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Friday, April 25, 2008

Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller

If you want to know my opinion of this book, you need merely to look at my copy of it. I bent the pages down at the corner to remind me of the places in the book where I wanted to dissect Miller's personal opinion of the "Christian" walk (his quote marks, really . . . not mine). You'll also find my copy of the book in the recycle bin after I'm done with this review. (It'd be in the trash but I'm trying to do something nice for the environment.) While I'm typing this review, I'm using the book as a coaster for my sweating water glass. I never intentionally mark up books with pens or crease marks. But this one is pretty marred. I also realize that a great many people will not understand my opinion. I will try to make it as clear as I possibly can.

My disclaimer is as follows:

Yes, I do realize this is his personal opinion and "nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality." It is not gospel truth. He didn't even try to argue that it was. If he had been trying to argue that, I assume he would have used scriptures to back up his thoughts and arguments. Since scriptures are nowhere to be found within these pages, I can conclude that this is merely his opinion and that I simply do not agree with it.

Now, may I proceed?

First I want to reference the following verse:

"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." 2 Corinthians 10:5


I'd also like to state that I'm going to use the term "Christian" to define a follower of Jesus Christ, the one true Son of God, in this post. As Miller suggests, he'd like to ditch that term because if you ask 10 people on the street how they would define "Christian" you'd get 10 different answers. Well, now you know my definition (for purposes of this post) and further translation should be easy.

I primarily dislike this book because from all I've heard about it in person and from most of everything I've seen online, it is being heralded as a fresh new approach to Christianity and is sparking a revolution, of sorts, within the church. (In fact, I heard so much about this book that I chalked it up to being the next Purpose Driven Life and thus waited until this last week to finally read BLJ. It struck me as a fad book.) Unfortunately, I think it is a fad book and a destructive one at that.

Granted, this is Miller's own opinion of the world and, I remind you, he did not back up his thoughts with scripture or even try to defend them. He merely stated who he was and how he thought. The problem is that his "diary" was published and people latched on to it and indentified with it. But when you indentify with something you typically start to change behaviors/thoughts/feelings to engage with the familiar. Which is a problem when someone's thoughts are a bit screwy and not exactly on target. Suddenly their emotions are driving yours but there's no clearly defined path to explain where either of you are going.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight." Prov. 3:5-6 (emphasis mine)


I have a problem with Miller's opinion driving Christian culture because he makes the particular statement:

"My friend Julie from Seattle says the key to everything rest in the ability to receive love, and what she says is right because my experience tells me so." (emphasis mine)
(Page 226)

Compare that to the verse above. Miller states here that he knows something is right or wrong based on his experience. Life experience? Spiritual experience? Relationship experience? The way he has always brushed his teeth experience? I really don't know. But I do know what he said (i.e., his experience tells him so). I find this frightening in life of the fact that we are told that we cannot trust our own understanding and should not trust our own understanding. However, if we put our trust and understanding in God, He will direct our paths and lead us in the ways of wisdom and perfect understanding. (Forgive my overuse of the word "understanding.") Somehow God's ability to understand and impart wisdom seems more solid than Miller's. But that's just my opinion.

Quite frankly I almost stopped reading this book so many times. However, Miller's writing style is intriguingly different than most, plus I had hopes that he was going to conclude his life's wanderings into some solid truths. Which, btw, never happened. I wouldn't want you to suffer through this book waiting for conclusion. You'll just be frusterated.

I think you would probably like this book if you feel like you are an outcast in Christian society. Are you a little different than everyone else? Hmm. I don't really care. Why? Because we're all different and anyone who has to set themselves out and make a huge deal out of being different has a unique personality that I really just don't understand. I'm different than you. You are different from me. That's a fact and I don't even have to ask you any personal questions to know that we are, in fact, quite different. That's how God made us and He said so (in 1 Corinthians 12) . . . point made. By God. I object to people feeling the need to cram the difference down my throat and fly banners overhead to remind me that they are different. I always wonder what the point of that is. It certainly doesn't build unity but they haven't really noticed that. The only point that I think they are making is that they want to try to convince me that they are somehow better, more enlightened and an improved human. The interesting thing is that while they are out there doing it, they are arguing against the very cause they are supporting: unity. If you hold yourself out and say, "Well, you do not understand me so how could you possible know about such and such. I accept you, so why can't you just shut up and accept me for who I am?" Because, you see, you painted me into a corner. If I say I do accept you then I reject myself. If I say I do not accept your argument than you assume I do not accept you. And that's bogus. (Sometimes.)

