Creativity and religious education
Religion and the Arts: some opportunities for RE
This article explores the territory of religion, RE and the arts. On the frontiers between RE, literature, music, art and design technology, much exciting work can be done with pupils. This article uses some examples from architecture, visual arts, music and poetry to suggest ways in which any teacher can build high quality RE through exploring the arts. There is a wide and deep literature on these subjects, and no comprehensive overview of this is possible in a short article. But, as William Carlos Williams, suggests, the power of the arts is here seen to be through allusion, challenge, confrontation or spiritual nuance. I don’t think RE teachers can ‘use the arts to teach the concepts of religions’. Rather, by exploring the arts, especially as they connect with religions, the teacher of RE can open minds, enable connections, deepen thought and engagement and so explore spiritual questions profoundly.
Two main questions are considered:
Given that religions often make dynamic use of the arts in their spiritual expression, should RE use the arts as a lens to approach particular religions? How can that be done?
While RE’s traditional curriculum frontiers are with humanities subjects (History, Geography, Citizenship), is it worthwhile to build more and better co-working and curriculum linking with the arts subjects, so that RE’s concerns with spiritual development can be put into practice?
The article uses examples of classroom curriculum activity from poetry, music, visual arts and architecture, from many religions to picture ways in which spiritual development, the arts and RE can work effectively together.
Creative architecture ~ an inspiration for RE and design: an example
The 2004 English National Framework for RE (non statutory) says that pupils aged 11-14 should, where possible, visit a place of national religious significance. What would such places be? This activity offers a creative thinking approach to such places. It leads towards a compelling learning activity in which pupils themselves design a place of major religious or spiritual significance. We selected 12 candidates for the title ‘A UK place of major religious or spiritual significance.’ We asked groups of 3 pupils to prepare, using web quests, a 90 second speech that explained why one of these might be of major national significance. We ran a class debate about which of the places should be designated of most significance, which aimed to explore issues of plurality (there were places from 6 religions on our list) and of non-religious spiritualities (we included Stonehenge and Snowdon). We devised a voting system so that the class could collectively rank their responses.
In class debates, individuals may feel nudged in certain directions by the group. Aiming for individual responses, we asked pupils to select three places they believed to be of major national religious or spiritual significance and plan a pilgrimage to visit them. This involved further study of the material dimension of religion and gave the pupils the creative chance to devise their own learning pathway. Thirdly students were invited to create a new spiritual space – building, garden or other – for 21st century Britain (see appendix below for further information on this project).
Work of this character poses some questions about the teaching of RE. The ‘textbook’ approach that gives pupils photos of the exterior of religious buildings too easily skates over the surface of the architecture. A well briefed group task like this might enable pupils to encounter the power of the architect’s art in the sacred context, and apply their ideas for themselves. Should RE use architecture as a lens for the focused study of religion. Yes, if the activity set enables students to explore, enquire and explain for themselves the ways sacred spaces are marked, used, sanctified, inspired.
Spiritual Music: a source of spiritual life and an energising power in all human life
From Bob Dylan to Beethoven, from Bob Marley to Buddhist chant, music expresses the spiritual. In any religious community, musical power may be harnessed to spiritual life, or may be viewed with suspicion for its power to draw humanity away from the pursuit of religious truth. For many pupils in every UK classroom, music is a more potent and vital form of spiritual expression than any religious form can be. So how strange then that some RE programmes of study make little reference to music in religions and spiritual life, and never seem to suggest that listening to music or even better making music are an essential part of religious education.
The study of Christian worship is part of every RE Agreed Syllabus. Might such study be enriched if it went beyond the conceptual, to a creative engagement with the arts that included listening with attention to, for example, some music by Handel? The score for the oratorio ‘Messiah’, 260 pages in length, was written in 24 days. It was premiered on April 13 1742 as a charitable benefit, raising £400 and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison, a place the composer very nearly ended going to only one year earlier. During its composition, Handel never left the house and rarely stopped to eat. Later, when commenting on the profound experience it had on him, he said of writing the Hallelujah chorus, ‘I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself’. The work has been performed countless times, and still often raises funds for the release of captives. But telling this story is not the fulsome education it might be without enabling pupils to listen to the music.
