What is The Real Meaning of Christmas?

There are thousands of stories in the Bible and a visual artist in Exeter is currently on a 30-year mission to paint the whole lot.

The University of Exeter is incorporating some of what will eventually be a series of up to 3,000 artworks by Brian J Turner into new school curriculum resources that explore how biblical stories are read and interpreted.

The Art of Narrative Theology in Religious Education project is being led by Drs Esther Reed and Rob Freathy from the Department of Theology and Religion and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter. The aim of the project is to get school pupils to investigate biblical stories and how people, whether from a Christian background or not, interpret and use them to make sense of their world and their role within it, particularly how they can live a good life.

Dr Reed said: “In the year of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, and in the lead up to Christmas, we have an opportunity to think seriously about the historical and cultural significance and meaning of the world’s best seller. This project represents one major contribution to the promotion of critical and creative engagement with the Bible.”

Brian J Turner beside one of his paintings in Exeter Cathedral with Dr Rob Freathy. Image credit: University of Exeter

During Phase 1 of the project, a researcher developed curriculum materials designed for use with Key Stage 3 (11-14 year old) pupils. These materials incorporated a selection of paintings by the artist Brian J Turner. His colourful and quirky images provide a stimulus for the pupils to think and talk about how they and other people, both within and outside the Christian community, read, interpret and respond to the biblical stories upon which the images are based.

Dr Freathy explained: “By doing so, pupils learn to engage personally and creatively with biblical material, and to reflect on how the stories in which they and other people live, be they religious or secular, have shaped and continue to shape their understandings of the world, the decisions they make and the kinds of people they want to be.”

The new curriculum materials enable pupils to learn about the biblical text – its content, its form, its importance and use for Christians; to learn from the text as an example of a community story which shapes people’s lives; and to be challenged to reflect on the community story of which they themselves are a part and which influences how they engage with the biblical stories.

At a recent study day, held at Exeter Cathedral, trainee teachers on the RE Secondary PGCE course at the University trialled the new curriculum materials with pupils from Exeter Cathedral School, Exeter School and St Peter’s School. Derek Burnside, a teacher from Exeter School, said: “Brian’s stylised take on famous Bible stories stimulated some profound thinking about the meaning of the texts. For some pupils it really seemed to open up new ways of thinking about the Bible.”

The pupils responded well to the project, and some felt that it helped them to think in a different way about the morals, messages and representations of the stories in the Bible. One pupil, Eleanor Holmes, said: “It made you think in more depth. Brian’s paintings forced you to work out what was actually happening.” Another pupil, Imogen Milner, was also enticed by the project, saying: “We saw that you could view these stories from more than one perspective – including our own.”

The project is being sponsored by the English and Welsh Bible Society whose Dean of Studies, David Spriggs, said: “We are excited to be continuing our long-standing relationship with the University of Exeter. This open-ended approach, using the arts to enhance young people’s encounter with biblical stories for their personal development, is exactly the kind of innovative work that we are committed to supporting.”

*Source: University of Exeter

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