Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Religious Thoughts on "Blue Like Jazz"

The cover article of a recent issue of Christianity Today was on Donald Miller, the author of the bestseller Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Having never read the book, I decided to give it a whirl. I had heard some good things about it; or, more precisely, I had heard that some people liked it, and I knew that it had become fairly popular in certain segments of the American Christian population. I picked up my library’s copy of the book and raced through it in less than 24 hours, driven largely by a sense of curious bewilderment and the pleasure of forming rational critiques. I have a sneaking suspicion that I don’t quite understand what postmodern literature is really trying to say….So if any of you, my faithful readers, have insights into this peculiar genre, I’d love to hear your responses, since my own thoughts are no doubt over-generalized, probably somewhat unfair, and incomplete.
Blue Like Jazz has a lot of good things to say. It’s written by a man who loves Jesus, and who encourages us to reconsider and fall in love with Jesus too. That’s glorifying to God, and I’m sure there have been very many people whose walks with Christ were either begun or deepened through reading this book. The book also takes social responsibility very seriously and drives home the second greatest commandment “Love your neighbor,” with powerfully incarnational stories (his story about confession is worth reading).
In essence, the book has one major premise: that the Christian life, like jazz music, is a free and wandering thing, a mystery and a feeling (p.239). It is a journey without an apparent destination, much like the book itself. Under that large thesis are two main theological points (though there are others): God loves us just as we are, and we ought to love one another.
Donald Miller is actually a very good writer, though it took me awhile to realize that because of the reductionistic style he uses. It’s the fluid speak of current, watered-down dialogue, but he uses it with clever flourish and winsome metaphors. Though he never declares himself to be a postmodern, it’s fairly easy to sense that he’s speaking to us from that edge of the larger culture. I’m not a postmodern (though I’m probably affected by it in some ways), and most of my critiques of Blue Like Jazz are actually critiques of postmodernism. To its credit, Blue Like Jazz has the potential to reach and affect postmoderns more than modernistic-style books would. It would be a very good book for someone who has lived his entire life with a stereotype of Christianity that paints everyone as stupid fundamentalists, but I’m not so sure it’s a good book for anyone else.
The main reason for this is that the book is theologically impoverished. It passes itself off as “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” but the subtitle is misleading. Not only are the thoughts indeed religious (Christianity is a religion, after all, and Miller writes as a Christian), but there are only a handful of substantial ideas in the book. A better subtitle would be, “Nontraditional Feelings about Christian Spirituality.” The form of the book, ‘new realism’ (autobiographical anecdotes and observations written in a style that nears stream-of-consciousness), seems largely to generate a feeling of honest, artsy loneliness. I’ve seen this in a great deal of postmodern literature, and especially in contemporary poetry. There seems to be an implicit assumption in literary circles that this sense of artistic desolation and brokenness is somehow meritorious in its own right. True, one of the great goals of literature is to evoke feelings in the reader, but brokenness is far from the only Christian feeling.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’ve already made too many generalizations. There are some genuine thoughts in Blue Like Jazz, but for a mature (or maturing) Christian audience (which seems to form a significant part of the book’s market), it offers almost nothing we haven’t heard elsewhere. But the book isn’t about ideas, really, because Miller doesn’t put much confidence in ideas. Rather, the focus of Christian spirituality is the heart. In one passage he goes so far as to say that, since there are so many people who disagree about what the truth is, we’ll never figure it out and we might as well stop trying (103). Coming to faith has nothing to do with thinking, apparently—rather Miller describes the process as a mysterious internal force that inexplicably pulls him toward God (57).
Postmodernism has some good reactions against modernism, but this denial of intellectually knowable truth is the worst of its bizarre vagaries. As Christians we must, practically by definition, believe in objective truth. There is such a thing as reality, and God gave us intellects for a reason. It is dangerous in the extreme to throw away the intellectual side of the faith. Miller isn’t wrong to say that Christianity is about the heart, but he is wrong to say that it’s not about the mind. It’s about both.
This is the danger in Miller’s work. Most of what he says is true, but it’s only one dimension of the much more robust truth of Christian orthodoxy. Christianity is about mind and emotion, thoughts and feelings. Jesus is not just a nice guy who loves us and listens to our stories, he’s also the incarnation of God who was tortured and died for our sins—not just for our vague sense of guilt, but for our sins. (Miller doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on either the character of Jesus or on sin, but he says enough that one can come away with a fairly incomplete picture of Jesus).
Miller not only makes this mistake about what extent knowledge plays in our faith, but also about how we know it. His entire book rests on one source of knowledge: his own personal experience. By way of contrast, the great evangelist John Wesley helpfully illuminated four such means: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (and for evangelical Christians, Scripture takes preeminence). But Miller only has experience, and this impoverishes his thoughts about God. We should be wary of accepting with open arms the spiritual meditations of a man who (by his own admission) shows little interest in reading the Bible, is largely ignorant of theological tradition (he thinks going to Greek Orthodox churches is ‘cool’ simply because it’s out of the ordinary), and denies outright the value of reason.
