Book Review – The Bible: A Story That Makes Sense of Life by Andrew Ollerton    

The Bible: A Story that Makes Sense of Life by Andrew Ollerton. Published by Hodder & Stroughton 2020

At a cursory glance you can easily think that the Bible plays a central role in the life of many of our Anglican schools. Our mottos are often derived from it, and the Bible appears on a number of our school crests. Yet, as any chaplain knows, encouraging our students to really engage with the Bible is challenging work.

We run services in our communities that are very different from simply running church at school because of the nature of our school community. A significant proportion of our students are not people of faith. While engaging students with the scriptures is a crucial part of our role it is hard to overstate how challenging this is given our current culture. How can you go about engaging a diverse student body with a book that some consider irrelevant at best and harmful at worst?

A number of Anglican schools get around the problem of how to engage nonbelieving students with the Bible in a classroom context by using the ‘stick’ of assessment. Make Religious Education an assessable subject and then students have to engage with the Bible. Our Anglican schools are positive academic environments and parents are interested in their children getting good grades. This helps to make RE ‘count’.

But can you get students to engage with the Bible using more of a ‘carrot’ approach? Andrew Ollerton believes that you can.

Regular readers of this blog will note that one of the recurring themes of my posts is to bemoan the lack of resources for our ministry. This may not be the case when it comes to the Bible. One whole bookshelf in my office is taken up by books that claim to help engage young people with the scriptures. However, in my experience, the unique nature of Anglican schools means that many of these resources fail to get any real traction.

Andrew Ollerton’s approach is to come to the Bible via the big questions of life about meaning, hope and purpose. These are questions that, if approached in the right way, our students generally do want to engage with.

Ollerton provides a helpful conceptual framework that allows the big questions of life to be explored and helpfully unpacks how the scriptures engage with these questions.

  • Origins         – Our human desire for meaning
  • Exodus         –  Our human quest for freedom
  • Exile            – Our human cry for peace
  • Messiah       – Our human need for love
  • Spirit            – Our human thirst for community
  • Hope            – Our human longing for home

I use Ollerton’s framework to help structure my Year 10 course and have found it helpful for raising students engagement level.

For example, before we engage with the story of creation from the Bible we look at other creation stories and explore how these stories help shape cultures and their quest for meaning. This then frames our discussion of the creation stories in Genesis, seeing what different answers the Hebrew people would have got to the great questions of life from their creation story when compared with the creation stories of their neighbours.

The quest for freedom is an obvious theme to pick up when you are looking at the story of Moses and the Exodus, but it also really helps to shape our subsequent discussion of the Ten Commandments. Looking at the idea of rules to set us free makes for an interesting discussion with students.  

Ollerton hasn’t written the definitive book that manages to resolve all our problems when it comes to engaging apathetic young people with the Bible, but he does provide a framework that will help engage the thoughtful student with the riches that comes from the scriptures.  

Let’s keep the conversation going. Over to you – what is your best resource, that actually works, that helps your students engage with the scriptures in a meaningful and relevant way?

Andrew Stewart Written by:

Reverend Andrew Stewart has twenty years experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.

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