Hermeneutics 4 RE!

This is a blog to support a network of RE teachers interested in better reading of and interpretation of sacred texts, in particular the Bible, in religious education. If you would like to follow the blog and sign up with an email address and press the ‘Follow’ button. My name is Dr Bob Bowie and I work at Canterbury Christ Church University.  I also publish textbooks for RE and you can find out about them here.



The authority of scripture and NT Wright’s five-act play analogy

Often we can fall into the trap of understanding that authority of the Bible in terms of “it says this, so you do this” and while that might be a helpful place to start it soon runs into difficulties when, for instance, you have to explain to pupils why Christians don’t (for the most part) follow all of the rules in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) such as those about food, clothing etc. Exam questions encourage us to teach pupils to learn quotes in association with themes but that kind of fragmented literalism is not the only or indeed main way in which Christians have historically and today engage with the Bible. Christians believe they should read and interpret the Bible as a whole and not in fragments (especially not a narrow selection of fragments). So if we have to teach children a list of quotes we need to counter this with a bigger picture that this is an exam necessity, rather than a process that the major Churches of England, for example, would recommend.

If you have not encountered it before, NT Wright (a former senior Bishop of the Church of England and Scripture scholar from the Evangelical Christian tradition) offers a really helpful analogy for how to think of Biblical authority working in the Christian life in relation to Scripture that is different from as viewing the Bible as an unfinished drama. The Christian life is the attempt to live out the fifth act of a discovered Shakespearean unfinished play. In the linked article Wright describes the process of making sense of the Biblical Scripture by living life in the present.

He writes: “(1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus.  The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.”

A key idea of Wright’s is that the authority of the Bible is not about repeating previous scenes of acts in entirety but rather to see the Bible as:

“… an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.”

So Christian life is the living out of the remaining scenes of the final act. They might experiment in how they do that (perhaps not unlike the early Christian communities Paul wrote to)  and their experiments can be evaluated for the extent to which they are truly in the tradition of the previous scenes but at the same time truly looking to see things anew in the present world.

You can read the original article where he developed this idea here (for speed skip down to The Authority of a Story) http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/how-can-the-bible-be-authoritative/

Extra dimensional insight in GCSE answers. Rob Bell – Everything is Spiritual Tour

It’s a great video but if your busy just watch from 33 mins to 43 mins, this is a great example of a ‘disrupting-rationality’ kind of answer. Bell refers to bible text Ninja and the Predestination vs Free Will debate. When asked whether a Christian should believe in Predestination or Free Will, Bell answers “yes”. He kind of suggests its a two dimensional question that needs a third dimensional answer, and 2 dimensional rationality needs extra-dimensional insight. He uses a great example of a cylinder, a three dimensional object which in a 2 dimensional world is either a rectangle or a circle, but cannot be both (in a 2 dimensional world). To say so is irrational (in a 2 dimensional world). Maybe too many of our debates about theology and philosophy in RE classrooms are simply not extra-dimensional enough?

When you next see one of those ‘this or that’ GCSE question burgers, add some extra-dimensional insight sauce and break loose from those for/against 2 dimensional rationality answers.

St Cassian and the four senses

How should learners be taught to find sense in biblical text?  Should we prepare them to be able to find a justification for anything by learning a bank of quotes for deployment against any answer? When evaluating different ways of reading Biblical texts, do we encourage students to learn how Christians have explored those texts in the past?

I was exploring that question when a colleague from another university encouraged me to look at St Cassian’s four sense of text, which is said to have guided the way Christians made sense of the Bible for a thousand years.

Here are some interesting links:






Of course

Encouraging open unlimited enquiry



There are lots of reasons I like this video and one of them is that it offers a positive way of thinking about RE. It is lively and dramatic and somehow manages to create a sense of a provocation that demands a response, without determining exactly the kind of response that should be. It invites a serious engagement, one that takes seriously the subject matter, recognises its significance and it controversially. It invites open, charitable engagement, open to the possibility of something enriching, without any attempt to smooth over the rough edges. It’s absolutely ‘in your face’ but not in a way that bashes your head. It asks an open question, and invites the viewer to approach with an open and enquiring mind. It dos not shy away from the reality that those approaching will see differences depending on their belief, nor that there is a political dimension to the impact of the Bible. It does not place limits on the destination of the learner. I think it captures part of the essence of religious education.



There are these two young fish swimming along

One for sixth formers maybe or for a discussion with teachers
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?””
This comes from the Commencement Speech to Kenyon College class of 2005 written by David Foster Wallace. It’s an interesting defence of a philosophically critical education. It is also an argument that religion carries important value messages against materialist economics as the only account of human flourishing. It could contribute to a defence of schools of a religious character. 
It advances the idea that everyone holds some sort of basic view of the world and the good life, consciously or unconsciously and a case that we should be consciously aware. It attracts attention because of the line, ‘there is no such thing as atheism’ but Wallace does not mean these words in the way they might be interpreted.
I am including links to the text and the Youtube. Note – language! http://bulletin.kenyon.edu/x4280.html

The question changes the focus

A question can create the hermeneutical approach that defines the study. Should a lesson begin with the question: “How can a good God exist in a world of such suffering” or should it begin, “How and why do so many people, despite such suffering in the world, maintain a faith.”

The first invites an investigation into the theodicy and philosophical arguments about evil and the idea of a good and loving God. The second invites you to step into the lives of people who, when confronted with suffering, walk with faith. See this video comment by Justin Welby, ArchBishop of Canterbury. His answer fails in a test of the Philosophy of Religion, at least as it is commonly understood, but it is an answer given in the ancient texts that are a source of faith for those in the Judeo-Christian traditions. It is emotional and uncomprehending. In a sense it is a submission to the moment of incomprehensible cruelty of life, and an act of despairing hope. Paradox is in the heart of good RE, I think, and we should explore paradoxes with children. Maybe the exploration of paradox and the human condition is more real than the construction of reasons.

Doing RE Hermeneutically – Learning to become interpreters of religion

Doing RE Hermeneutically – Learning to become interpreters of religion

 Dr Robert A. Bowie


(Published in REToday, Autumn 2016, Vol. 34. No 1,Birmingham: RE Today, pp.60-62)

 All we read and see around us is interpreted through a lens made up of many filters: previous experiences of similar situations, traditions, ways of thinking we have adopted, loves and hates. To be bitten by a dog one days leaves one wary of them the next. It is difficult and maybe impossible to access the outside world, except from behind our interpretative lenses.  How we make sense of things does not stand neutrally apart from a particular story and this is particularly true for religion as. Maajid Nawaz in a dialogue with Sam Harries discussing difficult texts says:

“Religious doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice. I subscribe to this view whether I’m interpreting Shakespeare or interpretation religious scripture.” ((Islam and the future of Tolerance: A dialogue, 2015, USA, p.5)