“I want to tell [children] dangerous stories so that they themselves will become dangerous—dangerous to the darkness,” children’s author S. D. Smith recently explained. He has a point. Of course, not all good stories need to be dangerous. But we often learn to recognize and pursue certain types of goodness—like courage, perseverance, strength, sacrificial love, and grace—through stories that are dangerous.
The new illustrated children’s story Bible by Jeremy Pierre, God With Us: A Journey Home, emphasizes that the Bible contains beauty and goodness, but it also has some important dangerous stories. While the writing is gentle enough for young listeners, Pierre—a pastor and a professor of biblical counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—wants to make sure readers come away remembering that “we live east of Eden and short of heaven.” He hopes to “awaken [children] to the brave journey they must take toward their true home,” so each story is told as a chapter in a larger narrative about the goodness and peril of God’s plan to rescue us from ourselves and bring us home to him.
Pierre also tells readers that he has tried to “capture the wonder” of this adventure by telling each of the Bible stories from the point of view of two angels. Every chapter begins with an illuminated letter adorned with angels who offer their version of the events of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but Pierre notes that this is simply a literary device, not intended to disrupt the true biblical narrative.
The result is that God With Us is fresh but orthodox, a little scary but also tender. It is creatively and compellingly written, but it remains true to the biblical text. Each chapter begins with a quote directly from Scripture (a surprisingly unusual trait in story Bibles) and tells each story as a chapter in a unified narrative about God making a way for us to come home to him. It’s filled with gentle illustrations that intrigued my 6-year-old daughter, and it also reads like an action-adventure story my 10-year-old son didn’t want to put down.
I had the opportunity to ask Jeremy Pierre for his thoughts on the book.
I’m intrigued with your premise of angels telling the story of the Bible, and I haven’t seen it anywhere else. Where did you get the idea, and what were some of the benefits and challenges of writing from the perspective of angels?
One of the lasting lessons from creative writing classes in college and grad school was the need to defamiliarize the familiar. A literary device for accomplishing this is to tell the story from an alternate perspective. C. S. Lewis does this in Screwtape Letters by telling the story of a man’s life from the coordinated strategy of two devils. I always remembered a comment he made in the preface of that book about the practical impossibility of writing that book from the perspective of angels, since it would have to be crafted in a style that would allow “every sentence . . . to smell of Heaven.”
Over the years, I would attempt little sketches of dialogue in a writing journal and found that Lewis was exactly right. Everything seemed contrived—the angels sounded either like a bad attempt at Milton’s high eloquence or a moralizing kindergarten teacher.
But when I narrowed in on the theme of God’s presence, aware that I wanted to defamiliarize a familiar story, I thought the only vehicle I could make work would be angels, since they alone have an insider’s perspective of what it’s like to be around the all-glorious God but an outsider’s perspective of what it’s like to walk through mud and rain.
So instead of falling into the stylistic difficulties Lewis warned about, I just adopted a style that’s intentionally spare. Simple sentences laid out carefully for visual punch. When Cassie Clark (the illustrator) and I came up with the idea of using initiums to house the angels—the embellished capital letter that starts each chapter, as the old medieval illuminated manuscripts did—it just clicked. Like a contemporary remix of a historic storytelling practice.
At the beginning of the book, you warn readers that “the world is not safe. Neither is this story.” The book includes peeling lepers, people crying over dead lambs and screaming in the streets, and lots of blood. David and Goliath tell each other that someone is going to get eaten by buzzards. How did you decide what biblical content to include and how to approach it in your telling?
When you read literature produced in different parts of the world at different points in history, you realize how sanitized children’s literature in our culture is. Understandably, we don’t want to expose children unnecessarily to the worst parts of living in this sad world. But kids know suffering. Some know it far more than I did as a child. The fact that Scripture does not sanitize the world makes it powerful in helping us understand our suffering.
God With Us is fresh but orthodox, a little scary but also tender. It is creatively and compellingly written, but it remains true to the biblical text.
