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EPISODE 85: Trillia Newbell and God’s Very Good Idea

God could have made us all the same. But he didn’t! Trillia Newbell writes about this very good idea for children and adults with depth, clarity, and winsomeness.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter. This is a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I am delighted my conversation partner today is Trillia Newbell. Trillia, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you so much. It's a joy to be here and to talk with you.

I'm so glad you used the word joy because that's what comes through to me in your writing, but I'm getting way ahead. Let me back up a little bit. This is a first in Questions That Matter, in that this is the first time I've been introduced to an author through my granddaughters. There's this great book on the bookshelf over at my son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren's shelf at their house. Trillia Newbell’s God’s Very Good Idea. And I just saw it. I was drawn to it because it's colorful. The illustrations are magnificent, and my granddaughter's eyes kind of open up, and I saw my daughter-in-law, and she said, “Oh, they really love this book.” So there's this whole collection of books you've written for children. You’ve also written for adults. So tell our listeners how did you get into this? You write about God. You write about differences between people. How did you get into this?

Yeah. So it all depends on the this, right? Because I started… I didn't become a Christian until the age of 22. I did some journalism for a local paper. I loved to write, and my first entry into writing for a Christian public was not actually for children, and so I have a lot of books for adults, but it was kind of fun how I stepped into writing for children. I used to work… volunteer with my children's ministry at my local church, and I started teaching a class… or I was asked to teach one class on diversity and the beauty of diversity and also the imago dei, the image of God. And so I was asked to do this, and when I was looking for resources and trying to develop curriculum, I wanted to just use someone else's curriculum, but I couldn't find exactly what I wanted, and so I had to write it myself. And after I wrote the little lesson, I taught it to these kids, and so fun that similarly, as your grand kids introduced you to me, the kids’ responses to my teaching on this topic introduced the idea that maybe I should write it for a broader audience.

Ah, got it. Nice.

And that's when I wrote God’s Very Good Idea. And I sent it to a publisher, who liked it and wanted to publish it, and the rest is history. It really started with the kids. Isn’t that sweet!

I do love it. Yes.

Yes! But in a local church context, teaching to the heart of these children, and them responding with big eyes and lots of questions and kind of excited. And I will never forget, my daughter's friend’s mother, she called me, and she said her daughter was so excited after the lesson, and she said that she said to her—okay, my daughter's name is Sidney, and she said, “Mom, Sidney's not just my friend! She's my sister!” as in sister in Christ. And so she was getting the idea of the family of God and the doctrine of adoption but for little hearts. I mean we were talking big theological ideas and concepts, so it really started, for the kids’ book, in a local church context and looking at the response of children.

Nice! Oh man, this is great! Now, I'm doing things out of order. This is not good. I should have done the bio at the beginning. That's what a good podcast host does. So let me tell our listeners. Who in the world is this Trillia Newbell? She’s the acquisitions director at Moody Publishers. She's written quite a few books, recently A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Sacred Endurance, If God is for Us, and then children's books like the one I mentioned, God's Very Good Idea, also maybe a little bit older children, Creative God, Colorful Us. She's married to her best friend, Thern. They reside with their two children near Nashville. The bio says that they really love, as a family, eating barbecue.

It’s true!

And I'm talking you from Austin, Texas. This could go in a very bad direction if we start, but let’s not do that. We're not going to do that. So let's not compare barbecue. Oh, wait. I want to go back. You said you didn't come to faith until you were twenty-two. Can you tell us a little bit of that story?