There are other critiques that can be made about the book, but this will suffice. Other reviewers have done a better job at it. My main reason for bringing it up is my concern at seeing such a theologically one-sided book gain such a mainstream following. Surely there are good Christian writers out there who can present the shape of the faith with winsomeness, candor (which Miller has), and theological substance (which, in large part, he doesn’t have).
Some might object that I’ve tried to turn Blue Like Jazz into a book with a point (for you can only critique a claim rationally if a claim is being made). And maybe Blue Like Jazz wasn’t written to have any point at all. That seems like something postmodern literature might try to do. Maybe it’s more of a deconstructionist word-picture about Christian life. Maybe the only point is to walk through Don Miller’s life with him as with a friend, to see the world through his eyes and to make no judgments. The only problem with that is that Miller is consistently painting a picture about Christianity, and Christianity is a real thing, and real things can be misrepresented.
My other concern is with the genre and style of the book itself. Writers have to take seriously the fact that the medium will color the message. Writing is a beautiful medium—one of primary mediums through which God chose to communicate to mankind—but we must be discerning about how we write. We must think seriously about issues of style and genre in terms of the message we are presenting.
Miller’s genre is tough to nail down, but it’s important to take a look at it, because a whole new literature is bursting onto the Christian market. Some of these writers have good things to say; others don’t have very much to say at all. But they all write in a certain form, and I think it’s worth asking what that form does to their message and to us as readers. Miller is one exemplar of this new form of gritty, authentic, free-flowing thoughts taken from autobiographical anecdotes. Another would be Anne Lamott. Lauren Winner and Kathleen Norris might also fall into this category, but I haven’t read much from either of them. In some cases the pieces are contemplative; in others they are almost poetry reconfigured as prose. In all the cases I’ve read, they’re well-written. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve to be read.
This genre wouldn’t be as troubling in the general market. There are some good insights to be gained from one person’s journey. But in the Christian market, it has the potential to be troubling. If, as in the case of Miller, personal experience is made the sole epistemological framework for the author’s reflections on Christianity, we should be wary. If, however, the riches of Scripture, tradition, and reason are also made use of, then the works might well be worth reading. In either case, we should learn to think critically about such works. A book can sell well and be beloved for its good writing and depth of feeling, but at the same time portray a skewed view of Christian life. Theology is the rhythm of our lives, and it is possible to pick up erroneous ideas if we don’t critically examine the thoughts that we allow into our minds.
The danger with this genre is that good writing seems to be the only prerequisite for publication, and, unlike much fiction, it consciously passes itself off as something worth thinking about. The authors need no theological depth. As long as their ideas make people feel contemplative, the book will sell, even if there isn’t much worth contemplating there. (And this is a very broad warning; Blue Like Jazz certainly does have a few things worth thinking about).
This genre doesn’t fall in the tradition of spiritual theology or devotional works, which rely primarily on Scripture and tradition, with personal anecdote only as a backup source of illustration. Neither does it fall into the rich genre of Christian biography or autobiography, which is designed to show a life well lived by the power of God. By contrast, the stories from the ‘new realism’ genre have little virtue to commend themselves save their honesty. This produces a feeling of empathy on the part of the reader—the author’s struggles are very much like our own, or perhaps worse—but it leaves us there, only attempting to show us a few pointers (if any) toward a better way of living.
My point, of course, is that the genre itself has an inherent danger—using one person’s individual experience as a guide for Christian spirituality. This danger can be avoided, but the writers who choose to use this genre must be cognizant of it. (And, of course, I’m not accusing any of the authors in particular, having only read one such book in full). The flip side is that, if used well, the individualistic locus can also be a powerful force for good—by employing rich theology and an honest story of God-glorifying salvation such that the feeling of empathy engendered in the reader is transformed into a desire to live more faithfully.
Here are some questions to be asked:
- Has this material either edified my understanding or encouraged me to live more consistently? Or has it merely induced a passing emotion in me?
- Does the individualistic locus of the work color the message? (I find it rather ironic that Miller, though he commends the theme of community in the Christian life, chooses a style of writing that is rabidly individualistic).
- Does the author’s cleverness and fluency with words merely mask his or her inability to deal forthrightly with sin?
- Is the individualistic honesty of the anecdotes an example of humility or of pride?
- Does the author show enough understanding of orthodox theology to be taken seriously as a guiding voice for Christian spirituality?
Other questions can be asked, I’m sure, but these are a good starting point. Even if we go to books like Blue Like Jazz without expecting to find substantial contemplative truth, we must still be wary. We cannot assume that there is such a thing as ‘recreational reading’ in the sense that the reading doesn’t affect us. We always take something away from any interaction with almost any media (this is what makes television a subtle danger, and also what makes Scripture a transformative joy), and it is worth considering what these media are doing to the way we think. For, in the end, the way we think determines much of the way we live.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Ancient Way

