So I finally got around to reading Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (BLJ). I wouldn’t say it’s a contemporary classic, but a lot of people have read it and liked it. It was a book that sort of went viral with the young and “connected” crowd when “going viral” was still a bad disease. Not too often does a book, particularly a Christian memoir, get a movie deal. But that was BLJ. Sort of a cultural moment for Millennials.
Since the book has been praised and critiqued ad nauseum, I think it best now to reflect on the positives and negatives of the book and its effect on culture. So here goes.
BLJ is a beautiful example of pop art. It’s not high art, but it doesn’t try to be. The author, Donald Miller, just wants to tell his story as a single guy: coming of age and coming to a tested Christian faith through the struggles of college life and beyond. The way he tells it, his upbringing was formative but unsatisfying in terms of the political and cultural conservatism of his evangelical (fundamentalist?) faith. When Miller grew up he was considered weird simply because he questioned his subculture’s unwritten rules. And then he went to college and his world expanded with all the wonderful people he met who happened to be different from him. Different values, different speech, different beliefs, different habits. This is not interesting in itself because it’s thoroughly common. But one reason Miller’s story is a great read is because of which school he chose to attend. Reed College is famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) for unrestrained radical liberalism. There is something oddly hilarious about an evangelical finding his way in the den of iniquity! Miller gets this, and his narrative wrings so many laughs out of several bizarre yet lovely experiences. With Miller’s perspective sufficiently changed, the rest of the book weaves together seemingly disparate stories with introspection, transparency, and insight into the human soul. This is probably the best thing about the book. Miller is adept and refreshingly honest about discerning what God teaches him through the episodes of his life—both victories and defeats. The “moral of the story” at the end of each episode is always clear and served up with words that make Jesus attractive to both believer and unbeliever.
It’s been about a month since I finished the book, and it turns out the things I remember best are the stories and the poignant impressions they left on my heart. Not the content of those lessons, mind you, just the way they made me feel. In this sense BLJ is an affirming and cathartic read, which is an odd combination for any book. This might explain its curious level of success.
But the negatives left impressions on me too. Some of them are just signs of the times. In 2003 when BLJ was first published, President George W. Bush was deeply unpopular with large segments of America. It was “cool” to be down on Bush and his War on Terror. At several places in the book Miller bashes Bush and the Republican party with the zeal of a newly minted liberal. Dated is how the political tone feels in 2016. But I can’t help but imagine how books in 2008 like BLJ did their part to persuade many young people to vote for Obama, believing in his message of Hope and Change. Thus in retrospect Miller and BLJ were hugely influential in winning votes for the Democratic party that historically went to the Republicans. I get the feeling the BLJ-effect is not entirely gone this time around in the fall of 2016’s election season, so although few people are reading the book nowadays, its effects are still being felt.
[Disclaimer: I’m not an Obama fan, but neither do I consider myself beholden to one political party. I’ve got faithful Christian friends on both sides of the political divide, and most of them are clear-eyed, discerning strengths and weaknesses in political leaders. BLJ is different because it’s naïve. Miller appears to demonize Republicans the way a jilted lover condemns his former flame, and he idealizes Democrats the way a high school girl swoons over her first boyfriend. Usually people can see right through this, but when this nonsense appears in print its plausibility factor shoots way up. That is why Miller’s political musings are at least unhelpful, and possibly dangerous.]
Feeling. Felt. I use those words on purpose because BLJ, at least when it comes to theology, is heavy on the feeling and light on the doctrine. This has been the enduring criticism of Miller, that he is not leading Christians who love truth to also love Jesus with their emotions. Rather he seems to be leading Christians away from a thinking, doctrinal faith and instead into a faith dominated and led by the heart. Miller’s vision of real Christianity is just as bad as the problem it seeks to correct. But who says you have to choose between one or the other? Biblical faith is loving God with all your mind and heart.
Tolerance is another virtue that get twisted in BLJ. Miller is right to reject the pharisaic faith of loveless Christians. Such do not deserve praise but rather the criticisms that Jesus heaped on the religious leaders and those who defended them. But Miller sometimes appears so quick to embrace the sinner that he comes pretty close to celebrating the worldliness of his non-Christian friends. But not always. Mine is a soft criticism because in much of the book Miller models a humble faith willing to ask sincere questions, affirm the good he sees in unbelievers (we would call this good “common grace”), admit his own sins, and own (i.e., confess) the sins of his people (Christians and the church). Occasionally he drifts so far toward the world that it appears he doesn’t highly esteem his connection to the church. Jesus said his followers must be in the world but not of the world (Jn 17:15-19). The narrative in BLJ appears to describe Miller moving more and more into the world as one who is of the world. And his life in the last 10 years or so has proven this to be the case as he has moved further away from the institutional church.
Miller has a strong sense of self-awareness when it comes to his feeling, emotions, and intuitions. Unfortunately his theological self-awareness is rather weak. Back in 2003 the church gave him a pass because he was introducing the Christian faith with winsome words to unbelievers, and to believers who had lots of questions or who were hanging on by just a faith-thread. But as the dust settled on BLJ, it turns out Miller was really winning them to his version of Christian spirituality, which is something akin to his personal Jesus who has little time or love for the most important and eternal Christian community—the church.
Don’t get me wrong. I like BLJ. But I would not recommend it to anyone but the theologically discerning. He has much to teach cold, dry, musty Christians about the “heart of the gospel.” But not so much to teach emotional, spiritual, and impressionable folks about the “truth of the gospel.” Without both gospel “heart” and “truth”, BLJ could lead you astray.
Lesson materials by a fan of the book
Blue Like Jazz movie trailer