I’m not going to lie: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first received a copy of Visual Theology, the latest book from Tim Challies, which is co-authored and designed by Josh Byers.
Don’t get me wrong: I love infographics and creative ways of communicating information that might otherwise be kind of dull. Having written more than a few (and edited several others), I know how hard they are to do well. And because of this, I’ve long been impressed with the Visual Theology series on Challies’ blog. The graphics created there have consistently been helpful, clear, interesting—and, equally importantly, aesthetically pleasing (which is kind of a big deal). When the store launched, I purchased a few items so I can make some prints for our house.
So why didn’t I know what to expect? I wasn’t sure how they were going to translate the series into a book. I’ll deal with this more in a moment, but first, let’s talk about what the book actually is.
Knowing and living the truth
Divided into four parts, Visual Theology is, essentially, a roadmap to the Christian life, filled with practical guidance on what it means to
- Grow in relationship with Christ;
- Understand the work of Christ;
- Become like Christ; and
- Live for Christ.
Challies’ goal here is to help us know the truth in order to live the truth, to teach “the foundational disciplines of the Christian life through both words and illustrations” (15). Readers are introduced to the concepts of each chapter through infographics, while Challies’ text dives deeper into the meaning of each.
Consider the presentation of our identity in Christ. The design itself is relatively simple (which is hard to do well), but very effective. Each truth—from “I am in Christ,” to “I am unfinished”—is presented not as a standalone item, but as connected to the whole:
This is helpful from a reader’s perspective because it brings a necessary sense of balance to our understanding of who we are in Christ. It allows us to come to grips with the fact that perfection is not attainable prior our standing before Jesus or his return. Though we are justified, totally, securely and eternally in a moment, the Christian life is the pursuit of holiness. Sanctification takes until the day we die.
“[Y]ou are a work in progress,” Challies writes.
Christ has saved you, and he has begun to have a relationship with you. Yet you still sin. You still return to those old ways at times. Too often, you delight to do what is evil. I do not know why God chose not to immediately and permanently eradicate every bit of sin and every desire to sin in the moment he saved you. But I do know he is committed to your holiness and that he will walk with you through all of life as you grow into this new identity, as you learn to be who you already are in Christ. (38)
There is a comfort in these words, even as readers are reminded that our sin is still sin. And for me, that comfort comes from the perspective that the Christian life is one of learning. I am learning “to be who [I] already [am] in Christ.” It’s like what I constantly have to remind my children when they’re doing their school work: I don’t expect them to know how to do their math work perfectly the first they’re seeing it (or the second, third or fiftieth time for that matter) because learning takes time.
So as we pursue Christ, we will make mistakes and we will continue to sin. [1. Related, but different.] But as we grow, we will learn to see right from wrong, to recognize our new desires—God’s desires—over and against our old ones, the desires corrupted by sin. To see God at work in us to make us who we already are.
What’s in a name?
If there was any major critique of the book worth mentioning, it is this: the title itself is unintentionally misleading. The title suggests that the book will primarily be visual. As such, I would have expected something akin to a coffee table book, like Picturing Scripture from Kirkdale Press.[2. Full disclosure, I contributed to this book.] That there would be text, absolutely, but the visuals would be the driving force.
In truth, that was what I expected. And so from that point of view, there was an initial element of disappointment. There is part of me that would have loved to see Byers’ design work be the dominant element, even if I recognize that the book probably wouldn’t be as good or helpful. Still, there are some who will almost certainly be (at least initially) disappointed when they open up the book and find that there is actually a surprisingly large amount of text.
Another area where I suspect some readers will have challenges is with the fact that this book serves as an introduction to key concepts of the Christian life, rather than being an exhaustive treatment. So there will be a few who will be bothered by what isn’t said than what is. This is especially in the write-up on husbands and wives, which focuses on the servant leadership of husbands, joyful submission of wives, two spectacularly unpopular ideas in our day. But even so, if readers can appreciate what is there for what it is—and I mean this in any and every area the book touches—I think they will walk away satisfied.
A treat for new believers
Minor quibbles aside, Visual Theology is a book worth adding to your library—especially if you’re a new believer. Challies and Byers’ presentation of the Christian life here is accessible and practical. The visuals give readers a grasp of what are sometimes difficult concepts, and help us appreciate those we’re largely familiar with in new ways. I greatly enjoyed my time reading the book and taking in the visuals. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.
Title: Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God
Authors: Tim Challies and Josh Byers
Publisher: Zondervan (2016)