Following earlier posts on poet laureate Andrew Motion and his observations on the need for young people to learn the biblical narrative, there is a wonderful interview with him in the April 2009 edition of Third Way. Andrew Rumsey conducted a model interview: brief questions that steered Motion and allowed him to speak and ruminate for himself without the interviewer intruding.

andrew-motionMotion says, ‘I don’t believe in God – though I wish I did and I can’t stop thinking about it.’ What follows is an illuminating and reflective conversation in which the poet speaks about words, poetry, life, literature, God, the church and so on. I quote just one further bit to whet the appetite – the interview needs to be read as a whole. Picking up on the theme of the need to understand the ancient texts if one is to understand art and literature and our own culture (how we got to where we are), he says:

‘I was saying this from a specifically non-believer’s point of view. I just think it’s appalling to contemplate a future society in which these things aren’t being enjoyed. And that’s the place to start, because they give such pleasure. And then on that basis you build a differently important point about how our understanding of ourselves in the present will not be anything near what it should be unless our doors to the past are open. If you forget all this stuff, or never had it taught to you, those doors warp tight shut.

Life shrinks. You go into the National Gallery or you pick up any book written before, well, yesterday and if you don’t know all the stuff that’s being echoed, alluded to, rephrased, parodied, bounced off, deepened – shallowed, sometimes – your experience is going to be enormously diminished.’

Wonderful stuff.

The debate about the Bible opened up by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has had some interesting responses – not least to my post yesterday (Bible and Motion). One of the amazing things, in my opinion, is the widespread ignorance about how texts work and how literature is to be understood. There are two elements to this in relation to the Bible:

1. The Bible and its stories provide the cultural backdrop to western society and our society cannot be understood any more without the Bible than it could be by ignoring the First World War. This is not an ideological claim and it is a view supported quite rightly by atheists such as Richard Dawkins. This should provide no problem for anyone with a shred of rationality about them. To deny it would be to regard as reasonable the suggestion that western cultural history can be understood without some nod towards the Romans, the Greeks or the Assyrians. In the same way that England cannot be understood without the Elizabethan Settlement or Germany without the Reformation, so Shakespeare cannot be understood without the Bible. This is not an ideological position – after all, I can acknowledge the role of Greek mythology in the formation of the western mind without having to believe that it isn’t a load of nonsense. Equally, I can learn to understand Nazism without having to agree with Mein Kampf.

2. However, the Bible is regarded as the source of truth claims by people of varying religious conviction. Those truth claims must be subject to public scrutiny and questioning. One element of such scrutiny will be its intellectual coherence – another will be the experience of those who claim its truth for themselves or the world. Within the community that regards the text as ‘true’ or ‘authoritative’ there will be endless debates about what ‘truth’ means and how the text itself conveys that truth. For example, the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘factuality’ will need to be explored: a parable can convey truth (about life, the universe and everything) without recording an event that actually happened.

To insist on the importance of the Bible’s role (1) is not to suggest that everybody should be subjected to blind acceptance of its truth claims (2). But here we hit on another problem. The ‘secularists’ (for want of a better category) seem to regard their worldview/understanding of what is ‘true’ about the world as somehow neutral, but see a religious worldview as ‘loaded’ (somewhere up the dangerous/loony scale). Yet, the secularist worlview is not always argued for, bears many assumptions which can neither be falsified nor verified, and arrogates to itself a position of unassailability in the public market place. It is simply assumed to be true for all people and suffers no deviation or qualification.

This is, I suggest, both irrational and absurd.

Andrew Motion’s critique applies to my first observation and it is to that that I applied myself in yesterday’s post. Maybe I should apply myself to the second observation in a future post. That would be the place to say something about how texts work, how they are understood variously in the course of time and how any text is a text in motion. Put briefly, the Bible is partly an account of a people’s growing realisation of who God is, how God is and how we should live together accordingly. Butchery might have seemed justifiable at one point in history, but not after some ‘motion’ a thousand years later after the cost of such butchery had been experienced.

Slavery was abolished in the teeth of Christian biblical opposition. But it was abolished because Christians such as Wilberforce read the Bible differently and compelled the readers of the text to read it differently. Which I realise is a bit embarrassing for those who would prefer it if Wilberforce had been an atheist.

At last – a shaft of light penetrates into the murkiness of much public commentary on Christianity and religious matters. Today’s Guardian newspapercontains two articles about the call by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, to teach our children the Bible. His reasoning? You can’t understand English (or global) cultural or historical heritage – particularly art, literature or theatre – unless you have a basic familiarity with the biblical text.

the-holy-bible1Andrew Motion is an atheist, so he is not banging a theistic drum here. Rather, as an intelligent man with his brain engaged, he is stating the blindingly obvious in the face of a culture that has largely lost its ability to be rational about anything to do with religion, Christianity or the Bible.

john-miltonHis point is simply that successive generations of students are ignorant of the stories that formed the worldview of a couple of thousand years of western people. So, you can’t understand them or their art if you don’t understand to what their art refers. Motion recalls teaching students of the great English poet John Milton (1608-1674) who had no idea there had been a Civil War in England and understood nothing of the references that are integral to Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained (for example). This isn’t about evangelism or indoctrinating children with religious fables; rather, it is about equipping children and young people with the basic tools they need to understand their historical and contemporary culture.

No surprise, then, that the ridiculous and irrational National Secular Society spokesman should respond with this enlightened nonsense: “It’s a bit excessive – children already get 45 minutes of religious education a week for 10 years. They also attend compulsory acts of worship which includes reading the Bible. Isn’t that enough?” So says Keith Porteous Wood, executive director and former general secretary of the National Secular Society. It is so silly (and a prime example of missing the point) that it isn’t worth spending any further time on it.

I think Andrew Motion has been able to say what many of us have been saying for years, but without the ‘credibility’ that comes from being an atheist. Motion asserts that study of the great stories (classical, biblical and other religious stories) would form part of a general studies programme – somthing that has long since dropped off the syllabus at many schools because of an obsession with targets, exam preparation and narrow specialising in limited fields.

shakespeare300He says: “I can imagine every teacher in the land saying, ‘not more to do’, because the pressure on the curriculum is so enormously heavy already” … I’m not suggesting this as a ‘bolt-on’, but part of a broader rethinking about what education is meant to be. What is probably required is a more radical conversation about how the curriculum is structured.”

The Guardian article also notes that “aside from the Cross Reference Project, which is supported by the Bible Society, and provides resources to help students to understand how literature has been shaped by the Bible, there is little out there” to help teachers who have also been brought up without the knowledge they need to teach this stuff.