Can We Go Too Far with the Big Picture?

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons. http://ow.ly/WelOE

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons. http://ow.ly/WelOE

As a parent of young children, I’m thrilled with the work that people like Sally Lloyd-Jones has done with her Jesus Storybook Bible. Also, LifeWay has done great things with The Gospel Project. And Desiring God has also developed curriculum that walks through the Bible as redemption history.

All of these resources are exceedingly helpful. They explain the big picture narrative of Scripture in a way that I was unable to do until much later in life. They train young people to look beyond the bare facts of the stories to ask why the story is included in the Bible.

A recent article in Christianity Today provides a number of perspectives and reasons why the Big Picture approach to Scripture is important.

This approach is a vast improvement over the approach that many people still use and that was the sort of bread and butter of my childhood. However, I’ve recently begun to recognize the need for a hybrid approach to teaching Scripture.

The Story Model

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the story of David and Goliath. And the story of Daniel and the lions. And the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who climbed up in the sycamore tree. Or Jonah and whatever the large sea creature was that swallowed him.

These stories, with their details, we told and retold. Often the details were embellished with theological interpretations about how the individuals might have felt or what they might have thought.

Other times, the facts were actually misrepresented. For example, I grew up thinking that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. That may be, since there was probably no clear distinction between whale and fish as sea critters in the (human) biblical author’s worldview. However, the text actually says fish. Also, I was much older when I put together the fact that when Daniel got thrown into the den of lions he was probably pretty old. Daniel was cemented in my mind (often with the help of flannel graphs) at the tender age where he experienced the robust benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Despite the mistaken details, which may have been my fault as the hearer, the connections between these accounts were clearly missing. Clearly they were connected by being in the Bible. They all had something to do with God. However, there was often no cohesion to the tales, even after I had “heard them all” dozens of times.

The Big Picture

The approach that is popular in contemporary circles is more helpful in building an integral understanding of Scripture.

Over and over again Sally Lloyd-Jones emphasizes the redemptive themes that are woven through Scripture. Christ is in the text, often imperfectly represented by types.

For example, David is like Christ when he, the improbable hero, redeems the people of Israel from probable slavery to the Philistines by slaying the giant with the stone. The boy-shepherd-who-would-be-king is a picture of Christ, despite his later plummet from grace.

This is vastly improved over the “hero story” approach that finds moral examples in particular scenes of Scripture and bids the children to do likewise.

However, it’s a little difficult to be brave like David facing Goliath when a) you aren’t God’s anointed one and b) your childish ability to reason from literary types is limited such that you find yourself preparing to fight a literal giant, in case you ever encounter one. (Harvey Cox cites this as one of the reasons he drifted from a conservative understanding of Scripture.)

Also, there is the fact that sooner or later the children find out that David had some problems later in life. He didn’t just commandeer someone’s rubber ducky (as in the Veggie Tales version), but committed adultery (perhaps even rape) and killed a man for his wife. This is a good lesson in grace, but a difficult one for children to sort through when they’ve been presented the “moral example” method of reading Scripture.

The big picture approach is much better than that. And yet, it causes me to think.

The Pitfall

The most likely pitfall of the big picture approach is that, when it is taken too far, it can inadvertently reinforce the notions that a) every detail has to be tied to the big picture and b) if the details don’t fit, they probably don’t matter.

Let me be clear that I do not believe that Lloyd-Jones, LifeWay, Desiring God or any of the other proponents of the big picture approach commit, foment, or accept any of these errors; they are writing curriculum and books that meet a vital need and use a particular approach. Similarly, I do not believe that the authors of the moral example lessons necessarily missed the big picture. I am talking about implementation and receipt of information rather than authorial intent.

The big picture approach is wonderful for getting the main idea across, but it can allow the casual student (or teacher) to miss the vivid detail that is included in the text.

For example, Ehud was a deliverer of the people; a foreshadowing of what Jesus would be. He was also born left-handed, the king was fat, and he apparently liked privacy when he was relieving himself. These are providential pieces of the story; they are details that enliven it and undergird the historicity of it. All the details don’t fit into the big picture, but they allow the big picture to be what it ought to be—they help us know the stories are true.

