Book Review: Blue Like Jazz  

Posted by Matt

So, it's a rainy Sunday afternoon and I have to be back to Avalon by five to discuss with Kirk this week's message (my first "authentic" talk at church) for the Uprising. I'm pretty pumped and my brain's been on a high-percolate setting.

So, naturally, I need to blog, which is much better than the mind-stupefying activity that is "grinding-levels-in-World-of-Warcraft."

Kenny and I stopped by Barnes and Noble the other day and he mentioned Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz.

"I heard this is pretty good." As long as the cover hasn't got any pictures of fantasy swords, or if the title doesn't have a reference to "magician," "sorcerer," or "assasin," I take Kenny pretty seriously.

Miller's Blue Like Jazz is the confessional of a writer who was dead in the water. Often, he seems to feel like he's experienced deadness in faith--solitude, if you will. Honestly, who hasn't felt like they were all alone? Like God was at everyone else's party but mine?

Clearly a well-read and writer-educated writer, Miller lays down a heavy Great Gatsby / John Updike - esque foundation at the beginning. I'm not complaining. There is something plaintive, poetic, and lost in the introductory chapter, especially in his description of his dad.

It's subtitled as essentially non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality. As I've been reading and observing and learning, I honestly feel like Christianity is in need of, and indeed, is going through a paradigm shift. Christians, as a corporate entity in America, have not only lost resolution in their vision of who Christ is, but they've failed largely to keep their hearts broken for non-Christians. The new church of the 21st century--pastors and church planters and regular, everyday Christians--need to desperately rejoin with Christ and His broken heart for the lost--this is a book that I've desperately needed to read (and I didn't even know it).

Miller's development as a Christian seems like the passage of a leaf blown in the wind, rather than a geometric, step by step process. He speaks of rough, poor, lost (truly lost--as in, I wandered around the country, living in the forest without any money and ended up in Portland...wandering), and troubled times. This is a man who claims to have very few snazzy, tidy answers. Throughout all of the conversations with people he's had in his life, related to us in the book, he is self-deprecating, open, candid, and unassuming.

His tales of brokenness, loss, wonder, drunkennes, stonedness, redemption, and learning demonstrate a man's untamed life guided by an untame God. This is a Christian's story, surrounded by people motivated not by money or personal glory, not for people interested in building up the name of a particular church or program or mission--the poeple populating Miller's story are dirty, liberal, intelligent, broken, talented, inspiring, conservative, flawed, and, in Miller's eyes, lovable. It is often through the salvation process of someone who seems diametrically opposed to Jesus that Miller is changed most--hello? Perhaps this is where Christians are really supposed to be "fed." Not sitting in the pews of their Sunday morning "service," but sitting on a couch, speaking with someone who is lost and believes they hate or don't need God (this "hello?" is an admonition to myself, by the way!).

I see a guy who in many ways, has yearned to receive the heart of Christ.

Through his largely autobiographical essays and stories, Miller develops his own personal revelation--a revelation that liberal and conservative, Christian and nonChristian can probably identify with: I say a lot about loving people and helping people, but in reality...where the rubber meets the road, I'm essentially useless and non-functioning.

As he develops, walking with Jesus, he shows us the flaws in focusing on culture as the measurement for Faith and Holiness. He shows us that Christianity isn't about what songs are on your mp3 player or how many camps or retreats you've been to. It's something much more challenging: Miller claims that Christianity isn't a meant to be a dialectical argument, menat for consumption by philosophers; it's not a perfect, clean experience; it's not convenient; it's not safe; it's not comfortable.

If I were to have any qualm with the book is that there is very little scripture-based commentary. While I'm confident that Miller reads his Bible and would identify it as the Word of God, much of the book is predicated on emotionality and mystic revelation and very little credit is provided to objective, reason (which, by the way, I believe God likes reason and objectivity and logic--he invented it). Miller doesn't, I believe, try to deny this, either. In fact, he outright claims to be a "mystic." I can't say I disagree. I can't say that, after reading his definition, I'm not a mystic either. How can you not be a mystic if you claim to believe that Jesus defied all that we know and understand about gravity, the molecular surface tension of water, the creation of matter in the universe, and the biological laws of life and death?

Nevertheless, the lover of logic and reason in me would have liked to have seen a bone tossed to scripture. I suppose that's why Miller candidly tells us before reading the book that his thoughts are "non-religious," i.e. not based off of stuff you'd learn at seminary.

This isn't a pleasant Chicken Soup for the Christian [insert sport / job / thing]. This isn't a Step by Step Read the Bible devotional. This probably won't really leave you dreaming of Angels and wanting to take the war to the Devil. In fact, I'm not sure what it will do to you.

In all honesty, what it's done for me is show me that a guy can be terribly flawed, broken, and guilty and come crawling back to Jesus--and it's okay.

As a lover of literature and storytelling, I enjoyed and identified with Miller's blending of personal quest with Christian introspection. While I find that much of Christian inspirational literature errs in providing too many easy and tidy little answers, Blue Like Jazz leaves with you a healthy sense of wonder, curiosity, and a bit of peace. Beyond that, I'm left with my own questions. After reflecting on Miller and God's walk with him, I can't help but reflect on what direction God is blowing this little leaf of mine.

I recommend this, especially those who've lived safe, calm, sheltered lives in the church (like me). There is a hungry, untamed world out there that Jesus loves and desires. Pick up Blue Like Jazz.


I read this book a few years ago and I remember having some of the same reservations due to lack of scripture. He spoke passionately and openly, which makes it easy to relate to our lives, but ultimately I'm always more comfortable with scriptural authority. I read a verse a long time ago that has always stuck with me, because I tend to be a very emotional\passionate person, and I get excited about things really easily. Paul is talking about the Israelites in Romans 10 and his description of them is this: "For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge."

I have had more than a few discussions with friends over the past few months about the recent 'emergent church' movement, led by people like Rob Bell. I won't get fully into it, but these are people that seemingly neglect scriptural authority and go with a very mystic/spritual outlook on Christianity. They do a lot of things very well, such as missions work and outreach, but I can't look past their neglect of the gospel and fundamental Christian truths. Their zeal is not being based on knowledge.

Regarding Blue Like Jazz, it is a great message to know that you can always go back to God. I don't know where I would be if that were not true. However, there are things that we learn about God from scripture that any type of 'soul-searching' or other mysticism (sp?) can never show us, and I just wouldn't trust myself to any revelation that I've come up with, because I'm not gonna lie, I come up with some whacked out ideas!

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I'm just a suburban guy. I wish I were hardcore, I wish I were tougher, I wish I listened to cooler music, I wish I weren't a lush, I wish I had big muscles, cooler hair, and some rad tattoos, I wish I were smarter, cooler, and sexier, I wish I knew how to play guitar. Instead, I'm just a band geek, power-nerd wannabe, WoW gamer, 30 year-old dad and husband. I play french horn, I read the Vampire Chronicles as well as the Chronic-WHAT?!-les of Narnia, I like movies, but not all the snobby-artsy ones I'm "supposed" to see, and a good meal to me is Miller Lite with chicken patties topped in barbecue sauce. ...oh...and I have a big mouth.


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