A Book Review for “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller

Greetings friends. I found this book review in my archives, written some years ago by now, and I thought it worth sharing. Enjoy!

cropped-orange-wedge-11.jpgA Book Review for “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller

How I came to read this book is sort of a weird story. The church I am going to is a Charismatic church, which means every Sunday is weird and different than the last. Every week I want to say, “It’s not usually like this.” I know a church who’s self appointed catch phrase is “Never Church as Usual,” yet on any given Sunday I can tell you exactly what they’re doing by checking my watch because it’s always exactly the same thing, and the only difference between them and the all white suburban Baptist church I grew up in is the lighting. This particular church turns all the lights off so as not to disturb the people who fall asleep during the boring songs or the depressing short sermons. If they came to our Charismatic church, I think their heads would explode. Thankfully, we have hard wood floors and it wouldn’t be too hard to clean up.

A few weeks ago we had in some people from another church to teach on Prophecy. Now, there is more to being a prophet than telling the future. I hope for your sake that I don’t need to use the phrase “It’s not like it is in the movies,” about this or anything else. If I do, let me save you a lot of trouble: NOTHING is like it is in the movies. The movies lie. Oh, and your good friend television? Liar, Liar, pants on FIRE. But I digress. The point is, these people came in to teach on prophecy, which is a spiritual gift. One thing I learned is, teaching is its own spiritual gift. That’s why we have a separate word for it. Just because you can DO something, does not mean you can teach it. So this woman, and I do not doubt for a second that she clearly hears the voice of God, had the gift of prophecy.

You’ll note I did not say “AND the gift of teaching“. Half an hour into her “talk” I leaned over to my wife and said, “Is she making a point?” and my wife said, “I have no idea.” This made me feel better. I just don’t want to be left out.

To get to the point, she closed the morning with her team, who I guess also have the gift of prophecy (Or perhaps were picked at random because they were free that day- I didn’t ask and now I realize that I should have) standing at the front of the church and having us come to them for a word from God. Now, for those of you new to the concept, it’s not literally A WORD from God. They don’t say, “God’s word for you is, Chrysanthemum.” You get something closer to a sentence, or even a paragraph. And it’s not always a prediction. Sometimes it’s an encouragement. They aren’t a magic 8 ball or fortune tellers. Just to clarify.

We waited for the line to die down, and then we went up. The guy who I wound up in front of looked at me like I was a caution sign in a public bathroom written in Vietnamese. Somehow I mentioned to him that I was a writer. So, he tells me that I should read this book, Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. “Some people say it’s heretical” he said to me, “and I don’t think.. well, maybe it is. Anyway, I just thought, you being a writer and all would like the style.” He kind of wandered around this point for a minute or two and then we were done.

You’ll note that I haven’t mentioned the part where God said something. I didn’t forget. Apparently God had nothing to say, so this guy recommended a book that MIGHT be heretical. Just because. Not that he was a big fan of it, or even could remember what it was about. Though he did recommend I not waste my time with Miller’s earlier books, because apparently they are horrible.

All that to say, I’m not sure why I read this book, but that’s how it came about at any rate.

Blue Like Jazz, (Non-religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality) by Donald Miller.

[WARNING: SPOILERS! AND SARCASM!]

I’ll ruin it for you right away. It’s not about Jazz at all. He mentions Jazz BEFORE the first chapter, to explain the title, and then almost never again. It’s a metaphor. He used to hate jazz before he saw someone playing it in person with gusto and love. Now he likes Jazz. He says he used to not like God, “but that was before any of this happened,” he says. He doesn’t say it directly, but I assume we’re meant to imply that he now likes God. I would think this would be important enough to actually state, but maybe he thought that would ruin the mystery.

And if I can digress for a moment, I could see someone shoveling handfuls of radishes into their mouth with great gusto and joy and I would still not like radishes. I have to wonder about the ease with which he went from disdain to jazz fan-boy merely because he saw someone really “getting down.” What do you get when you cross a waffle with Jell-O?