The David and Goliath story is a perfect example. Kids’ storybook Bibles drive me nuts on that story. It’s not about a little guy being extra brave and defeating a big mean giant by knocking him down with just one stone. When you read the text, it’s about a warrior wrapped in bronze, like some alternate god, carrying the deadliest weapons man can make, threatening to feed a teenage boy to the buzzards. But David believes God’s promise—that the Lord’s presence meant the destruction of his enemies. And he returns the threat about buzzards. The stakes were high. The story loses its power if we lower those stakes in our retelling.
In terms of what content to keep in or leave out, that was more a matter of space constraints and emphasis. I thought about including Goliath’s beheading, for instance, but in the constraint of one chapter, I wanted the deadly power of God’s presence to be what was left ringing in the reader’s ear. And that was accomplished without a head being removed.
As a father of five children, how were you influenced by your children in writing this book? What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to parents teaching Bible stories?
Next to my wife, my children are my favorite people on earth. I know them. I know their best qualities and their worst tendencies—which are usually just opposites sides of the same coin. All five are different, which exposes me to the different ways children experience the difficulties of life. So that helped broaden my attempts at applying Scripture to kids’ experiences. For instance, the chapter “Jesus Is Always Near” is about both anxiety and temptation. Being a dad makes me aware of how even children can be prone to anxiety, or be tempted to different sins in ways that seem impossible to resist. They need to hear that Jesus understands those exact experiences.
In terms of advice for parents, I’ll just give a two-pack principle: know your Bible and know your children.
First, know your Bible on their behalf: the story of Scripture is greater than your child’s individual story, and teaching them the story of redemption in Jesus Christ will expand their vision of who God is and what he’s doing. This is foundational to their formation as those made to image him.
Second, know your children: help your children approach Scripture with questions and concerns that arise from their lived experience. You have to know them well to do this with them. Are they prone to anger or anxiety? Have they faced a loss in a relationship at school that feels devastating to them? What are their insecurities? You must know them to model for them what it means to approach the God who knows them and has spoken to them in his Word.
Over the years, you’ve written much about biblical counseling and the heart. What role do Bible stories have in shaping our persons, particularly in the younger years?
When we read stories, we automatically position ourselves in relation to the characters we’re reading about. I’m like him in this way. Or, I’m not like him in any way. We admire certain characteristics, despise others, and don’t notice still others. But what stories do—especially when read and reread—is challenge the way we see that relationship.
Know your Bible and know your children.
When I read the story of the terrified disciples in Matthew 8:23–27, I understand myself better. But it’s a process. When I was younger, I dismissed the disciples as wimps. But as I pass through storms in my life, I see the pattern of their response in my own. In other words, I often wonder if Jesus cares, lacking faith in my own way. And, when I hear Jesus rebuke the storm, then rebuke the disciples, I understand Jesus better. I see that authority and that compassion mapped onto my life, and I’m able to trust him more thoroughly as I respond to the threats in my story.
What are some of your favorite books for children that point to biblical truths, and why do we need children’s books?
If you’re talking family devotions, we mainly do short readings from Scripture. But our favorite resource when our kids were young was David Helm’s The Big Picture Story Bible. We would also use books like Hymns for a Kid’s Heart by Bobbie Wolgemuth and Joni Erickson Tada for singing. Our church uses The New City Catechism. As the kids got older, I sometimes made mistakes by shooting too high— like J. I. Packer’s Concise Theology, which is short but too conceptually thick. One tip that comes to mind: you can use excerpts from different books. You don’t have to read the whole thing. If something is powerful to you, share it with the kids without feeling like you have to slog through a whole book.
In terms of literature that conveys biblical ideas and values, besides the now-standard suggestions like Pilgrim’s Progress and Narnia, I’ll just say that the Lord used The Wingfeather Saga as instrumental in one of my children understanding the gospel and coming to faith. I will always love Andrew Peterson for that.