If RE is to engage the spiritual, then the use of the widest range of spiritually inspiring music might be needed: in the RE classroom, let’s hear hymns and bhajans, but also rock and jazz, Charles Wesley and John Rutter, but also Britney Spears and Nickelback. Hindu garba dancing, Sufi dancers, the recitation of the Qur’an and Winstone Gladstone, but also the St Matthew Passion, Katie Melua, Man Utd fans chanting. Let’s hear Christians singing in tongues, the reconciling music of Taizé, William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam, Roger Jones but also Benjamin Zephaniah. Bob Dylan, REM, Johnny Cash, U2, the Proclaimers. Christmas carols, Natasha Bedingfield, the Jewish cantor and Alice Cooper, but also James Blunt, Robbie Williams, Phil Collins, Ralph McTell and a hundred more. Through this kind of diverse engagement, the possibility of spiritual expression through any music is raised and can be explored.
Poetry for spiritual expression: engagement through RE
Poetry is a key part of sacred text in many religions. Ambivalence about the visual arts is common in religion, but many scriptures are more at ease with poetry. From the Hymns of Guru Nanak and the Psalms of David, to the verse forms of the Dhammapada or the Sermon on the Mount, poetry is a revered art in many religious traditions. Perhaps the suspicion of images of the ultimate that is shared by different strands of Islam, Christianity and Judaism is allayed when it is through words that the image is expressed. Poetry in religion is often used to set out the word of God to humanity, but even more often – in the forms called hymns – to articulate human responses to the ultimate or the divine. Thus the Psalms are distinctive in Jewish and Christian scripture because they express human responses to the Almighty rather than the revelations of God to humanity.
In RE, a persistent strand of criticism of the subject is that it drifts to a dry fact-ism. Areas of attainment like learning from religion (in England or Wales) and the personal search for meaning (in Scottish RME) are weaker than the accumulation of information. Picking up the idea that religions use poetry for spiritual expression, the thousands of pupils who have entered NATRE’s Spirited Poetry competitions (2005, 2008) have relished the chance to express their spiritual insights in poetry.
We described Spirited Poetry for pupils like this: “the poetry that tussles with the big questions of life, kicks at the darkness or celebrates the verve of living. Spirited poetry asks awkward questions, dreams impossible dreams and yells angry thoughts. It sometimes rests easy in tranquil mood and sometimes it agitates. Atheists and agnostics can write spirited poetry just as well as Muslims, Christians or Hindus. The themes of spirited poetry can be multitudinous.”
One way of viewing the entries to the competition might see them as a piece of research into the thinking, spirituality, questions and religiosity of the thousands of young poets who took part. Three examples of pupils’ work illustrate.
The Advantages of Mistakes
Marie Grace Genova, Age 13
Every move we make
Is a mistake
Like a painter
Use the brush you were given
To create your masterpieces
Life is your mistake
This extraordinary poem rebels against all ideas of perfect rightness by using the painter’s slips as a metaphor for life. With skill and challenge, Marie Grace warns the reader: if you never make mistakes, you’ll never make anything. Beautiful lives begin with blobs and misdirected strokes. Not all adults, not many 13 year olds know this. One to make you think about the way imperfections are a teacher.
Alex Gant, Age 13
Life is like a mystery,
No one knows its depths.
Life is like a roller coaster,
It takes turns right and left.
I wonder what life is like,
No one really knows.
No one knows where it really starts,
Or even where it goes.
Faith is like music,
It has its different views.
Faith contains no right or wrong,
You cannot win or lose.
“Where is God?” the whole world asks,
Is he real or not?
Is the God a he or a she?
This question’s asked a lot.
Life is like a butterfly,
It is enriched with beauty.
Life’s been made to make you happy
That’s its real duty.
From the starting point of mystery, Alex moves to consider the place of faith, and ends expressing his awareness of the fragile beauty of life. Sensitive use of language and reflection on his own experience enable this well structured poem to capture a flowing sense of meaning.
