top of page

Jesus Calling: The PCA's Yuck Factor

As three or four of my friends know, I have posted two blog articles about the book Jesus Calling and the Presbyterian Church in America. The first is condemnatory, of the book and of the PCA’s birthing it. The second presents an argument for an overture to the General Assembly seeking an investigation to determine whether the denomination is in fact guilty of abetting gross idolatry.


Obviously, the two articles have been wildly popular– almost all of my Facebook Friends know that I posted them. My presbytery added the overture to our January docket for a first reading, and will take it up in April. A total of three elders in my presbytery have actually spoken to me about it. Of course, they were only stirred to interest after watching my gesticulations on Presbycast.


A Mystery to Me

The most interesting turn in that podcast conversation was the mystery: why is Jesus Calling the PCA’s biggest best kept secret? Why did ByFaith introduce their biographical celebrations of Sarah Young with essentially, “you probably didn’t know that this lifelong member of the PCA is the author of Jesus Calling, which made her the best-selling Christian author of all time.” How could anyone in the PCA not know which PCA author had outsold Tim Keller by several Manhattan miles? With the multiple critical reviews of Jesus Calling by Reformed bloggers, ministers and Gospel Coalition B-list celebrities, has any “significant player” in the PCA ever published something positive or negative or even aware of the book? Despite Presbycast’s usual piercing insight, our sagacious trio was stumped.


I recently received a letter from an independent researcher who has been studying the industry of Jesus Calling for a decade (The book was published in 2004). She is well aware– as I was not– that PCA leaders have been petitioned previously. She and her colleagues have wondered at the silence. She thinks the PCA’s general on-the-ground health has made the book practically irrelevant: by and large a functional conviction of sola scriptura and concern for sound theology has made it of little concern in the pews of the PCA. I am heartened by that assessment from an observer outside the Reformed-ish orbit. Anecdotally, I have the impression that the book had more notice among women of the PCA before 2015, but it has dwindled off– as somewhere else 9 million units sold increased to 45 million.


In point of fact, I do think that Jesus Calling is treasured by some part of the PCA. That was particularly evident at Sarah Young’s Memorial Service in 2023. But, I will return (D.V.) to that in a subsequent post, as I will to the modest request for “critical study” presented to the Stated Clerk in 2019 . Before these apparent outliers, the mystery is more interesting. 


Many seem to know of an aunt or grandmother still quite taken with the book, and they see a copy on and off again– at least they see it on sale at Costco or Hobby Lobby. They know it is still out there, but they don’t see it frequently in the PCA. Sales of 45 million do surprise them, but they aren’t incredulous. They know that it is incredibly popular. A few women have expressed to me an urgent desire for my little teacup to tempt some PCA somebody into making a real noise about it; they report dire and unassailable influence among women they know. Well, if it isn’t even a tempest, I do brew a strong cuppa. With their exhortation to me, these women also report their abiding surprise that the PCA doesn’t seem to know it birthed this atrocious book. Why is Jesus Calling shrugged off in the PCA?


The PCA is a big tent, and differences are noticeable if not everywhere thick on the ground. Still, PCA people commend the denomination with reference to Tim Keller’s various books. I don’t think that commendation commonly mentions our best selling author. If no cantankerousness about the book in the past (?), then why simultaneously no common knowledge? Why no common thankfulness or sanctified bragging about the PCA’s largest published contribution to evangelicalism? What could have eclipsed it? How does something this big become invisible in its hometown? Is this just the fate of every prophet? That is the mystery.


The Yuck Factor

In a pithy phrase, you can’t stop Methodists from being Methodists, but you can sure be obnoxious trying. The word winsome is somewhere in reach, but that is merely descriptive. The PCA teaches convictions which far more evangelicals don’t practice, but they are still our spiritual kith and kin. By and large, it seems that PCA folk know of Jesus Calling as “one of those books” like The Prayer of Jabez (remember that?), or The Purpose Driven Life. Other folks are “into that,” and we recognize common ground; but we are generally polite. 


