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Blue Like Jazz

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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.

[i] pp. 18, 180, 52, 81 and 231-232

[ii] p. 124

[iii] p. 238

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  • Guest - Todd

    Thank you for your review of Blue Like Jazz. And thank you for recognizing what Miller intended in his writing. Not every christian grasps complex theological issues. Certainly there are degrees of understanding according to one's stage of maturity. While there are objective truths that explain life, our experience of these truths is subjuective. Feeling something inside compelling a person to love Christ is not necessarily a contradiction to reformed doctrine. It may simply be a description of how the experience felt. Our theology is ever chasing our experience. God does not withhold the experience of His grace until we understand it. He often gives us grace and then teaches us what He has done.

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  • Thanks for the review. You've relieved me of any reason to read the book. What I wondered the most about was why a pastor's wife would recommend it! There are so many good Christian books out there.

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  • Guest - Derek

    I am sorry that this review would leave anyone feeling they had no reason to read this book. I will say that when I first read this book, it was one of the factors that dragged me through my crisis of faith: Do I really belive this/Is this just what I have been brought up to believe or is it real/etc. But that experience was absolutely necessary for me. Somehow Miller's experience of the same helped me along greatly.
    I'd recommend this book to anyone and everyone, from the believer who has never stepped outside of the four walls of his church to realize that the lost aren't all evil, to the non-beleiver who only knows the charicature of the church they learn about in the media. To me this book was a must-read and I can't wait to see the movie.

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  • Guest - Dave Brown

    Great and fair review. As much as I dislike this book, I can acquiesce to your view as a reasonable one.

    I'd only qualify one thing (the thing which makes me continue to dislike Miller's type of treatise): I think it's irresponsible. Psalm 73 comes to mind, where Asaph is troubled by the inequalities of this life and is questioning God.

    13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
    14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

    But then Asaph adds this:

    15 If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.

    As I understand this, Asaph seems to be making the case that feeling a certain way about God is one thing; telling everyone how he feels is another. Maybe it would be dishonoring to say these things which do not originate from faith. Maybe it would assist another person in turning from God. Who knows. But personally, my history has seen that it is wiser to express these types of things in private. At least that's what I get from Psalm 73.

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  • Guest - John Burwell Stone

    I am a very sympathetic reader of MIller's books. I have shared such titles as TO OWN A DRAGON with those who are troubled and tried and do not see how exactly God is involved or over and above every complex situation in life. But I myself didn't know Christ until I was 30, so I can certainly relate to pre-Christian experiences of the church - having gone to a Baptist High School and College - I simply didn't get it, didn't really want it, whatever it was that was going on. No one's fault but my own, of course.
    As pastor, I tear my hair out watching young people live the same way I was living over 30 years ago. I pray for them. Let them read Miller, if they are readers at all. And then, of course, the Gospel is essential; it must be preached.

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  • Guest - Stephanie

    Thanks for saying: "but I’ve learned to read since my university days, so I figured I’d try it again." I very much relate to that. Odd, isn't it? And thanks for such a well written, fair review. I found myself nodding in agreement with your assessment.

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  • Guest - Rebecca

    Your footnote links aren't working, which is really a shame.

    Donald Miller seems to be the kind of writer who really irritates the kind of reader who wants everything to be a systematic theology. I'm convinced he's exactly the kind of writer that kind of reader needs, because that kind of reader usually makes a lousy person to be in a church with.

    I don't think it's fair to judge Blue Like Jazz on its presentation of justification any more than you can fairly judge Surprised by Joy that way. That isn't and was never meant to be the main contribution of the book. If I read Lewis the way this review takes on Miller, I'd be out burning the Chronicles of Narnia!

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  • Guest - Paul

    >>>>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.us community from which he "emerged:" BE GOOD and DO GOOD. Just be avante garde when you do it.

    This success of this book is yet another nod in the direction of Christian Smith's research.

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  • [...] Slayer (Michael Behe via Marvin Olasky) Homosexuality, Christianity and the Gospel (J.D. Greear) A Review of BLUE LIKE JAZZ with some Historical Perspective (Out of the Horses [...]

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  • [...] The first is from the White Horse Inn and talks about a new movie from a not-so-new-book. Both the movie and the book share the same title: Blue Like Jazz. http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2012/04/18/blue-like-jazz/ [...]

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