Ethos Education

The Secret of Kells: How do we distinguish between truth and lies, and between reliable and unreliable sources of information?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Awareness of different Christian beliefs about the authority, inspiration and interpretation of the Bible.
  • Understanding of the concept of God revealing himself through scripture.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on the relationship between the value we place on an item and the way we treat that item as a result.
  • Evaluate why Christians in a film clip regard an illuminated Bible as an item of great value.
  • Understand and apply a set of questions intended to aid the process of determining truth claims.
  • Analyse Bible passages to determine their reliability as historical documents.
  • Understand the Christian belief that the Bible is inspired by God as well as written by people.
  • Synthesise learning by applying the truth test questions to a number of statements about the Bible.

STARTER: 

Ask the students to think about the containers that we put things in. Explain that you will give some examples of things, and you want the students to think about what would make an appropriate container for it.

  • A glass of champagne [likely response: a crystal glass].
  • A cup of tea or coffee at a football match [likely response: a paper cup].
  • A gourmet meal [likely response: china plate with silver cutlery].
  • Takeaway fish and chips [likely response: paper and polystyrene tray].
  • A Picasso painting [likely response: a classy and expensive frame].
  • A poster of your favourite band [likely response: blu-tacked straight to the wall].

Ask the students what their responses suggest about the different examples. Draw out that when we think something is particularly precious or valuable, we often show this by treating it with special care and attention, making more of a show around it than we would with something everyday and ordinary.

Explain that in this lesson you are going to be finding out more about something that Christians through the centuries have regarded as extremely valuable – the Bible. In particular, you are going to see how Christians in the middle ages expressed their love for the Bible.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the clip from the film The Secret of Kells (Optimum, 2009, certificate PG). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that Brother Brendan is a boy who lives as a monk at the Abbey of Kells. The film is set in the middle ages, and the community of monks live in fear of attack from Norsemen. In this clip, Brendan meets Brother Aiden, a famous master illuminator – that is, an artist who produces highly decorative copies of the Bible. Ask the students to pay particular attention to what Aiden says about his book.

  • Start time: 0.14.20 (in chapter 3 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.17.23
  • Clip length: 3 minutes and 3 seconds

The clip starts with Brother Brendan going into the illuminators’ workroom to sneak a look at Brother Aiden’s book. The clip ends after Aiden says, ‘I’ll show you how to make it; so – come on.’

Ask the students to list some of the claims that Aiden makes about the book. Possible answers could include the following:

  • It is a treasure.
  • It is the work of mere mortals.
  • It is a beacon in dark days.
  • It is a source of hope.

Why do the students think that the book is so precious to Aiden? Why does he value it so highly? What is the relationship between truth and beauty in Aiden’s book?

You might want to tell the students more about the real life Book of Kells. It was produced by Irish monks between the 6th and 9th centuries AD, contains the four biblical gospels (as well as some other non-biblical matters) and is regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures. It takes its name from Kells Abbey, where it was housed for many centuries. It is currently on display at the library of Trinity College in Dublin.

For further information about the Book of Kells, see the following:

http://www.bookofkells.ie/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A699023

http://historymedren.about.com/od/bookofkell1/p/book_of_kells.htm

Remind the students of Aiden’s comment that the book is the work of ‘mere mortals’. It is worth spending some time to clarify what he means by this. Aiden’s book was painstakingly decorated and was a beautiful work of art. Aiden’s words should probably be applied to the beauty and craftsmanship of the book. However, Aiden would also have believed that the contents of the book – the words and the message they express – were not the work of mere mortals.

Explain that many Christians regard the Bible as a genuinely authoritative and reliable document. Ask the students to read the following Bible passages (you could ask all students to look at both passages, or split the class and ask some to look at one and some the other). As they read the passages, ask the students to record anything in the passage that could be interpreted as adding to the reliability of the Bible as a historical record of events.

  • Luke 1:1-4
  • 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

Once the students have had time to work through the Bible passages, take feedback from them and make a list on the board of the things the students have found. Some possible answers are as follows:

  • Gospel events were spoken of by eye-witnesses (Luke 1:2).
  • Luke, the gospel writer, had carefully investigated the facts for himself (Luke 1:3).
  • There were witnesses to several of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
  • Most of these witnesses were still alive (and therefore in a position to confirm or deny Paul’s claims) at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.

