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In her keynote address at Hutchmoot a few weeks ago, Sally Lloyd-Jones told the harrowing story of a time she was left alone with a roomful of elementary-aged Sunday schoolers. The teacher stepped out of the room while Sally read the story of Daniel in the lions’ den from her wonderful Jesus Storybook Bible. The kids were loving it. They were bright-eyed, alert, engaged.
But when Sally got to the end of the story, the teacher hadn’t returned. It was just Sally and the Sunday schoolers. Expectant faces. Awkward silence. Sally glanced toward the door. No sign of the teacher. She panicked. “So, children…” she began, forcing a smile. “What lesson can we learn from this story?”
The children, so willing and eager a few moments earlier, slumped in their chairs, as sullen as washed cats.
Sally knew better. Of course she knew better. She wrote The Jesus Storybook Bible, for crying out loud. She only did what you or I would have probably done in the same stressful circumstances. When it comes to communicating truth to children, our default tends to be moralizing and lesson-mongering, especially when we don’t have the time or energy to put more thought into it.
One of the things I love about Slugs & Bugs Under Where? is the fact that Randall Goodgame so skillfully steers clear of moralizing while still speaking some big truths to his young listeners.
There are songs on Under Where? that are just a ton of fun. “Mexican Rhapsody,” a rock opera piece about Mexican food, contains the following lines:
What does pico de gallo mean?
Beak of the rooster.
Beak of the rooster.
Sounds kind of pointy.
I don’t want to eat that.
These lines, by the way, are sung with a bombastic mock-seriousness that is reminiscent of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The song “Food” declares,
I won’t eat a taxi or a mannequin hand.
I won’t eat chicken feathers.
Just food, food, only food for me.
There’s a lot of that kind of stuff in this album. There’s also a lot of this kind of stuff:
I’m very, very capable of anger.
Just try and take my candy bar away.
I’m very, very capable of selfishness,
When I only play what I want to play.
Usually I’m very sorry later,
But eventually it happens again.
If this sounds like you and you’re so confused,
I’ve got good news, my friend.
Just tell it to Jesus, he already knows.
Tell it to Jesus, before it grows.
We all mess up, it’s sad but true.
But that’s what human beings do.
So tell it to Jesus, cause he loves you.
That’s from “Tell It To Jesus.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer, more concise, or more compassionate statement of the gospel for young listeners. Or consider “I’m Adopted,” which deserves to be an anthem for adoptive families everywhere.
I was born into a story full of twists and turns
even the scary kind, and that’s the truth
Yeah that was my beginning, but just turn the page
And there you’ll find, in chapter two
How love had a plan for me
And a great big family
I’m adopted, I’m adopted
It’s the New Testament doctrine of adoption, placed in the context of family adoptions that kids see all the time. This isn’t exactly lightweight theology.
All three Slugs & Bugs records speak to kids on their level without speaking down to kids. To put it another way, they’re more concerned with the way kids think than with the way kids ought to think. In “Under Where?,” Randall and Andrew Peterson (wearing Bubba teeth, I’m pretty sure) get all the way down to the level of the youngest listeners–maybe even lower–with an old joke. (“Have you looked under there?” “Under where?” Get it? Underwear?) That’s one way of getting down to a child’s level. Another way is to speak of truths that are shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in. “God makes messy things beautiful,” or “God made you special, and he loves you very much” (that last was originally written for Veggietales).
Katy Bowser of Coal Train Railroad speaks of “inviting children into the conversation” with her music. I love that. And I think it’s a great way to talk about what Randall is doing with Slugs & Bugs. Besides inviting children into the conversation about faith, it invites them into some interesting musical conversations too. This is good, complex music from many different genres: New Orleans horn jazz, western swing, arena rock, African music, Chinese music, even a little klezmer. A horn trio (Dennis Solee, Roger Bissell, and Kevin Smith) add all kinds of depth and color to many of the songs on this record. The musicians are top-drawer, including Buddy Green, Stuart Duncan, Jeff Taylor, Paul Eckberg, Andy Osenga, and Ben Shive. Ben co-produced the record with Randall, and his brilliance shines throughout. And Andrew Peterson, besides adding some great vocal harmonies, also did the cover illustration.
There is a long tradition that treats story and song as a means of sneaking lessons past our children’s defenses. “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” according to Mary Poppins. Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld published a book called Deceptively Delicious, with recipes for spinach brownies and chocolate chip muffins with yellow squash and whatnot, whereby children unwittingly ingest vitamins while they eat dessert. That’s not what happens here. In the Slugs & Bugs world, the sugar is the medicine. It’s a world where delight carries the day, whether that’s the delight we experience in ninjas and lightning bugs and getting dizzy, or the delight that God experiences when he sees the children he loves so deeply. Slugs and Bugs reminds us that delight is intertwined with grace, coming and going.
So, children, what lesson can we learn from Slugs & Bugs: Under Where? Simply this: the world where we live and move and have our being is a world full of delight. And also this: you, child, are a source of delight yourself. You are loved.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.