This is what the Lord says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths; ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." - Jeremiah 6:16

I stood upon a sunlit hill,
And watched the sea grow wildly still.
The waves themselves refused to play
Against the languor of the day.
The question cried upon my brain,
And nothing could my shout restrain.
I asked the world what they had found,
Chasing love in endless round,
I asked the world what they had found,
But everyone just looked away.
Lost in noise, they looked away.

I walked the busy city streets;
The passersby I did entreat,
To see if fifty men remained
Who walked along the ancient way.
Or if not fifty, forty-five,
Or forty who remained alive.
Or thirty, then, if I could find,
Thirty men of noble mind;
Perhaps just twenty hold the line;
Ten who boldly face the day.
But no one walks the ancient way.

These lands I love are slipping fast
Within the dusk to darkness’ grasp.
I weep for words our fathers say,
For mem’ries of the passing day.
Our wealth and comfort bind us tight,
They blind us to the waning light.
Hail Novelty, our fairest god;
Or bow to Entertainment’s rod;
But both these effervescent gods
Their homage to the Self must pay—
This is our trinity today.

Now I raise my head up high,
Against the black’ning of the sky;
And I remember darkly, yea,
The greatness of a former day
When virtue caused men’s faith to rise,
When val’rous hearts embraced the skies.
But virtue is a quaint idea—
Old, and out of style here.
We’ve moved beyond it, have no fear;
We’ve summoned now another day,
With virtue’s greatness cast away.

Return again, O bright and fair!
Return yourselves to virtue’s care!
Our comforts have become our grave,
Till we can neither see nor say
What trouble vexes heart and mind,
Or what has made us deaf and blind.
Desire has become our king,
And, stupefied to everything,
We have lost the will to sing,
To think again on brighter days,
To flee back to the ancient way.

Justice rises with the dawn;
Embrace it, friend, and be reborn;
Prudence now her song will raise
Within the breaking of the day;
And temperance now, with fiercer shout,
Returns to fight its final bout
Against the vagaries of lust,
Against the excesses we trust;
And now, with all our strength we must
Call on fortitude, “Allay!
The bleakness of our darkening day.”

Faith is deeper, wider still,
Its rushing depths can cleanse our will.
And hope will rise upon the day
And push the darkest clouds away.
Hope for glory, hope for light,
Hope for God’s unending right.
But now the greatest of them all
Will rise against the fading pall
And raise the dead with one clear call—
Charity will save the day,
For this love is the ancient way.

Greatness is not found in wealth,
Nor in pleasure, nor in health,
But only in a heart made brave
With virtues of another age.
We were made for noble souls,
So follow God, and be made whole.
There is no other way, my friend,
To grasp your awesome, awestruck end,
To find the peace of life’s ascent.
I have but one last word to say:
Believe, and walk the ancient way.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Follow Me" - The Call to Adventurous Living

The Christian life is an adventurous life. It is this belief, this discovery, which has been the driving force behind the shape of my journey. The Christian worldview is an all-encompassing perspective on reality, but within it lies a vast richness of models and metaphors for our daily life. And for this post I thought I’d share the metaphor that speaks most deeply to me—that of adventure, and of a missional and rather militant type. I’ve been thinking about it lately, since I’m in a place right now of waiting and preparation, and this missional focus reminds me that I have something to do right here and right now, something that will help to shake the world for Christ.

In Matthew 4:19 (and Mark 1:17), we have the call of Jesus to his first disciples. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” The thing that strikes me about this call is its immediate connection to mission. Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me, and I will save you from your sins,” or “Follow me, and you’ll go to heaven when you die.” Rather, he gives his disciples something to do here and now, a brilliant focus for their earthly lives. This is the missional perspective on the Christian life—wherever we are, whatever we may be doing, we always have a mission to fulfill. We are all chosen and placed by God to be agents of his coming Kingdom in a hostile land.

