Humankind's most profound beliefs have always needed myths to make them memorable and moving. Abstract articles of faith are more easily understood if they are explained by means of stories. And, as anyone who has struggled to answer a child's questions about God knows, the simple truths of the world's great religions can prove surprisingly hard to grasp.
With Animated World Faiths, 10 programmes in the religious education strand Quest, primary children are treated to a variety of stories ranging from the lives of Christ, Muhammad and Moses, to Buddha, Krishna and Confucius; from the life of Guru Nanak (Sikhism) to the Ramayana (Hinduism) and the Conference of Birds (Sufism).
Made by the producers of Animated Shakespeare and Testament, each programme has a different visual style and uses a different type of animation, from quaint drawings to puppets and models. Aptly enough for a series that travels around the world, the programmes were created in countries as diverse as Poland, India, Hungary and Wales.
One of the most successful is "The Life of Confucius" (February 10), which has exciting battle sequences as well as more mellow scenes of spiritual teaching. The puppets are well characterised and the story clearly told. His message of "respect" and his aphorisms, such as "To learn you must question", may stimulate older pupils, though his awareness of failure at the end of a long life could need more careful explanation.
In the teacher's guide, the teachings of Confucius (or K'ung Chiu in Chinese) are applied to the school life of today's pupils. His ideas about guiding people with moral virtue rather than by obeying rules are illustrated by the suggestion: "Ask your teacher for a copy of the school rules. Do you think they are reasonable? Fair?" That should get a classroom discussion going.
Most ambitious of all the 15-minute programmes is "Moses and the Passover Meal". Set in the present, with Grandad - a former Auschwitz prisoner - explaining the symbolism of the meal, it covers Bible history, the Holocaust and traditional Judaic practice. The idea of showing the Jewish faith by means of a child asking questions is a good one, but puts a strain on the short time available. Also, the animation is too arty, so while the film is vivid, the narrative and images are rather confused.
Channel 4 has done an exemplary job in consulting with representatives of all the faiths in order to make the films both correct and uncontroversial. For the one on the Muslim faith, Channel 4 consulted Dr Mashuq Ally, former director of the University of Wales's Centre for Islamic Studies. "It's a sincere and noble effort. For once a television channel has consulted with the Muslim community before broadcasting," he says.
"This film is not a documen-tary, but shows a series of events that reflect the values of Islam. It is restrained - neither the Prop-het nor his family are shown."
While it may be difficult to use Animated World Faiths with children in the younger part of the target age range, there should not be any problems with the sensibilities of their parents. Teachers will find that the series is a positive step to greater awareness of the different faiths that flourish in Britain today.
Teacher's guide Pounds 3.95, and eight story books (one for each faith) Pounds 5.95 from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436555