Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

“Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller reviewed

7 April 2009

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Thomas Nelson Publishers (2003), 205 pp.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I first heard about this book about three years ago when several of my friends were reading it.  They recommended it, but I didn’t get around to reading it until a friend obligated me by giving me a copy.  Anyway, the book is basically a memoir that contains lots of autobiographical material, and its subtitle, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” is apt.

Like most memoirs, the book lacks a clearly stated central thesis or argument to push; Miller prefers to relate his own experiences and observations and seems happy to raise questions and get his readers thinking.  For instance, he raises the question “Why would God want to call Himself father when so many fathers abandon their children?” (His own dad played very little role in his life, as he explains.)  He proffers no suggested answers for his question—which is a very good one—and humorously remarks that “all the vocabulary about God seem[s] to come from ancient history, before video games, Palm Pilots, and the Internet.” (4)  One quickly realizes that Miller has a good sense of humor and it comes across well throughout the book.  (And in his other writings too. On his website, he says he’s going to use the money from his next book, which “might be the greatest book ever written,” to go into space.)

One of the book’s main themes, and the closest it comes to having a thesis, comes up early, when Miller is recounting his thoughts about the genocide in the Congo.  He writes that “Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.” (23)

The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even a certain politician; the problem is the same that it has always been.  I am the problem. … The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest. … 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.” (20)

Miller says there is nothing more progressive than embracing the fundamental idea that the problem in the universe lives within us.  He develops this idea throughout the book.

Another major theme is the need for authenticity, or the need to be genuine, which is often hard to achieve in our society which emphasizes appearance so much.  He says that “Everybody wants to be fancy and new.  Nobody wants to be themselves. … If there was a guy who just liked being himself and didn’t want to be anybody else, that guy would be the most different guy in the world and everbody would want to be him.” (29)  Elsewhere he diagnoses one problem with our culture:

I think we have this need to be cool, that there is this undercurrent in society that says some people are cool and some people aren’t.  And it is very, very important that we are cool.  … The problem with this is that it indicates there is less value in what people believe, what they stand for; it only matters that they are cool.  In other words, who cares what I believe about life, I only care that I am cool. (105)

He laments that “even our beliefs have become trend statements.  We don’t even believe things because we believe them anymore.  We only believe things because they are cool things to believe.” (107)  He goes on to say that true belief requires commitment and costs something, as opposed to the cheap, trendy variety.  He adds that if you believe something passionately, regardless of what it is and whether it is right or wrong, people will follow you, “because they think you know something they don’t, some clue to the meaning of the universe.” (109)  That’s one reason why believing things that are true is so important.  He adds that “if we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn’t be very many problems on earth,” like the genocide in the Congo. (107)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Much of the book details Miller’s adventures among people who are not only not Christians but are actively suspicious of them.  He discusses his time at Reed College, which is known for its secular and libertine culture.  He and others from the school’s small Christian community set up a “Confession Booth” on campus during the annual Bacchanalia.  The twist was that they confessed to the students who came in, not vice versa.  They apologized for not living up to the message of Jesus and for ways in which Christians have historically not been very Christlike.  His observations from the time he spent with the hippies in the woods are also interesting. One passage I found very powerful concerned a student at Reed College who had a speech impediment and a question that Miller fielded from someone asking how he could deal with all the immorality at the school.  He writes that

I never thought of Reed as an immoral place, and I suppose I never thought of it as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there and talk like Elmer Fudd, and nobody will ever make fun of him.  And if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love and would give my life for, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. (224-5)

He describes his experiences living alone and living with a group of other guys, saying he finds it “interesting that God designed people to need other people.” (154) Miller stresses community a lot throughout the book.  He describes hell as “a place where a person is completely alone, without others and without God,” (171) which contrasts with Jean-Paul Sarte’s view that “hell is other people.” (226)  He says that “the words alone, lonely, and loneliness are three of the most powerful words in the English language. … These words say that we are human; they are like the words hunger and thirst. But they are not words about the body, they are words about the soul. … Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body” (152)

Miller stresses love for others, not coincidentally, just like Jesus did.  He writes “I think love is a bit of heaven,” (cf. his description of hell) and says that when he was in love “there was somebody in the world who was more important than me.” (151) He stresses that we shouldn’t love others in order for them to like or love us, or in order to get anything whatsoever from him.  He said he hated the idea of befriending people in order to get them to go to his church—but he liked the idea of loving people just to love them, with no other motives attached. (135)  The passage on page 150 which concludes the 13th chapter is also informative on this topic.

