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Mishmash: Religious Education in Multi-Cultural Britain. A Study in Metaphor – John M. Hull

June 19, 2015

MMIn the aftermath of the 1988 Education Reform Act there was a long-running debate which was already happening in the RE world between those why taught religions ‘systematically’ i.e. one religion at a time, and those who taught ‘thematically’ i.e. looking across all religions e.g. ‘Holy Books’ looked at Torah, Bible, Qur’an, Vedas etc.

I was a systems man who later moved in the ‘wrong’ direction towards themes. An innovator, I was always against the trend, not waiting for it to catch up with me.

The trouble is that the commonly taught themes were artificial. ‘Founder’ might be OK for Jesus but Muhammad is not seen as a founder. Hinduism has no obvious founder.

And you can’t compare Jesus with Muhammad pbuh – Jesus is ‘the word of God’ not the Bible, for Christians so he compares more with the Qur’an than with the prophet.

The opponents of thematic teaching said that if you taught all the religions together, kids would get confused. But they had never considered that, in MFL, you teach German and French, kids will get confused. Indeed, the younger they are, the more they can cope.

The title for Hull’s book comes from the comparison of thematic teaching with goulash. Yet who, but a few rednecks, eats meat on its own? We like to mix the food on our plates – from fancy Hungarian dishes to bangers and mash with baked beans mixed in.

The author looks at the purity/contamination laws of religions like Judaism and notes how Christianity overcomes them. In this light, the proponents of Christianity like Baronness Cox were clearly unchristian.


On 2 August 1990 the Daily Mail carried an article criticising John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The headline was, ‘The man betraying Thatcher’s children’. Amongst the various ways in which school children are being betrayed, we read, ‘The place of Christianity in religious education is by no means clear, despite what the Act appears to say. Multi-faithism, a sort of incoherent mishmash where virtually anything goes from Rastafarianism to Marxism, is still very much in evidence.’

The Church Times carried a letter on 20 May 1988 under the heading ‘Debate over the future of RE’. The correspondent complained, ‘. . . we are also told that we must teach about other faiths. I am not denying this. There should be a place made in the syllabus for such teaching, but this is different from turning Christian religious education into a kind of religious cocktail.’

The Times Educational Supplement for 14 October 1988 carried an article ‘Clarifying an act of faith’ which made reference to one of the speeches in the House of Lords. The speaker ‘argued against multi-faith teaching as “a cocktail of world faiths”.’

Baroness Cox opened the debate last month with an emotional statement of the issue: “As a nation”, said the Baroness, “we are in danger of selling our spiritual birthright for a mess of secular pottage.”‘

The Independent for 30 April 1990 reported that ‘Parents press for multi-faith ruling’ and referred to one of the parents as saying: ‘If my daughter came home at ten and said she wanted to learn Punjabi or anything else, I would have no objections, that would be her choice. But at five I think it is too much to have things thrown down your throat.’

it seems to be assumed that religious education means nothing more than instructing children in religion, although this assumption is consistently rejected in the religious education literature of the past twenty years.

distinctions between the character and purposes of collective worship and classroom religious education tend to be ignored.

‘As I understood the right reverend Prelate when he wound up on amendment No.3, if for instance a game of soccer was being played it would be quite legal and relevant if the person in charge of that game thought fit suddenly to bring in the rules of rugger. It does not made an awful lot of sense.’ (House of Lords, 21 June 1988, col. 721.) Religious education should not mix the religions.

‘… If we consider religious faith and precept as the spiritual lifeblood of the nation and all its citizens, then effective religious instruction can no more be administered by and to persons of a different faith than can a blood transfusion be safely given without first ensuring blood-group compatibility. Indiscriminate mixing of blood can prove dangerous and so can the mixing of faiths in education.’ (House of Lords, 3 May 1988, col. 419.) Now we see that mishmash is not just a question of the content of religious education but also involves an appropriate match between the content and the pupil. Each pupil is to be taught his or her own faith and no one else’s…. Anything else would be a contamination, a degeneration. In order to avoid the charge of mishmash, religious education must become the instrument and the expression of tribalism.

The word mishmash has been in use since the middle of the fifteenth century. It is probably related to the Old English miscian meaning ‘mix’, and may go back to the German mischen. Perhaps there is a connection with the Latin word ‘to mix’, miscere.

It is to the brewing industry that we owe one of the earliest meanings of the word mash: malt mixed with hot water. It is also found in farming, to refer to a mixture of boiled grain, bran or meal given warm as food for horses or cattle. This use can be traced back to the late sixteenth century, especially in the expression ‘bran mash’.

t is because of this strong connection between culture, cuisine and identity that the invasion of the borders of the cuisine is like the invasion of the borders of an identity. This enables us to understand the origin of food rejection in a culture, and developmentally in young children. The body, and thus the self, would be contaminated by contact with offensive food. ‘The mouth seems to function as a highly charged border between self and non-self.’… When the boundaries of the self are widened, however, disgust tends to disappear. Lovers do not find it disgusting to kiss mouth to mouth, but the tiniest trace of säliva or lipstick on a glass from which a stranger has drunk will be distasteful to most people in our culture. Parents do not usually find the body products of their young children as unpleasant as those of adults or strangers. Disgust involves that which is foreign to the self. It is because the possibility of contamination involves a threat to the self that the offensive material is rejected.

