Monday 23 March 2015

Critical reviews of The Jesus Storybook Bible

The children’s Bibles market is massive these days. Much like other forms of children’s literature they have also gained a substantial adult readership – especially Sally Lloyd-Jones’ The Jesus Storybook Bible - and yet there is surprisingly little reflection on them.

A while back I spent some time researching them and then wrote a review article for Themelios about two of the most popular: The Big Picture Story Bible (BPSB) and The Jesus Storybook Bible (JSB) (available here). I was actually quite critical about The Jesus Storybook Bible and was advised by friends to prepare for a backlash, given its popularity. That never came, I suspect because my review was so painstakingly thorough that no one made it to the end. Anyway, I was reminded of it the other day when someone highlighted this even more negative review and so I thought I’d post some concluding highlights from my review here:

Given this book's popularity, it is worth repeating myself. The JSP does speak of God's anger at sin, but the primary account of the human plight is that we are his children who doubt his love rather than, in the terms of Rom 1:21, rebellious idolaters who refuse to honour him as God or give thanks to him. In JSB we are clearly objects of divine love, but it less clear that we are also objects of divine wrath (Eph 2:3). This creates something of a tension within the story bible. When Jesus dies, "the full force of the storm of God's fierce anger at sin was coming down" (306), but little of what comes before prepares us for that as the fitting or necessary solution to the plight. As Justin Taylor writes, "My one qualm is that it so emphasizes the (legitimate) biblical theme of God's yearning/wooing love that the theme of judgment and wrath in the OT stories tends to be muted; when the story comes to the cross, the readers have not really been ‘set up' very well to understand the need for propitiation.” This over-emphasis, as I have argued above, also pulls some of the OT stories and the life and teaching of Jesus out of shape.

JSB aims to relate the stories of the Bible to the larger story of salvation, and, more specifically, to show how the OT narratives prefigure Christ's role in that salvation, hence The Jesus Storybook Bible. It chooses the love of God for his children as the central theme, which is certainly a more relational and dynamic choice than BPSB's categories of people, place, and rule. Lloyd-Jones's talents as a storyteller are clear, hence The Jesus Storybook Bible, as are Jago's as an artist, and the same humour, depth, and richness suffuses both of their efforts. JSB often artfully and movingly makes connections between OT passages and their christological fulfilment. The stories, creatively retold, place the emphasis as much on "storybook" as "bible," but JSB brilliantly captures the drama, humour, and earthy reality of many of the narratives. The emphasis on the unconditional love of God is well-deployed against the thought that we might earn or lose it on account of how we look, what we have, or what we do. On the other hand, its emphasis without sufficient reference to God's authority or holiness creates a tension with JSB's clear account of the wrath-bearing death of Jesus. The characterisation of humanity principally as God's children deceived into thinking that God does not love them makes the necessity of Jesus' death harder to integrate and the wonder of it harder to grasp. It also shapes the account of Jesus' earthly ministry: attractive in its beauty but hardly ever challenging in its authority, power, or purity. For that reason I would want to use JSB more selectively and cannot offer the unconditional endorsement that others often give it.