The Art of Narrative Theology in Religious Education

'The Art of Narrative Theology in Religious Education' is a collaborative research project, funded by Bible Society (Phases 1-4) and the Westhill Endowment Trust (Phases 4) and run by Professor Esther Reed (Theology and Religion) and Dr Rob Freathy (Education), that is developing an approach to teaching the Bible to Key Stage 3 pupils based on a foundation of narrative philosophy and narrative theology. Narrative philosophy understands all individuals and communities as formed by reading, sharing and living within stories; narrative theology, informed by this, puts forward a narrative understanding of both Christian communities and of the biblical texts upon which these communities are based.

Informed by this approach, the project is designing a series of curriculum material that enable pupils to understand the Bible as a set of stories that are particularly important for Christians and which have authority for them, to understand Christians as a storied people whose sense of community and ethical commitments are shaped not by moral rules but by participation in shared narratives of faith, to consider their own interpretations of the texts, and to reflect upon those stories – religious, non-religious or both – that contribute to formation of their own narrative identities.

Over the course of 12 lessons, pupils are introduced to the Bible and explore a selection of eight significant biblical narratives. They also consider the single, over-arching narrative of the Christian faith – the story of creation, fall and redemption – that runs through the Bible as a whole, and to which each of the individual narratives contributes. Each narrative is accompanied by a painting of the same text by Devon artist Brian J. Turner, whose images show biblical scenes in a quirky, contemporary style that is both engaging and thought-provoking. This use of art serves to bring the idea of interpretation to life for pupils, giving license to their own, personal interpretations of the narratives, and introducing the concept of participation in respectful dialogue with the beliefs and interpretations of others.

The curriculum materials therefore move away from the ‘proof-texting’ approach evident within the vast majority of existing publications for use in teaching Christianity at this level, in which biblical texts come to be treated simply as a sourcebook for ethical principles that guides Christians in making correct moral decisions, towards one in which pupils are enabled to think about the significance of biblical narratives for both Christians and themselves.

A additional volume of curriculum materials, exploring narrative approaches towards teaching about Jesus, is being produced in the fourth phase of the project.

Programme of Activities

Phase 1 (2011-12)

  • Design and trial curriculum materials for three lessons
  • Hold a Cathedral Workshop based on materials from the project and attended by pupils from local schools
  • Draft an article outlining the pedagogy advanced by the project

Phase 2 (2012-13)

  • Design and trial curriculum materials for a further seven lessons
  • Publication of the article from Phase 1 in the British Journal of Religious Education

Phase 3 (2013-14)

  • Publication of curriculum materials
  • Promotion of published resources
  • Submission of a grant proposal to the ESRC for a large-scale research project expanding the narrative approach to the teaching of world religions in schools

Phase 4 (2015-2017)

  • Design and publication of additional volume of curricilum materials exploring narrative approaches towards teaching about Jesus