Towards the end of the book Miller deals just a bit more directly with the topic of God and our relationship to the divine.  “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.” (201)  He says that in the face of such “big beauty” we have two choices: terror or awe; he recommends the later, adding “I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” (204, 206)

Don Miller suggests, but rarely directly states, a lot of good questions in the book, mostly concerning how the church has screwed up, is marginalizing itself, and is detracting from what should be its very powerful—and important—message.  But sometimes I wish he’d come out and be a bit more straightforward with criticisms and critiques.  Still, this is a good book for anyone, Christian or not, to read in order to have their view of what Christianity is and can be shaken up just a bit; it’ll keep people thinking.  The book is a light read; his writing style is conversational (as demonstrated) and humorous; the book doesn’t deal with deep metaphysical or theological topics; it is very practical.  It’s also short, at just 205 real pages, so few will have excuses.  Especially if a friend gives them a copy.  Recommended for anyone who wants an introduction to the new emergent movement within American Christianity.

“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon reviewed

27 February 2009

Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Everyman’s Library. ca. 3590 pp. (Vol. VI: 650 pp.)

Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a work that most people have heard of but which few have read. The former is due to the excellence of this literary achievement, known for the quality and irony of its prose and its rigorous use of primary sources; the later is due largely to the fact that Gibbon takes six volumes to cover the thirteen centuries of history from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. While I cannot do justice to Gibbon’s 3000+ page magnum opus in this review, I do hope to avoid doing it a great injustice. Note that while this review applies to the totality of the work, I will confine the specifics to the sixth volume as it is freshest in my mind and most thoroughly described in my notes.

Firstly, Gibbon was an excellent historian; he was very rigorous about resorting to the primary sources in Latin and Greek whenever possible. The many footnotes often contain information on both these sources and his secondary sources along with quotations therefrom.  And though you can’t get the full effect of the notes unless you read Latin, Greek, and French, they are well worth perusing for Gibbon’s own comments, such as this epigram: “the true praise of kings is after their death, and from the mouth of their enemies” (120). In another note he takes to task the Hal Lindseys of his day: “The more pious antiquaries labour to reconcile the promises and threats of the author of the Revelations with the present state of the seven cities. Perhaps it would be more prudent to confine his predictions to the characters and events of his own times” (332). The editor of the Everyman edition also sometimes add clarifications of his own, especially in those few places where Gibbon’s own judgments were not born out by subsequent scholarship.

In addition to his writing ability and researching skill, Edward Gibbon brings his great wit and point of view to bear on his subject, remarking that history “is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” After thirteen centuries and six volumes, the reader is inclined to agree. I never fail to be amazed how, time after time, in just a paragraph—or sometimes a mere fragment of a sentence—Gibbon announces that 130,000 people were killed by Arabs (16), or that 300,000 crusaders died before they even captured a single city (57), or that 70,000 Moslems were killed in Jerusalem (95)—all of which occur in just the first hundred pages of this one volume. Later (page 364) we learn that Tamerlane constructed a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads in Baghdad, just three pages after he had 4000 Armenians buried alive. Such statements do not, of course, include all of the literally countless deaths from all of the wars and massacres, only those for which the author could come by reliable figures; for instance, the victim’s of the Tartar’s rampage, whose severed right ears filled nine sacks, cannot be accurately enumerated since the size of the sacks was not specified. The reader may be relieved to still be capable of shock if he or she pauses, on page 374, as the deaths of one million Chinese people are announced. “So familiar, and as it were so natural to man, is the practice of violence, that our indulgence allows the slightest provocation, the most disputable right, as a sufficient ground of national hostility.” Gibbon is right: “the paths of blood … such is the history of nations.”

