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Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality Paperback – July 15, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Miller (Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance) is a young writer, speaker and campus ministry leader. An earnest evangelical who nearly lost his faith, he went on a spiritual journey, found some progressive politics and most importantly, discovered Jesus' relevance for everyday life. This book, in its own elliptical way, tells the tale of that journey. But the narrative is episodic rather than linear, Miller's style evocative rather than rational and his analysis personally revealing rather than profoundly insightful. As such, it offers a postmodern riff on the classic evangelical presentation of the Gospel, complete with a concluding call to commitment. Written as a series of short essays on vaguely theological topics (faith, grace, belief, confession, church), and disguised theological topics (magic, romance, shifts, money), it is at times plodding or simplistic (how to go to church and not get angry? "pray... and go to the church God shows you"), and sometimes falls into merely self-indulgent musing. But more often Miller is enjoyably clever, and his story is telling and beautiful, even poignant. (The story of the reverse confession booth is worth the price of the book.) The title is meant to be evocative, and the subtitle-"Non-Religious" thoughts about "Christian Spirituality"-indicates Miller's distrust of the institutional church and his desire to appeal to those experimenting with other flavors of spirituality.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
About the Author
Donald Miller helps people live a better story at storylineblog.com and helps leaders grow their businesses at storybrand.com. He is the author of several books, including the bestsellers Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Betsy, and their chocolate lab, Lucy.
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Top Customer Reviews
There are several very interesting chapters dealing different aspects of faith that focus on Miller's time at Reed College. Reed is a college that people at his church and other believers declared was extremely immoral and that the college was voted "most likely to not believe in God". That much is true, but it was also a strong intellectual school. When Miller started attending, he met up with some Christians at the school who were essentially an "Underground" group of believers. They talked seriously of what it meant to believe and live for Christ and it was a transformative kind of living, more than just attending church on Sunday it was living as a follower on Monday and Tuesday and every other day. One of Miller's friends believed that feeding the homeless meant more than just giving some money to a homeless shelter, that it really meant to actually go out and feed the homeless, to give them food directly, to sit and talk and share a meal with them. To minister with more than just words and preaching, but by truly loving those whom society does not love. It's a sacrifice that takes a person well out of what they think their comfort zone is. It's a challenge.
The aspect of Miller's time at Reed that I found most fascinating was during the college's weekend party, drunken orgy. It is some sort of festival that most would probably see as one of the more decedent displays anywhere in America. Accepted public nudity, drunkeness, lewdness and this is the norm for that weekend. What Miller and his friends decided to do was set up a Confession Booth in the campus's common area. They expected harassment and perhaps abuse, verbal and physical. Christians are not generally accepted at Reed. But this was a different and revolutionary Confession Booth. The Christians confessed to the Pagans. Donald writes about how they would confess how they were not truly feeding the poor, how he has anger issues and lashes out verbally when he feels threatened and that in general they and many others are not good representations of Christ. And change happened after this. Their activities (feeding the poor, Bible studies for non-believers, etc) gained a measure of respect and more involvement from other students. This isn't to say that the entire school changed, because it didn't, but that a raw Christian faith can find a seed anywhere.
But this raw Christian faith is about truly living a different sort of life, that we as individuals and we as a nation cannot hope to fix the world if we don't see the world differently, that we try to heal ourselves first and that what is wrong with the world isn't the world, it is me and it is you. Saying that hunger and homelessness is a problem isn't enough if we aren't actually trying to do anything about it. If everyone gave $20 a month or whatever to various organizations within America (or worldwide), so many lives could be saved. If everyone stopped the "me first" attitude which is so prevalent and so easily glossed over, there could be radical change. But it comes first from not worrying that the other person isn't changing when we aren't changing, when I'm not changing, because if I change then I'm not worrying that someone else is being selfish...I'm working for change.
But this is a frightening idea because it is easy to be comfortable and just deal with our own issues and we all have issues. To move beyond this is a radical step. It comes from a true change and dedication inside and the daring to move beyond the fear and into the faith.
That's kind of what this whole book is about, but it is also Donald Miller writing about a non-religious but highly spiritual perspective on Christian Faith and that this is so important today. When asked by a radio host to defend Christianity, he couldn't and wouldn't because he didn't know what Christianity and any ten people would have ten different ideas of what Christianity is. But he could talk about Christ and what Christ means to him.