Life’s like music
Matthew Woodcock, Age 13
We must play
Until it fades away
And then inevitably
Of great happiness
A new small instrumentalist
Brought into the
Of a piece
By the conductor: God
That ends with
These three clever septaines deal with life, birth and death through the well worked metaphor of music. The idea of God as conductor gives Matthew the chance to draw attention to the idea that ‘there’s a destiny which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may’ (Hamlet).
These three examples, I suggest, demonstrate the value in RE among many pressures of curriculum time, subject expertise and marginalisation, of making space for spiritual expression through poetry. If not in RE, then where will the space for spirituality and self expression through the arts be found?
Visual arts and RE: theological possibilities and creative skills
Religious education exists to explore the human answers to the fundamental or ultimate questions that life throws up. Art exists to explore the human answers to the fundamental or ultimate questions that life throws up.
These are not the only two possible definitions of art and RE, but they work for both disciplines. Henry Moore is not alone in recognising some shared territory around questions of meaning, purpose and truth. The final piece of argument or suggestion in this article urges the reader beyond the fact that religious people make art, or that religions are creative communities in the visual arts. Here, the suggestion is that what it means to be human is at the heart of RE and art. From this idea the conclusion that an RE that ignored art would be deficient.
Here are three ways in which curriculum planning might respond to the challenge on the frontier between RE and visual arts. I suggest much RE would be enriched by using any or all of these approaches.
The art that explains religion. Pupils look at works of art from a particular religious tradition which have a focus on particular concepts within the tradition. An example is the work of Muslim artists such as Ahmed Mustafa and Yasmin Kathrada which express some understandings of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah. This kind of work uses the spiritual expression within a faith to develop increasingly profound understanding of what Muslims mean when they proclaim faith in Allah.
The art that expresses human meaning. Choosing examples from a vast range is invidious, but in Britain today artists such as Mark Wallinger, Antony Gormley or Damien Hirst create widely discussed work that is not conventionally religious but grapples with deep questions, in the tradition of Henery Moore, quoted above. Where learning from religion seeks to enable insight to develop, the study of how such artists as these are responding to questions of identity, meaning, purpose or commitment could have a growing place in RE.
The art that pupils create themselves. RE needs common cause with the art curriculum. ‘Too little time to express myself’ is a sad reality in RE all too often. Where pupils have time, stimulus, resources and thinking strategies, then the art they produce to express their own insights can be extraordinary. The promotion of NATRE’s Art in heaven annual competition for art in RE furnishes many hundreds of examples of this piece of theory in action: one will suffice here. 13 year old Issy created the image.
Her commentary says: “The prayers in the right of my painting show people who are sad and desperate but also thankful. God works in strange and mysterious ways. I wanted to show that in suffering there is hope. There is always someone to help you. This is why I painted a field of people next to someone who is sad. Happy, sad, happy, sad, I have effectively communicated the message even if some people do not see the hope. I think the pastels are effective because they blend all the people together, and fade them out.”
Conclusions: Four directions for RE
- Religions can’t be studied deeply aside from the art created in religious expression. Religions use and develop the arts, not as something bolted on to their programmes of activity, but because arts are always a dynamic expression of what it means to be human. Teachers in RE should try to understand this, and to model learning from it.
- Stimulating RE needs stimulus from within religions, which the arts often provide. High quality stimulus to artistic and creative endeavour comes from engaging thoughtfully with the arts in religion – and beyond religion. Islamic architecture, Christian music, Jewish poetry or Buddhist painting are worth exploring as they encapsulate some of the treasures of meaning that these religions have created. Through the exploration, learners may be able to find and finesse their own creative expressions of meaning as well.
- Being spiritual is expressed in the arts. ‘Religious’ art is not the only art that needs to find space in RE. If, increasingly, pupils sense of identity is ‘spiritual but not religious’ then the creative arts of spirituality that don’t connect with religion are vital sources of reflection and of the pursuit of truth. If it is true that RE needs to develop a better capacity for meeting the learning needs of the non-religious, then one way of doing this is through the arts.
