Donald Miller. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
I saw the movie Blue Like Jazz over a year ago (see here), so I was a bit reluctant to read the book. The movie was about a Christian named Don who attended the ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The movie had some good parts but also a lot of silliness and parts that I did not find particularly interesting. I think of that student who dressed up like the Pope and was throwing Don’s books into a fire. The book was on the shelf of my church’s library, and I decided to read it because I figured that, even if it was like the movie, perhaps it would provide reflection that would appeal to me, or narrate the events in such a way that I would understand and appreciate them better. After all, the concept of a Christian student attending Reed College and building bridges with the non-believing students there does intrigue me, plus I have heard good things about Donald Miller from people who see things like I do, more or less (i.e., infatuated with aspects of Christianity, yet disillusioned with conservative Christianity).
The book was hardly anything like the movie. Yes, Don in the book does attend Reed College, and there are some similarities between the book and the movie: the Christian students setting up a confessional where the Christians confess their sins to those who come in, and a young woman named Penny at Reed who is a leftist and a Christian. But the movie had so much that the book did not (i.e., the affair between Donald’s mother and her pastor, the student dressed as the Pope, etc.). And the book had a lot that was not in the movie, plus many of the book’s scenes were not even related to Don’s time at Reed College. Donald Miller was a co-writer for the screenplay, so I wonder how much of the movie reflects things that happened that Miller decided not to include in the book. Overall, though, I liked the book much better.
The first half of the book was all right. There was some silliness that I had to endure, but there were parts that I enjoyed, even if they were a bit dogmatic. There were also parts with which I disagreed. Donald Miller recounts a time that he went to a bookstore to hear a trendy Christian writer, and Donald did not care for how the writer was drawing from aspects of Islam and incorporating them into his own spirituality. Donald, and a Christian friend of his, considered that to be a trivialization of Islam, even a rape of Islam! Personally, I do not see why it is so problematic to draw from the wisdom of other religious traditions, just as long as I remember and appreciate that they came from a context that is not my own.
While I only somewhat liked the first half of the book, I loved the second half. Donald was a lot more vulnerable there. He opened up about his social struggles in dating, his introversion, the perils (yet the temptation) that can come from living alone, and his halting attempts to live in community, as he desired his personal space but also wanted to be liked. What he said about living alone and living in community is something that I will take into consideration but not necessarily use as an absolute “Thus saith the Lord” on how I should live my own life. I do agree with Miller that living alone can lead to self-absorption and impair one’s ability to interact with others, but I have had more than one experience of living in community that did not exactly lead to the “happily ever after” that Miller depicts in his own life. I like what I have now—-I live with people, yet I am given my space (though I do have to remind myself to think about “us” and not just “me”). Plus, I think that a person can live alone, yet find ways to interact with the outside world (i.e., church, friendships).
The second half of the book also had hilarious stories. I think of the story of the biker who taught Donald about the importance of tithing, even though this biker rarely attended church. There was also the story of how Donald found love and acceptance in a hippie commune, then he went to a Christian camp and really had to struggle to make the transition. His interaction with the female student from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University made me laugh out loud! The lady asked if Donald had a razor so he could shave, and Donald said he didn’t know where it was. Donald narrates: “‘You don’t know where your stuff is?’ she asked, obviously coming from a primitive, materialistic, territorial paradigm” (page 212).
Miller talks throughout the book about what the students at Reed College taught him—-the importance of social justice and caring about people. My favorite passage about Reed College, though, was when Donald talked about how he was helping a student move in, and the student talked like Elmer Fudd, but was brilliant in science. (I think of that character on The Big Bang Theory!) Donald reflects about a time when he was at a pastor’s conference and he was asked about the immorality at Reed College (i.e., sex, drugs), and Donald thought to himself that he did not consider Reed to be an immoral place. People at Reed did not make fun of that student who talked like Elmer Fudd but appreciated his potential, whereas at least someone at Donald’s church probably would make fun of that student behind his back.
Donald Miller is often characterized as an Emergent writer, which I take to mean a liberal evangelical. Brian McLaren, a key figure in the Emergent movement, has an endorsement of the book at the beginning. I was surprised, therefore, to see Donald praising Mark the cussing pastor who has a church in Seattle. Donald does not explicitly identify him as Mark Driscoll, but I wonder who else it could be. Mark Driscoll was critical of the Emerging movement, and many Emergents did not care for Mark Driscoll, seeing him as a misogynist authoritarian jerk. But Miller depicts Mark the cussing pastor as a friend, whose church reached out to liberals and artsy types. Miller saw Mark’s church as a refreshing step up from the right-wing churches that Miller attended before then. Overall, while Miller is critical of the right-wing, he does humanize certain right-wing Christians. I think of his story about Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. When Bright was asked what Jesus meant to him, Bright broke down and cried.
The book had many more stories that I did not include in this review. It is a good book.
Thanks for the review. I read the book years ago when it first came out and really enjoyed it. You know how Miller describes his original distaste for jazz because it seemed to go on and on with no beginning, no conclusion? That was how the book was — but it was Ok, because that is how life in Christ is as well. You don’t have to be able to draw conclusions; you only need to be able to enjoy the music as Jesus lays it down for you. I thought the book followed that pattern (nothing like the movie, with a story, as you say) and at the same time put forth Miller’s sincere thoughts. I think it is his best book so far.
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Wonderful review James 🙂