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
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.
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