Picturing God

Images of God for Young Children, by Marie-Helene Delval (illustrated by Barbara Nascimbeni)
Eerdmans, 2011.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon, by Katherine Paterson, illustrated by Pamela Dalton. Chronicle, 2011.

At this distance, thousands of years from the old Canaanite religions and the Nile deities, it’s hard to appreciate the radical nature of the Second Commandment for its time: “You shall not make for yourselves a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God . . .” (Ex. 20:4-5).  Everybody in the ancient world made idols and bowed down to them; God’s insistence that he could not be pictured was so countercultural (to use a modern term) that it was the very first law his people violated.

We still make images in our heads, though: how many children and grownups hold the idea of an old man in the clouds?  Or how many have adopted from The Shack, subconsciously or not, the image of “Papa” as a rotund black woman?  The old theologians often said God was better understood by what he was not than what he was: not mortal, not changeable, not visible, etc.  A visual image automatically limits him to that image, which is one big reason for the prohibition on images in the first place; God was teaching his people that he was not the deity of sky or sun, or nation or territory, or love or war.  He was God, period.

This may be as difficult for our kids to understand as it was for the Israelites.  Young children (ages 2-10) are very local, busily establishing their own perimeters.  I think it’s safe to say they’re not capable of independent thought about an abstract being; in general, they’ll believe what you tell them about God.  That’s why I think catechism instruction is useful at this age: get the words and the concepts in their heads, and they’ll be there for the maturing mind to chew on and understand and individualize later.

These two picture books are also helpful, within limits.  A Christian parent browsing the picture books shelves at her local library may come across the title Brother Sun, Sister Moon and think, what up with this?  Native American spirituality? Actually it’s a revision of St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” a praise hymn in the spirit of Psalm 104.  Katherine Paterson has updated it—and in some places, weakened it—but for the most part it’s a beautiful book, made breathtaking by the illustrations.  Pamela Dalton tells us in an afterword how she was introduced to the technique of scherenschnitte, German ‘scissor cutting,” which came to America with the Pennsylvania Dutch.  Each of her illustrations is cut from one piece of paper, then water-colored and printed on a black background.  The effect is both folksy and sophisticated, simple and stunning. It conveys the beauty of the ordinary in extraordinary form.  You’ll spend hours pouring over the details.  (Dalton’s Story of Christmas is coming out in November—we’ll keep an eye out for that one!)

Katherine Paterson’s interpretation is equally beautiful in places but less successful overall.  “We come to sing a song of praise to you, O God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, who by your power and out of your love have created all things and called them good . . .”  God is praised for the sun, moon, water, wind (“For when he roars, he reminds us of your might, and when he comes as a cooling breeze, he tells us of your gentleness”).  And even death, “who will usher us at last into your loving presence, where we will know and love you as you have always known us.”  Because a translation of the original song is helpfully provided at the end of the book, we know that Paterson’s paraphrase is a kinder and gentler version of what St. Francis actually wrote: “Woe to those who die in mortal sin.  Happy those whom [death] finds doing your most holy will.”  A bit of PC creeps in at the end as well: “For this life and the life to come, we sing our praise to you, O Lord, the Father and Mother of all creation.”  Ouch!  Granted that God sometimes uses female imagery when describing himself (e.g., as a hen gathers her chicks), the Bible gives us no authorization to refer to God as Mother.  If you’re reading aloud, I would skip those two words.

Images of God for Young Children is a rather clunky title for a nice book.  The author uses actual comparisons from the Bible to describe God, in a positive rather than negative way.  He is (to list them all) breath, light, night, word, silent, secret, our tears, joy, a spring, a rock, a stream, the root, wind, a path, fire, a fortress, a promise, strength, wisdom, deliverance, covenant, mystery, beauty, justice, holiness, peace, mercy, love, shepherd, king, healer, friend, savior, majesty, smallness, a face, a parent, bread, life—and finally, “God is with us.”  Some of these comparisons sound a bit far-fetched, and a scripture reference to each would have been a helpful addition.  The text is orthodox: “We have seen God’s face in Jesus Christ.”  It’s often beautiful as well, though it may stretch a bit: “We know that God is huge.  And yet he makes himself small.  He decided to live in our world, to be a baby that needs its mother, who has to learn to walk and talk.  God is a child that each one of us can carry in our arms.”  Er . . . God the Son was a child.  But he grew up, and died and was buried, and rose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven.  He doesn’t live here anymore, except in the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in every believer.  To speak of him as a child we can carry in our arms may plant a picture in the mind of a five-year-old that’s needlessly confusing or downright misleading.

Stretches aside, though, Images of God is more overtly Christian than Brother Sun.  Too long to read in one sitting, it could serve as a conversation-starter and devotional guide.  The illustrations, though not as stunning as Pamela Dalton’s, are reminiscent of Marc Chagall and well-suited to the text.

