As I watch the news today filled with images of Islamic extremism and Christian fundamentalism, I find myself wondering how we can teach the next generation what faith can really be about. How can we help our children realise the positive and enlightening aspects of the Bible and the Qur’an? How can we show people, whether they have some belief in a God or not, that faith can bring questions instead of limitations and exclusion?
As a former English Literature student, I’ve been trained to break apart stories. I’ve learned the importance of examining the authorship, context and history of words. I’ve realised that it is necessary to understand the author as a person and not just as a pen. I know that interpretation and deciphering the story are imperative in understanding its potential meaning.
So what if we took this literary perspective and we viewed the Bible and the Qur’an through a literary lens? Could this perhaps be the answer to showing our children the awesome potential of the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ?
When people criticise Christianity, I tell them that the Bible is a piece of literature that we shouldn’t take literally. I explain to them that I interpret it instead with the perspective of an English Literature student, by thinking about the time that it was written in, the authors’ biases and the audience that the Bible was originally aimed at in order to find the message within it.
These things, I believe, are essential to bear in mind whilst teaching our children about Islam and Christianity amongst other faiths. When we take the words of God literally from the story of ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’ for example, we’re left with the impression that God is a figure in the sky, with his finger aimed at the Egyptians, ready to force them into giving Moses their finest gold and silver. But God didn’t write the story of ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’: a person did, just like you and I. So shouldn’t we be asking what this human being’s agenda was? Might this explain him using God to proclaim violence on the Egyptians?
On the other side of the coin, we can find beauty in Moses’ story. Three and a half thousand years later, DreamWorks offered their own interpretation of Moses’ experience in ‘The Prince of Egypt’, where the burning bush is shown to symbolise God’s enduring love for Moses as he sets the Israelites free. Does this positive metaphor not come from questioning the story and finding meaning beyond its literal presentation?
I have only just begun exploring Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon is another text that I find useful to view through literary glasses, in order to realise its true potential. For example, the limitations that Muhammad puts on married women by declaring that they ‘not make friends with anyone [that their husband] does not approve of’ cannot be taken literally in 2014. Instead we should be asking ourselves in what year was this sermon given in? How did men view their wives at the time? Who recorded this sermon? Did that person have their own prejudices? Should this negate from the positive images of peace and equality described? If we ask these questions, we can start to find the enlightening message below the surface of the words.
In the 21st century, in a world where we endlessly display our interpretations of films, plays and literature, it seems strange to me that we are unable and unwilling to do the same with the Bible and the Qur’an. I’m inclined to believe that if we did, we could show the next generation the beauty within them, and help people realise the awesome effect and education that can be found in figures like Christ and Muhammad. I also believe in my heart of hearts, that there has never been a more appropriate time to teach our children the power of viewing the holy texts through the literary lens. In a world where fundamentalists breed partly by teaching the stories of the holy books too literally, it seems more important than ever to encourage the next generation to question the words. If there is one thing fundamentalists fear, it is this. I hope, therefore that by sharing a literary perspective with our children, they will not only find enlightenment in God, but be able to fight back against those who fear their questions.