The God presentented in the new children’s book What Is God Like? is a shapeshifter. Matthew Paul Turner and the late Rachel Held Evans, with the help of Ying Hui Tan’s vibrant illustrations, depict God as a woman, a shepherd, a gardener, and even as a blanket fort.
Evans, who authored several books on her own life and faith, had sketched out several unpublished children's books; after Evans' untimely death in 2019, Turner completed What Is God Like?, a book almost entirely composed of similes: “God is like the flame of a candle, warm and inviting;” “God is like three dancers, graceful and precise.” As a result, the God of this children’s book is wide, kind, playful, present. She seems to give very good hugs.
On one page, a smiling kiddo has thrown his umbrella aside, looking giddy in his rain boots. A puddle the color of rainbows swells near his feet, shooting into the sky like a Pride-themed geyser. “God is like a rainbow, vivid and full of color, a dazzling reminder of promise and hope for all people after a storm.”
Notably, at least in this book, God is not like a storm. My first Bible, The Children’s Illustrated Bible, had a picture of Noah and his impressive ark on the cover. I suppose the publishers figured this would get the attention of kids. Zebras! Lions! Pandas! ON A BOAT! But it was hard back then, and it remains hard today, to imagine the animals (especially the humans) under water. What is that God like? And how is this stormy, flood God comforting for kids?
At Random House’s book launch for What Is God Like?, Sarah Bessey, Christian author and friend of Evans, told a story about reading Noah’s Ark to her eldedst daughter, who was in preschool at the time. “I remember her looking at me — this very sensitive soul — and just saying, ‘Did God kill all those people?’” she said. “... As a mom and as someone who has had to reimagine and relearn God, this is healing work.”
Author and theologian Candice Marie Benbow, also a friend of Evans, shared a similar sentiment. “I think [about] how much of our work has had to be rooted in necessary deconstruction because of what we heard, what we were taught as children, that we also grew up into,” she said. “And I get excited because I think about a child who will have What Is God Like? and the journey that they will get to take will be so much different than mine.”
Evans, who died suddenly at the age of 37, didn’t shy away from the Bible’s difficult stories throughout her career as a progressive Christian author and blogger. In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she wrote, “I have come to regard with some suspicion those who claim that the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume this means they haven’t actually read it.”
Indeed, the Bible can be troubling, but that’s what makes What Is God Like? so important. For children trying to construct their conception of the divine for the first time, the book can be a gentle and imaginative brainstorming partner. And it also has something to offer adults, especially those undergoing a period of faith reconstruction. Toward the end of the book, Turner and Evans offer some directives: “Keep searching. Keep wondering. Keep learning about God.” I hope 5-year-olds read that, but I hope 50-year-olds receive that advice even more.
In her book Inspired, Evans offered up another one of her trademark metaphors:
Dignified or not, believable or not, ours is a God perpetually on bended knee, doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved. It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters, and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime.
What is God Like? is a comforting read for all the petulant children out there, from 3 years old to 100.