Reviewed by Eric Tully
I usually read and evaluate books for review independently and alone, but when I received a copy of The Biggest Story I announced to my wife and two daughters (ages five and seven) that we would be reading the book together during our family devotion time and I needed their feedback and comments. The book is beautifully bound with a striking cover. It contains ten short chapters and a two-page Note to Parents at the end. We decided to read one chapter each night, for ten nights.
The book is written by Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He is the author of numerous well-known books. He and his wife have six children. The illustrator is Don Clark, cofounder of Invisible Creature, an award-winning design studio in Seattle. The dust jacket of the book states that he and his wife have three children.
In the Note to Parents, DeYoung tells us that the book began as a Christmas sermon for his church. He wanted to make the familiar advent story fresh while remaining faithful to the biblical text. He reminds us that the Bible is a big story made up of many smaller stories. Many children (and adults!) often know and recognize the smaller stories without comprehending the bigger story that ties everything together. DeYoung states that he wants to focus on two themes in the book. The first theme is the identity of Jesus, who is not only Savior but also the fulfillment of a long line of prophecies and shadows in Israel’s law, temple, and worship. The second theme is the Garden, which is featured at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1 and at the end of the Bible in Revelation 22.
DeYoung tells the biblical story line, in a fresh and whimsical way, in the course of the ten chapters. Chapter 1 describes creation, the fall (and removal from the garden), and God’s promise that one of Eve’s children would eventually put things right.
In Chapter 2, DeYoung tells of Cain and Abel and the flood (in which Noah is a new kind of Adam). He writes, “The problem was that Noah was too much like the first Adam. It didn’t take long after they got out of the boat for Noah to do some pretty bad stuff himself…History was repeating itself. Whether it was Adam or Noah, the first world in the beginning or the second world after the flood, people just couldn’t get things right” (39). The chapter concludes with the Tower of Babel.
Chapter 3 describes Abraham (the recipient of all of the blessings to Adam and Eve), Isaac, Jacob and Judah. These patriarchs were the recipients of “great blessings. But [they were] not-so-great people. Isaac was sort of a weakling. Jacob was a selfish trickster. And Judah did such dumb stuff, we don’t even want to talk about it” (52).
Chapter 4 tells of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. DeYoung writes in a terse style, moving quickly through the biblical story. To illustrate, the following sentence is his summary of the end of Genesis: “They went to Egypt because there was a famine in Canaan, and when they got to Egypt, Jacob’s sons found their long-lost brother Joseph, who helped them get food and a place to live even though he was there because his ten older brothers had been jealous and sold him into slavery after they almost killed him because of his fancy coat. (I told you it was a long story.)” (58). This is proportionately much more space than he gives to most of the biblical stories.
Chapter 5 describes the Ten Commandments, the entry into the Promised Land, and the period of the Judges. Chapter 6 summarizes the reigns of Saul, David (including the promise that his descendant would be the deliverer), and Solomon. Of Solomon DeYoung writes, “But the next son of David was not the one they were looking for. Solomon started off on the right foot, but he ended up tripping quite spectacularly” (86). Chapter 7 lists some key prophecies about the coming “Snake Crusher” (come from Bethlehem, born of a virgin, die and live again, light to the nations) and lists some of the prophets including Elijah and Elisha, Amos, Malachi, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.
In Chapter 8, DeYoung tells of Jesus’ birth. He writes, “No one understood it completely at the time, but when Mary pushed out that baby, God pushed into the world the long-expected Prophet, Priest, and King” (101). The chapter closes with Jesus’ death. Chapter 9 describes the resurrection of Jesus, ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit which allows us to “have power and peace and the presence of Christ with us all the time” (117).
In the concluding tenth chapter, DeYoung announces the return to the garden. The “Snake Crusher” is coming back to “wipe away all the bad guys and wipe away every tear” (123).
The artwork in this book is stunning (see examples here). Each page is filled with bold, rich colors and striking images filled with sophisticated symbolism. Our family paused to discuss the symbolism on each page and our daughters speculated about what certain images might mean. We found that the illustrations were terrific conversation-starters. They were provocative and evocative, supporting the emotional and thematic arcs in various parts of the biblical story. Repeating images help to tie the story together.
As I read the story, our daughters asked good questions and were thoughtful. The story helped them to see the whole Bible as a whole, which is exactly what the authors intend. This was aided by the brevity of the story which allowed us to move through the entire Bible in just over a week and it helped our little ones to keep early parts of the story fresh in their minds.
However, the brevity of the story is also a weakness. At many points, it reads like the scaffolding of a story without the details to carry it along. This is reflected in the proportions. Four and a half of the ten chapters are devoted to the Pentateuch. The conquest of the Promised Land is described in half of one sentence (73). Our young daughters were frequently confused, and my wife suggested that perhaps the story assumes “insider” knowledge to fill in necessary details. My seven-year-old daughter stated at one point, “the author is going super fast!”
Sometimes the language is so informal that it is distracting. The book begins, “Once upon a time there lived a man and a woman” (19). At this, my daughter stated, “But Daddy! ‘Once upon a time’ makes it sound like a fairy tale that isn’t true!”—a concerning observation. Other examples include, “Not too long after the whole tower business” (45), “scaredy-cat,” “swell,” and “[God’s people] went from top dog to dog food” (88). This is intentional to make the story fresh, of course, but at times it broke our family’s concentration on the biblical story and themes.
Families with younger children will find that it is a good resource for talking about Jesus as the thematic and theological center of the Bible and discussing God’s great plan of redemption. It is creative, whimsical, and contains beautiful artwork that draws readers into the Biggest Story of all.
Dr. Eric Tully is Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Language at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is also Book Review Editor for Old Testament here at Books At a Glance.
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The Biggest Story