My astrology app Co-Star told me that on April 21, I would find power in love. The stars gave me blanket permission to speak up and express myself—or, in the app’s words, “Communication will enhance ego.”
Off I went that morning, the beginning of Taurus season, ready to tell my date of six months I wanted something more out of our budding flirtation. Jupiter was in Sagittarius, Co-Star told me, so naturally he would feel the same way, too.
God had other plans.
Less than an hour later, as I was trudged onto the train home, rejected, I balanced my pity bagel on the inside of my elbow and pulled out a copy of Jesus Calling. The leather-bound devotional is written in diary format, with daily entries from the perspective of Jesus Christ himself.
Turns out, the scrubs at Co-Star had no idea what they were talking about. According to Jesus, April 21 was not the day to put on a see-through top and demand that a boy like me back. It was always meant to be a day for silent reflection.
“LET ME CONTROL YOUR MIND,” the entry commanded. “The mind is the most restless, unruly part of mankind. Long after you have learned the discipline of holding your tongue, your thoughts defy your will and set themselves up against Me... When My Spirit is controlling your mind, you are filled with Life and Peace.” (Emphasis not mine. Jesus’ style guide includes gratuitous italicization.)
I have been reading Jesus Calling for the past three weeks, after Kourtney Kardashian recommended the tome on her lifestyle website Poosh.
In between instructional guides like “An Instant Butt Lift With Uncle Joe” and investigations such as “Does Having Sex Really Make You Look Younger? (A Therapist Explains),” the elder Kardashian confessed to cracking open Jesus Calling every day.
“A quick passage each morning can create a positive vibe for the entire day; it really is that simple,” she promised in a post titled “Tapping Into Your Spiritual Side.”
Intent on fixing everything in my life, I bought Jesus Calling at a New York Barnes & Noble. There were five in stock. No surprise when you consider that the devotional megahit has sold over 10 million copies since its 2004 publication.
Jesus Calling was not my only purchase that day. Inspired by Kourtney Kardashian’s breezy Christianity, some (divine?) force poosh-ed me to look up more celebrity-approved religious texts.
I found options endorsed by the likes of Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt, cradled them in the crooks of my arms, and brought the books to the checkout counter.
As the tattooed saleswoman rang up $44 worth of religious texts, she eyed me distrustfully. I felt myself go red and thought about explaining that I was reading these all for a story. But then, I’d be yelling about being a writer inside of a Barnes & Noble, so I grabbed my goods and ran.
As a Gallup poll reported earlier this month, church membership in the United States is at an all-time low. Only about half of Americans report belonging to a house of worship. Sixty percent of those who were raised religious have left the faith.
And yet, not since Tammy Faye Bakker and her mile-long eyelashes has performative prayer been so visible. These religious books have found prominent fans not because of any accurate, insightful theology, but because the texts promise a quick fix.
Much like the flat belly detox teas other Kardashians hawk online that pledge a slimmer waistline but deliver only a night spent on the toilet, these books are the snake oil of self-help literature. The authors paint pictures of achievable, realistic bliss, but remain light on tangible steps or actual guidance for getting there.
After studying these extremely unacademic works, I didn’t learn much about God. In fact, I probably garnered more religious information from the “Dearly Beloved” interlude in Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” than I did from reading Chris Pratt’s preacher’s take that God is the ultimate “hype man.”
If anything, my nearly $50 foray into the world of Christian publishing has taught me that everyone, even Justin Bieber (especially Justin Bieber), needs a little reminder that they’re not alone.
Jesus Calling by Sarah Young
Celebrity fan: Kourtney Kardashian
Sarah Young, a press-shy missionary and counselor, wrote this 382-page behemoth after experiencing “conversations” with God during prayer. Young, who suffers from a debilitating form of Lyme disease, said she let Jesus dictate his thoughts to her over the course of a year, resulting in daily passages.
Jesus Calling has been dubbed a heretical work in some Christian circles, vexing some believers who are uncomfortable with the idea of God “speaking through” its author.
Like I do with all calendars, I cracked open Jesus Calling and first flipped to read what was being said on my birthday, May 2.
“Living in dependence on me is the way to enjoy abundant life,” the entry began. “When you are with other people, you often lose sight of My Presence. Your fear of displeasing people puts you in bondage to them, and they become your primary focus. When you realize this has happened, whisper My name; this tiny act of trust brings Me to the forefront of your consciousness, where I belong.”
Jesus was coming on pretty strong. But he was also reading the room, too. I spend a lot of time fretting over things I said or did in public, and my mind runs a montage of all the embarrassing things I’ve ever done each night before I go to sleep. How would Young’s fictional Jesus know this?!?!
Ruth Graham, writing for The Daily Beast in 2013, called Young’s interpretation of Jesus’ voice “calming.” I found it entirely dominating. At first, it was impossible to not read Jesus Calling in my best Charlton Heston voice.