I can sit here and type to you that I do like some of what Miller had to say. I think he is right that Christianity has done a good job at ignoring the poor and refusing the feed the hungry. However, if you make a blanket statement that that is and has always been the case and that we need a "new" church in order to promote these endeavors, then I think you've got things a bit wrong. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The church has been very effective in providing for the poor and caring for widows and orphans on many fronts. Maybe Miller just didn't see that happening when he was living out in the woods with the hippies. (Seriousy. He lived out in the woods with the hippies. He said so. He didn't shave for a long time.)

In his efforts to embrace diversity he also made some pretty hefty points against Christians who are against cussing (pgs 133-134). This really bothers me. I think it's very arrogant to go around trying to convince people that using foul language is an acceptible means of communication. Grant it, everyone has their levels of comfort in this area and some are more accepting of certain words than others. I have to hold myself up to the light of scripture, just like anyone, and this is what I see:

"Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips." Proverbs 4:24


When a person becomes a Christian they are to be transformed by the renewing of their mind (Romans 12:2). We're not to be filled up with the corrupt attitude, thoughts, behaviors and even language of the world. All of scripture discusses how holy things (and we are made holy by the blood of Jesus Christ) are to be set apart. Distinctly differently. Beautifully gifted in clean language! (Ok, the last statement was my own, I confess.)

God didn't seperate us and make us holy so that we could dribble out dirt like our counterparts. Everything we do should be done to and for His glory - including the way that we speak. To try and belittle those who are offended by foul mouths and put down those whose ears are offended by offendable words displays an attitude of immaturity. Miller is essentially saying, "It's too hard for me to try to remember not to use the F-word. This is just who I am and you guys in the ironed, neat clothes need to just learn to accept this. I do and it makes it easier for me to identify with the lowly."

For the record, I don't think we should intentionally go about trying to identify with sin. I really shouldn't have to defend that statement and I think I shall refuse to. It's a pretty basic idea.

Do I think it is important to communicate the gospel to the unsaved? Yes. Not only do I think it is important, I think Jesus commanded it of us. But it's not a pretty gospel that should be made more attractive so that people can "accept it." Jesus clearly stated (John 14:6) that He is the way, the truth and the life and that we cannot come to the Father except through Him. And do you know what we have to walk through in order to get to the Father? A bloody mess. It's not attractive, really, if you stop and think about it. It involves the most perverse sin and the hardest of hearts. But God gives the grace to get through it. He grants life and life everlasting. That's what makes it AMAZING and makes a person willing to walk into the fire.

Miller says, "I think Christian music is like jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something that you feel." (page 239 - his concluding remarks)

Ironically he spends most of the book arguing that he really doesn't want to get married because he's sure that either he or his wife will wake up one day and discover that they no longer feel love for the other. (This book uses the word "feel" quite a bit, actually, which also makes me distrust him and the influence he is beginning to wield in Christian circles if you remember my first point of dislike for this book.)

If any person is relying on the way that they feel to establish a future and a hope, they are lost. Just like if you relied on your ability to feel great love for your spouse every single second of every single day for every single year of your marriage, that your marriage will be able to stand the strains you are forcing on it.

God says it simply:

"Let your eyes look straight ahead,
fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet
and take only the ways that are firm.
Do not swerve to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil."
Proverbs 4:25-27


God can handle the heavy work; He can take on the tough cases. We don't need to worry about feelings fading in or fading out. Our responsibility is to look unto Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He will keep us on the straight paths. He will lead us to the way everlasting. He will give us a future and a hope whether our feelings dictate that we're in the clear or not. He makes us sure in Him. And thankfully -- Donald Miller's opinion really doesn't matter.

24 comments:

writer2b said...

