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.