“LISTEN TO ME CONTINUALLY,” one entry began, and I felt myself sit up a bit straighter in bed.
“YOU ARE MINE FOR ALL TIME; nothing can separate you from My Love,” read the text for April 9.
“I AM THE POTTER; YOU ARE MY CLAY,” inspired kinky images I could not unsee.
Forget Charlton Heston—I replaced his booming cadence with the timbre of a woman. Reading Young’s capitalized demands really does craft the mood Kourtney Kardashian swore it would.
I’m not sure if it’s an entirely “positive” vibe, or merely an alluringly louche one, but I’m still captivated by Jesus Calling. Even if it does tell me to shut up a lot.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller with Katy Keller
Celebrity fan: Justin Bieber
Within seconds of googling The Meaning of Marriage, I learned that this guide, inspired by Pastor Tim Keller’s many sermons, moved Justin Bieber to tears. Last summer, Bieber and his then-betrothed, the model Hailey Baldwin, were photographed in New York crying together on a park bench.
When a TMZ paparazzi asked Bieber what spurred the waterworks, the 24-year-old held up a copy of the book and said, “This! You got the good days, and you got bad days. It’s not real if it doesn’t have any bad days.”
Bieber’s impassioned monologue could very well have been sponsored content for Timothy Keller’s bestseller, which was first published in 2013. Keller, a friendly-looking fellow who resembles a balder version of the actor Wallace Shawn, writes in an amicable, measured tone. His folksy delivery and pleasant anecdotes detail his version of a healthy marriage.
For Keller, such unions are only between a husband and a wife (this is a guide for heterosexual couples only). The preacher concedes that wedded bliss is an illusion, and couples must push through “the bad days” Bieber spoke of. “Marriage is glorious but hard,” Keller writes, and duh.
Keller is such a pragmatist at times, gleefully letting down all of those who expect a fairytale romance, that I might even call him a total Miranda. Unfortunately, I cannot make this comparison in good faith. Keller straight-washes marriage and enlists his wife Kathy to act as a shield against sexism when she writes that traditional gender roles “divinely assigned.”
The pastor advises readers to take lust out of the equation when looking for a partner and find a good friend to marry instead—the sex thing will work itself out, trust him. Marriages that are based out of a mutual attraction are doomed and wrong.
His main evidence for this is a story about a woman he knew who married a man she found “hot” but became miserable when he gained weight. Because of this, Keller writes, it’s clearly impossible for us to be levelheaded in the face of primal, earthly horniness.
Meanwhile, unions rooted in deep companionship, where a woman “serves” her husband and he repays such servitude with “respect” (those words are conveniently left undefined), will be successful.
I wonder how Hailey Baldwin, who entered her marriage to Justin Bieber with a cool $3 million to her name, reckons with Keller’s call for subordination.
Faith Forward Future by Chad Veach
Celebrity fan: Chris Pratt
Faith Forward Future is not, as I initially thought, some dystopian blockbuster, but a slim self-help book by Chad Veach.
The Instagram-famous pastor runs Zoe, an LA-based megachurch named after the Greek word for “life.”
Justin Bieber tattooed the initials of Veach’s daughter, who suffers from a brain malformation, on his arm. The actor Chris Pratt posted a video on YouTube calling Faith Forward Future “very helpful!”
The guide is a handbook for “moving past your disappointments, delays, and destructive thinking.” In his author photo, Veach wears oversized black glasses and an unbuttoned collar. He fashions himself less like a man of the cloth and more like an adjunct philosophy professor who quotes Kanye West songs on his syllabus.
The book is around 203 pages, but its best bits are pull-quotes that litter most pages. Read a few of the catchphrases—“Stop Living Disqualified; Know That You’ve Been Justified,” “Fear of Rejection Produces Fake Perfection,” “God Can’t Move Until You Move”—and you’ll quickly pick up Veach’s point.
The preacher totes a substance-less positivity worthy of an influencer—which makes sense, given his 230,000 Instagram followers. “Many of us have dead dreams,” Veach writes, which I read while staring at a three year-old unused yoga mat. “It’s time to jumpstart and dream again. This time around, let’s dream with God.”
Veach encourages followers to “Find their grace,” which is his own version of accepting predestination. He rattles off a few virtues.
“Maybe you have the instincts and ability to make money,” Veach begins. Good for you! “Maybe you have a winsome personality.” Let that shine! “Maybe you have administrative skills.” A less desirable life truth, but sure. In Veach’s words, “These are all gifts from God!”
There is a clear allure to some of this theology. Insisting that God has a “plan” we should submit to absolves readers of much responsibility. At the top of his book, Veach recounts a formative experience in his young life. After making the decision to break up with his first serious girlfriend, the pastor rationalizes, “I knew God had asked me to do it.”
I imagine a man dumping me with the explanation, “Jesus made me,” and suddenly I am an atheist.