Friday, July 2, 2010

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller

The last post spotlighted an essay written by Donald Miller. However, some readers of this blog may have no clue as to who Donald Miller is. I myself had never heard of him until I went to a Women of Faith conference several years ago, and heard him speak. He and Max Lucado were the only male speakers. Miller was probably the youngest person who spoke to the conference. He spoke on the history of the church; he described how the church has often reflected the mainstream secular culture through the centuries. Most of the other speakers spoke about very personal struggles in their lives and/or shared humorous anecdotes, so Miller didn’t fit the mold at the conference. Although I may have been in the minority in that auditorium, I found him very engaging and soon after the conference sought out his books.

Miller has written several books, but his break-through was his second book, Blue Like Jazz. It was published in 2003. It is an autobiographical collection of rambling essays about Miller’s life and his personal struggles to live out his Christian faith. Blue Like Jazz is the only of Miller’s books that I’ve gotten around to reading, but I enjoyed it very much.

Miller was raised in Houston, Texas by his mother in a single-parent home. When he was in his early 20s, he left Texas and traveled to Portland, Oregon where he now lives. Blue Like Jazz describes Miller’s experiences in Portland while he audited courses at Reed College (a notoriously liberal Liberal Arts school) and as he grew in his faith community at an atypical church called Imago-Dei.

Although Miller is very close to my age, his writing is similar in style to that of Relevant. In other words, it is down-to-earth, cool and edgy. The following passage is illustrative of his style:

The goofy thing about Christian faith is that you believe it and don’t believe
it at the same time. It isn’t unlike having an imaginary friend. I
believe in Jesus; I believe He is the Son of God, but every time I sit down to
explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a
circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek
convention who hasn’t figured out the show isn’t


When one of my friends becomes a
Christian, which happens about every ten years because I am such a sheep about
sharing my faith, the experience is euphoric. I see in their eyes the
trueness of the story.

Blue Like Jazz describes several of Miller’s closest friends, many of whom are Christians who defy traditional stereotypes. They are hip, worldly, non-conforming counter-culturists with an appreciation of intellectual and artistic pursuits. The cast of characters includes Andrew the Protestor, Tony the Beat Poet, and Reed students Penny and Laura. His friend, Curt Heidschmidt, cusses frequently and hates going to church, but tithes faithfully.

In Blue Like Jazz, Miller comes across as a man who wants to explore the world and stay true to his faith. He seems to delight in getting to know people of very different backgrounds and to find commonality even though they don’t always share his religious convictions. He reminds me of a Christian Jack Kerouac.

Miller’s politics are left of center. He sometimes displays bitterness towards the conservatism and the Republican Party, which were important parts of his up-bringing. But in Blue Like Jazz, he doesn’t seem to be particularly active in a different political party or movement. Instead, he seems to be more concerned with issues that are important due to his faith. At one point in the book, Miller describes attending a protest rally with his friend Andrew the Protester when President Bush came to town:

Andrew’s sign said ‘Stop America’s Terroism’—he spelled terrorism wrong. I felt
empowered in the sea of people, most of whom were also carrying signs and
chanting against corporations who were making slaves of Third World labor; and
the Republican Party, who gives those corporations so much power and freedom. I
felt so far from my upbringing, from my narrow former self, the me who was
taught the Republicans give a crap about the cause of Christ. I felt a long way
from the pre-me, the pawn-Christian who was a Republican because my family was
Republican, not because I had prayed and asked God to enlighten me about issues
concerning the entire world rather than just America.

Subsequent to writing Blue Like Jazz, Miller delivered the first night's closing prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and has served on President Barack Obama's Task Force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families.

Mark 13:10-15

Jesus' disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you use nothing but stories when you speak to the people?"
Jesus answered:
I have explained the secrets about the kingdom of heaven to you, but not to others. Everyone who has something will be given more. But people who don't have anything will lose even what little they have. I use stories when I speak to them because when they look, they cannot see, and when they listen, they cannot hear or understand. So God's promise came true, just as the prophet Isaiah had said,
"These people will listen
and listen,
but never understand.
They will look and look,
but never see.
All of them have
stubborn minds!
Their ears are stopped up,
and their eyes are covered.
They cannot see or hear
or understand.
If they could,
they would turn to me,
and I would heal them."

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