The Big Picture Family Devotional
David R. Helm, ed.
It’s no secret how I feel about The Big Picture Story Bible. It remains my four-year-old’s favorite bedtime read, and it’s often one of the first gifts I give to new parents. So obviously I was interested when the good folks at Crossway let us know they were publishing a related devotional last summer, and grateful to them for sending me a copy to peruse.
The Big Picture Family Devotional grew out of the work by members of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, who wanted to develop family devotional material that traced the storyline of the Bible – the “big picture” of salvation history. (Editor and founding pastor of Holy Trinity David Helm notes in the introduction that this was the genesis of the story Bible as well.)
The book itself is organized around “forty-five big picture verses that function as windows through which we gaze at God’s unfolding promise”: in the old tradition of catechesis, the book is divided into forty-five “questions,” each of which is answered by a memory verse. Each question is spread over three days. On each day you ask the question (i.e., “How did Abraham respond to the Lord’s word?”), respond by practicing the memory verse (“Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness,” Gen 15:6), and then read a related passage of Scripture and a short devotional paragraph. By the end of the three days, the verse should be memorized AND the question will have been considered in some Scriptural depth — so the question about Abraham includes devotional readings from Romans 4 and Galatians 3. It’s a wonderful structure for children ages 6 to 10, as they begin to encounter Scripture itself, as it provides an overarching structure to organize their experience of the Bible as God’s story for us.
If you’re familiar with The Big Picture Story Bible, you’ll quickly recognize the major themes: God creates a place and a people; God’s people reject him and are sent out from his place; God creates a new people and gives them a new place in his promises to Israel; these people too reject God as King; Jesus arrives as God’s promised king AND place who makes it possible for us to live as God’s people. As an introduction to the grand sweep of Scripture, the devotional is a wonderful teaching tool. Whether you work through it over the course of a year (as the editor suggests) or more quickly, say from Lent through Pentecost, children will see Scripture as a grand, rich, and interconnected story that is the beautiful work of a loving God.
However, I have a confession to make. While I love the structure, I find the overall quality of the written reflections, well, uneven. It’s entirely possible that I am being a theological perfectionist, but some of the reflections and response questions frankly give me serious pause. Question 33, for instance:
Q: Who is the only way to God?
A: Jesus said, “…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
All well and good. This is cornerstone, Christianity-101 stuff. And it makes sense to point out that this is one of Jesus’ harder sayings, that it’s especially challenging in our time and place, and to observe “that is tough for people to swallow.” However, I would just skip the reflection question that follows: “There is a phrase that says ‘You gotta take the good with the bad.’ Do you understand what it means? How does that relate to our big picture verse for this week?”
Wait, WHAT? I don’t think the question is suggesting that Jesus’ words about being the way are the “bad” we have to take with the “good” of the gospel, only that that’s how some people experience it. But already the verse is being framed as controversial, confrontational, and something people have to just swallow if they want to follow Jesus, rather than the very good Christological news that it actually is: of course Jesus is the only way to God, because he is the God-man, the Son of God incarnate. I would much rather my kids understand that verse in light of the old twin poles of atonement: only God can save, and what has not been assumed (broken human nature) cannot be healed. And only Jesus is both God and man, so only Jesus can save. Rather than a barrier to evangelism (or worse, yet, a bludgeon), this verse should make us urgently want to introduce people to Jesus as the only one powerful enough to save their lives!
Theologically picky? Maybe. But I wouldn’t write about theological kidlit if I didn’t think the words we choose to talk about theology with our children really matter, and that it’s important to pay close attention to how the words we choose shade our gospel presentation.
There are other sentences, and in once case even entire reflections, in The Big Picture Family Devotional that, to be perfectly honest, I will probably edit or flat out skip/re-write when going through it with my children. For example: instead of reading to them (from question 11, about Abraham’s response to God’s call) that “Abraham’s faith pleased God. God will be very pleased with you too if you trust that his words are true,” I will say something like “Because he had faith, God named Abraham righteous. And remember: when God names things, he makes them into what he has named! His words are powerful! If you have faith and trust that he is good, in Jesus, he will call you righteous too – give you his very Spirit and bring you into communion with him.” Faith isn’t about making God happy with us (“pleasing” God), it’s about accepting his gift of a new, righteous identity in Christ. It’s nothing we do; it’s accepting something being done to us. Daily my children have teachers, coaches, and friends to please. God’s pleasure is of another sort altogether, and we need to remember that when we tell our kids how to “please” God. Words matter, and in such essentials I don’t want to muddy my children’s understanding with language about making God happy with them.
So: given these kinds of reservations, why am I reviewing and recommending this book? Well, because despite my hesitations about some of the reflections, I absolutely love the structure and organization of this book. It’s unparalleled in the scope of what it’s trying to do: take children through the big picture of Scripture, help them to see its interconnected themes, memorize in a way that puts the grand narrative of God’s story at their fingertips, and to see this whole, giant, ancient compilation as a living word that breathes life and hope. I’m more than willing to ad lib, edit, and rephrase some devotional sentences in exchange for such a gift.
Good review! We love the Big Picture Story Bible here, so I’m glad to hear of the devotional (and your caveats). I actually went to Holy Trinity Church for four years while I attended the University of Chicago. Dave Helm was one of my pastors and I love the Helm family and all the Holy Trinity leadership – truly a special community. The illustrator also attended HTC. I remember so well when they launched The Big Picture Story Bible – what a church party that was! At the time I was just a college student with no significant other or kids on the radar. It’s been so fun to read the book out loud now that I’m married with kids of my own.
They sound like an amazing community! Theological caveats aside, I am so impressed with the work they have done both within their congregation and in the larger church – and am so thankful for them! If you’re at all still in touch with the Helms, do tell them a big, huge thank you!
Also – I just clicked over to your blog and saw a) that you reviewed “My Grandfather’s Coat” — one of our favorite newer reads; I even bought it in hardback. And that under your books of 2014 you’ve been reading PD James. I just finished The Death of an Expert Witness tonight (on Audible) and am onto the next (A Taste for Death) as soon as I can. SO GOOD!