Someone else recommended this book to me, but I haven't read it. It sounds like it really engaged you. And your review in turn sparks my thinking!

You make a lot of good points. I think we all need a place to be honest about our questions and struggles, but to publish them isn't always the wisest or most loving choice. I agree with you there. We can end up being a stumbling block, having more influence than we realize.

I agree with you partly but not totally on the "my experience tells me so" issue. Isn't our experience, and our ability to discern truth, part of what gets us to God in the first place? A person isn't going to trust God before being convinced that he's real, and experience is the only thing we have to go by to get there. This verse pops to mind, too: "We love him because he first loved us." Receiving love is the precursor to a relationship with God, and that's an experiential thing, isn't it?

Just some questions you get me thinking about. This is a great review that really wrestles with the book. Thanks!

sage said...

I read this book 3-4 years ago--a the time I thought he had some interesting things to say, but then found that I quickly forget them (often when a book really grabs me I think about it for a few weeks if not months or years). You have good insights into his not wanting to get married.

I heard Miller speak 2 years ago and then read Through Painted Deserts, but I don't think you'd like it either and I thought wasn't overly impressed with it (it was his first book that got published after him having a "hit.") Books are somethings like pancakes (and some say kids), you throw your first attempt away.

From Semicolon Saturday Review of Books

*carrie* said...

Carrie,

I read this book a few years ago and also the 2nd, Searching for God Knows What. I enjoyed them, actually; the first one more than the latter.

Reading books like this helps me reflect on and evaluate my own spiritual journey, even if/when I don't agree with all the author says. And since it did that for you, perhaps the book was successful, just not in the way you might have expected.

Mercy's Maid said...

:) This is one of my favorite books of all times. So are lots of Donald Miller books. I really enjoy books that make me THINK, and this book did that. It made me evaluate why I believe the things I do...is it because it's what I've always been told is true or it is really true?

If you're going to throw your copy out, I'd love to have it. Shoot me a message at jennalayn1@yahoo.com if you'd be willing to send it to me.

calon lan said...

I'll jump in and say that I agreed with carrie and mercy's maid about the way that this book made me think. I don't always want a book that hands me a bunch of safely dry comments supported by Bible verses. Sometimes, a very thoughtful book - that leans a little toward the hokey side, perhaps - can be just as, if not more, effective. That's how I felt about Blue Like Jazz.

Petunia said...

I totally agree with you Carrie. The Christian faith is based on the Bible, not the individual's experience. We have the Holy Spirit who helps us with discernment but our faith and what we believe about God must come first and foremost from Scripture, not life experience. I appreciate your honest review.

Laura said...

I really appreciated and enjoyed your thoughtful and careful review. This book has been recommended to me in the past, and several of my children read it and said they thought it was awful, but they didn't point out the main problem with the book as you did: Scripture/truth vs. feelings.

I am persuaded NOT to read this book, and I thank you!

Kimberly said...

Hi, Carrie! It's always great to discover new book blogs ~ thanks for taking the time to share your reviews.

I wanted to weigh in on the question of faith and experience. As Petunia put it, "The Christian faith is based on the Bible, not on the individual’s experience."

It has been several years since I ready BLJ, so I do not remember the particular context of the "experience" quote you mentioned (I am quite a book-marker-upper, however, so when I get home I may have to look up my margin notes). I have read all of Miller's books and heard him speak a few times. From my encounters with his writing and speaking, I can say that I know Donald Miller highly values the truths captured in scripture, as do I.

I do not, however, believe that valuing scripture requires renunciation of experience.

experience: a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something; the process or fact of personally observing, encountering or undergoing something; knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered or undergone

I love the Gospel of John. I love how it starts out reminding us how precious it is that the Word of God made his dwelling among us so that we could experience him, walk with him, follow him... and finally understand his truth. The disciples experienced Jesus, that is how they learned about the truth, the life and the way.

In fact, in John 5:39-40, Jesus pleaded: "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."

The Bible is amazing, and I am astounded at how every time I encounter the Word of God contained within I learn something new and understand more and am convicted about different things. The Bible is amazing, but it is not what Christianity is about.

