Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (Book Review)

Review: Existential Theology, Strong Voice & Comics

Update: After reading Blue Like Jazz a second time, and having mellowed out a little, I'm upping my grade to a very strong A. However, you can read my original (unaltered) review below.

A couple weeks ago, Andy overheard me wishing out loud for a copy of Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz—and being the generous, resourceful guy he is, he sent me a copy. The book has generated some buzz among “spiritual” types, and as I told Andy, I was eager to take a look, although the investigation would have to wait until my Christmas break.

That’s what I thought. But in a mysterious process I don’t fully understand, I somehow read the book last week. I’m not sure when I did it. It just happened. So here are some thoughts, about two months ahead of schedule.

First off, I need to say I liked Miller’s approach. The subtitle of Blue Like Jazz is “Nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality.” And being a pretty nonreligious guy myself, I was glad we were dispensing with “cultural Christianity” from the get-go.

Miller proceeded in classic postmodern fashion. His language is stripped down and very experiential. Borderline touchy-feely. He goes about his task in the existential manner—working from observable phenomena and, especially, feelings about the way things are. He also has a knack for translating theological truth into simple ideas and experiences; his tone is self-deprecating and flat-out earnest. Miller is just the guy on the street, trying to figure things out. No brighter or better than the next man.

By taking this approach, Miller clearly defuses a lot of the criticism that is traditionally leveled at Christianity. He positions himself as a friendly stuffed animal (Don Rabbit?), and honestly, it’s hard to feel like taking a shot at such an amicable creature.

However, I think Miller unintentionally raises the question of how far we should go in our efforts to placate our culture. Characterizing Christianity as nonsensical and silly but somehow effective (as Miller does) may defuse opposition, but I’m not sure it does God any favors.

An angle I found fascinating was the subtle similarity that Blue Like Jazz bore to G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Miller quotes Chesterton, and the “spiritual journey” theme Jazz employs bears some similarity that of Orthodoxy. But while Chesterton sketches Christianity as paradoxical and preposterous, precisely because it is divinely true, Miller paints the faith as ridiculous and unfashionable—“but it somehow works.” I can’t help feeling like this conclusion misses a key element from the brilliant G.K. equation. At the same time, it might be overly simple to say that Miller lacks intellectual self-respect. I think his approach is very deliberate.

Miller aims for a narrative that is undeniably “soft” in that he doesn’t want to be labeled as a guy making dogmatic truth claims. The problem is, to espouse belief in Christ, he has to. And he eventually does, writing with candor about the cross, sin, heaven and Satan. I was relieved when the book reached this juncture, having feared that Miller was opting for the quicksilver approach epitomized by Brian McLaren. I was so happy that Miller had a backbone. However, when he revealed that he actually did believe in “sin,” I was almost surprised. I wondered whether, if I was a non-Christian, it would feel slightly like bait and switch. Was the overtly “postmodern” binding really suited for the message?

I sometimes felt like Miller’s healthy emphasis on Christ’s compassion and tenderheartedness came somewhat at the expense of divine logic. The characteristic postmodern/“emergent” approach is to say true things in a way that makes them seem less than authoritative—and thereby, the idea goes, less offensive. I’m still wrestling with the scheme. Miller’s undisguised leanings toward political liberalism should also be mentioned here, if only as a point of reference.

This review may come off as fairly negatively charged, which would be misleading. Miller irritated me here and there with a failure to make crucial distinctions, or with an overly simplistic take (Was Jesus a hippy? Is discipline of any kind inherently fake?) but I was also prodded and inspired by various things he said. His word pictures are often highly memorable. The connections he makes between “Christian spirituality” (his catchphrase) and life are often refreshing. Miller communicates vital insights about existence in enjoyably straight-up language. He can also be pretty funny.

To top it off, I also felt some empathy for Miller’s writing style. I’m not saying I’ll attempt to flat-out mirror it, but I saw some things I liked. He’s blunt at the right moments, loves a good story, and spits out eye-openers with a nice sense of timing. I found myself wanting to like him. And I do. I just have reservations. All told, the length of this review may be the best proof of the affinity I feel for Miller’s approach and tone in Jazz. We agree on a lot.

Would I recommend this bookBlue Like Jazz - buy it to anyone? Just about. Will I sell my copy online? Absolutely not. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is a pretty good testimonial.

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10 comments:

Andy said...

Ariel, I was pleasantly surprised to see this review!

I have to say, I generally agree with you on your take of this book. At the time I first read it, about 6 months ago, my faith wasn't as strong as it is now - for me this was a book that helped me understand, in simple terms, what Christian faith should mean to me.

That said, having re-read it since, and now teaching a Sunday School class with this book, I'm looking at it more critically, finding more of the nuance in his tone, style, and points. What has struck me is how he stumbles with his points early on, and it isn't until Chapter Four that he starts to hit his stride and begin introducing topics of conversion, faith and belief.

