Removing SRI will only further cultural amnesia

So many of the landmarks of our culture cannot be read without some basic, biblical literacy.

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

By René Knaap

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is a store house of treasures. Two years ago I fulfilled a long-held dream and visited this famed collection. Of course I was there with thousands of others including busloads of tourists getting their ‘highlights tour’. In the ‘Botticelli Room’ on the day I was there a tour group with their guide stopped at the exquisite painting by Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi. In usual fashion this work depicts Joseph with the Virgin Mary in the stable presenting the Christ Child to an adoring crowd with the light of the Christmas star resting upon the infant Jesus.

It was the tour guide’s interpretation of this detail – the light of the Christmas star – that struck me. She asked her group, what is this light? And after an awkward pause, told them, ‘the light of reason.’ She said the painting spoke of the light within each of us, how the painting was really about us. I am sure the tour guide said this with all sincerity (and probably a hundred times before that particular day). Her commentary sounded reasonable. The trouble is she was wrong.

While paintings from any age say many things to many people, it is at best dishonest to impose on a painting a meaning that would have been completely alien to the artist. Whatever wishful thinking may have occurred, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi says nothing about ‘the light of reason.’ The tour guide misrepresented the artist and his intentions and misrepresented the spirit of the age in which he worked. No one in the 15th Century would have spoken about the light of the Christmas star as the ‘light of reason.’

This little incident reflects a much wider trend: the increasing difficulty we have at adequately reading, interpreting and making sense of our cultural artefacts. So many of our cultural artefacts come from the particularity of the Christian religion. One does not need to be a person of faith to appreciate them. But one does need to know something of that faith. The Victorian Government’s recent decision to remove Special Religious Instruction (SRI) from state schools will make it increasingly difficult for future generations to read and make sense of their cultural foundations.

To give us some perspective it might be worth considering how cultural literacy is realised elsewhere. We might well expect, for example, that a school child in Indonesia will be well versed in the teachings of the Qur’an. Not necessarily because that child and their family are devout Muslims, but so that that child could read and understand the philosophical, political and ethical foundations of his or her culture. To be ignorant of the Qur’an would make it very difficult to engage at any deep level with Indonesian culture.

We might well expect a schoolgirl in India to be well versed in the sacred myths and legends of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu texts. She would be able to walk past the many colourful and elaborate temples that dot her landscape and understand their inscriptions and carvings. She may not believe any of it, but she would understand her environment and the way they contribute to her nation’s identity. To be unfamiliar with the myths and legends of Hinduism would leave a gaping hole in her education.

We might well expect that a Tibetan schoolboy would be familiar with the tales and teachings of the Buddha. Knowing something of his life and something of the basics of Buddhist thought would mean he can understand and participate more actively in the customs and traditions of his community. If Buddha were to be a strange and unknown figure it would be impossible for him to make sense of his world.

In our culture, to be familiar with the 10 Commandments, the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer does not require assent to the faith that holds them to be true. But knowing them will give insight into the basic ethical and spiritual grounding that has inspired millions. One does not have to hold the biblical stories to be true. But knowing them means that so many of the great treasures of western civilisation can be adequately appreciated. And, like it or not, the figure of Jesus Christ, his life and teachings, have shaped 2000 years of western history. Western culture is the story of response and reaction to him. Ignorance of him is ignorance of our own cultural story. Basic literacy in this story is not difficult but it needs to be taught if we are to engage in any meaningful way with our cultural landscape.

Without familiarity with the Genesis account of creation Michelangelo’s epic Sistine Chapel ceiling will just be decoration in a pretty room. Without its biblical reference point the same artist’s monumental ‘David’ will just be a big, marble nude. He might as well be called Dwayne. Without reference to the story of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains just a sweet bedtime tale. Without knowledge of the Passion Story no sense can be made in Shakespeare’s play when Richard II declares, “Some of you with Pilate wash your hands / Showing an outward pity; yet you Pilates / Have here deliver’d me to my sour cross, / And water cannot wash away your sin”.

So many of the landmarks of our culture cannot be read without some basic, biblical literacy. Failure to know the key Christian stories, beliefs and personalities means the true depth and meaning of so many of our cultural artefacts can only be passed over. Choosing willful ignorance, we deprive ourselves of our own treasures. We will become strangers in our own land.

The debate about a crowded curriculum is an important one. Mr Andrews and his government rightly argue that schools should be focused on ‘core curriculum’. Surely a priority in that ought to be literacy and this ought to include literacy in our own culture. This requires a familiarly with the stories, beliefs and personalities at the heart of Christian faith. Teaching children to be familiar with the particular foundations of our culture is not necessarily about faith or proselytism or indoctrination. But it is about equipping children to understand and appreciate the environment they inhabit. This does not change because the culture we inhabit is multicultural. Indeed, it makes the task more important. It will help equip students to answer the questions: Where have we come from? Why are we the way we are? What is the unique contribution we make to the human family?

There may well be issues with the delivery of SRI in our schools. But it is unfortunate that the State Government has listened to the cries of loud lobbyists rather than have at heart the genuine concern of school children. The mean-spirited move to have SRI classes offered before and after school and at lunch times effectively removes this programme from our schools. But advocates of this move should perhaps be careful of what they wish for.

Cultural literacy is already at a very low point in this country. We now further condemn future generations to see so many of the precious artefacts of our culture – architectural, musical, philosophical, literary, artistic – only as curious, indecipherable oddities. Our history will remain strange and alien. Our identity will become increasingly confused and uncertain. A wise man once said, ‘those who have ears, let them hear.’ We might paraphrase: ‘those who have eyes, let them see.’ If we deprive our children of the chance to see and know the foundational stories, personalities and beliefs of our culture, we will rob them of the chance to read our culture at all.

The Revd René Knaap is the vicar of the Anglican Parish of the Otways, Victoria.