But first the story

4th December 1998 at 00:00
THE LION GRAPHIC BIBLE. By Jeff Anderson and Mike Maddox. Lion. Pounds 20.

THE NEW LION ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF THE BIBLE. Edited by John Drane. Lion. Pounds 2O until 31 January 1999, then Pounds 25. THE ATLAS OF THE BIBLE LANDS. By Andrea Due. Macdonald Young Books. Pounds 10.99.

THE USBORNE CHILDREN'S BIBLE. By Heather Amery and Linda Edwards. Usborne.Pounds 12.99. There was surprise earlier this year when the Oxford publishing company Lion did not make an appearance at the annual Christian Resources Exhibition, where previously it has been one of the largest contributors. The reason? The company does not want to be identified only within a religious market just because it publishes books on religion. But will Lion be able to overcome the strange quirk within contemporary British culture whereby not being religious somehow inhibits learning from or about religion?

It was Ted Hughes, in a 1970 essay, "Myth and Education", who, taking the Christ story as his example, talked of the child entering and leaving such a story at will, walking around within it, discovering deeper and deeper meaning as time went by, only pausing to add, "But first, the child must know the story".

The Lion Graphic Bible will almost certainly upset some conventionalists,but it stands an excellent chance of attracting those non-readers, especially boys in the nine to 13 age group, who would rather die than be seen reading Bible stories.

A generation which now gets most of its information from visual imagery rather than the printed word is a generation which has returned to the equivalent of the stained-glass window. This is what Jeff Anderson's art work supplies. His style is racy and action-packed but is not sensation-seeking for its own sake and, within the facial expressions, there is much gazing beyond.

Similarly, Mike Maddox's text seeks, where appropriate, to express inner thoughts, aspiration, vision and reflection. There is no "dumbing down" and no simple extraction of the juicy bits. The stories of Ruth and Job are here as well as the battles of the Israelites; the dream world of Revelation as well as the slaughter of the innocents.

If it is not always clear when a story is assumed to be factually true and when it is the expression of a truth through narrative or poetic form, one assumes there will be a teacher on hand to differentiate. And if that is wishful thinking, then the same publisher has produced the necessary resource in The New Lion Encyclopaedia of the Bible, edited by John Drane, who lectures in theology at Aberdeen University.

Superbly illustrated and comprehensive in its scope, this book is a must for every school library. It consists of seven colour-coded sections: an Outline of Bible History, Peoples and Empires, The World of the Bible, Religion and Worship, the Life and Teaching of Jesus, the Bible - Book by Book (yes, all 66), and a helpful Rapid Factfinder.

The text, although perhaps a little over-cautious at times, is fair, balanced, comprehensive and relevant. The books of Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah and Jonah, for example, are all seen to be involved in the central issue of ethnic cleansing and the calls for serious engagement with the "people of the land". Relevant? Has anything of lasting significance changed in the land of Israel - and anywhere else for that matter - over the past two thousand years?

Macdonald's new The Atlas of the Bible Lands is also beautifully illustrated and well written. If it is thinner in its scope, it is also broader - its story extending beyond Bible times right up to the present day, culminating in the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the wide-armed embrace of President Clinton.

Usborne's Children's Bible represents a more traditional approach. Its format is bright and attractive, but both text and border illustrations, while having a certain charm, are somewhat bland - even camels smile or look cross. Any children weaned on this will need to find the Graphic Bible by the age of eight or risk dismissing as childish one of the great foundation stories of our civilisation.

Jack PriestlEy Jack Priestley is a research fellow at the University of Exeter, School of Education Religious education

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