The history of food at least in Europe and Asia shows us that a more luxurious and diversified cuisine was always associated with increased wealth and power. Differences in diet are basically regional, but with improved systems of transport a more varied diet becomes possible. An emphasis upon rarity, luxury and difference itself is found in the development of the eating habits of the wealthy in the Hellenistic period…. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries eating became more individual and more privatised. The uncommon and unclean increasingly became that which lay outside the household, beyond the family group, ‘and specifically beyond the conjugal pair whose union created the household and whose body fluids were necessarily intermingled.’ … by the seventeenth century in England there was a clear association between purity of food, purity of stock, and elevated social rank. A’mongrel culture’ would be the product of an illicit intimacy, one in which domestic, tribal or social class homogeneity had been invaded by something alien. The upper classes developed luxurious menus, each course carefully distinguished from the others, but the servants ate up the scraps indiscriminately. Thus a ‘hotchpotch’ or a ‘mishmash’ became a sign of servility, of a degenerated social class.

The Independent on Sunday for 6 May 1990 had an article ‘A white man in search of votes’ interviewing two members of the British National Party. In a lively, amusing interview, one of the men ‘. .. admits to eating in Indian restaurants. Mr Smith says “while they’re there, obviously I utilise them.” “Well I don’t!” says Mr Walsh. “And I don’t go to Chinese chip shops and I try not to go to Paki shops to buy papers or drinks … but the night after a load of beer it’s hard not to have a lemonade or something. I don’t mind spaghetti but I’d never go and eat in an Eyetie restaurant. I eat English food. What’s wrong with that?”‘ In order to tell what is English food, Mr Walsh employs what he calls the ‘wall test’. ‘Put a Russian and an Englishman up against the wall and they look pretty much the same. Europeans are all one racial family. I can eat their food.’ The earlier part of this interesting interview brings out the connection between the food of other races and having sexual relationships with foreigners. ‘I looked around and I could see blacks everywhere, taking over. I knew they weren’t the same as-me. .. There is some good looking black girls. But I’d never go with one.’

In syllabuses which draw upon several religions, ‘all faiths are trivialised and faith itself may be destroyed.’ There will then be a need to ‘protect the integrity of Christianity and of other world religions.’ (House of Lords, 21 June 1988, col. 641.) Multi-faith approaches are ‘confusing’ and lead to ‘the destruction of the purity of worship’ (col.642) because ‘the Christian faith should be taught undiluted … lt should not be muddled by trying to teach it with overtones of something else infiltrated into it.’ (col. 660.) There is something rather Protestant about this view of the relations between religions. Johann Baptist Metz has discussed this in his book The Emergent Church: the future of Christianity in a postbourgeois world. ‘The Reformation’s fear of sin became, by gradual degrees, another kind of fear. I call this “fear of contact”, fear of contacting what is of the earth, of the senses, of that bodily, social life within which grace wishes to bestow itself upon us …’ Metz traces this fear of contagion back to what he calls the pathos of pure doctrine, in which the church sought for pure doctrine against the contaminated, worldly and depraved religious life of late mediaeval society. The world came to be seen as infected with worldly compromises. ‘Now, the idea of the “pure” has become bound up with the inward, the spiritual, the non-sensual. lt is a kind of Christianity which tries to convince us that grace is mediated through faith only, through the pure teaching. There is nothing to be touched or handled, and there is a constant threat that close contact will adulterate the integrity of the faith. This in turn bred a fear of becoming enmeshed in “impure, contradictory social conflicts”.’

Before humanity was divided into different races, there were no differences between clean and unclean food. The oldest Genesis tradition is that Adam and Eve were vegetarian.

here had been a conflict between Peter and Paul, because Peter was eating at table with gentile Christians, but when conservative Jewish Christians came to Antioch ‘he drew back and separated himself.’ (Gal 2:12.) As always, distinctions between food become a sort of culinary culture, and express and reinforce distinctions between races and religions.

This is never seen more clearly than in the vision of Peter recorded in Acts chapter 10. Cornelius, a man of another race and another religion, had seen a vision in which he was instructed to send for Peter who would counsel him. While the messengers were coming, Peter was praying. His prayers were interrupted by his hunger. The desire for food which interrupted his spirituality soon led him into a rebirth of spirituality. He ‘fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.’ (Acts 10:10ff.) The sheet was indeed full of a horrifying mishmash…. From now on, holiness was not to be found in observing distinctions, but in overcoming them. There is no doubt that this disregard for purity of separation goes back to Jesus himself…. Jesus offered a new view of religious identity, one which is not threatened by contagion or contamination from the outside but one which is sustained by the intentions of the heart as these affect actions in relations between people. ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into someone from outside cannot defile them, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and so passes on?’ Thus he declared all foods clean. And he said ‘What comes out is what defiles someone. For from within, out of someone’s heart, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile you.’

The different brand labels must remain unique and separate for purposes of image and loyalty, and no contamination of other brand labels must mar this. The very process, however, makes it abundantly clear that there are various brand loyalties on the market. The separateness and the distinctiveness supposes a relationship which, precisely because it refuses to enter into dialogue, is bound to enter into competition. As in the apartheid politics of South Africa, so in the totality approach to the religious education curriculum in Britain: when communities are rigidly separated they end up by devouring each other.

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