply spiritual. People turned to Christ and had life-changing conversion experiences. The meetings were held in homes, and challenged the control of the government-run state church. It turned out to be unstoppable. Norway’s population at that time was approximately 900.000, and possibly half the population turned to Christ. (Today, Norway has almost 5 million people.) Hauge wrote 33 books, selling 200,000-300,000 copies, so that by the time of his death, most homes throughout the land had a Bible and one of his books. Hauge paid a high personal price though. As lay preaching was forbidden, he spent much of 1804-1811 in prison.

What distinguished this movement, was also that it was deeply reformational.Everywhere Hans Nielsen Hauge went, he helped the people to start factories, mills, schools and banks. Historians agree that Norway's independence in 1814 would never have happened without this movement. Several members of the Constitutional Assembly in 1814 were directly or indirectly influenced by the Hauge revival. Christian values became strongly rooted in the constitution. Norway gradually developed from being 'the poor house' of Europe to one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and one of the top three missionary sending nations in the world.

Inspiring Barber blesses the homeless

Every Wednesday in Hartford, Conn. USA homeless people can get a free haircut. However 82-year-old retired barber Anthony Cymerys does ask for a hug in return.

Inspired 25 years ago by a church sermon about the homeless, Anthony decided he wanted to do something for those who have no home. His clients line up on park benches and wait their turn for a haircut and a hug.

"I love these guys," Cymerys said about them. He paused and turned to his client in the chair, "You know I love you, right?"

Hugs and a haircut

HITEC University and the Money god

HITEC university is situated about 20 miles north-west of Islamabad in Pakistan. It got started in 2007 and now has more than 1400 students.

This is how it 'sells' itself on its website:

HITEC University offers undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Engineering, Management Sciences, Mathematics, Computer and Islamic Shariah. The up-to-date and well-conformed [sic] syllabi have been tailored to the market needs and are designed to equip the students with the latest developments in their fields of specialization.

This sounds like a university that indoctrinates young people into a materialism where the Market has become an all-consuming god. Thomas Hobbes would be cheering!

HITEC university is only making explicit what is implicit in the vast majority of western universities.

Notice that the curriculum at the HITEC University is focused upon faithful service to the Market. Notice also that this university does not offer such subjects as Classics, History and Philosophy etc. Many western universities are now dispensing with subjects that do not please the money god.

Be alert to the power of the materialist gospel as it domesticates both Christianity and Islam.

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