Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Fourth R

This is an article submitted for publication in the Yours Faithfully column of the Sentinel Newspaper on July 15th 2009

Did you see Torchwood last week? I’ve been a fan of Dr Who since the very beginning, and I’ve really enjoyed this darker, more adult spin-off from the adventures of the Time Lord.

And I notice lots of echoes of the Christian story. Not just the battle between good and evil, but more specific things like death and resurrection, the sacrifice of a child, the grieving mother and even events like the slaughter of the innocent by the ruling power. Powerful stuff.

Not that Torchwood has a Christian message. In fact its moral assumptions, including the way the story concludes, are deeply troubling, and you will search very hard for any spiritual meaning.

And I wonder too, whether many today will identify what I call these ‘echoes’. For those of my generation, the education in the Christian story was the ‘Fourth R’ - Religion, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic - and for one educated in the state education system, the stories of the Old and New Testaments, of Moses and Herod, of Abraham and Isaac, of the Crucifixion and Resurrection were solid fixtures. It gave us a Religious Literacy - perhaps not a belief in itself, but an understanding of the narratives at the core of Christianity, which lay behind so much of art and literature as well as prayer and worship. Yet now, despite all the good things done in Religious Education in schools, much of that cultural heritage is being lost.

There are many examples. There was the art class who visited the National Gallery to study portrayals of the Nativity. They were deeply impressed, but asked “Why is the child always a boy?” And there was the jewellry shop assistant who asked a customer “Do you want a plain cross, or one with a little man on it?”

And its not just a matter of knowledge. There is also a deep seated ignorance of what a Church building is and what is and what is not a proper way of behaving in it. As a child I was taught, again and again, that Church is a place in which we should be quiet and show respect, as this is the House of God. Yet priest and vicar and minister will tell you that occasional visitors to Church will talk loudly through the service, walk in and out and around the building, take photographs at inappropriate moments, chew gum, hold conversations on their mobile phones, and even peer bemusedly at the collection plate (!) But it is wrong to think these visitors are badly behaved: they are not breaking any rules. They have no idea what the rules are.

Of course, some say that religious belief is dying out, so why does this matter?

They are wrong.

First, religion is far from on the decline. Religious practice is down in Europe, perhaps, but elsewhere it is the powerful force it always was. Migrants to this country are mostly deeply religious people, and they are breathing new life into our churches.

Secondly, it does matter. When Christianity swept across Europe, the legends of the old Roman and Greek Gods were still taught as part of the cultural heritage of the people. If our society believes that it can be fair and inclusive by wilfully forgetting our heritage, then it will not be Christianity that will suffer - it will continue, the Church will see to that - but an entire generation will lose an understanding of centuries of art and literature, painting and poetry, and the echoes and resonances of a popular television series will be hidden, even to its educated viewers. 


(Did you know that Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who?)

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