Yeah! I grew up in a very, very loving home but not a Christian home, and we were what I call holiday Christians. We went on Easter, mostly, dressed up on Easter. But it wasn't something that was a part of our lives and a part of the rhythm of our lives, and I did not know Jesus. So when I was about 19, a gal shared the gospel with me, and I had a view of Christians that I just thought they were hypocrites, to be frank, and didn't want much to do with Christians or Christianity. But God had other plans, and so after she shared the gospel with me, It took a little bit for me to submit my life to the Lord. I went through some brokenheartedness, and I remember coming to her church and singing the hymn “Rock of Ages.” And there is a line: “Wash me, Savior, or I’ll die.” And at that moment, the Lord saved me. He cleansed me and made me His. And it was pretty radical for me, and just the whole trajectory of my entire life changed in an instant. And as we say, as I've already said, the rest is history. I haven't looked back since, and I'm so grateful for His grace, and that He would rescue me.

Oh, man! I don't know which direction to go here, but saved during the singing of a hymn, and of all hymns, “Rock of Ages,” and of all lines, “Wash me, Savior, or I die.” I just had a conversation, a podcast with Greg Koukl, who said, from his research, the majority of people who become Christians. It's not so very often of someone saying, “Here, pray this prayer,” or, “Come down the aisle.” It’s something that happens, and they don't realize it in full until they're looking back on it. And so your experience is kind of a mix of those things. It happened while you were singing, but…. Okay, we’ll do another podcast.

We could talk about it. We could totally talk about it.

All right. All right. So say more.

Yeah. It’s your podcast. It doesn’t have to be….

You were in a college student at the time? Or was it before going to college?

I was about to be out of school. I had gotten into law schools, thought I was going to be a lawyer. There was a… yeah. It was a whole thing. And when I became a Christian, I just started questioning everything. Like, “Do I really want to do this? What do I want to do?” But yes. It was a series of different events. So at that moment I was saved. At that moment. But when I was 19 and after she shared the gospel with me, she and I would continue to meet every now and then, and she would just keep sharing the gospel with me. I was resistant.

Sure.

And so it was a mixture of God humbling me, like there's…. I had a broken engagement and was humbled. So God humbling me. And then a mixture of hearing the word, hearing the gospel and knowing that I needed…. There was something I needed. And then the preaching of the word, because a pastor preached, and then the singing of the word. So it was just this mixture of faithfulness.

Yes! Yes!

People who were faithful to the gospel and me hearing it over and over and over again. And then finally the Lord making enough sense for me to say, “I have nothing else. I need you, Jesus, washing me and saving me.” And I will never forget the moment I read Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace, you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It's a gift of God, so that no one can boast.” And understanding that this is a gift, that God has given me a gift of His grace! And it’s just remarkable to me to think of all these years of walking with the Lord, and He’s still just pouring out grace and mercy on me. And all of us who believe and those who don't believe but don't know it. So yeah. It was a combination of people being faithful and God using the people of God, the word of God, and the power of God and His Holy Spirit to save me. Yeah.

Oh, man! This is really fun for me, having read some of your children's books, some other things, but hearing—because when I read your stuff, I get this sense of wonder and joy and fun. And so now, talking to you, that's confirmed. Wouldn't that be horrible? Wouldn't that be horrible if, like, “Wow! She must be a really fun person,” and then I'm interviewing, and she said, “Well, the reason I wrote it….” Anyway, sorry. But I’ve just got to give our listeners a little taste of this, the beginning of God’s Very Good Idea. It starts, “In the beginning, in fact before the beginning, God had a very good idea.” And then you have this page, two pages. “It was an even better idea than solar panels, 1954; chocolate chip cookies, 1938; color TV, 1942.” I just thought, “That’s a hysterical way to start. I love it!” But you go after some really deep theological issues and make them clear and graspable for everyone. I mean don't be fooled. These look like children's books, but there is a depth here.

But let's back up again, because I want to hear about… you write in your bio that you're married to your best friend, Thern. So how did you two meet? And how does that play into what you write and what you speak about those issues?

