Ethos Education

Euan Murray and the 2011 Rugby World Cup: How do Christians attempt to understand and interpret the Bible?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Awareness of different Christian beliefs about the authority, inspiration and interpretation of the Bible.
  • Awareness of how individual Christians base their lives on the teaching of the Bible.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon the basis on which they obey or disregard rules.
  • Reflect upon the decision of an international rugby player not to take part in World Cup matches played on Sundays.
  • Evaluate the extent to which professional sporting events should be tailored to the faith of individual participants.
  • Evaluate three different approaches to the Bible, identifying strengths and weaknesses for each.
  • Analyse three excerpts from published Bible commentaries, identifying which approach each represents.
  • Synthesise a written exchange between the committee members of a Christian rugby tournament, demonstrating how different attitudes towards the Bible influence decision making.

STARTER:

Ask the students how they decide which rules to follow and which to ignore. Explain that you are going to read out some categories of rules and that you want them to indicate whether or not they have ever deliberately broken or ignored those rules. Ask the whole class to stand up, and only to sit down if they have never intentionally broken the rule you are about to say. After each rule, take some feedback from those still standing (see below) then get everybody back on their feet and move on to the next type of rule. Here are some possible rules for you to ask the students about:

  • Rules about school uniform.
  • Rules against illegal music downloads.
  • Rules of a sport (e.g. attempting to get away with deliberate handball in football).

For each example, ask some of those who have remained standing why they felt that it was okay to ignore the rules in this case – what basis did they have for their decision? How do they decide which rules should be followed and which ignored?

Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking about how Christians make decisions, and looking at the case of one Christian who chose to put his faith ahead of his career because he felt unable to ignore the Bible on one particular issue.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Give out copies of Rugby World Cup 2011: Devout Euan Murray questions Sunday matches from the BBC sports website. You can find the article at http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/rugby_union/15016776.stm

Read through the story with the students (or ask them to read it individually or in pairs). Ask them to look out for the reasons that Euan Murray gives for his decision about playing on Sundays.

Ask the students whether they agree with Euan Murray’s decision not to make himself available to play on Sundays. Some may feel that his religious views should be respected, while others might argue that picking and choosing which matches he plays is inappropriate for someone who earns their living as a professional rugby player. Once the students have had a chance to discuss this together, ask them whether they agree with Murray’s statement that there is no need to schedule any matches on a Sunday and that he hopes the scheduling policy might change in the future. Draw out that there are two very different issues behind these questions: in the first case, the question is whether Murray is entitled to prioritise his own deeply-held beliefs over his career; in the second case, the question is whether an entire competition for people of a variety of faiths should be organised specifically for the benefit of one particular faith. To bring this second point into focus, what would happen if one or more teams included players with a strong Jewish faith – would the schedule have to avoid matches on Saturdays as well as Sundays?

Direct the students to the following quote from the article:

‘It’s basically all or nothing, following Jesus. I don’t believe in pick ‘n’ mix Christianity. I believe the Bible is the word of God, so who am I to ignore something from it? I might as well tear out that page then keep tearing out pages as and when it suits me. If I started out like that there would soon be nothing left.’

Point out that although the particular issue that Murray is talking about is observance of the Sabbath Day, this quote reveals that the real issue behind his unwillingness to play rugby on Sundays is his attitude towards the Bible. Ask the students what this quote reveals about how Murray sees the Bible.

Draw out that Murray clearly affords the Bible with a degree of authority – he allows the things it says to define his life and his actions, rather than setting himself in authority over it, with the right to decide which bits he will accept and which he will reject.

Give out the Approaches to the Bible worksheet and go through the summaries of three different approaches to understanding the Bible with the students. It is worth pointing out that these summaries are very broad. While most Christians would probably lean towards one or another of them, there may well be areas of overlap between the different approaches. Ask the students to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Encourage good note-taking during this stage of the lesson, as the strengths and weaknesses will provide an important element in the assessment activity later in the lesson. Possible answers might include the following:

Literal approach:

Strengths:

  • Presents a clear basis for engaging with the Bible as a moral framework for living.
  • Not dependent on subjective personal interpretation.
  • Provides strong sense of security for those who adhere to it.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • Potentially fragile – if one demonstrable inconsistency is found, confidence in the Bible as a whole may be shattered.
  • The approach is often applied inconsistently, for example, Christians who don’t follow certain Old Testament rules and practices.
  • Some critics say that a literalist approach misses the original intention of the Bible writers in some cases.

Evangelical approach:

Strengths:

  • Recognises that the Bible needs understanding and interpretation.
  • Allows people to engage intellectually with the Bible as well as emotionally.
  • New scientific discoveries can be incorporated into a biblical understanding, rather than being rejected out of hand.
  • Emphasis on the Bible’s authority as the inspired word of God puts the life of the Christian under the scrutiny of the Bible’s teaching.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • Can lead to differences in belief and practice among different Christians.
  • There are differences of opinion about which biblical instructions are universal (applying to everyone at every time, and to be followed in the same way by all people) and which are cultural (a specific instruction for a particular set of circumstances, offering a principle to be applied differently in other cultural contexts).

Liberal approach:

Strengths:

  • Provides great freedom of interpretation to individuals.
  • Errors or inconsistencies are not problematic, as the liberal theologian can simply dismiss them as human error on the part of the writer.
  • No conflict between faith and reason in the case of Bible stories with a supernatural element that some find hard to believe really happened.
  • Disagreement over interpretation is less likely to lead to division within the liberal church.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • The Bible has no authority, meaning it ceases to be an effective instrument of teaching and discipline within the Christian community.
  • Encourages people to pick and choose which bits of the Bible they want, cherry-picking the easier instructions and ignoring the more challenging demands.
  • Readers are under no sense of obligation to change any part of their life which goes against biblical instruction.
  • Prone to eisegesis (the reader imposes his or her own ideas onto the text, rather than seeking to determine the original intended meaning of the writer).
  • Hugely subjective approach to the Bible.

What do the students think of the three approaches? Do they regard one as being better than the others? Is one worse than the others? Which do they think would be most helpful for Christians? Which is most prone to misuse? Which of these approaches seems the best description of Euan Murray’s understanding of the relationship a Christian should have with the Bible?

Give out the Commentaries worksheets and ask the students to read the short excerpts of Bible commentary. For each commentary, the students should identify which of the three approaches is reflected in it.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to write a series of emails (or script a discussion at a committee meeting) between the organisers of a Christian international rugby tournament. The committee should be made up of three members, each of which holds to one of the three approaches to the Bible featured in the earlier section of this lesson. The committee should discuss scheduling of matches along with any other issues where the students can demonstrate an understanding of how the different approaches might use the Bible (and other sources of authority) to help them make their decisions.

YOU WILL NEED:

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