Given that I live out here on the "Left" Coast, I find that his political liberalism is refreshing, given that such a political mindset here seems to equate Christian faith only with conservative political dogma. Miller, in establishing his liberal political leanings, proves that you can be a Christian and a liberal. Christian faith should not be co-opted by one political party or the other.

That said, I think the boldness of some of his stories, while at Reed and elsewhere, present wonderful discussion points. We've had some pretty lively discussions in my class discussing the first 5 chapters thus far - and that's with 15-19 year olds.

Now that you've had your start with Miller - you'll need to check out Searching For God Knows What, which gets qutie Scriptural at times.

Nicely written, brother!

Andrew Simone said...

Consider yourself tagged.

Oneway said...

Really sharp book review, man. I've only thumbed through Blue Like Jazz myself, but I definitely picked up on Miller's allure as a writer: He's got voice.

I need to finish the book in order to properly judge its merits, but the initial sense I got was Miller and his ilk are afraid being linked with the historical Church, with all of its past foolishness. But this approach is a two-edged sword, because it also separates the "emergent church" from wise traditions formed by Christ-serving people of days past. It seems like a teenager rebelling against his father, ostensibly for some noble cause, but in reality, because it feels empowering.

Miller's political leanings no more validate liberal thought than Greg Boyd's theology validates open theism.

I can foresee God reaping glory through the popularity of this book, as you state, Miller succeeds in many ways and plenty could be drawn to Christ by his angle. But the danger lies in not distilling Miller; I succumbed to Jesus while mulling over Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. At first, I took his word as the Word; later, I realized despite his brilliance, the Bible is The Touchstone.

Ariel said...

Andy, I think one of Miller's strengths is evident in something you mention - his ability to provoke discussion and thought. I don't think he's merely a provocateur, but his writing will tend to elicit fairly strong responses...which ideally would lead to personal contemplation. Your own experience is a case in point.

Oneway hits another valid point concerning Miller - and most of the "emergent" types, for that matter - a too-sharp division with the history of our faith. I think that intellectual modesty requires us to value the traditions of "Christian spirituality" and not be too quick to assume we can start all over and spontaneously get it right.

A writer with voice does not an infallible person make...

Will Robison said...

I think the question lies in what we are looking for in a book. For most, a story that is fresh and that holds are interest is generally enough for a good read - see The DaVinci Code if you don't believe me. But for a book that purports to be about something deeper - some sort of intellectual, spiritual, or other type of understanding - we don't just want a good read, we want wisdom. The true success of such a book, then, isn't how well its written, or whether it is an enjoyable read, but in what it imparts to us. A book of wisdom that doesn't teach us anything we don't already know is clearly useless. But sometimes, a book of wisdom is designed instead to make us think - to frame our minds into looking at things from a new perspective. I think this, then, is the true success of Blue Like Jazz. Theologically its probably not telling us something we don't already know. But its telling it to us, and to others, from a fresh perspective, causing them to think and feel about Christ and Christianity in new ways.

I look at Blue Like Jazz as a great starter book for Christianity. It leads you into thoughts about what it means to be a Christian in this day and age, and makes you want to know more. The ultimate authority on Christianity is the Bible. Each generation has to reinterpret that for themselves, but ultimately can't get away from its essential teachings. The "Traditional" Church is really nothing more than the tried and true methods of the past reinterpreted with a current slant. However we come to find ourselves a part of that experience, ultimately, is just one of many paths to God.

Ryan said...

hey ariel,

i was given blue like jazz as a gift, and was so surprised by it. i love miller's style - i am a complete sucker for memoir tinged with spirituality. i'd recommend his others to you as well. for an excerpt, check out my lastest post at http://humanmerelybeing.blogspot.com/2005/10/some-gratitude.html

The General said...

I think I inadvertantly stole your post and claimed it as my own. I am currently reading Blue Like Jazz and wanted to revisit some of the praise and criticisms you offered. It was only yesterday that I was comparing Don Miller to G.K. Chesterton in that they both describe their search for God, and contrasted the two in that Miller seemed to experience his way to God and Chesterton thought his way to God.
I guess Miller can take the compliment that he is being compared to Chesterton; so he shouldn't be too disheartened when his book sits on my shelf untouched in much the same condition as I bought it, whereas Orthodoxy is filled with underlines and notes and the binding is coming unglued.

Ariel said...

Hey, some of you may dig this new Donald Miller Q&A site. Readers submit questions, and Don personally reads them and responds to some.

I wonder what the above review would look like in question form...

annie said...

great comment--good insights & critique. You articulated something that I felt, about the "bait & switch"aspect. Thanks for stopping by over at Reading is my Superpower!
http://superfastreader.wordpress.com

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