The specific murders and mutilations of individuals or small groups, usually at the direction of some emperor or other, are equally horrifying: despite involving smaller numbers they can be imagined with greater ease.  For instance, 70 rebels were boiled alive by Genghis Khan, who had a harem of 500 wives and concubines (n.b. only half of Solomon’s total of 700 wives and 300 concubines). Elsewhere, a young Greek concubine is mutilated by having her lips and nose cut off. The Decline and Fall is so filled with murders, massacres, and mutilations that one almost laughs when given the opportunity to have the tension broken at the ridiculous contrivance of the Emperor Theodore, who sacrificed “the lives and fortunes, the eyes and limbs, of his kinsmen and nobles” to his own passions:

A matron … had provoked his anger by refusing to bestow her beauteous daughter on the vile plebeian who was recommended by his caprice. Without regard to her birth, or age, her body, as high as the neck, was enclosed in a sack with several cats, who were pricked with pins to irritate their fury against their unfortunate fellow captive. (248)

The matron’s ultimate fate is not recorded by Gibbon.  One hopes that she survived the ordeal.

Speaking of eyes, I was surprised at the great frequency with which men who had claims to the throne lose their eyesight (and/or ability to reproduce) at the hands of rivals, who are frequently their brothers or other relatives. Blinding, of course, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the claimant to oversee (no pun intended) and administer the government, effectively removing him from contention for the throne. In this concluding volume Gibbon finally gives some information on how the operation was usually conducted by referring to “the brutal violence of tearing out the eyes,” though it was also sometimes down by destroying the optic nerve with a red-hot implement. In a footnote, Gibbon dryly lists some of the more violent methods of blinding devised by “ingenious tyrants” through the ages: “scooping, burning with an iron or hot vinegar, and binding the head with a strong cord until the eyes burst forth from their sockets.” Absolutely barbaric to us, but not to so many of the potentates who furnish Gibbon with his material, since “in the balance of ambition, the innocence or life of an individual is of small account.”

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Despite the vast amounts of immorality that it records, the Decline and Fall is a profoundly moral work, deeply concerned with right and wrong, and the reader with an ear for irony can perceive Gibbon’s scathing condemnation of barbarity on most of the pages where such crimes and follies are recorded. His harshest criticism is reserved for organized religion in general and those claiming to be followers of Christ in particular.  For instance, of the crusaders, who killed so many, he says “they neglected to live, but they were prepared to die, in the service of Christ.” When they capture Jerusalem and massacre those 70,000 Moslems Gibbon calls it a  “bloody sacrifice [that] was offered by his mistaken votaries to the God of the Christians.” Elsewhere:

such was the pious tendency of the crusades, that they [one group of Crusaders] employed the holy week in pillaging the country for their subsistence, and in framing engines for the destruction of their fellow-Christians. (212)

Note that Gibbon is most certainly not saying that Christians who pillage and kill are being truly pious—just as he wasn’t calling those tyrants geniuses for coming up with new ways of blinding people—or that those are things prescribed by Christianity; he is being ironic, and one gets the distinct impression that Gibbon, who was irreligious, was a great admirer of the Nazarene but bitterly disappointed with his followers, a sentiment indicated where he writes that “the God of the Christians is not a local deity, and … the recovery of Bethlehem or Calvary, his cradle or his tomb, will not atone for the violation of the moral precepts of the Gospel” (47) or that “the spirit of persecution is unworthy of a Christian.” (459)

Some of what came from his pen seems like it could have come from Christopher Hitchen’s keyboard. Consider Gibbon’s comments on the Popes, who came

from the mode of education and life the most adverse to reason, humanity, and freedom. In the trammels of servile faith, he has learned to believe because it is absurd, to revere all that is contemptible, and to despise whatever might deserve the esteem of a rational being; to punish error as a crime, to reward mortification and celibacy as the first of virtues; to place the saints of the calendar above the heroes of Rome and the sages of Athens; and to consider the missal, or the crucifix, as more useful instruments than the plough or the loom. (614)

Or elsewhere, where he mocks the mystical experiences of the monks at Mt. Athos: “the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain.” (299)  But such ridicule is not reserved for the Christian tradition alone; the whirling dervishes in Islam who “turn round in endless rotation” are called “fanatics [who] mistake the giddiness of the head for the illumination of the spirit.” (451)

Like many of today’s “new atheists” (a.k.a. “angry atheists”), Gibbon had a lot of anger towards Christians, never openly declared but easily detectable between the lines in his magnum opus. The depth of his feeling may be indicated by the fact that, less than a dozen pages after the quote on the popes above, he writes that “of the Christian hierarchy, the bishops of Rome were commonly the most prudent and least fanatic.” But the reader should keep in mind that Gibbon uses the term “Christian” for both people who truly follow the precepts of Christ and for those who only take his name for themselves. Thus he writes that “a Christian, a philosopher, and a patriot, will be equally scandalized by the temporal kingdom of the clergy,” referring to a true follower of Jesus.

