University Theology and Religion Departments. Ok, ok, I’ll give you a second to snigger to yourselves and imagine lots of strange-looking, tweed clad men smoking pipes in the corner of a lecture room. But surprisingly Theology and Religious Studies has become pretty cool of late. I suppose we have Dan Brown and the conspiracy theorists to thank for that. Just try going into your local pub and starting a conversation with the locals about God, heaven, what happens to bad guys when they die, how the universe began etc and before long you will have folk standing on the tables and ranting at each other. I’ve seen close ‘theology is booooring’ friends come to blows during these discussions and loved-up married couples at each others throats. It’s great sport if you’re bored one evening...
Besides, anyone who says that Theology and Religion is uncool has me to answer to. I have a BA and PhD in Theology from The University of Birmingham and I’m far from a weirdo! And, horror of horrors, I’m not at all religious. I have an interest in the area, but that doesn’t mean that I subscribe to everything that I study in the same way that studying World War II doesn’t make you a Nazi SS officer.
But the academic study of theology and religion has taken a bullet recently as cuts in higher education have led to reports of staff reductions and the planned closure of some Religious Studies departments. Recently my colleagues and I were (willingly) forced to rally round and attempt to save Sheffield University staff from losing their Biblical Studies department. The support on the Internet for Sheffield BS Department was overwhelming; a Facebook group was started, many BS bloggers blogged their disgust on the matter and a number of emails were sent to the Vice Chancellor. Thankfully, in this case, the department was saved.
Biblical Studies appears to be a soft target for cost cutting and yes, while it’s not exactly carrying out cutting-edge research into cancer fighting treatments, it is a real, tangible subject area with a dynamic publication rate and a huge scholarly base. Besides, I worry that if we keep beating the beast long enough, it’s going to die. Biblical Studies, and maybe Theology in general at this rate, will cease to be taught and it will become one of those weird and arcane sounding subject areas that were taught in the Universities of the Italian Renaissance. So why should we continue to promote the teaching of Theology and Religion in Universities? To begin with, let’s address some misnomers about the subject...
Is the study of theology boring?
No. Not all theologians are dusty professors or geeky, nose-in-bible students. Yes, there are one or two stereotypes haunting the corridors, but by and large things are far from what you might expect. The modern theology student is indistinguishable from his/her fellow student studying in other academic disciplines and Theology lecturers are as friendly and approachable as the next professor. I graduated with a PhD in Theology three years ago, so do I consider myself to be dusty and outdated? Hell no. Would I spend six years studying a subject that I found boring? Hell no. Did I enjoy my studies at The University of Birmingham and explore University life to the full as much as I would have experienced it in any other department? Hell yes!
Is the study of theology relevant?
Could it *be* any more relevant?! Switch on a prime-time news programme and count how many times the words ‘faith’, ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ are mentioned. It is an in-your-face-daily hot topic. And it’s not just a local issue, it’s a global issue. A basic understanding of religion and religions is indispensable knowledge for anyone functioning within a contemporary, multicultural society and an awareness of cultural sensitivities is an essential tool, particularly for the modern businessman or businesswoman who may communicate with unfamiliar cultures and needs to avoid making any offensive, deal-breaking gaffs.
Should theology still be taught within Universities?
Yes! Why would any academic institution that prides itself on training the next generation of serious thinkers and intellectuals bloody its own nose by eliminating one of its most cerebral subject areas? And particularly now that there is a monster on the horizon that is threatening academia in general...
Any self-respecting cultural commentator will agree that teenagers are becoming increasingly brainwashed by the Glee-factor. ‘Making it’ isn’t about being the best in your field or making headway in research anymore. It’s not even about switching on your brain in the morning. It’s about getting that big break in showbiz, belting out a ballad for Simon Cowell or street dancing on reality TV. Or when academic study is absolutely unavoidable, teens are attracted to subjects that might - *might*- lead on to a big break in the TV, movie, fashion or beauty industry. No matter how you feel about Theology and Religion as a research area, you must admit that the rise of new, numbskull, ‘leave your brain at the door’ degrees (especially the ‘Heath and Beauty’–esque/new media degrees) give you an urge to scratch out your own eyes....
In a society where our kids are being encouraged to shun traditional academic study and instead ‘follow their dreams’ (most often blindly down the drain) surely any academic subject – regardless of its specific content – should be encouraged and supported to the hilt rather than having its wings clipped?! Being a student of Theology says to the world 'hello, I have a brain and I know how to use it. And not just for storing information and learning patterns, but for thinking critically and creatively too'. We need to keep our kids brains ticking over…at all costs!
There is so much more to say. I could go on to sing the praises (excuse the pun) of the interdisciplinary aspect of theological research, or expound on the benefits of true critical thinking, or reminisce on how lovely the folk at Birmingham were to me during my studies, but I’ll stop here before I get ranty (and for the record, I don't belong to any religious faith so I do not have an axe to grind in that sense). But don’t just take my word for it…
This blog post is a shout-out to all the theologians out there. A show of unity between academics and students alike contributed to the survival of the University of Sheffield’s Biblical Studies department when it was threatened with closure. It was a warning shot over the bow, if you like, for any predatory cost-cutters swinging the axe over other theology departments within the UK. Since the vultures are once again circulating over theology departments across the country, now is your opportunity to tell the blogosphere - and any budding theology students out there - why the study of theology is a worthwhile exercise and why it should remain firmly within the Academy. Please scroll down and post below your reasoning, observations, anecdotes, links and pithy sales patter that you reel out at open days (!) explaining why you feel that theology is a valuable academic subject. You can be a serious academic, a student or a keen amateur in the field. Submissions can be anonymous or please add your name if you would like to be credited. Hopefully a united discussion will provide the rationale for return fire the next time an academic institution hovers precariously over the ‘delete theology’ button…
I’m not a massive Star Wars geek but this silent film version of the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker face-off in The Empire Strikes Back complete with jerky projection speed and dramatic piano accompaniment made me smile. George Lucas should re-edit and re-release the whole series like this!