Conclusion

This warning, then, is as much to me as to anyone else. As I teach my children, I do not want to lose the big picture or the details.

In other words, it is as bad to miss the forest for the trees as it is to see only the forest without distinguishing the beauty of the trees.

In order to understand the beauty of God’s redemptive plan, we need to teach our children the big picture. It will help them make sense of the various genres and accounts in Scripture.

In order to recognize the truthfulness of God’s Word, we need to emphasize the details as we teach the stories. It helps them to trust the documents written by both divine and human authors.

This is not an either/or but a both/and. We need to balance the approaches so that we have biblically literate students of the Word when all things are done.

The Story of God's Love for You - A Review

The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones is my favorite Bible storybook available. The illustrations by Jago are interesting and faithful to the text. The audio version, narrated by David Suchet, is well produced and engaging. It is a product that the whole family has enjoyed greatly since it was released several years ago.

When Zondervan announced the forthcoming release of a grown-up version of the book, The Story of God’s Love for You, I was intrigued. I wasn’t sure how well the story would convey without the pictures.

As it happens, this little volume does stand well on its own without the illustrations. While I still prefer the full version of the book, the big kid’s version is almost as good.

BEGINNING AS THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE

For those that haven’t encountered The Jesus Storybook Bible, the approach is worth considering. Most Bible storybooks focus on particular scenes in Scripture that seem most likely to be interesting to a young audience. Thus, while still well-told, a regular refrain tales make their appearance in most Bible storybooks: David and Goliath, Noah and the Ark, Moses and Pharoah, Jesus calms the storm, etc. These are the same stories that I was raised on in Sunday School and seemed to come up with a regular frequency.

Often missing from the traditional approach to children’s Bible storybooks is any sense of the big picture. How does the crossing of the Red Sea fit into the bigger picture of the Bible? Is the Bible just a loose collection of hero tales and miracles? The metanarrative of Scripture has been tragically lacking in many books intended to bring Scripture down to the cognitive level of children.

As a result, many children grow up in the church with no sense of what God is doing through the Bible. This has allowed young Christians to fall prey to skeptics who assault the apparent inconsistencies between the miracle-less present and the supernatural accounts of the past. It has created a broader culture may know that David and Goliath is a story about little beating big, but is unaware that this has the additional significance of being God’s anointed one defeating the seemingly unconquerable evil. In other words, David and Goliath tells a piece of the bigger story of Christ defeating evil in the world.

Sally Lloyd-Jones takes those stories, which have been made to trite and simple over the years of Sunday School tradition, and reinvigorates them with a theological approach. She tells us,

The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne—everything—to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life.

You see, the best thing about this Story is—it’s true.

There are lost of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. To Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

This approach unites the stories in Scripture into a tapestry of wonder, which is woven (often untidily) through with the golden thread: Jesus saves because God loves his creation. Lloyd-Jones communicates that truth so simply a child can comprehend it, but without dissolving the polychromatic hues of Scripture into a monochrome mass of christocentric allegory.

STANDING ON ITS OWN

Even having lost most of Jago’s lovely illustrations, the text Lloyd-Jones wrote is edifying. It takes a reader willing to put up with a bit of child-like simplicity and sometimes silliness to enjoy the volume. Her prose is playful, which could make the adult concerned with being grown-up disdain this volume.

However, taken on its own merits and enjoyed for what it is (an entertaining retelling of an amazingly complex story), The Story of God’s Love for You gets along quite well. For the seasoned saint who needs encouragement, there are reminders of God’s always surprising affection for us on nearly every page. At times the capricious retelling highlights an aspect of a story that would have otherwise remained obscure to the accustomed eye, which always tends to read what the mind already knows.

This volume may also have use in introducing new believers to the big picture of Scripture. Again, the attitude of the reader makes a great deal of difference. However, Lloyd-Jones hits the high points and provides a basic hermeneutic that can help the novice to see the purpose in many of the stories of the Old Testament. They aren’t just weird fables of an outdated God; they are pieces of the bigger story, which is the most exciting story of all.

The Story of God's Love for You
By Sally Lloyd-Jones

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.