The Christian faith is about experiencing the love of Christ, about loving the Lord God, and about learning to love others with his love.

The Bible is a special gift, the recorded experiences of people with God over time, of time spent with the savior while he walked the earth, of the indwelling of his Spirit, and of the birth and growth of the Church. The Bible is amazing... but the Bible is a record of experiences.

Carrie said...

Thanks everyone for your commments!

To clarify one point (I feel like I've already argued for myself) re: experiences:

Truth first; experience second.

In other words, I should not know that something "is so"/is truth because my "experience tells me so." Emotions, experiences, thoughts, etc., must all be VALIDATED by scripture.

I agree with Kimberly in saying that the Bible is a compilation of experiences that people had with Christ. Perfectly unusual experiences in some case. But it is primarily a communication of Who God is, exactly, and how we should test our experiences by the Spirit of truth. Does this make sense?

In other words, I am not saying that experiences are useless or shoudl be ignored. I AM saying that we should not make statements that, "I know it's true because my experience says so" with*out* that important scriptural validation. For our experiences can lead us to think untrue/sometimes manipulated thoughts.

If I let my experiences stand alone, then I'm in trouble and so is everyone who would think to listen to me for two seconds. However, if I can say, "I experienced *this* and I can give you an example from scripture that would suggest (or outright state) that I have concluded truth" then that is one thing and I have no objection to offer. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us in our lives. If we are not daily EXPERIENCING His presence, then something is desperately missing.

I experience things; you experience things; Donald Miller experiences things.

But I would never say (and take issue with those who would) that my experiences in life tell me whether something is true or is not true. There is one pure and undefiled source of truth and my experiences didn't make that list.

JK said...

amazing post (and comments) -- definitely needs a re-read to capture the depth and wrap my mind around what everyone is saying... hard to accept taking the words in the Bible as any type of truth without "experience" though -- how else to validate they are more then mere words?

Carrie said...

Faith.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I love Blue Like Jazz. I used a paragraph out of it to propose to my wife. This book played a huge roll in leading up to our engagement and marriage. So the marriage argument didn't seem to bother me. How is that for ironic? All that to say that I enjoyed reading your review and look forward to other ones. Thanks
Mark

elrj said...

Carrie, your review was very accurate and insightful. Thank you for taking the time to read it so closely (despite your dislike) and dissect the good and the, well, less that good.

I confess to some surprise when I hear people list Blue Like Jazz as a book that significantly challenged and/or inspired them, or list it as a breath-of-fresh-air.

I would list this book as "nice", and I mean that in an "it's ok, but I'm not planning on reading the author's other books" way. This is a nice book.

I'm surprised because there are many, many truly spirit filled and deeply grounded just phenomenal writings already in existence... I won't read the author's other books, not because I disliked this one, but because I want to move along to much, much better ones.

So I guess I'm saying, if you thought this was good? What else are you reading that your standards (and I'm sorry for being so harsh) are this low?

ss said...

BLJ and Miller's other words are simply doing good things for many people (not the least of which is sparking conversation, among those both familiar and unfamiliar with Christ).

That is a high honor for any sort of literature, and I can only hope do the same in my own life through speech and deeds, although I expect nothing less than for a a critic somewhere to find fault with it.

It's kind of a sign of the impactive success of a message...

Aaron L. said...

I haven't read the book in a while and I've read all his other books (and many others) since. I will try to salvage what I can from my brain.

It was difficult for me to parse through your review, mostly because I think the impressions we got were completely different. My impression of your impression is that Miller was trying to paint himself as "different" and that we need to be more accepting even if it conflicts with the Bible. It also seems that you are saying we just need to follow the Bible (and we do).

I don't think that Miller was trying to paint himself as different, I think he was trying to say that the church has failed on a number of fronts and that a better one is possible. This seems irrefutable and dignified. I can say I agree and believe the absence of a Christ-centered message in [insert significant percentage] of churches is a tragedy. Unimaginable numbers are driven away from the love of Christ due to fear-based messages and political alignments run amuck (amongst other issues).

