One book inspired Shakespeare, Dickens and Kanye West. So why aren’t we all reading it?

In a new survey, 46 per cent of adults confused a storyline from Harry Potter with holy scripture

Share

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.

 

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice