An extract from a paper given at the conference “Religious Education in Catholic Schools” at Heythrop College, London, on 9th May 2018. by Dr Robert A Bowie, Director of NICER

“There is a striking parallel between the characterization of religion as narrative in this sense, and what is happening with sacred texts in the Biblical tradition, as the Bible reads and rereads itself over time in a spiral to interpret the new present with the insights of the past.

This process of rereading is key to understanding scripture. When Ezra collates and redacts the Hebrew Scriptures, the reflection on the time of exile in Egypt becomes a lens for the exile he and his contemporaries felt in Babylon. When Jesus talks of neighbour, he is picking up on a conversation in the Hebrew Scriptures on the question of neighbours (like us) and aliens (foreigners) and how each might be viewed or treated. He reinterprets that conversation to posit the alien as neighbour, a feature of the common New Testament reversal dynamic where outsiders become insiders. We can even see this in the language of the fulfilment of the law, which happens whilst, at the same time, there are examples of lawbreaking.

The churn of rereading continues across centuries to the present and explains Liberationist and Feminist theologies, as well as Vatican II. In this churn, old understandings both illuminate the new whilst the new illuminates new insight over the old. The power of ideas and practices to reshape themselves to be communicable to new audiences remains a key feature of the shaping influence narratives have on human thought and life. Their authenticity and relevance for human beings seems to continue, as the world sees an increasing majority of its population identify themselves with one of these narrative streams. However, they are not constant or fixed, but trans generation, transcultural and trans social and as they meet changing contexts those context present challenges and open new insights into the depths of these narrative streams.

I suggest RE is the study of great shaping spiritual, moral, political and social narratives which substantively include major religious and non-religious worldviews and Biblical studies is close to religious studies, when the Bible is seen as an animating thread within religion, which in turn is an animating thread within civilizations; both can be characterized as this spiraling dynamic that reviews the past through the present and reinterprets the present through the past, and all of this through the stories of communities and the story of individuals.”