When hell is just a plane-ride away

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WATCHING the news this week with three small children has been a harrowing experience. Especially when contemplating the death by fire of so many helpless infants at Waco. As I field questions from my under-10s along the lines of 'What is a cult?', and 'Why did so many people from Britain go there if the leader was a loony?', I have been trying to find some beneficial lessons, some moral pointers to extract from these horrific images. For once, the term hell-fire seems entirely appropriate.

I have been concerned to use Waco, and the ghastly false prophet David Koresh, as a warning of the dangers of cults, religious nutcases and extremists, who seek to recruit and dominate vulnerable people by robbing them of their individuality, reason and family.

This is the lesson I have been quietly trying to reinforce in my sitting-room and why I have been encouraging my eldest daughter, in particular, to read reports in the tabloid newspapers, the short paragraphs and sensational headlines of which hold great appeal for children.

The best that can be said for the Waco experience is that it may act as a form of inoculation. I hope it will produce in the rising generation a lifelong crop of vigorous antibodies that will stand them in good stead if they are ever confronted with spiritual hard sells, from whatever quarter.

For what Waco shows is that even if Koresh, stymied by our tough gun laws, could never have built up an armed fortress here, there is no reason why gullible recruits cannot be attracted from suburban homes to foreign cults. When hell is a plane-ride away, we should never drop our guard.

My concern springs partly from the experience of personal loss. One of the brightest and nicest students of my year at university, the child of a headmaster and a loving home, became a Moonie and dropped out of a degree course to proselytise in the city shopping centre. Then he disappeared for good - with a beatific brainwashed smile on his face.

Recently, I have been watching other parents, older than me, wrestling with strange problems. One has a son who became a rampant evangelical Muslim. Others have children dabbling in New Age mysticism, or, more conventionally, trying out Buddhism. This is making me think hard about the spiritual gaps in our children's upbringing.

I fear that one day these may be filled by quasi-religious theories. Let's face it, we are raising children in a purely materialistic manner, and a generation shaped by the challenges and shortcomings of Nintendo and Sega - and, yes, my children play them ceaselessly, too - may well find that strange religious beliefs become truly exotic over time.

There is nothing that compares with becoming a parent to make you rethink the fundamentals of life. If pushed, I would regard myself as an agnostic but with a church background that has left me with a growing respect and appreciation for genuine Christian teaching and values. In fact, I feel profoundly sorry that the Church of England is so distracted by the issue of women priests at a time when huge moral problems and opportunities abound.

Because of this unwillingness to rule anything out, I am trying to bring up my children with a dose of what I can only describe as light-touch Christianity. They are baptised (this is one of the first dilemmas of parenthood) and attend church services, reluctantly, about once a month.

But what I have found to my surprise is that the Ladybird Bible Storybook, which tells Old and New Testament stories in simple, vivid language, can grip them just as much as the Ahlbergs, let alone the tabloid press. If Waco provides a useful inoculation, I am hoping that this less dramatic input will provide them with some sort of long-term spiritual ballast.

Of course, it is impossible to know exactly which messages and influences are absorbed by children, or how. All I know is that the more effort you make, the better.

Two examples. After taking my seven-year-old daughter around the Egyptian relics at the British Museum, I overheard her telling friends: 'They believed God was a big stone, shaped like a beetle. We know he is everywhere, don't we?' On the other hand, my three- year-old at her convent nursery, when scolded for small misdemeanours, shrugs her shoulders and says, even at such a tender age: 'Well, that's how God made me.'