Belfast Telegraph

Secularism may be on the rise, but you don't have to believe in God to learn from religion

By Mary Kenny

An increasing number of parents want to remove their children from religious education classes at school, according to the Republic's Education Minister Richard Bruton. That's entirely their right, but I wish I'd had more RE, rather than less.

I only realised that I was quite ignorant about faith issues when I entered a pub quiz, and didn't know half the answers.

Why did Joseph have a multi-coloured coat? Eh, not quite sure.

Why was Mary Magdalene associated with the Sea of Galilee? Pass on that one.

Where is it said that "the lion shall lie down with the lamb"? Woody Allen! The Manhattan comic quipped: "The lion may lie down with the lamb, but it doesn't mean the lamb gets a good night's sleep."

He got it slightly wrong - the quote from Isaiah refers to the wolf and the lamb living together, but he knew his audience would twig that it's a riff on a Scriptural allusion, and Biblical allusions are part of our shared culture. Maybe that can't be said anymore.

A veteran translator working within the EU institutions told me that all European societies would once have immediately grasped phrases like 'swords beaten into ploughshares', 'physician, heal thyself', 'can two walk together, and except they be agreed' because they were recognisable in all languages. But less so now.

Even if you are not a believer, you can't change the past: you can't change the fact that the deposit of European culture rests on the history of belief, from the Babylonians and the Assyrians down to modern times. The history of Irish society is most particularly intertwined with faith, as a visit to a Mass rock, or the folk museum at Knock reveals - as does a perusal of the Book of Kells or the monastic Irish chalices on display at the National Museum.

The political row about the Irish language in Belfast might never have erupted if it were better known that Irish Protestants were the first to translate the Bible into Irish, crafted in an exquisite Celtic script.

Moreover, if you've ever wondered why so many famous Irish writers have been Protestants - Wilde, Yeats, Shaw, O'Casey, not to mention Swift, Goldsmith and Maria Edgeworth - one of the reasons is that they were raised on the stunning prose of the 1611 Bible.

Sean O'Casey's mother was a Scripture teacher, and, as his sight was always bad, she would read him long tracts from the Bible when he was a young child, and those cadences informed his own great gift.

There's a moving passage towards the end of Juno and the Paycock where the afflicted Mrs Boyle cries out against the cruelty of killing and war: "Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!"

I often wondered how O'Casey, a Dublin Protestant, could have penned such a flawless echo of Catholic devotion.

It would have been partly from the tenements of Dublin that he knew, but I now think that he drew on something he'd have learned in the Old Testament (now often called the Hebrew Bible), in Ezekiel: "I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh."

And pray, tell us, when the secular students are excused from RE classes, what will they do with the time instead? I would suggest they could enhance their education with virtual tours of the great paintings inspired by faith, gazing upon the religious subjects depicted by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, Giorgione, Cranach, Veronese, Tintoretto, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Bruegel Elder and Younger, Rembrandt, van der Weyden, Raphael, Philippe de Champaigne, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, Murillo, Velazquez, El Greco, Claude Lorrain, John Everett Millais, Jean-Francois Millet, Blake, Dali, Corot, Chagall, Alma-Tadema, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Violet Oakley, William Holman Hunt, Evie Hone - and then the sculpture, the icons, the altar-pieces, and if desired, beyond Judeo-Christianity to the many universal sacred symbols.

But you can't do comparative religion until you understand the roots of your own culture first.

I'm thankful for the religious education I did get - the attention to the Gospels, the holy pictures and the lives of the saints, which are a portal to history, biography and social context as well as being edifying in themselves. And these accounts are also as much about women's lives as about men - female saints often dominated the iconography of religion.

Later on, I came to understand there was so much more to learn and understand: the new film about Mary Magdalene is built on a long deposit of scholarship about her, and a popular fascination with her life, too (Magdala by the Sea of Galilee was the centre of the fish industry).

There's a great exhibition coming up in New York in May, co-sponsored by Dame Anna Wintour (above), of Vogue, and Donatella Versace, entitled Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which will bring the full flower of visual adornment to the catwalk, as inspired by faith. You have to know about the back-story to understand this stuff.

Those who abstain from religious education just don't know what they're missing.

Belfast Telegraph

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