Pop culture and RE: an under-realised third space

In questioning beginning teachers’ experiences of Religious Education during their schooling I am invariably met with a very mixed group of responses. Some, usually because of the teacher bringing the subject alive, loved it. Others, for a plethora of other reasons struggled to see the value of it, or actually remember anything they ever did. Just about all of them remember films that they watched as a part of what they remember as RE, but not many of them remember why they watched them. This brings to mind a finding of Professor Bob Jackson and his team when exploring the materials used to teach RE; that report warned:

The young people generally appreciated these resources for learning and many found them more interesting and memorable than books, suggesting ‘you learn better from TV because it’s made interesting’, ‘you remember it better’ (Year 7 pupils Moorside). There were some detracting voices, however. Increasing familiarity with these forms of learning can mean that they lack the power to engage that they once had. A Flintmead student admitted that there was a danger of ‘drifting off’ when DVDs were being used in lessons (Jackson et al., 2010, p. 162).

Professor Jackson’s report and the experiences of my students suggest to me that there may be an issue in the use of film and pop culture in RE lessons. It is not that it is not valuable, it may be that we actually underestimate its value. Media and pop culture can often be used as purely illustrative, as a hook or as a time filler. These do not use media to its potential and this article will hopefully explore how, with a greater engagement with its purpose and potential, pop culture can be used as an integral part of the learning of RE.

In exploring effective ways to teach RE it has been suggested that using bridges is useful to underpin classroom practice (see Holt, 2015). One of these bridges is with pupils’ own experiences and it is here that pop culture and the use of media can help bridge the gap of understanding and relevancy with pupils. Without exploring in depth Piaget’s constructivist approach to learning it is possible to suggest that using prior knowledge and things within the pupils’ own experience will help deepen and enhance learning. Judith Lowndes (2012) suggests a conceptual pyramid to be used within RE; underpinning progression up the pyramid is concepts within the pupils’ own experience.

At a very minimum this is using every day experiences and drawing parallels with the religious concepts to be studied. This can be done at every age and would include simple questions such as ‘When have you had to share in your life?’ as a prelude to a study of the Langar within Sikhism. Or perhaps a reflection on an important place of meaning before exploring pilgrimage in any religion (see Holt, 2007). Teachers recognise the need to ground these concepts in a pupil’s own experience to help them empathise and also to see the commonalities and relevance of religion.

These experiences can sometimes be limited in nature, and not produce the grounding that is necessary to understand the concepts being taught and explored. It is here that so called ‘pop culture’ can be used to more fully explore aspects of religion, philosophy and belief. It is impossible in a short article to list all of the different aspects of pop culture and how they can be used in the classroom. Hopefully through the examination of a couple of examples it will be possible for the teacher to continue to make links with those elements of pop culture in their own experiences that can be used to enhance learning.

th76SGRBVHA parody of RE that is sometimes used is the constant cycle of Simpson’s viewing. If I’m honest I don’t know enough about the Simpsons to offer an in-depth critique of how every episode can be used. I do know that a watching of an entire episode is not often the best use of time. Echoing Jackson’s note of caution above, when we use pop culture it should be focussed and meaningful. The episode that always sticks in my mind is “I’m Goin to Praiseland” (Season 12 Episode 19) where the different characters all have visions of heaven according to the life views- the comic store owner going to Star Trek heaven with Lieutenant Uhuru.

This can be used a trigger to discuss religious experience. An argument that could be made based on James and Otto is the fact that religious experiences share many of the same characteristics then they must have some validity. Hick would argue that the differing emphases (and religions) are a result of our environment and culture but nevertheless “the universal presence of the Real… is transformed into inner or outer visions or voices” by our own psyches (2004, p. 169). The idea of a prism may also help. If we suggest a message from the Real/God as the beam of light going into the prism.


The prism is a person’s culture, religion and experiences which interpret the word. The refracted light is thus the meaning ascribed to the experience. The limits of this example should also be used in discussing the meaning- in the episode the experiences are caused by a gas leak whereas Hick would not dismiss a validity to the experiences.

Using a genre that is within the pupils’ own experiences helps a pupil understand vastly more complex concepts. One example I often use is that of Clifford the Big Red Dog. This is not a cartoon that is in the pupils’ own experience any more but its use can provide a basis for future discussion. At the end of every episode Emily Elizabeth speaks to the camera and explains the message of the story- essentially a modern day parable. As a prelude to parables and understanding the meaning of stories such a use of pop culture could be valuable. Again, the limitations of the comparison is an important part of the discussion.

The advent of the new GCSE requires a greater engagement with some of the core beliefseustacedragon of religions. One such example is a requirement to understand the nature of reconciliation, atonement and the effect of a person turning their life to Jesus in Christianity. There are many examples throughout literature such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and also many parts of the Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps one of the most evocative passages that will help pupils understand the painful process of repentance and turning to Jesus for Christians is found in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Here, Eustace has been turned into a dragon because of his lust for wealth, he struggles to remove the scaly skin for himself; each time he manages to shed his skin with a little bit of effort but within moments he discovers that it has returned. It is only when Aslan (a type for Christ throughout the books) offers to help him remove the skin does it have any impact:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. . . .Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . . After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me . . . in new clothes (2001, pp. 117-118).

Having pupils discover the similarities with the Christian experience will help them understand and remember better what the process of conversion and repentance is for Christians. Other examples could be taken from Tolkien, Star Wars, the writings of Pittacus Lore and many other places.

Pop culture is not the panacea for pupils to see the relevance of, and also become engaged by, RE but it is an important tool for the teacher to use. It should, however, be used judiciously and in a targeted manner. It should also be recognised that the differences as well as the similarities should be drawn. The God of Christianity is not the same as the One-Above-All and distinctions should be made. If not, the idea that religious concepts are the same as fictional concepts may be inferred. Pop culture provides a spring board or a reflective learning tool, they are not the end point of learning in themselves. Care should be taken by the teacher to use pop culture references that are either in the pupils’ own experience or when explained will capture the imagination and engage pupils in learning. Pupils themselves will also begin to make links for themselves: ‘Miss, this is like…’ will be a common refrain.

Reference List

Hick, John (1989). An Interpretation of Religion. London, UK: MacMillan.

Holt, James D. “Guided imagination as a basis for understanding the importance of special places” NATRE support materials for implementation of Secondary National Curriculum (2007) 4 pages available at http://www.natre.org.uk/secondary/casestudy.php?id=8

Holt, James D. (2015). RE in the Secondary School. An introduction to teaching, learning and the World Religions. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Jackson, R., Ipgrave, J., Hayward, M., Hopkins, P., Fancourt, N., Robbins, M., Francis, L. J. and McKenna, U. (2010) Materials used to Teach about World Religions in Schools in England, London, UK: Department for Children, Families and Schools. Research Report

Lewis, C.S. (2001) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader London, UK: Harper Collins

Lowndes, Judith (2012) The Complete Multifaith Resource for Primary Religious Education: Ages 4-7 Abingdon, UK: Routledge


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