With four children ages 5-7, I care deeply about children’s Bibles. If the Bible is the sacred book we believe it is, then the selection of stories, their emphases and implications, the language and tone, the artwork — everything matters.
The tagline of the popular Jesus Storybook Bible (ZonderKidz, 2009) reads: “Every story whispers his name.” In the introduction (“The Story and the Song”), author Sally Lloyd-Jones gently corrects two common misconceptions — that the Bible is mainly a book of rules and a book of heroes. Throughout her retelling, she strives to steer clear of moralism and hero worship by spotlighting human need and pointing to the singular Hero.
Whispering His Name
The main strength of The Jesus Storybook Bible (TJSB) is just this: putting Christ at the center of the story (and the stories). All 44 stories highlight the gracious, pursuant love of God as God’s people await and then celebrate the Savior sent for our redemption.
Mature Bible readers know that the biblical story points toward and culminates in Jesus Christ. But discerning how each story points to Jesus is more complex. Nevertheless, without overcomplicating the connections, at the end of each story Lloyd-Jones turns toward God’s redemptive plan culminating in Christ. As the failed builders depart the Tower of Babel, she writes, “People could never reach up to Heaven, so Heaven would have to come down to them” (54). As Goliath lays prone at the feet of young David, she concludes, “Many years later, God would send his people another young Hero to fight for them. And to save them” (129). After Daniel’s lions are stilled, she predicts, “God would keep on rescuing his people. And the time was coming when God would send another brave Hero, like Daniel, who would love God and do what God said — whatever it cost him, even if it meant he would die” (159). The moral of each story is basically the same: not what we should do but what God has done (14); not our imitation of a human hero but Christ’s coming salvation.
Whenever I read to my children from TJSB, I am struck by its Christ-centeredness. Throughout the OT stories, I find myself waiting. None of the stories are satisfactory, and though God is clearly working, the unresolved problem remains. The ultimate human need is unmet, and we find ourselves waiting for the Savior and Rescuer who kindly hovers over the end of each mini-story. We are shown our great need, and promised that grace and help is on the way — in the form of a person. Ultimately, what could be more important for our children to understand than this?
What Is Sin?
TJSB stresses human inability. Lloyd-Jones labors to drive home our need of grace, a welcome emphasis for Christian families who (rightly) teach our children things like first-time obedience and healthy biblical morals. However, one of my concerns with Jones’ retelling is her almost exclusive presentation of sin as sickness and brokenness. She doesn’t talk much in terms of disobedience, rebellion, or divine retribution. Sin is sickness or running away from God or having a heart that doesn’t work properly, so what we need is God’s healing and his loving pursuit. These definitions are absolutely true, but they’re insufficient if we don’t also talk about our willing and eager disobedience to God’s commands. Parents will need to be careful to supplement (without correcting) this incomplete (but not incorrect) perspective on sin.
Moralism and Morality
TJSB also steers far clear of “moralism,” but it’s important to remember that the danger lies in the -ism, not the morality itself. One of the limitations of this particular story Bible is the general absence of moral teaching. Of course, its rich flavor of grace and gospel is refreshing after the bland taste of the many simplistic children’s Bibles focused on drawing out ethical principles from every narrative. However, I have always disagreed with those who suggest that a legitimate redemptive-historical hermeneutic must downplay the clear practical lessons we learn from the Bible’s many-layered stories — lessons about morals, ethics, choices, consequences, wisdom, and obedience. As for TJSB, I don’t see its lack of ethical teaching as a problem. I’m only making the obvious and all-important observation that no children’s Bible is the actual Bible, and some story Bibles (like this one) purposefully take one particular angle on the biblical stories, an approach that necessarily leaves other angles unexplored.
Limited Story Selection
One reason why it’s important to use a variety of children’s Bibles is their inherent limitations when it comes to story selection. TJSB contains 44 stories — 21 OT and 23 NT. Most of the NT stories (19½) are from the gospels, and only 3½ are drawn from Acts through Revelation. So, for example, the rich theology and ethical implications of Paul’s many letters are left unexplored, when it’s precisely these letters that flesh out just how the story of Israel has climaxed in the work of Jesus and his Spirit and his church. This lack is not the author’s fault but rather a limitation inherent to the genre itself (and to Lloyd-Jones’ credit, she often crafts mini-stories that include a psalm or a prophecy or a letter which help children sense the original medium in which certain truths were given).
I deeply appreciate The Jesus Storybook Bible. So far, I’ve read it to my children more than any other children’s Bible (though we’ve used several). In all 44 stories, it calls us to see our need and turn to Christ. Of course, with its powerful focus come limitations. But all children’s Bibles have them. Therefore, I continually remind myself that it’s my privilege and responsibility to teach my children God’s truth. It’s not ultimately the job of a Sunday School teacher, a Bible class teacher, a VBS volunteer, or a story Bible. These are all valuable supplements, but the main course must be my life and my words.
* Thanks to ZonderKids for providing a copy of the beautiful Deluxe Edition for review. The best part of this special edition is its audio CDs read by David Suchet, an award-winning actor with wonderful narrative cadence and a delightful British accent (of course). You can listen to the audio samples at the book’s official website.