Tales from a rich tradition

16th February 1996 at 00:00
TALES OF HEAVEN AND EARTH SERIES. Jesus Sat Down and Said . . .

By Gerard Bessire I'll Tell you a Story By Marc-Alain Ouaknin Children of the Moon By Christian Rudel The Prince Who Became a Beggar By Amina Okada Moonlight Publishing Pounds 6.99 each Age range 7 to 11

David Self reviews a series of stories from world religions translated from French

Bland is not the word for this series. Despite their uniform (and handsome) format, each book is distinctive in tone and (one feels) comes from within its own tradition. Thus the Jewish one looks and sounds decidedly Jewish, the Buddhist one unequivocally Asian and so on.

In fact, they are all translations from the French, but they are by specialists in their fields rather than by one jobbing writer. The resulting richness of text may therefore surprise some teachers more used to information books that have been edited or even sanitised by British publishers to standards they think appropriate for given age groups (in this case, judging by the books' visual style, seven to 11).

Take the well-known story of how Prince Siddharta left his palace to become a wandering beggar and find enlightenment as the Buddha. This re-telling, The Prince Who Became a Beggar, includes Siddharta's need for a wife when he's 16, his temptations by monsters with "mountainous bellies" and "lascivious dances" performed by the demons Desire, Pleasure and Passion. All part of the original Indian story, of course, but not normally emphasised for this age group.

The Jewish volume, I'll Tell You a Story, is a collection of six non-biblical tales ranging from the ancient oral tradition of the Talmud to 18th-century Russia and from Solomon to the anti-semitic massacres in 16th-century Prague. Its success lies not just in the power of the writing but in the links that bind the tales into a continuing history of one people.

This is done especially through the marginal "asides" and backnotes that are provided in all the volumes and which in this case show how the Babylonian exile, Roman occupation, the diaspora, crusades, pogroms and holocaust (or "Shoah") are all epic tragedies in the one story of a people and their Promised Land.

For many readers, Jesus Sat Down and Said . . . will be the most accessible volume in that it is simply a reworking of the best known parables told by Jesus. It is not a biography but it is framed with a narrative format: it starts with Jesus setting out on his three-year mission and ends with the crucifixion and resurrection. Some Christians will query the lack of any emphasis on the belief that he is the Son of God. My main problem is with the title which positively provokes me to complete it in a less than devout manner.

I've greater doubts about Children of the Moon in that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority doesn't allow much space for a study of Yanomami tribal religions. The plight of these peoples of the Amazonian basin is well worth studying but it probably is more easily tackled in projects on rain forests than in more formal RE. And even then, and while respecting their way of life, I'm not sure it's a totally good idea to cherish their sado-masochistic rites of passage or their habit of blowing hallucinogenic powders into one another's nostrils through bamboo tubes. Not in primary schools anyway.

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