Whether it contributed to his distaste for organized religion or, more likely, followed from it, Gibbon did not believe in the supernatural or miraculous and, as one reviewer put it, he “treated the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents.” Miracles, Gibbon wrote, were difficult to disprove, “except by those who are armed with a general antidote against religious credulity” and “such is the progress of credulity, that miracles, most doubtful on the spot and at the moment, will be received with implicit faith at a convenient distance of time and space.” Perhaps the reader can divine something of Gibbon’s attitude towards superstition, and gain some appreciation for his prose, in the following anecdote which he relates, where two competing schools came together to settle their doctrinal dispute in a trial by fire:

In the confidence of fanaticism, they had proposed to try their cause by a miracle; and when the two papers, that contained their own and the adverse cause, were cast into a fiery brazier, they expected that the Catholic verity would be respected by the flames. Alas! the two papers were indiscriminately consumed, and this unforeseen accident produced the union of a day, and renewed the quarrel of an age. (259)

Gibbon is most certainly an iconoclast, but I think he gets a lot of stuff right and was headed in the right direction with his moralizing.  The Roman Empire was a very barbaric place where a small number of very powerful people vied for power, wealth, and glory at the expense of their rivals and the people.  The story of the empire is one of endless wars, massacres, and murders with anyone who gets in the way being murdered or mutilated and everyone else being ruthlessly exploited.  Of course, “for every war a motive of safety or revenge, of honour or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors” (353) and I’m sure such justifications may have helped them sleep better at night.  But Gibbon says this about one empire builder: “Perhaps his conscience would have been startled if a priest or philosopher had dared to number the millions of victims whom he had sacrificed to the establishment of peace and order.” (378)

The overwhelmingly vast portion of those casualties are known but to God, but among them we must number the Roman Empire itself, whose end was caused and hastened by the wasting of the empire’s resources in combat with itself.  One of the authors and victims of the calamity called civil war “the deadly heat of a fever, which consumes without a remedy the vitals of the constitution.” (292)  Instead of using the wealth and strength that they’d inherited to further build up their society and their civilization, they used those resources against each other in a short-sighted and selfish attempt to grab more for themselves without regard for others and the whole.  The Romans who did this were like

the Indian who fells the tree that he may gather the fruit, and the Arab who plunders the caravans of commerce, … actuated by the same impulse of savage nature, which overlooks the future in the present, and relinquishes for momentary rapine the long and secure possession of the most important blessings. (525)

Gibbon spent two decades of his life researching, contemplating, and writing about the Roman Empire and its decline and fall, a task he was inspired to undertake, as he famously put it, “at Rome on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, [when] the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started in my mind.” That inspiration launched one of the finest written works in the English language (one shudders to learn he’d initially planned penning it in French); the six volumes first appeared between 1776 and 1788.  Gibbon, who had lifelong health issues, died only six years later.  His works and their abridgments will undoubtedly remain in print for years to come—but not forever.  As Gibbon himself muses, “the art of man is able to construct monuments far more permanent than the narrow span of his own existence: yet these monuments, like himself, are perishable and frail; and in the boundless annals of time his life and his labours must equally be measured as a fleeting moment.”

Indeed, that impermanence is one of the chief lessons of the Decline and Fall.  It is perhaps most poetically and poignantly suggested in the 71st and final chapter of the whole, where Gibbon relays the observations of Poggius, a servant to Pope Eugene IV, as he looks out over the ruined city of Rome in the 15th century:

This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill.

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Not only the ideas conveyed but the language used by Poggius is evocative of that five painting series by Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, and I wonder if indeed that work was inspired by the passage in question.  Either way, the whole monologue, and the concluding chapter itself, are well worth reading, so I link to the full text here.

Thus concludes my review of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  I hope that my review has communicated something of the greatness of the work in question, but even if my review were flawless, and its subject greater still…  sic transit gloria mundi.

“The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee

3 February 2009

The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. (1957). 292 pp.

