A curious feature of popular GCSE RS courses is their preoccupation with films and TV programmes. In the 2013 Edexcel endorsed textbook for the most widely taken GCSE RS course, Religion and Life, there are more words about Bruce Almighty, than there are about religious views on the problem of evil and suffering. The textbook dedicates a full page to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and recommends that pupils study from a choice of Invictus, Shrek 2, Bend it Like Beckham, Hairspray and Made in Dagenham. Another exam board endorsed textbook, recommends The Simpsons and The Vicar of Dibley as “suitable” viewing. These recommendations are to fulfil the specification’s stipulation that pupils know:
- How two television and/or radio programmes and/or films about religion may affect a person’s attitude to belief in God.
- How an issue arising from religion and community cohesion has been presented in one form of the media, for example in a television or radio programme, or in a film, or in the national press.
In the exam itself, pupils can expect little further challenge, with questions that are almost a word for word replication of the specification. Past papers include:
(b) Do you think television or radio programmes or films can affect a person’s attitude to belief in God? Give two reasons for your point of view (4)
(c) Explain with examples, how television programmes and/or radio programmes and/or films might affect a person’s attitude to belief in God. (8)
(c) Explain how an issue arising from this section (religion and community cohesion) was presented in one form of the media. (8)
The implication that watching Bruce Almighty, The Simpsons or The Vicar of Dibley might “affect a person’s attitude to belief in God” does scant justice to the nature and complexity of belief. I am yet to meet the person who found or lost their faith by encountering Bruce, Bart Simpson or Geraldine Granger. As well as the aforementioned films, Edexcel’s official guidance document suggests watching Finding Nemo in order to learn about the importance of family, and You, Me and Dupree in order to learn about marriage.
Presumably the exam board’s intention is to make RE more relevant and engaging. In reality, religious people are misrepresented, pupils are patronised rather than taught about religion, and the view that RE is a soft subject is perpetuated. RE teachers should not have to pretend that there are important religious insights to be gained from spending lessons watching Shrek, Finding Nemo and Bend it like Beckham. It would be an embarrassment if a colleague from another subject were to walk in on such a lesson.
A valuable outcome of good RE is that it can equip one with a sufficiently deep and broad knowledge, to understand and form an opinion on references to religion in daily life, including references in the media. For example, allowing one to assess how accurately a religious story or people are portrayed in a film, or to appreciate the context of a religious conflict in the news, or to understand the theology behind different religious views on gender roles in a radio debate. However, whilst it is a valuable outcome of studying religion, it is not the strongest method of doing so.
In order for pupils to achieve the level of religious literacy, which would allow an understanding of religion in the modern world, they need to be learning about the complex world of religion and belief, not watching Shrek. There are times when a thoughtfully selected clip, which has sufficient relevance to religion, might contribute to this pursuit. It may also be that there is a place in GCSE RS for some intelligent study of how religion and media interact. However, both the level of expectation driving the current focus on media, and the opportunity cost of studying it, need consideration.
A strength of the Department for Education’s new GCSE RS criteria is its requirement for exam boards to construct GCSE courses containing a stronger focus on understanding religion. In their current quest to develop these courses, exam boards would do well to end the inane practice of turning classrooms into cinemas in the interest of a shallow ‘relevance.’ There is undoubtedly a far richer, more interesting and more valuable thought world for young people to engage with.