When you think of the Bible, you immediately think of espionage, fraud, and crime, right?
Well, maybe not, but God sure doesn’t shy away from sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to His people. And Jonathan Schkade doesn’t shy away from exploring these criminal accounts either. In fact, his latest book, Not-So-Nice Bible Stories: Master Criminals, highlights several of God’s people whose criminal acts offer us important lessons today.
We recently caught up with Jonathan to talk to him about his book and chat about life in general. (P.S. His book Master Criminals is recommended for ages 11 and up.)
- So, what prompted you to write Master Criminals? How did you pick which characters from the Bible to include?
After I turned in the manuscript for book 1, Not-So-Nice Bible Stories: Gory Deaths, Concordia asked me to work on a follow-up. In the end, we settled on Master Criminals because it was an interesting topic that included a broad range of biblical figures, male and female, rich and poor, heroes of the faith and straight-out villains. It’s also a topic I thought would be relevant for readers who enjoy hearing about true crime and who’ve messed up themselves.
I selected characters who committed a variety of crimes and who, often, were unexpected criminals. I also wanted to include more women in this book. Finally, certain crimes had already been covered extensively in Gory Deaths, and I wanted this material to be fresh. Curiously, Jezebel made the cut for both books, but this time there’s more on her husband, Ahab. I guess she had enough wickedness going for her to warrant double coverage.
- You’ve written other books, one of them being Gory Deaths—what’s the story with your interest in “not-so-nice” Bible stories?
Truth be told, I like the nice, beautiful stories as well as anyone. But I also love the obscure stories and the stories that shine a light on the dirt and the grit, because that’s where we can see God engaged in His most important work. As Lutherans, we believe in the theology of the cross, that Christ came to suffer and die to save us from our sins. This wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t glorious. But it was necessary.
The “not-so-nice” stories show people like us trying, failing, and sinning. These same stories show our need for a Savior and reveal God at work saving and forgiving. So, yes, they’re stories of judgment, but they’re also stories of grace and mercy.
- While your book is all about “Master Criminals” in Scripture, would you say the main message of your book is about more than lives of crime?
Most of the “criminals” in the book didn’t live what we would consider to be lives of crime. If anything, this book is about ordinary and sometimes extraordinary people who made mistakes—often really bad ones—just like we do. This book is about us. It’s about our failures, our sins, and our real need for help.
More than that, it’s about forgiveness. Whether these particular criminals received or rejected God’s forgiveness, He stood ready to pardon and to redeem them. We are given not just lives of crime and slavery to sin. We are given freedom to joyfully live as God’s beloved children.
Recently, I heard that a student who viewed himself as “a bad kid” read Master Criminals and told his family, “The people in this book messed up really bad, and God still loved them. I mess up a lot too. If He can love them, maybe He can love me too.” He said it way better than I ever could.
- When you wrote this book, who did you have in mind as the target audience for this book?
I’ll start with the classic answer of “me.” I was, in large part writing a book about the elements of the Bible accounts that appealed to me as a teen and still appeal to me now. There’s truth to the saying that “if you’re not interested in what you’re saying, why should anyone else be?”
Besides me, I was thinking quite a bit about how sixth graders, ninth graders, and even adults relate to Scripture. I wanted to pull out things that people from a broad range of ages would find interesting and helpful in their own studies and faith development. So, in general, it’s a book for preteens and teens, but I think there’s stuff there for older readers too.
- If you had to pick your favorite Master Criminal in the Bible, who would he or she be?
Haman is near the top of the list. He’s a petty scoundrel who thinks he’s in complete control, but he actually has no idea what’s going on. Though what he tries to do and what happens to him are serious business, he’s like a comedy movie villain. He’s so egotistical and his plans backfire so horribly, it’s funny, but it’s also a stark reminder for those times I start relying on my own plans. Brilliance apart from God’s will is doomed for failure.
- As a dad, why would you encourage your kids to read a book like Master Criminals and Gory Deaths?
I probably wouldn’t yet, because mine are only 4 and 7. In a few years, definitely. Presenting kids with a narrative that life if a nonstop shower of happiness isn’t realistic and doesn’t teach them where to turn and how to cope when awful stuff happens. These books definitely give that and encourage kids to dig deeper into Scripture, which is the purpose of all my books. I want them to know a joy and peace that goes further than just good day versus bad day.
- You’ve written a variety of books, from those in the Not-So-Nice Bible Stories series to Arch Books, devotions for kids, and devotions for Portals of Prayer. What would you say are your favorite writing projects?
I adore The Love Bridge, my recent Concordia picture book about God’s love, our sin, and Jesus coming to be our way back to God. I like the idea of starting the littlest kids on the right path of learning about Jesus. For much the same reason, a couple of my favorites are the (unpublished) hymns I wrote for my daughters when they were baptized. They’re framed outside their room as a reminder of what God did for them on their special day years ago and what He still does for them now.
It also makes me happy as a writer when I can incorporate unexpected humor into a project, which happens in the Not-So-Nice books, some of my devotions, and my book Icky Sticky, Hairy Scary Bible Stories. Humor makes it more fun for me and, I think, more engaging for the reader.
- In your dedication, you thank your parents for their loving efforts to direct you away from a life of crime. That’s great! Tell us a little bit about your family and how they’ve impacted your life and your writing.
I always tease my parents that my brother and I were easy kids, so they didn’t have to work too hard. The truth of it is that all Christian parents have to work their tails off to teach the faith, make it real for kids, and forgive and redirect their kids away from the sins (crimes) both against God and the civil laws.
My parents have been all about service to God and to family. Kindness, humility, and generosity of spirit are gifts they never stop giving to this day. My wife and daughters now make me focus on passing on those traits and ground me in humility that I can’t do it on my own apart from the grace of God.
- When it comes to writing a book, what would you say are some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the writing and publishing process?
Concepts have always been easy for me—there’s never a shortage of ideas for books. Figuring out structure is usually my first big challenge with a project. It can take a bit of experimentation to focus in on what matters most to include and the best way to share it with readers. But once the structure and hook are set, I’m off to the races.
I’m a nut for editing. I really love chipping away at my word count and tweaking sentences here and there to make the writing sparkle.
Waiting is one of the big challenges. Waiting for feedback from critiquers, waiting for an answer on a book proposal, waiting for edits from the editor, waiting for publication day, and then realizing that I’ve spent too much time waiting, which is a good nudge to move on to the next task.
I’m guessing you already know the best thing: hearing from readers that they love something I wrote or were helped by it. That’s a hug for the heart right there.