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Author: Donald Miller. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003
Blue Like Jazz, the movie, is set for release on April 13, 2012. It is based on a semi-autobiographical book by Donald Miller with the same title, published in 2003 (a New York Times best seller). I read Blue Like Jazz upon the enthusiastic recommendation of a delightful young lady whose father is a friend of mine. Just a few years ago, it was wildly popular among young people interested in spirituality and its author has been hot on the Christian speaking circuit ever since. In advance of the movie release, I wanted to share some thoughts on the book itself.
Miller’s thought-life is the body and soul of this book. His memories and musings are a spiritual playground he shares with the reader. We meet the author first as a child, trying to figure out God, sin, guilt, and the human condition. Like God’s little spy, he searches out the mysteries of the universe, or at least those of his neighborhood. He learns the hard way that goodness does not come natural and that God is not a slot machine.
So far so good.
Deep inside the Grand Canyon, Miller recalled listening to the music of the river and speaking with God. He wrote, “There’s something beautiful about a billion stars held steady by a God who knows what He is doing. (They hang there, the stars, like notes on a page of music, free form verse, silent mysteries swirling in the blue like jazz.)” It occurred to Miller, a college Bible class leader, that God was up there.
I came to Blue with upbeat expectations, but it left me in sorrow. There were more than a few unhealthy spiritual hazards in Miller’s semi-autobiographical playground, besides the fact that his populist subtitle is oxymoronic. Here are a few concerns that I hope do not drag the movie down:
1. Miller overplays the “Christianity-stinks-but-Jesus-is-cool” card. His apologies for the Crusades, televangelists and our neglect of the poor were gratuitous. He was sorry for genocide, Columbus and for well-dressed preachers who support Republicans. He and his friends even set up a booth on a college campus to apologize for Christianity. They asked people to express their hostility against Christians. He said, “It felt kind of cool, kind of different. It was relieving.” (p. 127). Instead of Christianity, Miller believes in “Christian spirituality.” This dichotomy became tedious for me since it is too easy to confess the distant sins of others and feel better as a result.
2. Miller trafficked in too many stereotypes about big-haired preachers and heartless Republicans. This came off as mean-spirited and unfair. He complained about how little work there is in the Christian writer’s market “if you don’t write self-righteous conservative propaganda” (p. 188). Yet, his own success defies his resentment. He lost me when he quipped, “Republicans did not give a cr-p about the causes of Christ.” (p. 132).
3. Looking back, he expressed admiration for “Mark the cussing pastor,” who led a cool church “filled with hippies, yuppies, artists and people who listened to public radio.” Mark earned a reputation for cussing “a lot,” said Miller. Fortunately, he did not share specifics. But Mark’s church made Miller feel like he “could breathe for the first time in years.” (p 133). Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but pastors who cuss to be cool are unworthy of their profession. Profanity is unspiritual. Give me big hair and a clean mouth any day.
4. Miller’s personal discoveries of grace were insightful. However, sometimes his picture of grace looked like a choice between love and self-discipline. He made the muscular side of Christianity look silly and knocked it over with a warmer fuzzier version. Grace and self-discipline may tug at each other, but they should end up as partners in God’s scheme, with love in the lead.
5. The phrase, “I feel…” dominated the book. I began circling all the “feel” words, and this kept my hand very busy. Cover to cover, Miller saw Christian spirituality as more or less what Donald Miller “feels.” In the final chapter, he wrote, “I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something you feel… Everybody sings the song the way they feel it.” (p 239). For Miller, belief in God was like falling in love. I’m no killjoy when it comes to feelings and falling in love, but faith in God must run a lot deeper and wider than our feelings. Miller took his trust in feelings over the top.
6. As a reader, I began to mistrust Miller’s narrative color commentaries as if it meant more to him to entertain than to tell stories accurately. The hippies were too angelic, the conservatives too inhuman, the women all too beautiful and the Republicans too plastic. And he was a bit too cynical about things I value.
I hope this movie is one that enables people to say, “The movie was much better than the book.” Watch the trailer below and leave your opinions behind. What do YOU think?
Blue Like Jazz: Official Trailer.
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The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.