Chapter One- He begins by referencing a pagan/pantheistic belief that God is in everything. He says it’s beautiful, showing an overly emotional response to something of which he has an apparent lack of intellectual understanding. This will be a reoccurring theme of the book. For most of the chapter he explains his rotten childhood and explains his daddy issues. Blah blah blah, grab a tissue and have a good cry. Essentially he sums up his first 13 years in ten pages. Why? I don’t have any idea why he chose to share these things. This, also, will be a major theme of the book. I suspect he didn’t actually have a reason. This will be the major conclusion of the book.

Chapter two- His “Brilliant friend Mitch” claims that light exists outside of time. Not even quantum mechanics (specifically, Quantum Electro-Dynamic Theory- QED) makes this claim. This is what happens when great confidence meets an episode of NOVA about light which Mitch can’t REALLY remember. Also, I suspect Mitch is a bit of a drinker. GLUG GLUG “HEy! Let me TELL you something cool about SCIENCE!”

Donald spends the majority of the chapter figuring out that people are essentially bad. We have to train kids to be good, and when we really are honest about ourselves, we too are evil in nature. Summing up the globe he says, “Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.” Very insightful. But if I were the people of the Congo, I would not be a fan of this philosophy.

“You’re not going to help us until you get your junk sorted and get a hair cut? Really? Is that going to be anytime soon?”

Starting on page 19 he’s talking about opposing the Republicans and protesting. This, along with smoking a pipe, drinking beer, and cussing will be major repeating themes of the book. In short, he sounds like a normal, white, suburban, Church-raised evangelical American “Christian” trying REALLY REALLY HARD to look like he’s NOT. It would have saved him a lot of time to just start every chapter with this disclaimer: AUTHOR’S NOTE: Please remember that I am not necessarily like other Conservative American Christians. Especially in my lenience toward profanity, substance abuse, and the Republicans. I’m cool like you!

Chapter Three- he makes an astute observation without actually following up on it. Turning the events of the Bible into “Children’s stories” waters them down and makes it harder to accept as truth. This is a true part. He comes up with an interesting analogy comparing the Bible/history of the world with the basic components of literature. However, interesting doesn’t equal meaningful or true. It doesn’t prove anything, it’s merely clever. You know how sometimes your pastor will start his sermon with a story which never ties into the sermon?

Chapter four- Aside from the fact that he smokes, drinks beer, cusses, and protests the Republicans, he also attends a school which he describes as being over run with drugs, booze, and paganism, where even the professors are openly hostile toward Christianity. Somehow this makes him happy. (Remember: I’m cool like you!) He introduces his friend Laura, who is a typical anti-religion student that Don describes as much smarter that he is. Where as he is barely understanding 10% of his classes, she complains that they are not a challenge. Why am I reading his book instead of hers?

We also meet Penny. Penny is a Christian who claims that she gave her life to Christ when God spoke to her. Don doesn’t seem to believe her. He says she’s nuts. I’m not sure which side Don is pretending to be on, but he’s trying real hard not to be obviously Christian. (Author’s Note: I’m cool like you!)

Chapter Five– Laura is being hunted by God, but cannot justify belief in God because she cannot defend it intellectually. She says, “If God is real he needs to HAPPEN to me.” Don shows an AMAZING ignorance of apologetics and metaphysics. From CS Lewis to Lee Stroble, he should have read SOMETHING before he wrote this. EPIC FAIL.

Page 54 is an avalanche of ignorance. He has no answers, he calls his own belief irrational and then he tries making a metaphor by saying “Light cannot be proved scientifically, and yet we all believe in light…” EPIC FAIL. If I may get my geek on:

Optics is the study of light. Optics, a segment of physics, evaluates and analyzes the properties and behaviors of light. So THERE Mr. Mystical college dork. We can prove the PHOTONS out of light!

