Religious education

28th April 2000 at 01:00
ATLAS OF THE WORLD'S RELIGIONS. Edited by Ninian Smart. Oxford. pound;30

THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY. By Michael Collins and Matthew A Price. Dorling Kindersley. pound;20

From Neolithic fertility rites to the collapse of Marxism, from the Pyramids and Stonehenge to the still-disputed Gaza Strip, the impressive Atlas of the World's Religions provides an illuminating overview of the migrations, wars and convictions that have shaped and spread both major and minor faiths around the world.

It consists of some 200 double-page spreads each offering maps, illustrations, time lines and essays. Of these spreads, two introductory ones illustrate the present-day influence of the faiths. A further seven provide an historical perspective of the development of organised religion from the early city civilisations of Mesopotamia up to modern New Age philosophies.

The main section of the atlas then separately charts the evolution of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as the beliefs of the classical world and those of East Asian, African and other indigenous traditions from the Arctic to Polynesia.

Some users will feel that Sikhism is poorly served. There might also have been more on the Russian Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. Nor is the text exactly populist although unusual terms, such as haruspicy, are explained (it's the reading of animal entrails). Nevertheless, this handsome atlas will prove an attractive addition to frther education reference libraries and the shelves of affluent RE specialists.

When mainstream (that is, non-Christian) publishers commission religious information books, they often adopt a multi-faith approach. Dorling Kindersley however appreciate the American market for their Christian titles and this lavish coffee-table book, The Story of Christianity, has been carefully planned for readers both sides of the Atlantic.

Written by an Irish Catholic and a Tennessee Protestant, it is also neatly ecumenical as it tells the story of the Christian faith from its Old Testament roots to its adoption as the religion of the Roman Empire, its switchback ride through the Crusades, Renaissance and Reformation - and its subsequent development as a world faith.

The authors are good on the Orthodox Church and honest about the flaws, greed and conflicts that have disfigured Christian history. They write with clarity but also from a confessional standpoint: "The Churches' mission remains the same as ever: to preach the gospel until Christ's return."

The book is profusely illustrated, though some captions to the many reproductions of classic paintings might have placed the works in context. For, while providing any student of church history with an introduction to the subject, this book will also be a valuable guide to art students who wish to learn about the faith that has inspired so many painters, sculptors and builders.

David Self

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