It’s enough to test the patience of Job. Not only have Church attendance figures halved since 1968, but in a new survey, 46 per cent of adults confused a storyline from Harry Potter with holy scripture. According to the new report, commissioned by the Bible Society, some 54 per cent of British children are never read stories from the Bible by adults. This compared to their parents’ generation, among whom 86 per cent say they were regularly told about key Bible passages.
As one of the estimated 89 per cent of Britons who do not regularly attend church, I’m obliged to play Doubting Thomas here. Don’t Christian parents have ample opportunity to make sure their children are among the – to my mind, astonishingly high – 46 per cent who are read Bible stories by adults? When Christian groups decry the growing indifference to scripture, could it be that what they’re really worried about is their own declining influence? It’s not enough that committed Christians should be au fait with the adventures of Jesus and the gang – they want the rest of us heathens to quote chapter and verse too.
This proud heathen isn’t particularly anxious about falling church attendance – in fact, taking time to shrug off such anxieties is just one of many superior ways to spend a Sunday. But while I don’t share this rising sense of panic, I do agree with the Bible Society’s James Catford when he says that “the Bible enriches life and every child should have the opportunity to experience it”. You don’t have to be a practising Christian to recognise the power of a ripping good yarn.
They’ll throw me to the lions for saying it, but the real value of Bible stories is not tied to their religious significance – it’s much more universal than that. These stories are part of a shared language of metaphor which anyone can use to express ideas or feelings. Unlike classical mythology, which is the preserve of the learned, or pop culture references, which are for the young and trendy, biblical allusions are supposed to be accessible to every Briton. If the Church of England’s decline is accompanied by the loss of this means of communication, that’s something we should all regret.
Yet fretting Bible campaigners can, like the lilies of the field, rest easy. Rightly, Bible stories no longer take curricular precedence over the laws of thermodynamics or the Bhagvad Gita, but young people are unlikely to come of age in this country without some cultural Good Samaritan showing them a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel or a Kanye West album – all of which are full of biblical references. If these allusions still carry meaning, what does that matter if they don’t come straight from the source? In fact, isn’t that more proof of their power?
Bible stories don’t automatically deserve a privileged place in our culture, but the good news is that many of them have earned that place, anyway. Stories which outlive their first telling do so by proving themselves useful over time, and retaining the ability to communicate some truth from one human to another. It won’t please the creationists, but it’s still true; Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood and Cain and Abel are all great example of the process of cultural evolution in action.
Not all the stories are fit enough to survive for another millennium. But maybe it’s a good thing for the future of Christianity if atheists stop asking awkward questions about that bit in Genesis where Lot offers his daughter up to be raped by a crazed mob and if no one ever again mentions the passage in Kings where children get mauled to death by bears for the minor crime of mocking Eliseus’s bald patch.
Christianity is no longer the dominant force it once was and, as a result, biblical stories have had to make room in British culture for other stories to sit alongside them, creating a patchwork as colourful as Joseph’s coat. It’s better now. If you’re ever reaching for a biblical reference and none comes to mind, you can always add credibility to your point with a few lines from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. No one will notice the difference.