Professor Rob Freathy with pupils and artist Brian J. Turner, whose work features in the textbook

Teachers should teach Muslim, feminist and other views of Jesus this Christmas

Lessons about Jesus should include exploration of how Muslims view him as a prophet and investigation of his Jewish identity, experts have said.

Showing pupils a range of perspectives on Jesus from different individuals and groups will make Religious Education lessons more rigorous and encourage pupils to have empathy with others, according to academics.

At a time of year when questions about Jesus’ identity are likely to arise, a new textbook is being launched to encourage more varied teaching about Jesus. It supports teachers to move beyond telling the story of the birth, life and works of Jesus and instead to highlight the way he is seen by people from varied cultural, religious and academic backgrounds.

Teaching in this way will help students in GCSE and A-level RE lessons to investigate how Jesus is portrayed by assorted individuals and groups – including theologians, historians, feminists, the visually impaired, artists and southern African cultures.

Professor Rob Freathy, from the University of Exeter, who led the team that put the textbook together, said: “There is no single, neutral and objective answer to the question, Who is Jesus? Answers differ depending on who is being asked. RE teaching and assessment that recognises that, by asking pupils to think about subject matter from different perspectives, is intellectually more rigorous and can promote the educational benefits of open-ended inquiry. It also best prepares pupils to enter a world characterised by a radical diversity of beliefs, religions and worldviews.”

The textbook, titled Who is Jesus?, introduces a team of fictional scholars, who each have different motivations for studying Jesus, different ways of going about their studies, and different views about how Jesus is represented in the Bible and elsewhere. With this academic team as their guides, pupils then encounter a range of contrasting answers to, and ways of answering, the question Who is Jesus?. This includes analysing sources, such as the Bible, the Qur’an, historical writings, rituals, interviews, architecture, artefacts and art.

Examples include ‘Christa’ - a statue by Edwina Sandys of a naked female Christ on the cross, and the painting ‘Jesus and the Cross Dressers’ by Brian J. Turner, which places Jesus on a road construction site alongside four male workers dressed in women’s clothes.

Professor Freathy said: “We know these images are potentially controversial. They are designed to be provocative. But what we want to provoke is thought not outrage. According to the gospels, Jesus caused controversy by associating with people who were marginalised at the time, such as tax collectors and prostitutes. The ‘Jesus and the Cross Dressers’ painting is used to stimulate discussion about which groups are rejected and excluded today, and perhaps with which groups a modern day Jesus would mix.”

The textbook, available for free online, also discusses the views of one theologian that Jesus would not have had any blind disciples because he would have either cured them or been accused of not having the power to do so. The repeated comparisons of blindness and sight with disbelief and faith are, according to the theologian, just a reflection of the limitations of human thought and imagination, and evidence that the Bible was written by and for sighted people.

The textbook has been written so that it can be used in schools with and without a religious affiliation. It does not promote any particular view of Jesus or any particular approach to studying him. The textbook has also been written following the recent Commission on Religious Education, published earlier this term, which said RE should help pupils understand their own and other people’s worldviews, and the different ways in which religion and worldviews can be understood, interpreted and studied. The Commission also recommended Religious Education should help pupils develop research skills and wider transferable skills and dispositions including respect for others, careful listening, critical thinking, self-reflection and open-mindedness.

Professor Freathy said: “There is an important moment in the gospels when Jesus asks, ‘Who do people say that I am?’. In response, the disciples dutifully provide examples of the different answers that people have given to that question. So Jesus then asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’. In a sense, our textbook is merely asking the same question, albeit of a more disparate group of people and with the intention of finding out why they answer that question in different ways.”

Date: 19 December 2018

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