I’m not sure I would have read this book if not for the fact that I’m researching memoirs on Christian spirituality. When Blue Like Jazz was all the rage (back in 2005-6), I checked out Miller’s website to see what all the buzz was about. The deeper I went into his site, the more suspicious I became. Especially when the author linked to the radical progressive group MoveOn.org (a link the author has since removed). All that to say, I went into the reading of this book dubious.
Being that Blue Like Jazz has been out for a decade now and there’s plenty of reviews around the web, some very detailed, I’ll get to the point of what I did and didn’t like about the book.
What I Liked About Blue Like Jazz:
Donald Miller is not a theologian, and in this case, that’s a good thing. The book is not encumbered with doctrinal discussions and religious jargon, hence the book’s subtitle, Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Miller is very much an everyman. He’s not pushy or dogmatic. He has an approachable, readable style. He’s self-effacing and funny. You could almost imagine having coffee with the guy and not feeling like a peon. This laid-back, non-preachy vibe, greases Miller’s testimony and disarms potentially volatile subject matter.
Miller is also a great wordsmith. There’s plenty of witty lines and humorous, but insightful illustrations. Like when Miller tells the story of the Navy SEALs rescuing hostages from some dark part of the world, only to burst into a room and find the hostages terrified of them. They’d been imprisoned for so long, they couldn’t tell if they were really being rescued. So the SEALs did something unusual. They removed their weapons and huddled next to the hostages until those prisoners were convinced the SEALs had their best interest in mind. Miller masterfully uses this as a picture of Christ, huddling with the hostages of Satan, and then leading us free. Donald Miller is a good storyteller.
Another strength of this book is that it speaks to the postmodern zeitgeist. This is very much a book for our times. Not only is it structurally non-linear and non-didactic (a prevailing characteristic of many contemporary memoirs), it sees through the eyes of Millennials. As much as I hedge against and criticize oblique postmodern illogic and its damaging effects on morals and culture, the fact is we are living in a post-Christian, relativistic age. Blue Like Jazz speaks from such a worldview.
What I Did Not Like About Blue Like Jazz:
It’s theologically mushy.
I could quibble with other things. Like when Miller talks about the peace protests he attended, disparages Republicans and traditional Christianity, subtly applauds Bill Clinton while sneering at George Bush. But, thankfully, Miller doesn’t belabor those points.
It’s when he gets into “spirituality” that I found Blue Like Jazz wanting. For instance, Miller rightly says
“I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel” (page 111).
I whole-heartedly agree. It’s when you start digging into the details that you learn that following Jesus and embracing “the power of the Gospel” means something potentially unorthodox to Donald Miller.
For instance, early in the book (page 54), Miller confesses that God does not make any sense. Then he admits that Christian Spirituality is something that can’t be explained, but only be felt.
“It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul” (page 57).
When a book supposedly about “Christian spirituality” begins by stating that Christian spirituality “cannot be explained” but only felt, be prepared for anything.
To make matters worse, Miller defines Christian spirituality as a feeling.
“I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something you feel. I think it is something very difficult to get on paper.” (p. 239)
This is consistent with postmodern thought and, to me, the problem with Blue Like Jazz. It’s really not saying anything! I mean, for all its talk about Christian spirituality, Miller never really defines anything. Who is Jesus? What does it mean to be a Christian? What makes Christian spirituality unique? There’s more loose ends here than in a quilt factory. Miller could, in my opinion, just as well argue for reincarnation or enlightenment or some other abstraction. If it’s all a feeling and nothing can be explained, why choose Christian spirituality?
A couple days ago, I read a review of Rob Bell’s latest book. Bell and Miller are both progressive in their theology, and often mentioned as representative of Emerging Evangelicals. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that the reviewer had similar feelings to Bell’s book as I had to Miller’s. Jonathan Ryan, a novelist and writer for Christianity Today, in his review of Rob Bell’s latest book, said this:
His answers are a bunch of rambling, rumbling, shucking, jiving, beat poet, train wrecks that make very little sense. …They’re well meaning, but mostly incoherent. The answers might be fine for an open mike poetry night, but not as answers to the important questions Bell raises.
…He says a lot of stuff that seems profound and good. In fact, some of what he says IS profound and good. Yet in the end, you keep wondering when the kid is going to make any sense. You wonder if he really knows what a jumbled mess he is making.
This is a perfect description of how I felt after reading Blue Like Jazz. Miller rarely quotes Scripture, opting instead to unravel his experiences as the interpretive lens for his beliefs. His conversational style eventually becomes “a bunch of rambling, rumbling, shucking, jiving, beat poet, train wrecks that make very little sense.” I came away from this book having absolutely no better understanding of what Christian spirituality means or how I can pursue it more vigorously. It’s more like middle school band practice than real jazz.
Unfortunately, the current wave of religious postmodern lit, in its attempt to honestly deconstruct evangelical Christianity, ends up saying barely anything at all. It tries to navigate a middle course between historic orthodox Christianity and subjective, relativistic nonsense. In the end, Blue Like Jazz is mushy theology wrapped in hipster lingo and coffeehouse philosophy. In this case, neither satisfies.