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Reset the Heart - Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope
Date Reviewed: April 16, 2019
Mai-Anh Le Tran, an associate professor of religious education and practical theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, tackles a profound question in her book Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope when she asks, “what does it mean to educate for faith in a world marked by violence?” Tran, who is a past president of the Religious Education Association, is an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church.
This intriguing volume about the problem of faith in a violent world begins in August 2014 with the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Situated within this violence and racism, Tran allows three questions to guide her search for meaning and answers: “What does it mean to educate for faith in a world marked by violence? How are Christian faith communities complicit in the teaching and learning of violence? What new (or renewed) practices of faith and educational leadership can help us unlearn violence and relearn hope?” (10). The search for these answers provides her agenda for “resetting the heart” (10).
Tran’s first two chapters struggle with her first question as she draws upon frameworks from social psychology, cultural studies, postcolonial theory, and racial formation theory. In Chapter Three, she examines the church’s complicity in the teaching and learning of violence. She offers a reframing of Charles Foster’s five major critiques of the church’s “catechetical culture” as a foundation of her answer. Finally, she attempts to answer her third question in Chapters Four, Five, and Six as she models relearning hope.
Throughout this volume, Tran explores a number of subjects that interrelate with her subject including race as political theology, racism as a form of violence, religious education malpractice, and the erasure of historical memory. Her model for relearning hope includes practicing communicability, redeemability, and educability. She reminds her readers again and again of the vital importance of religious education and the role of the religious educator in fostering transformation. As she writes in her conclusion, “Let the people of God say ‘Amen.’ And let Christian religious educators remind the people what ‘Amen’ means” (164).
Tran makes excellent use of a powerful theological writing technique rooted in what theologian Heather Walton describes as “performance autoethnography.” Her use of this technique makes the book’s content come alive in a faithful and academically solid narrative; Tran shows readers theology instead of just telling them. This is particularly true in her opening chapter as well as in Chapters Four, Five, and Six, when she integrates the support of 14 other theological voices that she engages as “theological reflectors.” This complex and stimulating writing does make the writing style in Chapters Two and Three, where Tran establishes her argument within the wider academic narrative, seem flat and uninspiring. Nevertheless, this is a very well-written narrative that is a pleasure to read.
Tran provides readers with a valuable and insightful addition to the theological understanding of religious education. This volume should be added to all theological libraries and is a must read not only for academics who specialize in religious education but also for clergy and leaders in parish religious education.
Religion, Education and Society
Date Reviewed: February 26, 2015
Religion, Education and Society details research on the role of religious education (RE) in the secondary school system in the United Kingdom. The book is a selection of papers first presented at the conference “Religion in Education: Findings from the Religion and Society Programme” held at the University of Warwick (July 2011). The collection of contributions examines young people as they relate to religion in various settings. The study is diverse in terms of the religions included (Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism). Chapters reveal how young people reflect on religion in the classroom, with peers, in their families, in religious communities, and in wider society.
Chapters report on findings related to three research areas. The first part consists of four chapters reporting on “Young People’s Attitudes to Religious Diversity.” Findings reveal that young people’s attitudes toward religion in general and to religious diversity are more strongly influenced by the practice and perceptions of religion in the broader community than by RE in the classroom (13-26). Research exposed a potentially negative result of school-based RE in contexts characterized by low levels of religious literacy; that information learned can be used to ridicule religious peers rather than to further mutual understanding (27-30). Contributors paint a picture of factors that influence religious faith among young people including religious affiliation, participation in public worship, personal faith practice and belief, and perceptions of God (31-60).
The second part includes two chapters addressing the question, “Does Religious Education Work?” In the introduction to the volume, the editors identify two primary reasons for RE in public schools: (1) that religion is an integral part of human experience and worthy of examination, and (2) that the study of religion is instrumental in promoting social cohesion and enhancing the personal development of young people (5-11). Unfortunately, RE often suffers from a lack of clarity in purpose – thus hindering its intended outcomes. Findings provide insight on how postmodern thought, a constructivist philosophy of education, and contemporary societal realities have made it difficult to maintain a unified purpose for RE (61-80).
The third part comprises seven chapters exploring the role and impact of RE in diverse contexts (81-169). Research presented describes the impact of various aspects of RE programs including curricula, teaching methodology, and the role of instructors in shaping the religious identities of young people. Emerging from these pages are practical guidelines for administrators, curriculum developers, and instructors. Chapters provide religious communities with workable models for partnering with RE programs in passing faith traditions on to future generations.
A conspicuous strength of this book is critical analysis looking at factors influencing the effectiveness of RE in public schools. As such, the volume is particularly valuable for faculty teaching in RE programs. Consequently, the work is a significant contribution to both theory and practice of RE.
Religion, Education and Society is to be commended for clarifying the purpose and presenting best practices in RE in public educational settings. Working through this volume will reward those engaged in teaching religious studies.
