Tuesday, March 01, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: "Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality" by Donald Miller

“I never liked jazz music because jazz music didn’t resolve.

But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.”

So begins Donald Miller’s book, “Blue Like Jazz.” Finally, Christianity has a writer reminiscent of Dave Eggers or David Sederis—fresh, original, brutally honest, achingly beautiful and utterly funny.

His writing, while sometimes meandering on indirect trails, is nonetheless always a trail on which the reader loves finding him or herself. The narrative is episodic rather than linear. Miller's style is evocative rather than purely rational. And his analysis, while profoundly insightful is even more a glimpse into the interior and personal transformation of a individual.

Written as a series of short essays on various theological topics (faith, grace, belief, confession, church), and various human topics (magic, romance, money), “Blue Like Jazz” recounts the author’s struggles with, return to, and radically fresh practice of what he refers to as Christian Spirituality. Frequently disapproving of the Church, his disappointment with organized Christianity is heavily balanced by his passion for Jesus and his love of people.

I don’t just like Donald Miller as a writer, I like him as a person. I get the feeling we’d be great friends. No doubt most readers get this impression. It is part of the book’s magic.

Rather than try to summarize his words, I am going to do something different with this review. I am going to let him speak for himself. Instead of trying to capture his ideas, I am going to present several of his more beautiful arguments as they are found in the book itself.

ON SELF-REALIZATION If Miller is one thing, it’s honest…brutally so. For every critique leveled against the Church, he lobs two at himself. Real change, he argues, comes only when we realize…

“I am the problem.

I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.

I don’t have to watch the evening news to see that the world is bad, I have only to look at myself.

I think every well-adjusted human being has dealt squarely with his or her own depravity. I think Jesus feels strongly about communicating the idea of our brokenness, and I think it is worth reflection. Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.”

“[W]hat I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do. [If that is true], if I live what I believe, then I don’t believe very many noble things. My life testifies that the first thing I believe is that I am the most important person in the world. My life testifies to this because I care more about my food and shelter and happiness than about anybody else.”

“The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me.”

“The overwhelming majority of the time I spend thinking about myself, pleasing myself, reassuring myself, and when I am done there is nothing to spare for the needy. Six billion people live in the world, and I can only muster thoughts for one. Me.”

ON CHRISTIANITY Not only is Miller honest about his own shortcomings, but he openly shares the struggles that shaped his Christianity. Far from pretty or neat or organized, he is willing to say what many have felt but wouldn’t dare admit.

“I like watching religious television once in a awhile. It’s better than Comedy Central.”

“I wished I could have subscribed to aspects of Christianity but not the whole thing. I felt as if Christianity, as a religious system, was a product that kept falling apart, and whoever was selling it would hold the broken parts behind his back trying to divert everybody’s attention.”

“Every Christian knows they will deal with doubt. And they will.”

“I couldn’t give myself to Christianity because it was a religion for the intellectually naïve. In order to believe Christianity, you either had to reduce enormous theological absurdities into children’s stories or ignore them. The entire thing seemed very difficult for my intellect to embrace. It seemed so entirely unfashionable a thing to believe, but it did explain things. Maybe these unfashionable ideas were pointing at something mystical and true. And, perhaps, I was judging the idea, not by its own merit, but by the fashionable or unfashionable delivery of the message.

And there it was: setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. As silly as it seemed, it met the requirements of the heart and it matched the facts of reality. It felt more than true, it felt meaningful. I was starting to believe I was a character in a greater story, which is why the elements of story made sense in the first place.

The magical proposition of the gospel, once free from the clasps of fairy tale, was very adult to me, very gritty like something from Hemingway or Steinbeck, like something with copious amounts of sex and blood. Christian spirituality was not a children’s story. It wasn’t cute or neat. It was mystical and odd and clean, and it was reaching into dirty. There was wonder in it and enchantment.”