Yeah. So Thern and I, we were actually the two broken engagements. We knew each other before we became Christians, and we had been talking, and he's a little older, and so he was ready for marriage. I was ready for college, and so we just kept breaking up, the poor thing. And then when I became a Christian, about a year later he did, and then a couple of years later we got married. Okay. We’ve been married for twenty years. So he is white, I am African-American, black, and we didn't, thankfully, experience any sort of resistance or racism from our family. We were just… yeah. We just did not. By the grace of God, we experienced none of that. So my writing didn't actually originate from him. It probably originated from my dad, and he experienced a lot of racism and a lot of… yes. And a lot of pain at the hands of others. And yet he was teaching his daughters to really love people. And he always instilled that in us to—even though he didn't use these words. I’m using Christian words now. He would say, “Love people and see them as made in the image of God, to reflect God.” I mean, he would say that people…. common grace is…. He would use language like people are valuable. They have worth. So he was able to, I think heroically, forgive and love people really well. And he instilled that in my heart and mind. So when I did become a Christian, I realized, “Oh, that wasn't my dad's idea. That was God's idea! That was God’s idea! This is God. And because my dad is an image bearer, he was reflecting God,” and so I always had this heart and desire to see people love one another and serve one another, and again, when I became a Christian, I understood, “Oh!” This was rooted in Christianity. I mean this is really a part of what the gospel does. It reconciles us to one another. So Thern is more just a man I love.

Good. Good. That’s very good to hear.

Yes. That’s a good thing!

We now have this on recording. So when the recording comes out, you'll want to make sure that he listens, at least to that part. That’s a crucial part. Very, very good.

Yes! That’s amazing. But he wasn't the catalyst for this book. I think that that came from the reason and the why of just me, just a lot of what I’ve experienced growing up, what I've learned as I've read the Bible, and a passion and a desire to see people understand what the gospel says and the implications of it and what it accomplishes for us. When we look at Ephesians 2, we see that God has accomplished something great in the gospel, and so that's really the why of that. But now that we are married and we have beautiful biracial children, it is something that we talk about a lot.

All the time. Right.

Yeah. So that culture, in our household, is to talk about different ethnicities. And we have a culture in our home of celebrating diversity and celebrating difference and trying to explore it in an educational way, so, “How can we learn more? How can we grow to know about people and people groups?” So that is our approach to the topic, and we lament as well, of course, the things of the past. I remember when my children first understood segregation, the Jim Crow laws.

Oh, my!

They said, “Wait, wait! So mommy and daddy couldn't drink out of the same fountain?” They couldn't fathom it.

Nobody should be able to fathom it.

Yeah. Yeah. And so those conversations, of course, happened quite a bit. And so we do, I think, by nature, have an easier time going into those topics. But I'm hoping, and I pray, that everyone does. Everyone has those conversations and explores various topics related to ethnicity and culture and diversity as it relates to the gospel.

Yeah.

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Well, children ask questions that need to be asked, and very often adults have stopped asking, or we dealt with it so long ago we don’t remember how important or big or horrible something is. So right, they get these big looks in their eyes, like, “Wait, wait, wait a minute. Wait a minute. So you're saying that there used to be laws?” Yeah, it should horrify. But it does point us…. There is such a deep theological beauty of the concept of diversity. As Christians, we believe in a triune God. So here's this one God with diversity within the Godhead, which is so beautiful and mind-boggling and different than either the simplistic things we want—I think people are either drawn to sort of a unity without a diversity or a diversity as an end in itself. “There. We're all different.” Yeah. I don't know if I'm saying it right. Correct me if I'm wrong. It seems to me, as I think about diversity and our ethnicity—I come to faith out of a Jewish background. So you were talking about Ephesians. Well, Ephesians has a whole lot about Jews and Gentiles getting along, and my Jewishness is very important to me. But it's not of ultimate importance. Or it’s not of primary importance. It's secondary. The primary importance is I'm a person, created in the image of God, and I'm a Christian, re-created by the grace of God. Now, Jewish, Gentile, black, white, different ethnicity, that's very important. It's not nothing, but it's not the most important thing. Am I close to making sense here?