Reminds me of a song by Sara Groves called "Conversations" where near the end of the song where she sings about trying to tell a friend about Jesus and she closes the song with a variation of her chorus "The only thing that isn't meaningless to me is Jesus Christ and the way he set me free. This is all that I have, this is all that I am." This is the root of her belief and is the root of what Miller is trying to say.
I have to say right at the start that I like the format of the book. _Blue Like Jazz_ is an essay-style work, each chapter more or less standing on its own. Yet they all tie into the central theme of "nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality," as the subtitle suggests. For these reasons, the book reminds me (ever so slightly) of some of C.S. Lewis' books (e.g. _The Weight of Glory_), which carry a similar format and also deal with Christian spirituality at a grass roots level, sans copious amounts of theological jargon.
I enjoy the way Miller writes. Not only is he readable, Miller often finds the perfect image when describing an event. As one example, he says, "Cusswords are pure ecstasy when you are twelve, buzzing in the mouth like a battery on the tongue." (p. 5) Doesn't that capture the experience perfectly?! And listen to this one: "I am something of a recluse by nature. I am that cordless screwdriver that has to charge for twenty hours to earn ten minutes use." (p. 152) I love it!
For me, Miller is someone with whom I resonate. Being a single guy and living with roommates, I can relate to many of the issues Miller raises (often laced with humor), which are associated with this particular lifestyle. Many times I find myself saying, "I've been there."
Overall, I find _Blue Like Jazz_ to be a fun read, with thought-provoking turns along the way. Miller's self-deprecating manner is effective at these junctures. As the reader, I don't feel like he is sitting in judgment on me for my failures or pointing the finger.
All that said, keep in mind that I'm writing from the perspective of an evangelical Christian. There are a few problems I have encountered with _Blue Like Jazz_, which I want to point out. If you dislike negativity, please skip the rest of this review.
First of all, from the subtitle, the book is about Christian spirituality. Yet Miller never bothers to define the term in a clear way. The closest thing to a definition is found first on page 57. Miller says, "And I love this about Christian spirituality. It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul." At the end of the book, Miller says, "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) Not only is Miller's understanding of Christian spirituality nebulous, as an evangelical Christian I think it's incorrect. Here's what I believe Christian spirituality is: "Spirituality in the New Testament sense is a means to the end of righteousness. Being spiritual means that we are exercising the spiritual graces given by God to mold us after the image of His Son. That is, the discipline of prayer, Bible study, church fellowship, witnessing and the like are not ends in themselves, but are designed to assist us in living righteously." (R.C. Sproul Sr., _God's Will and the Christian_, 1984, Tyndale, p. 20)
Secondly, Miller makes a few theological statements along the way that are cause for concern. Check out these statements: "Love, for example, is a true emotion, but it is not rational." (p. 54) "I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway? If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything." (p. 103) "...Christianity spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained." (p. 115) "There are many ideas within Christian spirituality that contradict the facts of reality as I understand them." (p. 201) "...Jesus didn't just love me out of principle; He didn't just love me because it was the right thing to do. Rather, there was something inside me that caused Him to love me." (p. 238)
I know what the standard response is: "Miller isn't a theologian. He's an author." That's fair enough. Notwithstanding, lacking expertise in an area doesn't grant one immunity from criticism when (s)he ventures into that area. Though Miller is not a professional theologian, he certainly makes theological statements from time to time. When he does, he should be held to the theologian's standard. If I were to write a book in which I made statements about health and fitness, I would expect to be held to the standard of those experts in the health and fitness field.
Thirdly, for someone who claims that Christian spirituality is nonpolitical (see quote above from p. 115), Miller manages to make some political statements. At one point, he says, "Can you imagine what Americans would do if they understood over half the world was living in poverty? Do you think they would change the way they live, the products they purchase, and the politicians they elect? If we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn't be very many problems on earth?" (pp. 106-7) Ignoring the issue of whether Miller is naïve at this point, the statement clearly carries an underlying socio-political assumption.
Please note that I'm not being negative for the purpose of bashing Miller. I'm simply pointing out some concerns that I have as an evangelical Christian. Perhaps others of a similar persuasion will find these caveats helpful.
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