When I was nineteen, my former pastor’s wife gave me a book called Blue Like Jazz. I had heard enough about it to be suspicious, but I went home, closed myself up in my library, and read it. I was completely confused. The Christian faith he was talking about bore enough of a resemblance to what I had grown up with to know that he wasn’t a heretic (not that I knew what a heretic was), but it also sounded suspiciously like the emotional, nebulous platitudes that liberal theologians loved to pass off as poetic insight.
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to the trailer for the Blue Like Jazz movie. I was mildly disgusted, since my last interaction with Miller hadn’t been exactly incandescent, but I’ve learned to read since my university days, so I figured I’d try it again. Something I’d neglected to do when I’d first read it was attend to the subtitle: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I had approached the book expecting a resounding affirmation of the solid Christian doctrine I didn’t have and didn’t understand, and instead got a story about someone who didn’t know what solid Christian doctrine was and had grown disenchanted with the Christian culture he had been taught was doctrine.
The book isn’t intended as a theological treatise, but as a reflection on the existential journey of a man with a genuine desire to love Christ, and who’s been disillusioned with the brand of Christianity he’s grown up in. He talks about his friends and housemates, his youth, the early days of his career, his life in the woods and in the suburbs of Houston with wit, verve, and charm, articulating the same doubts and fears we all have and illustrating the same foibles, vices and pettiness that characterize us. I was grateful for his humor, because it was still rather frustrating – although it’s true that Miller didn’t write it in order to expound a theological point, he did write it to talk about his understanding of who he is in relation to God, and it’s pretty hard to do that without bringing theology into the discussion.
It’s clear from the outset that Miller’s angst wasn’t with Christ himself, but with the brand of Christianity that so many of us are familiar with – the (here it comes) Christless Christianity that’s manifested by moralistic-therapeutic deism and the health-‘n-wealth gospel. He grew up thinking that God had a political and social agenda, and that if he (Miller) didn’t do his utmost to promote it through his own obedience to the cultural law, he wasn’t a true Christian. The ensuing culture shock following his matriculation at Reed College served as the catalyst for the exploration of what he believed about God and what he knew about himself as a creature made in God’s image.
Some of the things he comes to understand about God sound surprisingly similar to classical articulations of certain elements of Christian doctrine – original sin is a theme consistently woven throughout his interactions with his family and housemates (his resentment of his housemates’ existence intruding on the unfolding drama of his own life); there’s a hint of election when his friends Penny and Laura describe their conversion (they tearfully spoke of God ‘being after’ them); and the need for grace is beautifully illustrated in both his own attempts at keeping the law and in relating to his former girlfriend (he realizes his need for God’s charity in his failed efforts at hard-core piety, and the fact that he can’t accept his girlfriend’s love because he hasn’t accepted God’s). [i] It’s not explicit, but it’s there in an inchoate form.
Some of the conclusions he arrives at are decidedly problematic – his articulation of the gospel made salvation dependent upon man, and had little do with Christ’s propitiatory work on the cross.[ii] Another distressing moment came when he wrote that he realized that “[…] there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.”[iii] The idea of man’s nature being morally repugnant to God and yet possessive of something that compels his love is as popular as it is theologically unsound, so Miller’s adoption of it is perhaps less to be wondered at.
Miller is open in his dislike of institutions and the church, and considering his background, that’s not surprising. However, I got the sense that he couldn’t dissociate the one from the other, as if the church were little more than a Machiavellian machine, rather than a sinful, rebellious bride being redeemed by her bridegroom. This may be why the book garners such harsh criticism from some circles – while he acknowledges the presence of loving ‘conservative’ churches, he appears to dismiss them on personal rather than principled grounds. One doesn’t like to disregard the very real pain that those hurt by the church suffer, but neither is it wise to separate oneself from Christ’s visible body and the stewards of his oracles because of a few offending members.
Miller has since written other books, none of which I’ve read, so it’s entirely possible that his understanding of the gospel and the church have changed – Blue Like Jazz is a chronicle of a chapter in his life; not a profession of faith, and it ought to be interpreted as such. While we may (and ought) to read it thoughtfully and critically, with an eye to the theology inherent in the story, it behooves us to read charitably, being mindful of the fact that it’s still a story about a man’s search for God and his place within the greater drama of redemptive history.