C. S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity, compares Christianity to an underground resistance in a time of war. Satan has taken over the world, and we now live in occupied territory. We know that God will be launching his invasion soon—D-Day is coming. But for now we are the resistance, working in every moment and circumstance to prepare the way for the Lord.

I am, by nature, generally laid-back and gentle in public. But there is a side of me that few rarely see, a fire and intensity that marches out for times of spiritual war. And this missional understanding of the Christian life is what makes me come alive. Interacting with strangers frightens me, but some of the most exhilarating moments of my life have come when I chose to speak of the beauty of faith to people who had never heard it before.

But witness, whether spoken or lived out in daily relationships, isn’t the only way of entering the battle. We also have prayer. No matter where I am, no matter what circumstances have beset me, I always have prayer. I don’t know how or why God chooses to work through the prayers of his people, but if we take Scripture seriously, then we must acknowledge that there is incredible power in prayer, power that can shake the nations and magnify the glory of God on earth. Some things in my life tend to drain my spiritual vigor—allowing lust or gluttony to have their way in my heart, or frittering away my time on petty entertainment. But prayer fills me up with a life so full and so vibrant that it feels like I’m busting at the seams. I explode with smiles when I am faithful in my intercession. Then I am who I’ve been called to be—a warrior, fighting in this beautiful rebellion against the works of Satan. And the wonderful thing about this kind of prayer is that anyone can do it. Every Christian has the honor and the opportunity to enter into the presence of God, to take up the mantle of the prayer-warrior, and to be the face of courage for an embattled church.

And there are other ways to be warriors and missionaries here. Every choice we make is a message to our culture about what Christianity really is. Obedience—walking in the spirit and ways of Christ—is a weapon of unspeakable power in this fight. And it should be a constant warning to us that this battle is not merely external. None of us is untouched by the darkness. We can, and must be, warriors for our own souls. We must grieve for our losses to sin, for the times we choose to disobey, but we must not rest in our grieving. We must rise again, and with courage press on to win a victory for holiness in our hearts. We must learn to obey, and we should celebrate every successful step gained in this fight. Every act of obedience is a blow against the Enemy’s dominion. And we do not fight alone. God stands ready to support us. In the words of Thomas à Kempis’ classic devotional work, The Imitation of Christ: “If we, like valiant men, labored to stand firm in the fray, certainly we would experience the Lord’s heavenly protecting help. He stands ready to aid those who fight and who place their trust in His grace—it is He who provides us with these conflicts and He wants us to be the victors.”

This metaphor isn’t the only one for the Christian life, but it’s an important one, a biblical one. The New Testament portrays Jesus as the one who conquered the powers of darkness, and Revelation over and over bids us to be conquerors in this life (‘overcomers’ in many translations). It should be noted, however, that this metaphor extends only to the spiritual realm, and that it is not in any way an excuse for physical violence. Rather, it is a means of bringing proper courage and valor and strength back into a Christianity that has been all too often domesticated.

So join me in this adventure, friends—maybe the language of battle isn’t as compelling for you as it is for me, but we all need to understand it. We all need to recognize that, at least in some measure, our spiritual lives are a battle, and we have a mission to carry out for our King. Open your arms to embrace this wild, exultant living, and you will find that God will breathe new dreams into your heart. You will be able to see and taste beauty and joy in every corner of your life. You will learn to laugh as you have never laughed before. You will tremble with joy at the thought of the church expanding around the world, and you will be struck down with weeping at the sufferings of the nations. God will break your heart for the things that break His heart, and you will be driven to prayer, to enter the battle for your own soul, for the people and the cities around you, and for the work of God in the world. There is no life like this life, my friends. Come, and follow the Master, and he will make you fishers of men.

Come and ride the restless wave with me;
Leave behind the petty worries of the day.
Open your eyes to a world wild and alive,
And ancient realm forever young,
Possessed of the breathtaking fervor
Of endless possibility.
Come and dance upon the mountains,
Drink the wild and reckless tide of life—
There is wonder in the radiance of small things,
The music of an ever-circling round
That overflows all boundaries of reason and belief
In its race to reach delight.
Traces of Eden surround us still,
In the bright sun that casts a million sparkling diamonds
Onto the endless wave;
In the vibrant green of springtime,
Responding to gentle rains of grace;
In the radiant smile of a little child
As he raises his wondering eyes for one glimpse of the heavens.
Come with me, and meet the Maker here.
Come with me, and taste the life He gives.
This world shouts His praise,
And it shouts for you to hear.
Oh, kindred friend,
Join your heart in the laughter of the dawn,
The exultant chorus of the boundless sea.
Drink deep from the fountain of heaven’s joy—
It flows for you,
Oh, come and see.