I finally read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, a few years behind its explosion onto the Christian book scene. I’m not very good at writing book reviews because I tend to get long-winded and dig a hole into one idea, but I felt compelled to share some thoughts. (For excellent and witty book insights, I recommend my friend Veronica!)
Miller is something of a controversial writer in Christian circles, often associated with the emergent church, but I believe he doesn’t consider himself party to that movement. His emphasis on feelings and experiences tend in that direction, though he holds to the depravity of man and the need for salvation. He speaks to an increasingly polarized culture and subcultures of Christianity, and for that I applaud the naked honesty and vulnerability in his writing, which inevitably garners critique from various groups. (And it has—I’ve skimmed the Goodreads reviews.) Needless to say, Blue Like Jazz comes with a host of strengths and weaknesses. I will say up front, though, that I don’t plan to rehash some of the widespread critiques I’ve already seen from many in the conservative, Reformed corner: he’s all about emotion, lacks a high view of Scripture, fuzzy on atonement, and on. I agree with a large part of the criticisms (not all), but at the same time, he’s writing more of a memoir, not a theological treatise. So I want to try to look at it as such.
What I Liked
He’s a good storyteller—humorous, compelling, honestly irreverent (which is sometimes refreshing, sometimes inappropriate), and surprisingly shrewd. Some reviews accuse the book of being nothing more than a meandering diary, but he manages to make that form engaging enough. I particularly liked his stories of living in Portland and attending Reed; it struck close to home for me, and he relates his tales in an up close, personal way, as if you were chatting over coffee in a hipster café.
Dying for something is easy because it is associated with glory. Living for something is the hard thing. Living for something extends beyond fashion, glory, or recognition. We live for what we believe.
He’s honest and real—in a way that can be scary and bold, as he gives a voice to universal but rarely spoken doubts, struggles, and desires. I do think he almost elevates the importance of self-expression and authenticity above objective Truth, but then again, the entire book is a product of his self-expression.
They are lonely. I’m not talking about lonely for a lover or a friend. I mean lonely in the universal sense, lonely inside the understanding that we are tiny people on a tiny little earth suspended in an endless void that echoes past stars and stars of stars.
He has a sharp gaze into the human soul—I can’t quite compare him to C.S. Lewis, but I found some gems in the book that were reminiscent of Lewis’ insight. The unique edge Miller brings comes from the very different culture he grew up in, and how the severe rift between postmodern thought and conservative Christianity shaped his perspective. Having lived and breathed in both sorts of communities, his observations and struggles resonate with me (and I would guess, with many in our generation).
Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away.
The Self-Addiction Cycle
Early in the book, Miller expresses his belief in human depravity, and he describes coming to the realization in a personal way.
“Do I want social justice for the oppressed, or do I just want to be known as a socially active person? I spend 95 percent of my time thinking about myself anyway. I don’t have to watch the evening news to see that the world is bad, I only have to look at myself. I am not browbeating myself here; I am only saying that true change, true life-giving, God-honoring change would have to start with the individual. I was the very problem I had been protesting. I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM!”
He goes on to speak of our helpless, natural self-addiction many times over. He says, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” I couldn’t help but find it somewhat ironic that the overall theme of the book radiates with an intense focus on self. He repeatedly writes about his opinions and views almost as if they were a law unto himself—his dissatisfaction with relationships, with churches, etc. It made me wonder, “So how did the Gospel rescue him from self-absorption?” He speaks of the inestimable value of love and sacrifice, and how he found beautiful examples of that in the world outside the church. Perhaps this is where our theology comes into play, because I don’t see how one can truly begin to overcome the depth of depravity apart from bringing the full Gospel to bear—Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sin, and His righteousness alone credited to those who believe. I get the sense Miller has a strong grasp of the Gospel’s core, yet his book blurs a lot of lines. It leads me to ask: If he believes in the fullness and centrality of the Gospel, wouldn’t his writing display it?
In short, he shows a keen sensitivity to our innate self-obsession and he speaks of the need to grow in Christlikeness. I can’t help but think of John 3:30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” As the outcome of Miller’s conclusions, I half-expected and half-hoped his memoir would naturally grow in speaking more of the glories of Christ and the Gospel and less of himself. Not because “that’s what you’re supposed to do in a Christian book” but because “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).” He believes that wonder is the best worship of God, yet what aspects of God command his awe, and where is his authority for the character of God? I’m sure he can give an answer, and I wish he had in the book.
The Division of Head and Heart
Miller brings a flavor of mysticism to his view of God, denying the need or ability to rationalize the spiritual. His story is an interesting case study of many drawn to postmodern, emergent breeds of thought—young, highly intellectual and educated people who seek to divorce intellect from spirituality. It’s an odd but strangely trendy phenomenon in our culture today.
While many flying the flag of Christianity over the centuries have sought to make faith viable by shutting down science, compromising to science, co-existing in supposed contradiction yet peace with science, etc., biblical faith never needs or seeks to do that. The Truth is able to appeal to the heart, mind, and soul and withstand the test of being embraced by our entire being, without turning a blind eye or fleeing from tough questions. False religions are the ones that latch onto one part of our faculties alone with an iron grip (e.g. science-as-religion that speaks to the intellect exclusively; spirituality that speaks to the heart and emotions exclusively).
And yet, we are sinners, imperfect in all our ways, and none of us achieve that right tension of loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Miller falls into the “heart and soul” camp more than the “mind,” but those on the opposite end of the spectrum can surely learn from his basking in the “pure and furious” love of God and compassion for the lost and needy. These things can be lost in a narrow focus on doctrine. At the same time, I think Miller’s love for and faith in the Gospel comes with the undeniable influence of postmodern thought, which favors experientialism over doctrinal conviction. But doctrine is not simply for intellect’s sake, and deep theology and knowledge of truth is the firmest foundation and fuel for abiding love. Love for the sake of love is meaningless in the end and will not hold up in the face of our sin and brokenness. I think Miller would agree with that.
In closing, I’d echo his own well-spoken belief:
“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.” – Blue Like Jazz