Draw out that the people who wrote the Bible took great trouble to ensure that they had carefully researched the events they described. You might like to introduce the following quote during this discussion:

‘It is sometimes claimed that historians simply as historians regard Old and New Testament history as unreliable on some independent historical grounds. But . . . many events which are regarded as firmly established historically have far less documentary evidence than many biblical events, and the documents on which historians rely for much secular history are written much longer after the event than many records of biblical events. Furthermore, we have many more copies of biblical narratives than of secular histories; and the surviving copies are much earlier than those on which our evidence for secular history is based.’ (Richard Purtill, Thinking About Religion. Quoted in Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. Monarch books 1995.)

According to this argument, the circumstances in which the Bible was written (particularly the number of copies that have been found and the relatively short period of time between the events described and the earliest surviving document) point to the Bible being, historically at least, a very reliable document.

Explain that in determining whether or not something is true, it is useful to apply a number of tests. There are many different frameworks for testing truth which you could use, but we suggest the following:

Truth claims should be tested for:

Coherence: Does the claim make sense, without any unexplained contradictions? Does it hold together?

Evidence: What evidence is there to support the claim?

Authority: How reliable is the source of evidence? Do the people who advocate the truth claim (or those who dispute it) have any special authority that would make them more likely to know what they are talking about?

Plausibility: Occam’s Razor is a useful tool as a tie-breaker, if the previous three steps have failed to make things clear. Occam’s Razor asserts that where you have two (or more) different explanations for something, and all of them adequately meet the demands of coherence, evidence and authority; then the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one. Do emphasise that Occam’s Razor only applies if all else is equal – a complicated and far-from simple explanation which is coherent and is backed up by reliable evidence from a trustworthy authority is more likely to be true than a simple but unsubstantiated one.

Ask the students to measure the Bible against the criteria for testing truth claims that you established earlier in the lesson. You might like to give out Bible Factsheet and Da Vinci Controversy worksheet, two worksheets to provide additional input.

Explain that Christians believe that the Bible is more than just a well-researched historical document (or, indeed, set of historical documents). Ask the students to read 2 Timothy 3:14-17. You may want to explain that 2 Timothy was a letter written by the apostle Paul to his friend Timothy, a young Christian leading the church in Ephesus. In the letter Paul gives Timothy guidance, encouragement and advice for his ministry. Ask the students, working in pairs or small groups, to answer the following questions:

  • What does Paul say the holy Scriptures are able to do for Timothy? (v15) What do you think this means?
  • What do you think the phrase ‘God-breathed’ (v16) means?
  • What is Scripture useful for, according to Paul? (v16)
  • What is the end result of someone reading Scripture? (v17)

Once the students have had time to answer the questions, let them feed their answers back to the whole class, and allow some time for discussion.

You may find the following notes helpful:

Verse 15: ‘wise for salvation’ – i.e., the Bible tells people what they need to do to be saved. ‘… through faith in Christ Jesus’ – this is the answer to the previous dilemma: Paul tells Timothy that Scripture says that the way to be saved is through faith in Jesus.

Verse 16: Christians believe that although the Bible was written by people, like Paul, it was also inspired by God. They believe that it is more than just wise words from humans, but that God speaks through the words he led them to write. This is what the phrase ‘God-breathed’ means. You could also refer the students to 2 Peter 1:21 ‘For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’

Verse 17: the teaching, rebuking, etc. described in verse 16 has a particular end purpose: providing God’s people with everything they need (‘thoroughly equipped’) to live their lives in God’s service, doing his ‘good works’. You could also refer the students to James 1:22-25, which impresses upon its readers the importance of not only reading Scripture, but also doing what it says.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to apply the four tests of truth to each of the following statements about the Bible, and to assess the arguments for and against each statement:

‘The Bible is just fiction. It’s a novel, not history, and we shouldn’t take it seriously.’

‘The Bible is a reliable historical document, telling us what happened a long time ago. But it doesn’t have anything to do with life today.’

‘The Bible is based on good historical sources, regardless of whether you believe in God or not. And if there is a God, then maybe the Bible is even more significant.’

‘The Bible is more than just a book. God speaks through it, and it’s as relevant to life today as it was 2,000 years ago.’

Alternatively, you might want to set a research project, asking students to find out more about the Book of Kells and other ancient illuminated books produced by Christians.

YOU WILL NEED:

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