It’s rather sad to learn that, according to a Church of England survey, the majority of Christians don’t read the Bible. Sad, too, that one in four schools in England don’t offer Religious Education as part of their syllabus – even though, by law, state schools are supposed to do so.
Apart from issues of faith itself, an understanding of religion is one of the most important aspects of a cultural education. You cannot grasp the traditions of European art – or, indeed, literature – without a knowledge of the Bible and Christian faith.
Teachers tell me that there has been a huge cultural shift in the “landscape of understanding” of their school pupils. Everything now relates to social media – what they see via their iPhones and laptops – rather than to the deposit of culture with which earlier generations were familiar.
So many writers developed through a faith education – even if, afterwards, they ceased to practise. Seán O’Casey, who had very poor eyesight from early childhood, was read to by his mother, a Bible teacher who emphasised the beauty and loftiness of Scripture. This developed his ear for story and language.
Black Americans such as Martin Luther King and James Baldwin drew deeply on the biblical teachings with which they had been imbued, and the cadence of their prose shows it.
Religion is a gateway to culture, as GK Chesterton pointed out. Through religious knowledge, a man with little other education could grasp the concepts of philosophy.
For me, the New Testament, particularly, is the bread of heaven which feeds faith and imparts great understanding of our minds, hearts and psychic realities. Christians who don’t read it don’t know what they’re missing.
When I hear the words, at Mass, “let us call to mind our sins”, I sometimes reflect inwardly: “Haven’t I called them to mind enough already?” You can overdo all this beating yourself up.
But you know what? It seems that “calling to mind our sins” – or, as society would say today, our “failures” – is positive psychology for subsequent success and improvement.
At Ohio State University, Dr Selin Malkoc has co-authored a study which claims that dwelling on your past mistakes, and feeling bad about them, is a more constructive strategy than brushing them aside and forgetting about them.
Don’t listen to those well-meaning folk, says Dr Malkoc, who tell you to move on and console yourself with the thought that you did your best at the time. Do beat yourself up. Do berate yourself and do feel upset by your past errors.
People who embrace their “negative emotions” and confront their failures are more proactive in correcting their behaviour and actions, he says.
“Thinking positively” isn’t the key to success, according to the Ohioans. The key to success was reviewing where you did the wrong thing and making an effort to do better the next time.
And, I would suppose, everything in proportion. Beating yourself up too obsessively might block the ability to correct and change.
Here’s a deep philosophical question: at what point in the seasons should we turn from breakfast cereal to porridge? As the weather begins to cool – especially in the mornings and evenings – I ponder this dilemma.
Breakfast cereal is quick and easy – you just splash the milk over your Special K, or whatever. Porridge is slower: you need to measure it out and cook it, and I think it is better done over a stove than in a microwave. Porridge therefore involves what a great sociologist – I think it was Durkheim – defined as a necessary virtue for a civilised society: deferred gratification. Or what we might call the virtue of patience. Porridge is also cheaper, if more austere.
On the other hand, one shouldn’t hurry along the seasons with too much alacrity. At my boarding school, it was considered decadent to switch on heating before All Souls’ Eve. If the weather is cold, put up with it! By this reasoning, September possibly is too early for porridge.
A health visitor advised me to add dried cranberries to porridge for flavour and extra vitamins. This increases the price of porridge, and perhaps tilts it towards the more overtly pleasurable, and thus less austere. Discuss!
Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4
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