Originally published in 1957, The Normal Christian Life is based on a series of sermons given by Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian (see his Wikipedia article) in 1938-9. It was edited by Angus Kinnear, since Nee had been in a Chinese prison on trumped up charges since 1952; he would die in jail in 1972, just before his scheduled release. The Hendrickson Christian Classics edition has a nice introductory essay that provides this context and other biographical details on Nee.

The best portions of the book come early. Nee draws a distinction between sins (lowercase and plural) and Sin (uppercase and singular). Sins are bad things that we do; Sin is an attitude or view which leads us to commit sins; this is a distinction also drawn by contemporary theologian Marcus Borg in his writings. Nee writes that it is not enough to simply receive forgiveness for bad things that we’ve done; we also need personal transformation (to use a term that Borg does) so that we won’t simply keep committing new transgressions. We must stop being greedy, petty, selfish, fearful, angry, impatient, and all the rest.

I also liked Nee’s definition of salvation, which is rather non-standard: “[Salvation] relates not to our sins nor to the power of sin, but to the cosmos or world-system. We are involved in Satan’s world-system. To be saved is to make our exit from his world-system into God’s” (55). He uses Noah and his family as an example; their salvation was “not so much that they were personally not drowned, but that they were out of that corrupt system. That is salvation” (56).

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee (1903–1972)

Much of the rest of the book didn’t strike me as very useful; he doesn’t argue from first principles but from a number of assumptions that he never defends or explicitly state; insofar as I don’t share those assumptions—about the nature of the Bible, how atonement works, and what God is like, among others—I didn’t find the central argument of the book very compelling. (One example: the author assumes the idea of Original Sin and its inheritability.)  The book never deals with the concept of love—the most important concept in Christianity; indeed, I’m not certain the word even occurs anywhere in the book.

Nee begins the book by asking “What is the normal Christian life? We do well at the outset to ponder this question. The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian.” Unfortunately, the book leads one to think that the problem that many of us have is that we try to do things, whereas we should really just sit back passively somehow and focus our efforts on believing that God will make everything work out okay in the end. Some of this comes close to the position of the Word of Faith movement and almost superstitious.   Finally, the portrait of God that Nee draws is one of a capricious deity that is always poking and prodding people, pushing them around and pulling the rug out from under them in order to manipulate them into doing good. God, as is often the case when the substitutionary theory of the atonement is assumed, comes across as rather punitive and blood-thirsty, a matter not particularly helped by Nee’s frequent and casual use of the term “the blood.”

This raises another problem.  Nee frequently falls into using jargon indiscriminately, often throwing around terms like “the blood”, “the cross”, “reckoning”, and “carnal power” without pausing to define them . One should always be suspicious of someone who doesn’t make his or her points in plain language (see “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell) and here one is forced to question exactly how much real meaning is in some of Nee’s statements; the vagueness of the terms allows many of his claims to mean almost anything the reader wants.  Often, the opaque terminology makes it is hard to derive any meaning from the text at all. Consider the following passage:

The Scriptures declare that we are “dead indeed,” but nowhere do they say that we are dead in ourselves. We shall look in vain to find death within; that is just the place where it is not to be found. We are dead not in ourselves but in Christ. We were crucified with him because we are in him. (p. 48, emphasis original)

Or another:

Unfortunately, in presenting the truth of our union with Christ, the emphasis has too often been placed upon this second matter of reckoning ourselves to be dead, as though that were the starting point, whereas it should rather be upon knowing ourselves to be dead. God’s Word makes it clear that “knowing” is to precede “reckoning.” (p. 38, emphasis original)

I have conversed before with people who use such language and I’ve no doubt that many will find these sorts of statements inspirational and purposeful.  That’s fine so far as it goes, but it’s not clear to me that he’s actually saying anything or conveying any real meaning.  It’s so easy to read what you want into what he’s saying that there’s not a lot that you can read out of what he’s saying.

Beyond those problems the fairly short book is easy to read.  Nee frequently uses anecdotes about his personal experiences, usually conversations he’s had with others, and illustrations involving everything from factories, light switches, putting sugar in tea, and buying books to help make his points. Readers may want to have a Bible handy when reading, as Nee often refers to and uses as background scripture passages without reproducing them in the text.  You can learn more about The Normal Christian Life by checking out its Wikipedia page.

Not recommended—especially for people without a solid grounding in theology—albeit not without value.