- Making meaning out of experience: the task of life can be expressed in many ways, but RE does well to notice that its core purposes are less to do with gathering facts about religions, more to do with exploring the territory of human meaning in ways that provide for the spiritual and moral development of learners. How can this be done? One effective set of methods uses artistic expression.
Appendix: 12 Possible Places of National Religious Significance
Stonehenge distinctively British, a stone circle dating back 5000 years, and it has a wonderful way of connecting people to the ancient spiritual traditions of the country. It’s an inclusive space: anyone can be spiritual at Stonehenge, you don’t have to be religious. It is mysterious, and makes any visitor ask questions and wonder at the beauty of the sunrise through its arches.
Shree Sanatan Mandir, Leicester is a place of major religious significance in the UK today because it’s one of the oldest and biggest Hindu Mandirs in the country. It doesn’t just represent one part of the community: there are shrines to many different gods and goddesses. It houses the national headquarters of the National Council of Hindu Temples.
Samye Ling Buddhist Centre in Dumfries in Scotland is a place where Buddhists and those interested in Buddhism meet and share ideas. People go there for peace, reflection and compassion. The work of the centre in its stunning Scottish hillside setting includes health and healing as well as meditation and education.
Manchester Jewish Museum records and celebrates the long history of Jewish people in the UK. The grade 2 listed building was a synagogue for over a century from 1874 until it re-opened as a museum over twenty years ago. Thousands of visitors to the museum learn the rich heritage of Judaism in Britain and explore their own attitudes to Jewish life and faith.
Coventry Cathedral after the bombing of the old cathedral by the Nazis, the new Cathedral rose from the ashes and was created as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. It isn’t just a place of Christian worship: it’s for the city and the nation, and it shows how old enemies can be reconciled. Brilliant art, glass, sculpture and architecture
St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art (choose choose Museums – St Mungo’s) is Glasgow’s inter faith space, where religions meet. Art rather than worship is its function, so it helps religions to share their ideas, to be at peace rather than to fight. The museum houses a prize exhibit: Salvador Dali’s brilliant painting called ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’
The Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire is a place of major spiritual significance because it is a centre for remembrance of the worst genocide in human history. It was founded by Christians, but works closely between the Jewish and Christian communities. No one should forget the holocaust. Beth Shalom means that people will remember it, and learn from it for many years to come.
Hope Street, Liverpool (The Roman Catholic Cathedral is at one end and the Anglican Cathedral at the other) is a place of major spiritual significance because it is a symbol of the new unity of Christians. It joins a brilliant 20th century Catholic cathedral will a wonderful 19th century Anglican one, and is a sign of hope for anyone who wants religious unity.
Regents Park Mosque is a key Muslim centre, open for over 30 years. The land was given to the Muslim communities in 1944, recognising how Muslims had fought with the British empire in the war. The Islamic Cultural Centre began then, and the London Central Mosque was opened in 1977. Islam is the second largest religion in the country with 1.6 million followers so it’s a place of major religious significance to Muslims. The best starting point for this is the Islamic Cultural Centre.
St Paul’s Cathedral is a place of major spiritual significance because of its history and splendour. Previous Cathedrals and churches made the site sacred many hundreds of years ago. Sir Christopher Wren’s 300 year old dome survived the Nazi blitz, was used for the royal wedding. It’s the place for faith to be celebrated in the nation. It’s iconic and beautiful, a dynamic cultural centre in the heart of the city of London.
The Gurdwara Shri Guru Singh Sabha in Hounslow is a place of major spiritual significance because it is the produce of the endeavour of the Sikh community and it brings a little of India to London. Half a million Sikhs look to Hounslow for inspiration. The Gurdwara is a centre not just for Sikh religion, but for social action, education, community care and celebration and festivities.
Mount Snowdon, North Wales is not a religious place, but many thousands of people test their strength on Snowdon, Britain’s tallest mountain, each year. When they get to the top, they often experience a feeling of spiritual fulfilment. Millions of people get their spiritual sense from the world of nature rather than from churches or mosques. Snowden should be in this list to represent that spirituality.