Given the characteristic verve of evangelicals with a book which they treasure, substantially discussing Jesus Calling could look disagreeable. You might boldly forward a link to a piece by Nancy Guthrie or Kathy Keller, “always open to talk, if you’re interested.” Pedestrian conflict with evangelicals about secondary or tertiary doctrinal matters is just yucky. Get a life, a loving life, a patient life, a life with some perspective.


When Kathy Keller rejects the book as at odds with the sufficiency of Scripture, quoting James Montgomery Boice on this doctrine as the issue of our times– we nod. We understand why the book doesn’t show up in all the right places. We are pleased to hear how it is aptly dismissed, if it pops up at a monthly Women’s group. This is in the PCA DNA, in the relationships that have grown up over the last decade and more.


Jesus Calling doesn’t match the PCA defaults. There are a few weighty theologisms to explain, but the slant in that room of women may be more conclusive than the quite sound answers to a couple of follow up questions.  Other believers embrace that, and we embrace other believers; but we’re PCA, and that isn’t. Why? We’re Reformed, and that isn’t. Let’s get busy with God’s Word.


There is wisdom and etiquette and empathy in all this, but it also matches a yuck factor. Jesus Calling violates important theological convictions that we hold. They also sell it at Costco and Hobby Lobby– and you haven’t seen much R.C. Sproul on those tables, much less anything actually diverse. The book does show up in interesting places– gritty Instagram accounts, poignant Instagram accounts, some Trump’s White House Instagram account, in the hands of Matthew McConaughey or Will Smith on somebody’s Instagram account. All of interest, none of it suggesting theological heft and discernment. From many spots in the PCA, the book looks lowbrow, maybe third-string pentecostal or evangelically vegan. That’s not us. Maybe those folks are ours, like six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon; that book is not. 


The Yuck Factor has a more technical label: the Wisdom of Repugnance, “the belief that an intuitive (or "deep-seated") negative response to some thing, idea, or practice should be interpreted as evidence for the intrinsically harmful or evil character of that thing”. And, no, you don't want that look on your face when talking to an evangelical-ish acquaintance. The diction of “repugnance” is repulsive to us. It rings arrogant, narrow and unbalanced.


Even if we discretely exclude the technical description, citing a Yuck Factor to explain the mysterious PCA ignorance about Jesus Calling is, well, yucky. It might suggest to some that our belief (i.e. the sufficiency of Scripture) is more visceral than responsible. Worse, it might suggest that we hold clandestine repugnance toward some other Christians. Someone reading this article has already been mumbling, “well, bless his heart.”  Such revulsion is not evident in my experience of the PCA, but that dour thought will stir again in a later post, when I take up the 2019 request for “critical study” by the PCA.


Most PCA ministers in my familiarity dismiss but don’t condemn Jesus Calling. They have no interest, and will not give it the time of day. They are sure the Holy Spirit uses all sorts of things with all sorts of people. They are quick to cite the sufficiency of Scripture, and circumspectly raise a concern or few about what is or is not emphasized. Then again (they seem to reflexively turn the same monologue into the same dialogue), you can’t say everything at once. They will reference better resources, and avoid damning with faint praise by (in the words of my researcher friend), “just a hint that something may be a bit off.”  I suppose this is blessing with faint criticism. More discerning, and more winsome? 


It’s the most ladylike repugnance ever, just a little ick. You can’t even feel that whispery squelch in the back of the throat. Jesus Calling isn’t what we do in the PCA. PCA ministry doesn’t do that. Let’s just drop it. It is pointless. Who needs to dwell on things vaguely unpleasant? Methodists are Methodist, and they are Christians. Who should judge another man’s servant? I’m busy doing God’s work. That book doesn’t belong in my sphere of influence. If not a yuck factor, it’s an ick, polite and collegial.