Don adds: “Laura…wanted God to make sense. He doesn’t.” Really Don? It’s like Don is part of the cult of Oprah. Is he Heretical? Almost. Mainly he’s just SADLY ignorant and had no business writing a book. Oh, and in case you forgot, he’s hip and cool unlike all other Christians as can be seen by his beer drinking and pipe smoking and disapproval of Republicans and everyone who supports them. It’s important that you notice this, so he’ll bring it up again and again.

Chapter 6- He’s like an existentialist. His spirituality seems based almost exclusively on his emotional response to things. This makes me throw up a little in my mouth.

Chapter Seven starts with this phrase, “I was a fundamentalist Christian once. It lasted a summer.” In case you forgot that he doesn’t demonize beer or vote Republican. Because that would suck for some reason. (Author’s note: Have a beer! I Do! Because I’m COOL like you guys!) Over two pages he talks about having tried to live a strict, minimalist Christian life and failing bitterly. It made him unhappy. He tells the story of how a pastor named Rick tried to kill himself during his first year as a Christian. The point? We have to be humble enough to accept God’s grace. Good point- poorly delivered. While he says this is his point, the chapter reads for the majority as though his point was how unhappy you will be if you try and be moral. You will fail and it will make you hate your life. Have a beer and cuss the Republicans for a while. Like too many people, he tries to separate loving Christ from obedience, as if Christ taught this as an option.

“Just love me as your buddy, and then do whatever you want. Seriously. Let’s go get a beer and smoke something.”

2 Opinions 4:17

Chapter 8- Don says, “Every year or so I start pondering how silly this whole God thing is.” Why is he writing this book? Shouldn’t someone who has learned the small handful of philosophy, science, history, or theology which proves God’s existence and the rationality of believing it be writing a book instead of Don here? Again he calls Christianity irrational. There is a long story about a guy he calls Trendy Christian Writer, who quotes the Koran and pretends to associate with Muslim persons to be trendy and hip and relevant to a poly-theistic culture. Somehow he fails to see that he is doing this through his whole book, only with drugs, beer, sex, cussing and hating the Republicans. The plank in his eye must be getting in the way as he goes in for Trendy’s speck (giant speck though it be). He discusses this in the last chapter. “I desired false gods because Jesus wouldn’t jump through my hoops.” No kidding.

Chapter 9- He tells the tale of how he and some friends (who were leaders in the high school youth group he had been in) spent a night getting drunk and high and throwing up. He gets all 60’s beat poet existentialist Christian for the rest of the chapter. A better person would reveal this as a manner of confessing his sins. Don just seems to want to remind us all how COOL he is as nihilistic college kids define cool.

Chapter 10- He starts by declaring that he doesn’t care about the arguments for or against God because he will never walk away from God for intellectual reasons. And to be certain I don’t think anyone ever does. However, he once again shows a sad ignorance of HUNDREDS of years of apologetics. Again, he seems content to rest everything on emotions and experience. It doesn’t matter to Don if there is any intelligent reason to believe that God is real or the Bible true, as long as God “Happens” to him. I get the feeling that Don doesn’t view God as much as his Heavenly Father as some kind of exotic weather system. “You don’t know rain until you’ve got caught in one of those GOD hurricanes!”

Similarly, he defends painting his friend Andrew as a hero, not because he thinks Andrew is right about what he believes, but because Andrew lets his faith move him to action. The obvious flaw is that MANY people do horrible things driven by their faith. There is not a lot of doubt and casual faith among suicide bombers. Their faith moves them to action, but they are villains and fools. Andrew is as well if I can guess accurately. From what little Don says, Andrew has divorced his Christian faith from his political and social actions and beliefs, and then he acts on what is left. A motivated fool is still a fool. And a fool who divorces one part of his worldview from another is a self contradicting hypocrite. If you can make an argument equating self contradicting fools with heroes, I want to hear it.

