“Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburger” – Mark Twain
A new column on our website, which aims to examine and ask hard questions about – i.e., to grill – bestselling Christian books.
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Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
Jesus Today: Experience Hope Through His Presence
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2012.
Jesus Calling and Jesus Today are two bestselling devotional books by Sarah Young. Jesus Calling was the original book, which was released in 2004, and Jesus Today is the follow-up volume, which came out last fall. Both books are near the top of Christian bestseller lists; as I write, Jesus Calling is at the top of the July bestseller list from ECPA and #3 on the August CBA list.
The stated aim of these books is to help the reader cultivate attentiveness to the loving presence of Jesus. The devotionals are written in the first person, as if they were coming from Jesus himself. The danger, of course, in speaking for Jesus, is that of presumption: are we really so bold as to speak for God, or are we borrowing the divine authority of Jesus to promote some other agenda? We will, therefore, have to pay close attention to what Jesus says in these books, and weigh it against the message of Jesus that we find in the Gospels.
But before we do that, let’s examine the format of the books. Jesus Calling consists of 365 devotionals (one for each day of the year), all of which fit on a single small page, and probably all weigh in at 200 words or less. Jesus Today only consists of 150 devotionals of similar length, but interspersed with Bible verses and some quotes from other devotional writers. I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of devotionals (I don’t recall ever having run a review of a book of devotionals in The Englewood Review of Books), but I know that they are helpful for some people, so I won’t dismiss the genre as a whole here. As I was reading these books, however, I couldn’t shake Marshall McLuhan’s quip that “The medium is the message.” In our ADD world, do we really expect to cultivate attentiveness and presence with an ultra-brief, streamlined devotional? Of course, we can’t exclude the possibility that these devotionals were intended as a nuggets of wisdom that are to be meditated upon for an extended period of time. However, if this was the case, and especially in our attention-starved world, it seems like they would come with some sort of guidance about how to meditate upon the devotionals, a practice that would not come naturally in the present fast-food era. It seems, therefore, that the stated aim of the book is working at cross-purposes with the form of the book.
Now, on to the content of the devotionals. To the credit of these books, I didn’t find anything here that struck me as blatantly wrong. There is even a fair measure of wisdom in the words that Jesus speaks here, but what sort of wisdom is it? My impression is that the wisdom offered here is mostly of the self-help variety. The devotionals are framed as conversations between Jesus and the reader, and the context of the work rarely stretches beyond the “Jesus and Me” relationship. Consider this excerpt from today’s devotional:
As you listen to the birds calling to one another, hear also My Love-call to you. I speak to you continually, through sights, sounds, thoughts, impressions, scriptures. There is no limit to the variety of ways I can communicate with you. Your part is to be attentive to My messages in whatever form they come. When you set out to find Me in a day, you discover that the world is vibrantly alive with My Presence. You can find Me not only in beauty and birdcalls, but also in tragedy and faces filled with grief. I can take the deepest sorrow and weave it into a pattern for good.
Setting aside the sentimentality, which brings its own set of issues that are too immense to address here, this devotional is characteristic of these books, rarely bringing “love of neighbor” into conversation with the prevailing sense of love for and attentiveness to God. In our Western world that is dominated by the powers of individualism and narcissism, I am concerned that a “Jesus and Me” book of this sort, only serves to bolster the death-grip by which these self-centered powers bind us. The biblical call of Jesus to discipleship: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” is notably absent from the pages of these books.
The crucial question that we must ask of any book, bestseller or not, is “to what end is the author leading us?” The best-case description (and I imagine that this is fair to the author’s intent) is that the goal here is to depict a Jesus that deeply loves and cares for his creatures. Not a bad end, of course, but unfortunately there is no sense of a larger narrative at work, no answer to the question “to what end does Jesus love us?” and thus, this sort of book is extraordinarily vulnerable to becoming little more than a tool of the self-indulgent powers of our age.
If you are one who finds devotionals helpful, I am certain that there are better and more substantial choices. Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling and Jesus Today are not essentially bad books, but they do pose significant dangers, not so much in what is said, but in what is left unsaid and how the work is framed. The biggest dangers, it seems, are of offering a self-help Jesus, and of subtly promoting a faith defined by a “love of God” that is hardly concerned with “love of neighbor”.
To paraphrase the Apostle John, How can we love God whom we have not seen, if we don’t love our sister or brother that see daily?
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