Yeah! I would say you're right. I think we want to make sure that we don't make idols out of who we are as general people. It’s not nothing, because God created us. He knit us together in our mother's womb. He's thought of us. He created us. He's numbered the hairs on our head. It's His idea to create me brown. So you don't ignore it. We don't pretend like it doesn't exist. But we also don't worship it. So it’s of importance, but not of primary importance. And so I think what you're saying—and a lot of people say this—is that our first importance is that we are Christians. That's our first identity. That's where you're going. And then, after that, all the other things. But what tends to happen, I think, in a lot of places is, when they get that idea, which is a very important one and one that we should have, it is used sometimes to minimize difference at all.

Yeah, yeah. That’s right.

So people can say that they are colorblind, and unless you actually are medically colorblind, you’re not. You're not colorblind. And so we don't have to pretend like ethnicity doesn't exist. And I think that that often does happen when we start to talk about prioritizing our Christian identity, is that we say it, and we forget that difference does matter, and it is good! And because God is creative. And so I think that that's the only thing that I would just add, is that you never have to try to be colorblind and pretend like it doesn't exist. And I've heard people use the word you can be color smart, you can be color wise, whatever, whatever. Just you want to make sure that, as we are proclaiming that we are Christians, that we don't ignore people's culture. As a part of loving, I think, our neighbor is to get to know them and their culture and their ethnicity but not identifying them as just that. Yeah.

You know, you have this line on the back of your book, “Creative God, colorful us.” It says, “God could have made us all exactly the same, but He didn't.” That shouldn't be a shocking statement, but we don't hear it as often as we should, I think. So again, it's not just a truth: “Well, God made us different.” It's a beautiful truth.

Yes!

It's, “God loves this diversity. He likes different frames of reference and backgrounds and our nationality or culture shape us.” Again, I like the way you said it. We don't want to make an idol of these things, but we don't ignore them, either. So, I come from a Jewish background, and I'm originally from New York, suburbs of New York City. My wife is gentile, from a very, very small town in Ohio. We've been married for forty-three years. There are still moments where I'll say something, and it just feels like this is the New York Jew coming out. and she'll just look like, “Whoa! Wow!” And I'm really learning this with my Texan granddaughters who… okay, so there's male/female, there's age, there's New York versus Texas, there's…. I don't have to do anything too strongly to for them to have a look on their face like, “Grandy,” they call me Grandy. “Grandy, that hurt my feelings.” Like, “Oh. I’ve got to try that again.” So anyway.

Yeah.

So tell me more about how people have received your books. You've told me a little bit about talking to your own children and teaching this with others. How have people, both children and adults and church leaders, how have they grabbed a hold of these things?

Yes. So for God's Very Good Idea, it has done very well. People received it. And your grandchildren's response is a general response. People have really loved the book, and I didn't know when I was writing it that it was as needed as it was, and it is an absolute blessing to me that it’s been so well received. So children read that book. Adults read that book. I was just speaking with someone recently who said they brought their staff through that book because it's so simple, but like you said, theologically rich, that they could bounce off, which I thought was fascinating! So, God’s Very Good Idea has been used in such sweet ways. And then there's a middle grade version of it sort of. It’s kind of similar, but it's more like a Bible study, called Creative God, Colorful Us, which is for kind of the eight to thirteen year old. And schools are using that.

Ah, how nice!

Yeah!

Good, good, good!

Yeah. Because it's curriculum. You can use it in your class. And so Creative God, Colorful Us is being used that way, and so the kids’ books have been so well received, and I'm grateful for that. Yeah. And it's opening conversations that I think parents don't know how to start. Funny enough-

Exactly! That’s exactly… I'm sorry to jump in, but we don’t know how to start the conversation, and so you're helping us start that. Sorry to jump in like that.

Yes. No, that is exactly right. And what I didn't anticipate, but I'm so glad, is that it has led kids to the Lord. I get emails from parents, who say, “My child, my eight-year-old, submitted his life to the Lord after reading it over and over.” Because it’s…. The gospel really is just laid out in that book. And it opens conversations for parents to talk about what it means. And so these are the things that I would not have… I couldn't do, only God can do, and I'm in publishing, so I often say that books go where we can't.

