Sally Lloyd-Jones: Simple, but not too Simple

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A few years ago there appeared a post here about The Jesus Storybook Bible. That post was my introduction to the writings of Sally Lloyd-Jones. I don’t know what Sally’s writing process is like—if she tucks away in the corner of a coffee shop or spreads out at her own kitchen table, and I don’t know if she types her words into a computer or writes them by hand on a yellow legal pad. What I do know—and what is obvious to anyone familiar with her work—is that she is a disciplined, careful, whimsical and dead-serious writer of children’s literature.

Not too long ago, she posted the following quote on Twitter: “Albert Einstein quote for today: ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’” Einstein’s proposition here reveals one of the most confounding objectives for any artist: how to communicate to an audience truths that are, by nature, grandiose and unwieldy enough to inspire that artist to go to their medium to create.

Sally Lloyd-Jones operates in a strange industry—Christian literature. This post is by no means offered as a critique of that industry, but I am going to mention one point of criticism I notice because it frames the context for what I’m hoping to express about her. Here it is: often it seems the goal of Christian writing is to take the mysterious and unfathomable in Scripture and distill them down into the plain and comprehensible—as if it is possible to do this and still remain faithful to the Biblical narrative. There are lots of books promising five easy steps to mastering life and faith, as if the mastery of these things comes through the simple process of accumulating more information.

As for Sally, she displays a consistent habit in everything I’ve read of hers and that habit is this: she allows for the mystery and beauty of the Gospel story to remain mysterious and beautiful, even as she works to tell us what’s there.

That said, I am certainly not taking anything away from her careful fidelity to what the Bible actually says. Sally is an excellent teacher, and she gives her little readers more detail, explanation, and context than she is obligated to provide. And she treats the continuity of the Biblical narrative with such respect and intentionality that one can’t help but understand the content of Scripture better, having read her books. The evidence for this, of course, is seen in how many grown-ups read The Jesus Storybook Bible as devotional literature—and how they often get teary when they try to read it aloud. (Cough, Andrew Peterson, cough.)

But today, what I am writing to call broader attention to in her work is how she never seems to be simply about reshaping the extraordinary so that it might come down to her readers as ordinary. Or as Einstein said it, she works to make things as simple as possible, but not any simpler.

For example, in The Jesus Storybook Bible, Lloyd-Jones gives weight to Abraham’s complex emotions as he lifts the knife to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son he loves. She permits that troubling scene to remain appropriately troubling without simplifying the tears or confusion out of the story. For that I am thankful. I want my kids to know that Abraham wasn’t in cahoots with the Lord so that the two of them might perform a parlor trick with Isaac’s life in order to teach my kids a little lesson about trusting God. I want them to know that sometimes God does things that we, from our earthbound perspective, may never fully understand this side of glory. It is in that context that I pray their faith will develop.

I am thankful, thankful for the way Sally Lloyd-Jones takes the story of God’s “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” and makes it simple, but not too simple. And I am thankful for the way she illustrates the processes of learning, grief, struggle, doubt, and growth by only ever offering us one Hero in the story of Redemption. And I am thankful for the way she tells these stories from Scripture as though they are her own story.

 

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003).

Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


16 Comments

  1. John Barber

    This is great stuff, Russ. After reading TJSB to two of my kids now, I’m still struck by a few things: 1) How Lloyd-Jones distills not only the essence of the story, but also makes the connection between the story and Christ, and does it without ever stretching the text or doing damage to the intent; 2) How beautiful the prose and poetry of TJSB is – her prose is dynamic and still sweet and her poetry is compelling and intricate.

    Sally Lloyd-Jones, in TJSB, is something like a translator. You know those guys whose job it is to take the poetry of Neruda or Rilke or whoever, translate it into English, but maintain the integrity of the author and meter and rhyme scheme? That’s what she somehow manages to do here. She takes this vast work and translates it for us in such a way that the story arc, the love of God, and the beauty of the text are ever-present.

    At our church in Knoxville, we’ve taken to giving TJSB to our baby dedication families on Mother’s Day. It’s such a wonderful piece of work that we want every family with a youngster to have it in their hands.

    Kudos on the post, Russ. Great as always.