This is not to say that church is an abject failure. Far from it. And I don't believe Miller is saying so. I think he's saying somewhere along the line subtle shifts took place that seem different than the message Christ communicated. We (Christians) decided we like *these* people and not *those* people.

I don't think this book is for Christians who feel like "outcasts." I think it speaks to people who've had poor experiences with the church or those associated with it. There are millions of them. If they are to be won over by Christ in us, it is in our best interest to let that love shine through instead of acting as if we are the gatekeepers to Christ's love.

And that, is my most basic impression of this review. We can't throw Bibles at people and tell them to figure it out and we certainly can't preach *at* them all the time. We need to be in the game with them and loving them first and foremost, not separate and aligned. We need to be telling them they are beloved children of God and not sorting out all their faults and sins and where they need to improve. We need to have room for everybody (!!!) and not act as though we know how it all works and it's a recipe to follow. Miller's not trying to tell anybody how anything works (!) or somehow lead them away from Christ by putting his opinion in place of the Bible.

Your review furthers the point of the book to its core. "I don't like your opinion and it doesn't really matter." What does those thoughts say about our judgment? Our self-righteousness?

cmh said...
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cmh said...
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cmh said...

We Read to Know We Are Not Alone: That’s such a great title for a blog and ironically the greatest reason as to why Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz, is a best selling “fad”. First of all, I respect that you acknowledge that the book is Don’s opinion in your disclaimer…that being said the review of his book seems contradictory to the title of your own blog:

“…not back up his thoughts with scripture or even try to defend them. He merely stated who he was and how he thought. The problem is that his "diary" was published and people latched on to it and indentified with it. But when you indentify with something you typically start to change behaviors/thoughts/feelings to engage with the familiar. Which is a problem when someone's thoughts are a bit screwy and not exactly on target. Suddenly their emotions are driving yours but there's no clearly defined path to explain where either of you are going.”

We Read to Know We Are Not Alone..doesn’t that imply that a reason readers read is to identify with the writer or characters of the story. Maybe Miller wrote to know that he wasn’t alone. Either way you criticize the notion of anyone identyfing with Miller. It seems quite a contradiction if you're saying I read know I'm not alone...I read to identify with others, but only others that I agree with or only others that aren't screwy.

I think Miller would agree with you that he was just writing his thoughts or “diary”. It’s not often when I journal that I quote scripture to back up my doubts or thoughts regarding God.

Like any other memoir it’s going to be one person’s opinion…it isn’t a theological text. It seems like you’re judging this book relevant to a genre that you acknowledge it isn't part of.

The very thing I enjoyed about the book is that some things resonated with me and some things didn’t and at the end of the day I realized I didn’t have to know everything. It was also comforting to know that other people struggled too and that end of the day it helped me know that I wasn't alone...

which after all is the point, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

"Which is a problem when someone's thoughts are a bit screwy and not exactly on target."

Everyone's thoughts are a bit screwy and not exactly on target. Unless it's the actual Bible, of course it's going to be off target. At least it adds to the conversation. Miller's books have at least gotten some people thinking about God, who previously rejected God. I think it's interesting that the 'Shopoholic' series, to you, is merely not worth your time, while BLJ is downright "dangerous."

-Danica

Carrie said...

Well if you are interested in pointing out irony you could say that my blog is a personal opinion (which it is) and you are attacking me -- which is what you say I shouldn't be doing to Miller. Ironically enough. It really is a vicious circle and not a subject I'm going to address.

Shopaholic really ISN"T worth my time. It's not trying to present scripture in anyway and is just bad subject matter. Why waste time on it when there are plenty more works of fiction which are more worthy of consideration.

BLJ IS dangerous because it is presented by most people who read it (read my entire post and disclaimer and you'll see I've already said this) as some kind of doctrinal guide. It's true. They even created study guides to be used in church settings. Journals do not usually receive that much notoriety and certainly not as "something to be studied and applied to our individual lives." THAT is what makes it dangerous. Perhaps Miller did not make it so, but certainly his readers did.

neal said...