“[It is so] frustrating to be a Christian in America. [I am so] frustrated with the church’s failures, but also my own failure to contribute to the solution.”

“I liked the idea of loving people just to love them, not to get them to come to church.”

“The real issue in the Christian community was that [love] was conditional. You were loved, but if you had questions, questions about whether the Bible was true or whether America was a good country or whether last week’s sermon was good, you were not so loved. You were loved in word, but there was, without question, a social commodity that was being withheld from you until you shaped up. By towing the party line you earned social dollars; by being yourself you did not. If you wanted to be valued, you became a clone.

The problem with Christian community was that we had ethics, we had rules and laws and principles to judge each other against. There was love in Christian community, but it was conditional love. Sure, we called it unconditional, but it wasn’t. There were bad people in the world and good people in the world. We were raised to believe this. If people were bad, we treated them as though they were evil. Christianity was always right; we were always looking down on somebody else. And I hated this. I hated it with a passion. Everything in my soul told me it was wrong. It felt, to me, as wrong as sin. I wanted to love everybody. I realize this sounds like tolerance, and to many in the church the word tolerance is profanity, but that is precisely what I wanted. I wanted tolerance… I was tired of biblical ethic being used as a tool with which to judge people rather than heal them. I was tired of Christian leaders using biblical principles to protect their power, to draw a line in the sand separating the good army from the bad one. The truth is I had met the enemy and discovered they were not the enemy. I wondered whether any human being could be an enemy of God.

This was my primary problem with Christian faith. With all its talk about pure love, in the end it shook down to conditional love.”

“And yet another thing about the churches I went to: They seemed to be parrots for the Republican Party. Do we have to tow the party line on every single issue? Are the Republicans that perfect? I just felt like, in order to be part of the family, I had to think George W. Bush was Jesus. And I didn’t. I didn’t think that Jesus really agreed with a lot of the policies of the Republican Party or for that matter the Democratic Party. I felt like Jesus was a religious figure, not a political one.”

“I had more significant spiritual experiences at Reed College than I ever had at church.” Reed is an overwhelmingly liberal, rule-less, and Christian-hostile college in Portland, Oregon where Miller lives. It also turns out some of the most phenomenally brilliant, successful and influential graduates of any university in the country. Miller’s recollections on wrestling with his faith there and reaching out to his fellow hurting and confused students are some of the best portions of the book. His chapter on setting up a confession booth on campus is worth the entire price of the book—a topic I’ll specifically address in my next blog…

“Until this point, the majority of my friends had been Christians. I was amazed to find, outside the church, genuine affection being shared, affection that seemed, well, authentic in comparison to the sort of love I had known within the church. Because I grew up in the safe cocoon of big Christianity, I came to believe that anything outside the church was filled with darkness and unlove. I was even more amazed when I realized I preferred, in fact, the company of hippies to the company of Christians. It isn’t that I didn’t love my Christian friends or that they didn’t love me, it was just that there was something different about my hippie friends; something, I don’t know, more real, more true. I realize that is a provocative statement, but I only felt I could be myself around them and I could not be myself with my Christian friends. My Christian communities had always had little unwritten social ethics like don’t cuss and don’t support Democrats and don’t ask tough questions about the Bible. I had discovered life outside the church, and I liked it. I preferred it.”

ON JESUS One of the primary things any reader comes away from this book with is a greater appreciation for how the love of Christ is demonstrated to a world predominatly unaware it even requires Him. Furthermore, the Christian is forced to realize that Christ was far from the sanitized caricature we try to push on Sunday School children sitting in front of flannel boards. He was radical, He was controversial and each one of us are called to be just like Him.

“I think that the most important thing that happens within Christian spirituality is when a person falls in love with Jesus.”

“I know our culture will sometimes understand a love for Jesus as weakness. There is this lie floating around that says I am supposed to be able to do life alone, without any help, without stopping to worship something bigger than me. But I actually believe there is something bigger than me, and I need for there to be something bigger than me. I need someone to put awe inside of me; I need to come second to someone Who has everything figured out.”