There is no doubt that Gok Wan has made revolutionary improvements in the body confidence of both men and women across the UK. Plus his Twitter feed makes me giggle at least once a day. So I do not intend to trigger any kind of backlash against him and his fantastic ‘munter-to-stunner’ stylings. However, I couldn’t help but wince a little when I heard about his latest body confidence campaign.
Gok has been running an ongoing campaign and petitioning the government to add a weekly, one-hour body confidence class to the school curriculum. According to Gok a ‘lack of body confidence has become a national epidemic among British teenagers.’ I admire Gok and will continue to support him with his fashion endeavours, but I suspect that teaching body confidence in schools will end up inflicting more damage on our kids in the long run. Here’s why…
Are young girls really insecure about their appearance?
So you’re telling me that a high percentage of young girls feel unconfident about their appearance? Are you kidding me?! Try telling that to the giggling, glammed-up girls in tiny, lycra skirts and mega tight shirts that pile onto the bus outside my local school. Or the slap-laden teens in the city centre clubs, squeezed into tiny glitzy dresses and throwing themselves at anything male in the vicinity. You’re telling me that they have body issues?! C’mon. Give these girls any more body confidence and they’ll be standing on the street corners at night looking for business. There is no way on God’s little green earth that these girls have body confidence issues.
Dissatisfaction with our appearance is in vogue
Teens appear to be very confident and yet 70% of them claim that they have little or no body confidence. Why is that so? Here’s the thing; we have become so obsessed recently with embracing our bodies warts-and-all that it has become cool to emphasise our shortcomings and lament that we are unsatisfied with our appearance. It’s cool to point out our lumps and bumps and whine that we need cosmetic surgery or complain about how much makeup we need to pile on each morning before leaving the house. No-one wants to be the smarmy, self-confident girl who says ‘well, actually, I’m quite happy with the way I look, thank you’. If you are truly satisfied with your appearance then you are a social pariah. That’s why a class of schoolgirls all raise their hand when asked how many of them lack body confidence. If each of those girls looked like Megan Fox then they would still complain that they were ugly!
The embarrassment of confronting the problem
It is clear, however, that within any focus group there will be a small percentage of girls who have genuine body confidence issues. But I’m not sure that Gok’s campaign will be of any help to them. In fact I think it might cause them to feel even more insecure. When I was a teenager I suffered with the same insecurities about my appearance as every other girl in my class, regardless of whether they were drop-dead gorgeous or out-and-out ugly. Everyone went through the same phase. Now if someone, like Gok, had gushed at me that I looked beautiful then I would have been very offended and most probably punched him in the nose for being patronising. And I would certainly have been absolutely devastated if we had been forced to take a class on the subject! It would have been classroom based, teacher led bullying! I would have been so delighted to make lists of my insecurities on the board in front of my classmates! And I would have been thrilled to sit in small groups and discuss them in-depth with my friends! Why not go the whole hog and have a class exploring why some kids are thicker than others?!
The truth is that girls with genuine body confidence issues do not want their shortcomings pointed out in front of their peers.
Insecurity as a natural part of puberty
What is the problem with letting a natural stage of human development take its course? Childhood and puberty has entailed wrestling with body confidence issues since the dawn of time and the human race has somehow managed to prosper. We haven’t all withered away in caves afraid to go out in public and find a mate! We all grow in confidence naturally without the need for an artificial shove along the track.
Learning to accept what nature has given us
When I was at school there were attractive girls and there were unattractive girls, in the same way that there were smart girls and dim girls, or athletic girls and unfit girls. We accepted that life had dealt us our hand. We knew that we couldn’t all go to University or be picked for the basketball team. Everyone knew their place and life ticked along pretty fine.
If truth be told, the sooner that we realise that nature will always be been kinder to some more than others, accept that and come to terms with it the better. Gok’s campaign smacks of the school rule that all kids must win a prize at sports day so that no-one feels like a loser, or government drives that all school leavers must get a place at University so that no-one feels that they have inferior intelligence. Life doesn’t work like that. We need to know our strengths and failings before we hit adult-life and get a horrific wake-up call.
Encouraging our kids to grow up too fast
We’re constantly being scolded for encouraging our kids to grow up too quickly. We criticise shops for selling bras to very young girls but we never question where the demand for these products originates from. Is it the evil shop salesperson or stock buyer? Or is the media putting the idea that young girls need cosmetics, high heels and bras into their parent’s minds? I understood that society was trying to prevent this growing trend? And am I the only person who finds telling a teenager that she is attractive a little bit creepy?
Maybe the lack of body confidence that accompanies puberty is Mother Nature’s method of ensuring that young girls do not turn into the ultra body confident, tarted-up jailbait flirting with the boys at the school gates that is rapidly becoming the norm. Maybe Gok should ask himself whether a lack of body confidence is nature’s way of safeguarding our children rather than repressing them after all?
Today is one year exactly to the day that I broke my arm. All together now…
‘Happy birthday to you,
happy birthday to you,
happy birthday dear surgical plate cyborg jobby,
happy birthday to you!’
The physiotherapy sessions continue unabated, but I suspect that my therapist may be taking it a little too easy with me these days. Just take a look at one exercise from my new set of daily exercises. Two to three repetitions, three times a day?! I’m pretty sure I can do this one all night long…