For more good picture books to get little kids thinking about God, see our reviews of Sneaky Sheep, God’s Little Princess, God’s Mighty Warrior, and Brave Young Knight.  And don’t forget our early discussion of story Bibles.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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12 Comments

  1. Betsy on September 7, 2011 at 5:51 am

    I’m a huge Katherine Paterson fan, so I’ll definitely be checking out this book!

    Also, Janie, I couldn’t agree with you more about teaching the catechism early–not only does it put those concepts/vocabulary in their minds for later, but it equips young children with words for NOW. I remember sitting in the dark after the power went out and my then 4-year-old daughter was… to put it mildly… freaking out. I asked her if God could see us even in the dark: she said promptly, “I cannot see God, but he always sees me.” Amazingly, she calmed down and we talked about that question in a whole new light (no pun intended).

    • Janie Cheaney on September 7, 2011 at 7:00 am

      That’s a beautiful story, Betsy. Reminds me of a friend of mine, who was involved in an auto crash several years ago. His injury was fairly minor, except for the fact the he’s a hemophiliac. He was pacing the roadway before the ambulance arrived when the words of Heidelberg Q&A 1 came to him: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” “That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ . . .” It calmed his anxious heart. We should do some posts about Catechism study.

  2. Betsy on September 7, 2011 at 5:51 am

    I’m a huge Katherine Paterson fan, so I’ll definitely be checking out this book!

    Also, Janie, I couldn’t agree with you more about teaching the catechism early–not only does it put those concepts/vocabulary in their minds for later, but it equips young children with words for NOW. I remember sitting in the dark after the power went out and my then 4-year-old daughter was… to put it mildly… freaking out. I asked her if God could see us even in the dark: she said promptly, “I cannot see God, but he always sees me.” Amazingly, she calmed down and we talked about that question in a whole new light (no pun intended).

    • Janie Cheaney on September 7, 2011 at 7:00 am

      That’s a beautiful story, Betsy. Reminds me of a friend of mine, who was involved in an auto crash several years ago. His injury was fairly minor, except for the fact the he’s a hemophiliac. He was pacing the roadway before the ambulance arrived when the words of Heidelberg Q&A 1 came to him: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” “That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ . . .” It calmed his anxious heart. We should do some posts about Catechism study.

  3. emily on September 7, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Sounds like these books may be less problematic when it comes to the Second Commandment than story Bibles that include pictures of Jesus. Still, it’s a sticky issue, and I appreciate your thoughts on it, Janie.

  4. emily on September 7, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Sounds like these books may be less problematic when it comes to the Second Commandment than story Bibles that include pictures of Jesus. Still, it’s a sticky issue, and I appreciate your thoughts on it, Janie.

  5. Marlo on September 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Thank you for these book suggestions. I’m always looking for more tools to use in teaching my children about God. One of my favorites is Leading Little Ones to God, but my 2 1/2 year-old isn’t quite ready for it.

    I second the idea of more posts about Catechism study. That is not something I grew up with and would love to know more about it.

  6. Marlo on September 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Thank you for these book suggestions. I’m always looking for more tools to use in teaching my children about God. One of my favorites is Leading Little Ones to God, but my 2 1/2 year-old isn’t quite ready for it.

    I second the idea of more posts about Catechism study. That is not something I grew up with and would love to know more about it.

  7. Penelope on September 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    That is a sweet story about your daughter Betsy. Children have such a simple and strong faith! It amazes me! I definitely want to look into these books. Thanks for the post Janie!

  8. Penelope on September 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    That is a sweet story about your daughter Betsy. Children have such a simple and strong faith! It amazes me! I definitely want to look into these books. Thanks for the post Janie!

  9. Sally Apokedak on September 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks for this post. I think Katherine Paterson is one of the best writers around. She is so talented. And yet, I usually feel that she’s beating me over the head with theology that leans toward universalism. I don’t mean to say she is a universalist. I just mean that from what I’ve read of her stuff, there’s no indication that she’s not a universalist. That always bothers me in Christian writers. I wonder if they are ashamed of Christ before men and if he will be ashamed of them before his Father.

    I can’t answer for them, but for myself, I want to be careful to never try to soften God up, as if I think he’s not presentable the way the Bible depicts him.

  10. Sally Apokedak on September 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks for this post. I think Katherine Paterson is one of the best writers around. She is so talented. And yet, I usually feel that she’s beating me over the head with theology that leans toward universalism. I don’t mean to say she is a universalist. I just mean that from what I’ve read of her stuff, there’s no indication that she’s not a universalist. That always bothers me in Christian writers. I wonder if they are ashamed of Christ before men and if he will be ashamed of them before his Father.

    I can’t answer for them, but for myself, I want to be careful to never try to soften God up, as if I think he’s not presentable the way the Bible depicts him.

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