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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 is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).