Why is the PCA so worked up over a shallow book like Jesus Calling? (2024)

The Presbyterian Church in America at its 2024 annual meeting voted to investigate the Christian appropriateness of the bestselling bookJesus Callingby Sarah Young, who was part of the PCA anddied in August last yearat age 77.

How some denominations have developed a cannibalistic habit of eating their own remains a strange practice. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: “Nothing could be more scandalous than for Christians to kill one another. When we do so it is not only murder, it is suicide.”

In 2013 Jesus Calling was the seventh bestselling book in America. Overall, it has sold more than 10 million copies in 26 languages. In 2013, it outsoldFifty Shades ofGray. In October 2014, the 10th anniversary expanded edition was published with some significant changes. The success ofJesus Callingspawned two subsequent publications:Jesus Lives (2009) and JesusToday(2013). Jesus Today also became a bestseller and was named 2013 Book of the Year by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

Those of us who write “rare” books have one justifiable response to Young: envy. Thus the emotional response of the PCA to one of their own books seems to lack justification.

“The move seems surprising for the PCA — always better mannered, less outrageous and more sophisticated than the rowdy Southern Baptists.”

The best way I can understand what’s going on in the PCA is an analogy of the elder brother and the younger brother dynamics. Being the elder brother can be tough when baby brother steals your thunder. In American Christianity, the PCA struggles because the Southern Baptist Convention has stolen its thunder. According to its website, “The Presbyterian Church in America was formed in 1973 to be a denomination that is ‘Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.’”

The SBC’s “conservative resurgence” came after the birth of the PCA. Yet the SBC gets all the publicity for its neo-Calvinistic wing. The Presbyterians are sure they own the copyright on all things “Calvin,” and these Southern Baptists are usurpers.

What is the elder brother to do?

Joining the crazed book-banning movement isn’t exactly a religious tsunami, but PCA felt a statement had to be made. The move seems surprising for the PCA — always better mannered, less outrageous and more sophisticated than the rowdy Southern Baptists. This is an unusual move for the people insistent on doing all things “decently and in order.”

Why attack a dead woman?

Why attack Sarah Young and her book? Only Donald Trump attacks people after they have died. (Sen. John McCain and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan).

Who declares someone a heretic after death? That can’t be satisfying to heretic hunters. They usually like to watch heretics burn at the stake, be drowned in the river or have their heads chopped off. Where’s the joy in being cruel to the dead?

This attention-grabbing public relations move may cause the righteous to sigh in their afternoon tea, but does the PCA really want to shine the light on a theologically light book of mostly theological drivel?

The theology in Jesus Calling doesn’t rise to the level of heresy. Carlyle Marney once was asked what he thought about being called a heretic. He responded, “The Baptists have never produced a mind capable of heresy.” The problem with Jesus Calling: It doesn’t contain a theology.

Since only a fool would discuss a book, he never read, I purchased a copy of Jesus Calling from Amazon and started reading it on my Kindle Fire. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about in this small enclave of American Calvinists. I had every intention to read the book from cover to cover, but after about the first 30 devotionals, I was too numb, bored and distracted to continue. There’s a million times more inspiration to be found in reading one Psalm a day. These devotionals are simple, syrupy, sentimental. They are harmless.

“The keepers of this high and holy belief are always prowling around looking for those not completely and totally sold-out true believers in the infallible Bible.”

Young’s critics, however, have a serious case of “righteous indignation” and seem most bent out of shape by her introduction. Even though she makes the obligatory statement about believing in the infallible Bible, the keepers of this high and holy belief are always prowling around looking for those not completely and totally sold-out true believers in the infallible Bible.

The largest PCA critic of Jesus Calling, has been Benjamin Inman. He epitomizes the dead seriousness of Calvinist insistence on purity: “The PCA regards so highly the particulars of its doctrinal statement, that at ordination any exception must be divulged and examined. Ordination depends on whether an exception is merely semantic or vitiates the system of doctrine and wholesome piety.”

The Larger Westminster Catechism has 196 questions. These are not people “heedless” or careless with doctrinal formulations.

Even with all the scrupulosity of such critics, there’s not enough real evidence to determine what Young believed about the Bible. I’m OK with her boiler-plate declaration: “The Bible is the only infallible, inerrant word of God, and I endeavor to keep my writings consistent with that unchanging standard.”

All the fuss seems centered on Young saying, “This practice of listening to God has increased my intimacy with him more than any other spiritual discipline, so Iwant to share some of the messages I have received.”

