07 January 2010

On God, Mao and Pooh

I recently spent some time shopping for a children's book on religion. As a) the only theologian most of my friends, or their friends, or their friends' friends have ever encountered and b) an unrepentant atheist, I seem to be considered a safe bet to ask any and all questions on matters of deities, spirituality and the inner mysteries of the Priory of Sion without fear of encouraging hordes of neatly dressed and well manicured young men from Utah to descend upon one's doorstep in search of glasses of water, a nice chat and one's immortal soul.

At a recent winter solstice party I was asked by two friends if I could recommend a book that would explain how Judaism, Christianity and Islam arose, the differences between them, and why people believe in one religion or god over another, all suitable for their five year old. Of course I instantly recommended Mircea Eliade's three volume work "A History of Religious Ideas", which despite Eliade's pre-War engagement in far-right Romanian politics and later view of the positive triumphalism of Christianity, is still an excellent place to start for an overview of Comparative Religion.

As you can see my grasp of the abilities of the average five year old is somewhat tenuous, but I take some solace in the fact that I did not also proffer my second choice of Hans Küng's slightly more dense tomes "Judaism", "Christianity" and the more recent and rather unexpectedly titled final volume, "Islam", a mere 2,456 combined pages of reading-on-the-bus Teutonic-y goodness.

Still, better than the time I tried to explain the concept of 'commuting' and 'work/life balance' to their child through the medium of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Taking their blank stares and forced smiles to heart I resolved to find something more suitable, and was somewhat surprised by the difficulty of this task. While there are many, many books on religion for children, they all seem to be on the subject of the right religion for children, as in "Mommy, why are our neighbours going to hell?", "Will Patches be taken in the Rapture too?", "What's the problem with Unitarians?" and so forth. Finding something from a purely academic, non-judgmental, non-proselytizing background that simply answered a child's questions on what religion was, why people believed in stuff and what stuff did they believe in, without labeling any of it as "wrong", "misguided" or "deviant" proved problematic, and for a while Küng was starting to edge back into the frame.

After far too much time immersed in the murky world of true-believers I finally found "The Story of Religion". An out-of-print book by the husband and wife writer/illustrator team of Betsy and Giulio Maestro, the creators of a series of children's books on such diverse subjects as 'how apples grow' and 'the moral justification of the use of violence as a political tool in the overthrowing of British colonial oppressors', this seemed much more up my street. I ordered the book and took a good look through to check the suitability of its content before presenting it last night to my somewhat incredulous friend, who accepted it with good grace and pleasure that almost masked his feelings of terror and "seriously dude I was just making polite conversation with you, you're creeping me out with the amount of time you've spent on this".

Job done.

Children's books are a tricky thing, balancing the authour's and/or parents' desire to educate with the ability of the child to grasp complex ideas, though apparently anthropomorphic animals and the occasional reference to poo help considerably. While engendering a positive and non-discriminatory worldview toward religions would not be the highest item on the list in my own Reeducation Camps (because, as Dawkins the Dog says, "all religions are wrong and stupid", isn't that right Billy?), the idea of imparting an ethic of sustainability and anti-consumerism in a child at an early age through reading, or at least attempting to combat the materialistic messaging that bombards them from all angles, is appealing.

While my friends are increasingly unlikely to allow me to continue to experiment with their child's intellectual development, I do have a similarly aged cousin who is probably due a Christmas/birthday/who-the-hell-are-you-and-why-are-you-sending-me-books present from their favourite Unkie (yes, even my cousins call me Unkie Dave, I'm sooooo old) and thus I will spend some time over the coming days investigating progressive, unashamedly anarcho-syndicalist or even just solid radical left/green children's literature, and if it does not exist I might just have a go at making my own.

In the mean time I leave you with an excerpt from The Mao of Pooh, a series of short children's tales encapsulating the wisdom of the little Red Book as experienced by a certain honey-loving bear and his revolutionary peasant friends, as written some years ago by Raj Patel and chums as part of their now-defunct post-Oxbridge online socialist journal, 'Voice of the Turtle':
Chapter 1 - "All reactionaries are paper tigers"

In which Pooh discovers the dual nature of his best friend Tigger


One day, Pooh Bear was wandering through One Hundred Acre Wood, when he came across his best friend Tigger.

"Let one hundred flowers bloom in One Hundred Acre Wood", Pooh said.

"My, what a lot of flowers that would be", said Tigger.

Scratching his tummy, Pooh felt that it was time for a little something.

"You wouldn't", Pooh asked in full throated solidarity, "have a little something for elevensies, would you Tigger?"

"But of course", replied Tigger. "I have -- and don't tell that Kanga, or Roo, or especially Eeyore -- a pot or two of Munny".

"Munny?" asked Pooh, a little confused by the idea of promisory notes.

"Yes! Pots of munny!"

"Um, is money sweet?"

"Sweeter than honey!", exclaimed Tigger, licking his lips in a predatory way.

"Goodness!" said Pooh, excited in a bear-discovers-something-sweeter-than-honey sort of way.

And so they set off for Tigger's house.

Imagine Pooh's surprise when Tigger proudly displayed his pots of money.

"Well, they're not quite pots," explained Tigger hastily. "They're futures on pots. And although they smell like paper at the moment, they'll smell much sweeter soon. Next month, the price of pots doing what they are, I'll have more pots than sense".

"How many pots will you have?" asked Pooh, discounting the future somewhat.

"Three", said Tigger.

And so it was that Pooh discovered that his friend Tigger was merely the representative of a reactionary class, and needed to be overthrown.

The lesson of the story was that from a long-term point of view, all reactionaries are paper tigers. It is not Tigger but Pooh as the embodiment of the will of the people who is really powerful.

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