To be honest with you, I think you are missing the point(s) Mr. Miller was making entirely. Being followers of Christ we are called to relationship with God, and with people. People are relational, and that is a fact. Reaching people for the Kingdom by simply telling them scripture, or directing them to the Bible, while in some cases effective is hardly carrying out the great commission by anyone's standards. We are called to Love others as we love ourselves. Speaking truth is fine, but we are to speak truth in love. Tolerating someone, accepting someone as a fellow human being is not love. Love is treating them as if they were more important than you. Their needs, desires, concerns, fears, hopes, should all be important to you on a relational level. Now don't get me wrong I doubt many of us have the capacity to relate to everyone like this, but in any event it is what we are commanded to do. I feel like you are so personally offended by people who claim to be different, I sense you have your own little Christian comfort zone, and you most likely prefer the beautiful people over the prostitutes, the criminals, the homosexuals and so on. I guess that's fine, after all who am I to judge? People are people. There are those who are lost and those who are saved. People respond to emotions, to relationship. Hand a Bible or a pamphlet with scripture to a non believer scorned by bad experiences with the " church " and see how effective plain truth is. Sure Truth is Truth, but Jesus told us to spread the Gospel (the good news) and to do the things He did. He didn't walk the earth just dropping random truth on folks, He spoke into there hearts, their issues, there sin, and He did it in a way that was loving, and relational. He gave people back their dignity, a sense of value and purpose just by sharing a meal with them or going to their home etc... In that culture those acts were very significant social behaviors that meant something. I'm sure many Christians today feel more than satisfied to invite someone to their church or to a Bible study, but where is the investment on your part? Where is the risk of pouring yourself into another human being's life in a personal relationship in an effort to show them the truth rather than tell them the truth. Walk into a bar and drop the name Jesus a few times or quote some scripture and see what kind of response you get. People are build to need relationship. It is through relationship and love that fear is overcome, strongholds pulled down and truth accepted. If you truly follow Christ, and have love in your heart, then you know that people are more important than opinions. God's Truth is Truth period, and it stands on it's own without the need of any of us to make it function. However, the Bible is not a collection of truths to be used as labels to point out sin to others. We are not called to judge nor is it our purpose to determine who is committing what sin. We are called simply to love God, and to love others as we love ourselves. In closing I'd like to point out that Miller did not to my knowledge ever use his personal feeling or thoughts as Christian theology. He was simply telling his story, how he got from point A to point B, what he was thinking how he felt and so on. I think maybe your confused and think that as a Christian it is your duty to defend the gospel of Truth and some how validate it. The thing is, Truth (God) validates us, we don't validate Him. I don't get it right every time, none of us do. Grace is after all the reason why life isn't fair.

Anonymous said...

After reading BLJ by Don Miller I'm reminded of Romans 7:15 "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." Miller clearly identifies with the Apostle Paul's struggle to live without sin in a sinful world. But I don't put much stock in Miller's liberal critique of the American church as the answer. I agree with Carrie that BLJ should not be interpreted as a doctrinal guide. BLJ is simply one person's journal of their spiritual struggles and conversations about God.

BerlinerinPoet said...

A. I love you. And that's why I'm stalking you again.

B. I could predict ALL of the comments this was going to get and I was right (i.e. "Ohwemjeeee Carrie, isn't it ironic that you are posting feelings but being mad about feelings" or "Hmmm, persecuting this saintly man are we? Much in the way that Christ was persecuted...guess that makes you a pharisee" or "You SO missed the point.")

C. I am not actually going to re-read this because enough people I've trust have hated it, but honestly I don't remember hating it very much. I kind of remember liking it. My words were "well, it's ok...it's a little bit...'Portland' if you know what I mean."

D. Your "I'm so different and unique" rant had me in STITCHES. I HATE when people do this. One of my personal peeves actually.

Let G. said...

This book is a good way to start spiritual conversations with friends. This book could be use to evangelize to our non-believer friends and share the Gospel to them. It is a good source people seeking for answers and truth. We have included Don Miller's book Blue Like Jazz as one of the tools we could give to our non-believing friends to come to Jesus. You can check the site at http://booksforevangelism.org. Heaps of great books can be found in the site which can be helpful for you and your readers.

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