Towards a Methodology for Comparative Studies in Religious Education: A Study of England and Norway
Date Reviewed: February 12, 2015
The central questions of this study are how religious education (RE), as a part of public secondary school curricula, differs between England and Norway, and what accounts for these differences. To answer these questions the author analyzed documents reflecting national debates about RE in public schools, examined policy statements produced by the British and Norwegian governments, cited studies conducted by the European Union, and carried out limited ethnography at six secondary schools (three in Norway and three in England).
This study bears the marks of having been a dissertation, and is deeply self-conscious of its methodology. Bråten cites a broad range of theoretical and methodological orientations put forth for the study of RE in Europe, settling on two frameworks that offer the greatest utility for answering her questions. The first framework, which provides the structure for the book, is that of “levels of the curriculum.” After an extensive, if somewhat dry, literature review, Bråten compares differences between England and Norway in increasingly narrow fields. These are the societal, institutional, instructional (teachers), and experiential (pupils) levels. Bråten thus first gives a broad overview of the forces at work at higher levels of organization in the planning and execution of RE curricula before describing how it is taught and received in actual practice. In each chapter she applies the second of her two main methodological frameworks: an assessment of the supranational, national, and subnational forces that have impacted developments at each curricular level. For example, primary among the supranational forces she identifies are globalization and pluralism, and among the national forces are the differing historical relationships between state, religion, and schools within the two countries.
Bråten found that the teaching of RE as a multi-faith, non-confessional subject began earlier in England than in Norway, likely as a result of England’s history of relatively greater religious plurality. Apart from the formative influence of scholars within the secular field of religious studies, curricular developments in England tended to happen “from the bottom up,” and tend to be more diverse owing to the greater diversity of public schooling options. Norwegian RE, on the other hand, has tended to develop “from the top down,” and places greater emphasis on Christianity than English RE. Curricular developments in Norway were also most influenced by departments of theology, unlike in England. All of this has led to differences in how RE curriculum is executed in the two countries, but not to as many differences in how it is received by pupils.
Given that most of the readers of this journal are involved with higher, not secondary, education in North America, I would suggest this study might be useful for faculty in the following ways. First, Bråten poses interesting questions about the importance of RE (mostly having to do with preparing pupils to be tolerant citizens in pluralistic societies) that are important for faculty and administrators to consider at institutions that require the study of religion as part of general education or liberal arts requirements. Why is RE considered necessary? How do students receive not only the content of what is taught, but the messages about why such courses are important? This book would also be of use for thinking about the supranational, national, and subnational forces that have impacted how and why we teach what we teach. Bråten raises many questions along these lines, and provides one multi-disciplinary model for how to answer them.
Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict: Perspectives on Religious Education Research
Date Reviewed: February 6, 2015
Between 2006 and 2009 Wolfram Weisse and a team of researchers in eight European countries conducted pioneering research on the topic of religion and education. The project, known as REDCo, focused on adolescents, but also examined teacher beliefs and practices about religion and education. At the heart of this research is the question of whether learning about religion in schools can contribute to social harmony or social cohesion. Methodologically, the combined qualitative and quantitative approaches the team used sought to examine a number of aspects of this question. Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict reports on some of the results of the REDCo project.
Unquestioned in much of this research is the desirability of students’ learning about religion in schools in one form or another. In other words, the question of whether learning about religion in schools can contribute to social harmony is for the most part transformed into an assumption, rather than retained as a research question. This can perhaps be forgiven if one examines the data as reported in this volume: across the chapters (written by key researchers in REDCo, including Robert Jackson who is a pioneer in this area of research), students themselves affirm the importance of education about religion as facilitating respect and the ability to live in a diverse society.
The diversity of results and the variations on the studies reported raise issues associated with conducting multi-sited research. Social and cultural context is such that one can never perfectly replicate research across national boundaries. REDCo seems to have responded to these variations admirably by giving researchers the freedom to fine tune the research design in a site-specific manner. Thus teachers in the U.K., for example, wrote reflective diaries that enabled Miller and McKenna to analyse differences and similarities between teacher and student beliefs about religion and education. There was, it turned out, considerable agreement between teachers and students about their commitment to pluralism and respect for religion. The freedom to respond to local context might be seen as part of the broader theoretical framework -- Robert Jackson’s interpretive approach -- relying on ethnographic methods to employ a student and teacher centered approach to the study of religion and education. Only by taking such an approach can we begin to decipher the usefulness of education about religion, which should not be taken as a given but held in critical tension with an examination of religion, and knowledge about it, in the education of future citizens.
Since REDCo’s completion, there has been a flurry of research activity on the broad subject of religion and education. For all of us engaged in these activities, it is vital to learn what we can from the path-breaking efforts of the REDCo researchers. So, for example, a theme that recurs across the chapters is that students believe that “doing things together” is a key strategy for developing understanding about the “other.” This recognition, which mirrors a great deal of research on diversity management and social cohesion, seems to warrant further exploration, through, perhaps, an examination of students’ (and teachers’) experiences of shared activities with those who belong to religions (or no religion) other than their own.