Right, right.

And so I can't go, and I can't be in everyone's living room. but books can. And God's Very Good Idea in particular has been translated into like ten plus different languages.

How nice! How nice.

So it’s all over the place. And I would never have thought that someone in Korea, Germany, I don't know. I mean… Brazil would be reading this book in their native language. It's a blessing.

Yeah! Although, although, wouldn't we… I mean, of all books that we would want to get translated, a book on the theme that you're talking about, God's Very Good Idea. If that didn't get translated, that would be a problem. Well, this has really been fun. I hope this isn't really weird, but at the very end, I just want to talk about another book, very different, of yours. Fairly new, I think, 52 Weeks in the Word. It’s described as, “A joy-filled, thoughtful, and realistic pathway through the entirety of God's Word.” Just give us a little commercial. Sell us on this.

I love reading God's Word. I write Bible studies, and I realize that we are not… our Bible reading muscle has atrophied. And I wanted to help… Yes. I wanted to produce a resource that would make it easy for someone to start reading the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation. So it's a canonical reading through. And just read the Bible, just read. And that is as simple as it is. I don't have any dates on it, so that, if you get behind, you can just pick up and read again. So it's a low-pressure read through the scriptures. But there's a guide. There’s a journal so that you can write. And there’s questions to ask to help you connect the Bible reading to God. Like, “What are you learning about God?” “Do you see Jesus?” “Where do you see the gospel?” These are these questions that help connect your mind and heart, so you're engaging as you're reading. But it has also been an absolute joy to hear people who are reading the Bible for the first time. First time! Yeah. So 52 Weeks in the Word has been a delight to journey with people through the word, and that released last year, so there's a lot of people who are just now finishing up. We’re in the New Testament, finishing up their Bible reading. Or they’re in the middle, and they're going to keep going for the next year. And yeah, it's to help people get into the word. Because there is—also you said one minute. I keep talking. Because I do love the word and helping people get into the word. So I won’t say anything else.

Well, now I want to clarify. So that's written for adults, for grownups, that book.

Yes. 52 Weeks in the Word is written for the grownups in your life to read. However, there are especially high school students who have used it. I spoke at a couple of high schools, and they’ve used it. I gave it to my youth group, so high school students have used it. And I do have something in the works for kids.

Aha! She teases us.

Aha!

Well, I hope I didn't pounce too heavily when you said there aren't any dates in it, because—and I need to be really careful because we, the C.S. Lewis Institute, every January, we send out this “Read through the Bible in a Year” with the dates, and it's good, made the Lord bless it. That has never worked for me. I get behind, and I see, “Oh, it's February, and I'm still on January 10th. Oh, no!” And my propensity toward feeling guilt just kicks in. So I've started quite a few read through the Bible in a year, and I've never done it in a year. I’ve done it in a year and a half, and it's great! It’s wonderful! And I recommend it tremendously. But anyway… so that's maybe an awkward weird place. I'm going to have to apologize.

Oh, no! That’s perfect!

Well, but my friends at the C.S. Lewis Institute, I'm going to have to write out an apology. Anyway, this has really been fun. I'm going to list your books in the show notes, a link to your website. I'm also going to link to our ministry within the C.S. Lewis Institute, Keeping the Faith, because I think there's a whole lot of resonance there, of passing on the faith to our children and grandchildren. Any last comments you want to make before we sign off? Trillia, this has really been a joy for me.

No. This has been a joy. I think we could talk about several different subjects, so I pray that it will serve your audience, and I’m so grateful to be on. And tell your grand kids hello.

I will! Are you kidding? Their eyes are just going to…. “Guess who I talked to? You see this book?” Anyway, that'll be fun, for both me and for them. So anyway thanks to all of you for listening. Please check out our website, cslewisinstitute.org, all of our different resources. Our prayer is that these resources, this podcast and all our work, will help you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.


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