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