  2. Dan Kulp

    I love how TJSB boils down the language without boiling down the story or the truth. It does so well with “everything whispering his name” instead of a collection of random stories that make for good Sunday School filler for wee ones.

  3. kelli

    My family, too, has been so impacted by Sally Lloyd-Jones’ writing. She is a storyteller that speaks the truth from within her relationship with the Maker. And the result is that she calls us to a deeper relationship with Him as well.

    Thanks for this beautiful and simple (but not too simple!) post, Russ. You’ve painted a picture of her writing that will lure many, I believe.

  4. Caroline Smith

    This is a great post, and what a great quote by Einstein… “simple, but not simpler.” Gives me a lot to think about as a songwriter! Will share this… Thank you!

  5. danielle

    i am always recommending the Jesus Storybook Bible to friends – single, married, parents alike. i love that i have a child (and another one on the way) to read it to every night, but you don’t need kids to read it.

  6. Kinsey

    Russ,
    You beautifully captured Sally’s contribution to Christian literature. Our organization is using the JSB as part of our Bible club curriculum. (Discoveryclubsofal.org)

    I’m guilty of tearing up, and even choking up when I read the stories. We have an empty nest at home and yet I read one of the stories out loud to my husband just yesterday; in fact, I keep a copy of the JSB with my Bible and journal.

    I had the privilege of meeting Sally last month. Discovery Clubs invited her to speak at our volunteer luncheon. She is as wonderful as her books.

    Loved your post, Kinsey

  7. Tony Heringer

    “[She] allows for the mystery and beauty of the Gospel story to remain mysterious and beautiful, even as she works to tell us what’s there.”

    Well put my man.

    I recommend this work as often as I’m given the chance. I would have loved to have had it back in the day when our two were small. What is cool about this sort of work is it allows both parent and child to interact with the material in a simple/straightforward way but not simplistically.

    What I found in those times is my heart was shaped just as much if not more than my kids. I think that is what is great about recommending this work or giving it as a gift (kudos to John’s church), you know it will be transformational for all involved.

  8. luaphacim

    The JSB has been on my (much, much, MUCH too-long) reading list for a while, but Hutchmoot bumped it to the top. Thanks for whetting my appetite, Russ! 🙂

  9. Heather Ivester

    Last year in my women’s Bible Study, several of my friends kept talking about The Jesus Storybook Bible, telling us we all HAD to read it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. I figured we already had plenty of Bible storybooks around our house, and why not just read the Bible out loud anyway!

    But still — I jotted the title down in the margin of Mary Kassian’s Conversation Peace, Months went by, then last August, I saw it on the book table at Hutchmoot. Easy decision — I bought it. And I’m so glad I did.

    As I’ve read it out loud to my children, I’m struck by how many times I’ve felt the Holy Spirit nudging me, strengthening my faith. I love being able to enjoy the author’s beautiful and poetic writing — while at the same time, share the Gospel with my children. I think this book has made me a better parent — and teacher. Thank you for offering it at Hutchmoot!

  10. Peter Br

    Add another choked-up adult to your list. I sometimes wonder if she wrote it more for us than for the kids.

  11. Jenny E

    I cry every time I read one of the stories to my two-and-a-half year old daughter. She is still figuring out and labeling emotions, so every time she looks at me concernedly and says, “Mommy’s sad!” And I wipe my eyes, swallow, and tell her, “No, Mommy is happy because Jesus loves us so much. Sometimes mommies cry when they are happy, too.” I’m pretty sure this still seems pretty weird to her, but she hugs me anyway and says contentedly, “Mommy’s happy.”

  12. Meredith Leigh Burton

    I truly loved your exceptional post about The Jesus Storybook Bible. Anne Lloyd-Jones has delivered a poetic story collection that is not preachy, but the lessons are unmistakable. My favorite story is her examination of Leah. The audio version is read exceptionally well by British actor David Suchet. This book is one that I’ll never forget.

  13. Eddy Efaw

    “As simple as possible, but not simpler” That is the perfect way to describe what the JSB is in a nutshell. Excellent observations and articulation of those observations Russ! Great writers, communicators, teachers have the ability to put into words what others feel in their souls. You’ve done this for me here. Thank you.

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