“I found Jesus very disturbing, very straightforward. He wasn’t diplomatic, and yet I felt like if I met him, He would really like me, I can’t explain how freeing that was, to realize that if I met Jesus, He would like me. I kept identifying with the people He loved, which was really good, because they were all the broken people, you know, the kind of people who are tired of life and want to be done with it, or they are desperate people, people who are outcasts and pagans. He didn’t show partiality at all.”

“I read a book a long time ago about Mother Teresa. Somebody in the book asked her how she summoned the strength to love so many people. She said she loved people because they are Jesus, each one of them is Jesus.”

ON LIBERALISM Miller does not excuse liberalism’s excesses or its flagrant abuses. Nor does he, for that matter, conservatisms’. But he raises fascinating points about the human need to raise barriers between “us” and “them” and how, oftentimes, we wall ourselves in from the very things we need, the very things we are called to be.

“I felt like churches came to the table with a them and us mentality, them being the liberal non-Christians in the world, and us being Christians. I felt that there was this underlying hostility for homosexuals and Democrats… I cannot tell you how much I did not want liberal or gay people to be my enemies. I liked them. I cared about them and they cared about me.

I began to understand that my pastors and leaders were wrong, that the liberals were not evil, they were liberal for the same reason Christians were Christians—because they believed their philosophies were right, good, and beneficial for the world. I had been raised to believe that there were monsters under the bed, but I had peeked in a moment of bravery, and found a wonderful world, better, in fact, than the one I had known.”

ON CHRISITIAN SPIRITUALITY & THE NATURE OF GOD Modernity has lost one of Christianity’s most crucial elements. In our need to categorize, define, reduce and explain God, we’ve utterly lost the wonderment that comes when a finite being is allowed to enter into a relationship of unfathomable intimacy with a being of infinite power and love.

“You cannot be a Christian without being a mystic.

I was talking to a homeless man at a laundry mat recently, and he said that when we reduce Christian spirituality to math we defile the Holy. I thought that was very beautiful and comforting because I have never been good at math. Many of our attempts to understand Christian faith have only cheapened it. I can no more understand the totality of God than the pancake I made for breakfast understands the complexity of me. The little we do understand, that grain of sand our minds are capable of grasping, those ideas such as God is good, God feels, God loves, God knows all, are enough to keep our hearts dwelling on His majesty and otherness forever.”

“It comforts me to think that if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it. It would have to be greater than the facts of our reality, and so it would seem to us, looking out from within our reality, that it would contradict reason. But reason itself would suggest it would have to be greater than reality, or it would not be reasonable. When we worship God we worship a Being our life experience does not give us the tools with which to understand. If we could, God would not inspire awe.”

“There are plenty of things that are true that don’t make any sense. I think one of the problems [people have is that they want] God to make sense. He doesn’t. He will make no more sense to me than I will make sense to an ant. I don’t think you can explain how Christian faith works either. It is a mystery. And I love this about Christian spirituality. It cannot be explained and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul.”

“I think we have two choices in the face of such big beauty: terror or awe. And this is precisely why we attempt to chart God, because we want to be able to predict Him, to dissect Him, to carry Him around in our dog and pony show. We are too proud to feel awe and too fearful to feel terror. We reduce Him to math so we don’t have to fear Him, and yet the Bible tells us fear is the appropriate response, that it is the beginning of wisdom.”

“Too much of our time is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe. By reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder.”

“At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling you get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don’t think there is any better worship that wonder.”

“The more I climb outside my pat answers, the more invigorating the view, the more my heart enters into worship.”

“[It’s as if] something is broken in the world and we [Christians] were supposed to hold our palms against the wound.”

