Theology’s Relevance to Today’s Teenagers

by Anne Ostrowicz.

It was probably twenty-five years ago when I taught a most wonderfully eager, bright, eleven-year-old pupil called Nathaniel.[1] Now a philosopher of race, he contacted me several years ago about his work and I invited him back to the school to speak at Agora, our Philosophy and Religion Society. Nathaniel proceeded to deliver what was probably the most hard-hitting talk I have heard at the society in twenty years. His topic was exposing the “white-washing” of the curriculum, the heart of his professional work. He told us that he had initially focused his challenge towards universities, very aware that what gets taught in schools is what teachers have learned on their university courses, but that now he was beginning to speak directly to school teachers also. And his message certainly spoke to me that day, as I looked up at the pictures of the mainly white, male philosophers and thinkers which encircled the tops of my classroom walls, with just a few exceptions like Desmond Tutu (Ubuntu Theology). Who was I listening to and learning from? Whose perspective do I take?

The seed Nathaniel sowed in my mind that day has grown ever more persistent. Initially it led me to sign up to a series of evening classes at Queen’s Theology College on Black and Asian Theology, taught by Mukti Barton.  Going home one evening from listening to her revelatory teaching, I began to create a series of lessons with a whole new take on the Abraham story, now from Egyptian Hagar’s perspective, interspersed with heart-stabbing art of Hagar from down the ages. Pupils eagerly grasp the idea of a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, and embrace the task of searching the text for evidence of God’s amazing interactions with this Egyptian woman in stark contrast to some of the extremely harsh treatment she received from the household in which she worked.

Mukti’s lectures also transformed my teaching of Matthew 5: 38-42, the passage which contains Jesus’ challenge to turn the other cheek! I now get pupils to come to the front of the classroom to act the three scenarios Jesus presents, and I show them how, in the context they were delivered, rather than a call to meek submission, Gandhi’s careful analysis of Jesus’ words suggests a powerful call to dignified Peaceful Resistance to oppressors, an interpretation pursued by Martin Luther King.

Such approaches to religious texts in a classroom demand sufficient time to allow for depth of study and exploration. But the outcome for pupils seems to justify the time spent: pupils’ imaginations are fired and their dedication to the subject as one with profound relevance to life is cemented.

The challenge to further reading has led me to read writers like Jain Satish Kumar[2], Christian theologian Choan-Seng Song[3], and more by Martin Luther King Junior[4].

The death of George Floyd provoked fiery debate on social media amongst pupils in my school (the majority from BAME backgrounds) with various outcomes including the establishment of a new staff Diversity Forum charged with creating proposals in response. Pupils themselves have led virtual assemblies, started a new African-Caribbean Society, and held discussions including on the History curriculum in the school and in the UK. Knowledge of the issues has increased rapidly.

Perhaps the most moving and inspirational talk of last academic year for me was given by South African Letlapa Mphahlele[5] who spoke in assembly and in lessons about his life as a freedom fighter in apartheid times, later unexpectedly finding friendship and reconciliation with individuals in the white community through the forgiveness he received from Ginn Fourie, whose daughter had died under his command.  A new academic year has begun, albeit strangely with covid 19 restrictions. Enthused by a “Tools for Changemakers”[6] conference I attended on zoom this Summer, I am intent on creating more opportunities to hear more deeply both from BAME pupils and from adult BAME speakers and writers. As I write, the face of one of my last year’s sixth form pupils is on the front of the day’s Times[7], along with a double page spread of his story as a survivor of the Peshawar (Pakistan) school shootings. This young man is off to Oxford at the end of this month to study Theology and Philosophy, already speaking out in our society as an ambassador against extremist ideologies. Like Nathaniel Coleman, he is another voice from the British BAME community who brings inspiration and challenge. Yet another young person who has found the study of Theology and Philosophy utterly relevant and key for inspiring their passion to help create a better world.

[1] Nathaniel crosses out his surname because it was given to one of his ancestors by a slave trader.                           “Why isn’t my professor black?” – a link to a talk Nathaniel delivered at UCL in 2014.

[2] Satish Kumar, You Are Therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence Green Books, 2002, and The Buddha and the Terrorist, Green Books, 1990

[3] Choan-Seng Song, Third Eye Theology, Orbis Books, 1979

[4] Martin Luther King Junior, Strength to Love, Fortress Press, 1963

[5] Beyond Forgiving, thirty minute film from A full feature film of Letlapa’s life is being planned.

[6] “Tools for Change-Makers”, Initiatives of Change, Caux, Switzerland. One of the speakers, delivering input on the principles of Dialogue, Professor Keyes, runs an MA course at Winchester University on Reconciliation and Peace-Making.

[7] Ahmad Nawaz in The Times, Saturday 5th September, 2020

2 thoughts on “Theology’s Relevance to Today’s Teenagers”

  1. Good! There is ONE human race, not several, and we are ‘all God’s chillun’ whatever part of the world we happened to be born in.

    On reading about your student’s refusal to use his surname because that was inflicted on one of his ancestors by a slave owner, has that anything to say to our Western practice of a woman taking her husband’s family name on marriage? Just asking! And why are so few great female scientists pictured around your walls? I bet it was a woman who discovered how to make fire…..


  2. Yes, I agree, I think we do think we need to think about surnames…
    (I teach Religion and Philosophy so my classroom ‘thinkers’ are those who particularly feed into those two subjects.)


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