Direct revelation from God

The messages she claims to have “received” from God are not exactly theological bombshells. Who hasn’t heard an unprepared preacher gush on a Sunday morning, “I was going to preach on Joshua 1, but last night, God spoke to me and told me to preach on John 3.” Then the preacher drags out his go-to sermon on John 3 and preaches it for the 20th time in his ministry.

God has nothing to do with this verbal trickery. It’s harmless. At most, the pulpit police should have dragged him out of the pulpit in handcuffs and hauled him off to the judge. There he could have been given probation and told to stop lying in the pulpit. Harmless.

If you are in the preacher business, if you are a Christian standing in the apostolic reception of revelation from God, you have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, you have told someone, “God spoke to me.”

The accuser: Benjamin Inman

The PCA pastor who originated this fiasco deserves a second look. Theoriginal legislation(called an “overture” in the PCA) came from an individual, pastor Benjamin Inman.

“The mind staggers at what exactly passes for purity among these biblicists.”

No doubt Inman is a serious and intense person. He takes aim at Young’s lack of doctrinal purity when it comes to the Bible. The mind staggers at what exactly passes for purity among these biblicists. With so many different interpretations of the Bible flying around in evangelical space like pieces of space junk, it is hard to judge purity.

He accuses Young of idolatry. Inman, no stranger to hyperbole, says: “Theologically, the contents are a carefully crafted abomination. To speak in the most straightforward and old-fashioned manner,Jesus Callingis an idol. It is a humanly contrived facsimile of God, offered for the purported purpose of communing with the living and true God.”

Inman’soriginal legislationcalled for the PCA to consider repenting for not disciplining Young for idolatry, although he acknowledged that “the author’s passing in August 2023 has carried her above the jurisdiction of the PCA.”

Out of his own mouth, Inman confesses to the uselessness of his motion.

Thomas Nelson Publishers

The other more likely suspect in this charade: Thomas Nelson Publishers. Evangelical publishing houses are ingenious at selling books packed with good, spiritual feelings. You could get the same experience watching a 5-minute video of a cabin in the woods with rain falling in the surrounding forest and nice music playing in the background. If someone whispered, “You are getting sleepy, very sleepy,” you would be hypnotized in 30 seconds or less.

Jesus Calling is put together as 365 television advertisem*nts. You really can’t blame Nelson for publishing works making huge profits. Publishers are not always in the business of printing truth.

Evangelical presses, like Nelson, have been so hospitable to preachers, seminary professors, Sunday school teachers, fake historians and amateur moralists proudly brandishing their credentials to provide sweet Jesus stories, horror stories about the end of the world and fictional histories about the founding of America.

Nelson had to withdraw one of its best sellers, The Jefferson Lies by David Barton, because it was filled with Barton’s lies and misinformation. Barton, not an actual historian, plays one for evangelical audiences and promotes a series of lies about the founding of America. But if it’s popular, if it sells, evangelical publishers will put it on the market regardless of dubious truth content. Nelson has honored Jesus Calling with a cover usually reserved for editions of the Bible: “Large Text Brown Leathersoft, with full Scriptures.”

Despite her embarrassing lack of theological proclivities, Young never fails to entrance her readers with her sweet spirit and rhetorical recklessness. Her talent for stringing together sentences saying nothing, signifying nothing, yet leaving people with an emotional satisfaction is exceeded only by her overdrawn sense of spirituality. One senses the author gushing the words of Jesus rather than proclaiming them with authority.

People find Young’s writings help them “feel” better. Young dispenses large wallops of “feeling good, feeling great, and feeling wonderful.”

Jesus Calling is not worthy of being banned. I do not make this statement as an uninformed outsider. I have read a library full of evangelical soft-core, superficial, positive thinking works. Her book is as harmless as Joel Osteen’s Thirty-One Promises to Speak Over Your Life.

The devotions in Jesus Calling are spiritualized positive thinking. Watch the sermon of any American megachurch pastor and you will get your fill of this kind of verbiage. It feels good, says nothing, disturbs nothing, challenges nothing, does nothing. But it feels good.

The PCA, Thomas Nelson, Inman — all are more culpable than Young. She should be allowed to rest in peace.

Rodney W. Kennedyis a pastor and writer who serves in New York state and Louisiana. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy.

Why is the PCA so worked up over a shallow book like Jesus Calling? (2024)
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