“Blue Like Jazz” is the book for the Christian struggling with how to define his spirituality in a religious world awash in contradictions and disagreements. It is a book for the Christian who is very secure in his faith but always desires a way to further enhance his perception of God and his place in that God’s service. It is for the non-Christian who feels the tug of Something out there, beyond themselves, but doesn’t know what It is or if It is even something palatable in the first place. In short, “Blue Like Jazz” is a book for everyone. Allow it to wrestle with you.

NOTE: I am on the final pages of Miller’s next book, “Searching For God Knows What” and think it superior to its predecessor. I’m sure a review will be forthcoming…


Blogger Reacher said...

Inspired by Cornel West, I have called myself a jazz Christian for a few years now. As a contrast to jazz, symphonic music requires precision and perfection to achieve beauty. It is demanding and exact. Jazz certainly requires skill; but more than that, it requires soul. To "get" the heart of the music and be able to improvise around it is a beautiful thing. I suppose I would say it's the essence of faith.

Most of the folks in churches don't get this; although I think many of them yearn for it. They create a culture where grace is believed, but not lived. Love is talked about, but rarely shown in truly wild and extravagant truth. To let go is to risk failure; so they heap up rules and political tests to certify the righteous and make beautiful music.

God isn't an conductor tossing an angry baton at the screeching violins; God is an old black jazzman pounding out a riff on an upright grand in a smoky bar, asking us to join in and get with it. Oh, yeah.

Keep bringin' it Fibbs.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Wait a second, reacher. I thought god was an old, smelly Asian woman with a bag full of groceries!

I am a grasper and I need the ethnicity of my deities consistent and well defined, please. Thank you. :)

Oh, and Fibbs, excellent excellent excerpts. Thanks for sending it and I can't wait to read it now.

3:59 PM  
Blogger c_neil said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:52 PM  
Blogger c_neil said...

The message found in Donald Miller's writing is extraordinarily appealing, but it will be hard for most churches to accept because of the way he embraces secular culture.

Given all the stupid movies I watch and the crap I post on my blog it is obvious I'm guilty of enjoying things produced by the secular culture a little too much. However, when I read the book of Acts and the epistles I don't imagine twenty-first century apostles bumming around urban coffee shops, playing NFL Blitz, and watching South Park with marginally spiritual buddies. Sure, I've done all of these things, but I feel like a truly righteous person would find someway to be critical without affirming of these past times. They are all just time wasters created by the world, but Miller just kind of bypasses the issue and justifies it as part of the relational dynamic of his faith.

After Jesus flew up into heaven, the apostles did all kinds of crazy and confrontational things. In some locales they shouted their message in the public streets and in other cases they kicked people out of their own churches. Donald Miller doesn't seem to have much use for that type of behavior in his "relational spirituality."

Continuing with this reasoning, I also feel he's too harsh when writing about fundamentalists. Disciplined and fit people, running the gamut from Jim Elliot to Watchman Nee, have produced powerful testamonies that have inspired millions of people in the faith. I view a good fundamentalists as a model, not a burden to the faith.

Yet, despite these criticisms I still think the book is a good read.

I suppose I'll break up the Reacher's dichotomy and contribute my own two cents to the musical metaphor melee.

I suppose I could have started out my response talking about how I sometimes view God as a boisterous sounding one man band in a park that makes all the little kids come a-runnin'... or maybe he's the calliopee player in a circus freak show.... or maybe an Indian tom-tom beater calling us all to shuffle around in a circle that symbolizes a story... or maybe a metaphysical Max Weinberg playing music to help draw our attention to Jesus as the host of a great big show... maybe he's an Asian MC breaking racial barrier and being features in Robot magazine... or maybe God just invented music?!!

12:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Brandon!

Well, I wanted to formally let you know that about half of my considerable internet time today has been reading your writing and I wanted to say thank you.

Without being too cheesy or grandiose, thank you for giving me things to think about and words to get all wrapped up in. I like getting to escape from things here only to come back and find myself a little better for it. So thank you for thinking, my friend. And thanks for giving me fodder for my own thoughts.


8:56 AM  

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