Facts, faith and festive spirits
Chris Arthur looks at the rich diversity of the world's religious festivals Assessed on their illustrations alone, this series could be described as excellent. Not only do the pictures give a sense of the colour and energy which is so important a part of celebrating festivals, but they manage to strike a good balance between ancient and contemporary sources and display a sensitivity to the variety of forms in which each religion occurs. As a means of conveying the sheer vitality, exuberance and diversity of religious life, the books provide a first rate resource.
Mostly, the text matches the high standard set by the pictures. Hindu Festivals offers a good analogy for understanding this religion as a whole by likening it to a tree. The way in which all the senses are involved in celebrating Holi is effectively highlighted and the meaning of the Shiva lingam, a potential classroom minefield, is sensibly handled. It is a shame, though, that the "A Closer Look" section merely repeats rather than takes the opportunity to expand. This is a failing of each book in the series and one is left puzzled about why a second look has been allowed to masquerade as going into things in more detail.
Buddhist Festivals certainly matches the overall high standard of pictorial material. But the map on page 8 is seriously misleading. According to the key, India and Indonesia contain "pockets of Christianity". This is true enough, but it is surely more important to make clear that their major religious groups are Hinduism and Islam. The colour in the diagram on page 9 is in fact purple (though described as maroon), and it is confusing to read that on Sangha Day everyone wears red when the accompanying illustration shows no one dressed in this colour. Although Mara is mentioned, no proper explanation of this figure is given (he is, very roughly, the Buddhist equivalent of Satan).
Jewish Festivals and Christian Festivals are perhaps the most satisfactory in the series. It might have been appropriate, though, to have mentioned false messiahs and the Christian acceptance of Christ in the section in Jewish Festivals where the concept of messiah is raised. Anticipating readers who are unfamiliar with church-related life in Britain, who the Brownies are should have been explained (or included in the glossary) in Christian Festivals, the opening unit of which is, incidentally, too ambitious in its claim to tell readers "who Christians are and what they believe".
Islamic Festivals would have benefited from a closer checking to ensure a descriptive tone. To say that "this unit tells you about the final book of guidance", or that "these are pages of the Qur'an - Allah's words", is to fail to distinguish between fact and faith. Likewise in Sikh Festivals, to say that Guru Nanak "taught people the truth about the God" is carelessly partisan.
The difference between Sikh and Hindu celebrations of Divali might have been explained, and the map on page 9 is significantly flawed by its curious omission of Pakistan.
By and large this is a good series which will help to introduce religions via their approach to festivals. It would be useful, though, if the text was tightened up in any future editions so that it was brought into line with the admirably high standard set by the pictures.
Chris Arthur is a senior lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Wales, Lampeter