ByFaith was correct: most people in the PCA have no idea that Jesus Calling is the product of our denomination. It is confusing information. Either the book belongs to the wild, weird west of evangelicalism– and we don’t trash talk other Christians lacking our theological and historical privilege. Yuck. Don’t be a jerk. Or, the book does belong in the PCA, and we just didn’t actually understand it– because what we all thought it was, does not belong in the PCA. Yuck. We aren’t actually like that. 


So, it is a little difficult to take my two previous blog posts very seriously, or very far in a general PCA conversation. Could the overture really be taken to General Assembly?


Godly Repugnance 

The Wisdom of Repugnance may well be a communicable attribute of deity. 


When we see Christ’s grace transmogrified, God’s Word parodied, sinners deceived with Jesus-stuff, then the more adult/mature motifs in the Psalms seem less like Old Testament shadows. They sound more like the solid Jesus of Revelation. That is, if our repugnance is Christ-like. 


Every communicable attribute of deity is marshaled for rebellion when we exchange the Creator for the creature. A Yuck Factor can be mere sociology– clan or clique, and the comfort of being on the right side of theology and history. Such corrosive coziness is only compounded by cocky convictions which are coincidentally correct. A winsome man must be able to honestly puke, particularly from his own shameful dealings. It's all grace, though at times the Lord must be relentless with us. There's a bit of vomit in the Bible.


When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 

1 Corinthians 11:32


Yes, I’m carrying on about the Yuck. My previous two articles are designed to get two fingers in the back or our own throat– to confront ourselves publicly, rather than ignore our evangelical brethren politely. I might well be an outlier in the PCA demographic. I surely do feel like the village idiot. At least Lady Godiva wasn’t a 50 something Southern Troll with a bad haircut on a sway-backed mule. She rode astride a fine steed, with the modesty of beautiful tresses– to secure tax relief for poor people oppressed by their social betters.


To distract from my paunch and own jacked-up posture, I would ask an ear for this PCA lady. She at least makes me feel presentable, and I think she knows how the emperor dresses. 


Mrs. Sara Morris overcoming her own yuck factor on the Westminster Standard Podcast:




Maybe you’ll go read my two posts.


I don’t have high hopes for the overture at April’s Stated Meeting.

They are all likely to recognize the jack-ass it rode in on.


God willing, I‘ll post again soon: about that 2019 request to the Stated Clerk for “critical study,” about the book's positive reception in the PCA, and about the relevant substance of my new friend’s investigation of the Jesus Calling industry.


***

ruditus ruditusque

Numbers 22:30

5 Comments

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Guest
Apr 11

45 million books sold and you say not many in the PCA know of this book ......

Like

Guest
Apr 10
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Better late than never. We updated our Book Review on Jesus Calling

by Matt Slick | Jun 15, 2016 | a full 8 years ago. See it at https://tinyurl.com/4xkmefh4

The book's popularity has been a most unfortunate issue we deal with regularly, sadly. [Charlie Spine: Director at CARM.org]

Like

Guest
Apr 09
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

The Dangers to teachers are many


This can be boiled down to the central two:

Honey or Money


We never learn that if it is “popular “ or “well received “ we should run


It’s church-anity without Christianity

Like

Guest
Apr 04
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I'm glad to see this issue gathering steam. The Jezus Calling empire is a scandal for the PCA.


However, it may draw attention away from another dangerously alluring snare from among common spirituality, which is the "Christian" counseling industry and its theology white paper, the DASA report, which is 1000x more subtle but equally scandalous.

Like

Guest
Apr 03

If I understand you correctly, your main thesis is that the PCA, which had a duty to exercise spiritual oversight over Sarah Young, one of its members, failed in that duty by never taking any formal steps to deal with the problematic content of the book.

If so, then I basically agree.

But given that, as you have written, most people in the PCA aren't really aware of the book, I have to put that failure pretty far down the list of "Things the PCA should really have done something about years ago." I think you'll find getting elders, particularly TEs but REs as well, to acknowledge the idea that they bear responsibility for taking action in situations like this…

Like
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page