Chapter 11- The best idea comes, accidentally, from Don when his pagan campus has a weekend of drunkenness and drug abuse protected by campus security. The underground Christians build a confessional where THEY will confess the sins of the church to the pagans. Even though he came up with it, he hates the idea. His group makes him do it anyway. Yet Don’s lowest point comes in the confessional, with Pagan Jake who has taken time out from getting high to come. Jake says, “You really believe in Jesus, don’t you?” and Don replies, “Yes, I think I do. I have doubts at times, but mostly I do.” Again, why is he writing this book? This is the conviction of his faith? I THINK I do?

EPIC FAIL! Can someone PLEASE explain to me how this guy got a book deal? What Christian publisher said, “This Donald fellow seems to think that maybe he kind of sometimes believe this Jesus stuff. But not for any intellectual reasons. Just because of his warm fuzzies on occasion when he isn’t drinking, cussing, and totally NOT supporting the Republicans. That’s a message the church NEEDS to hear!” ?

Chapter 12– First he talks about how he hates organizations, which includes churches, and then he spends a paragraph hating on the Republicans and the way Christians tend to be Republicans. Again, SADLY ignorant of a lot of basic facts. It’s like he’s trying to pretend to be a liberal so the other liberals will like him, so he can convince them to sort of, kinda believe in Jesus like he thinks he does, mostly. He goes on for half a page how his friend Mark (Who is Driscoll, though he doesn’t say so) cusses a lot. He even calls him Mark the Cussing Pastor. Even if this were true, this is not something Mark is foolish enough to have pride in (Driscoll has condemned his own immaturity for the things he said on the past), yet Don here seems to think it was part of his coolness and social relevance. Being “REAL” is more important to Don than being Christ-like. He seems like he would rather be honest about not being good than actually try to be good, nor even admit that righteousness and Christianity are somehow related. He even suggests the reader find a church “filled with people who share your interests and values,” as if your values are already right and you will find other people who are right. “Make YOURSELF the measure of all things! God will agree with you.” It doesn’t occur to him that God is in the business of changing people, not merely loving them for who they are.

It’s been said that the church should be a hospital for sinners, and not a museum for saints, but Donald seems to think the church should be a museum for sinners.

Chapter 13- In summary, he’s a total failure in romance. The best anyone he knows can say of marriage is, “You lose some freedom, but it’s worth it.” Sad. He quotes some of his own writing- a play. It sucks. It’s REALLY lame. How does he not notice that?

Chapter 14- He talks about being alone, and further makes himself look like a jerk and a crybaby. One of those ways was a crush on dead/depressing poet Emily Dickenson. He claims this is the “rite of passage for any thinking American man.” This doesn’t change the fact that her poetry sucks and he’s a dweeb who’s crushing on a dead broad. He decides that being alone is hell, and it scares him. How is being in love with a dead girl different than being alone? He doesn’t say. And for the record, I NEVER had a crush on Emily Dickenson. However, I do love the fact that you can perform almost ALL of her poems to the theme tune from Gilligan’s Island. Try it.

Chapter 15- He moves in with some other guys and spends the entire chapter making the reader glad that he does not live with them. All of his stories make him seem like a world class jerk with no social skills. Once again, these are the kind of stories you usually tell as the BEFORE part of a BEFORE and AFTER story. Donald never really reaches any AFTER, nor realizes that he really NEEDS an AFTER. I imagine a motivational speaker whose entire presentation is, “I’m 400 pounds and I smoke three packs a day. I haven’t had a job in seven years. Make YOUR dreams come true.”

Chapter 16- He’s bad with money, but he encourages us to tithe. “I’m 400 pounds and I smoke three packs a day. For lunch I get a half gallon of nacho cheese on IV drip every day. YOU need to get in shape!”

Chapter 17 is where the best accusations of heresy can be made. Again he shows off his astounding ignorance. Then he says (Based on his ignorance) “There are many ideas within Christian Spirituality that contradict the facts of reality as I understand them.” So which has he said? “The Bible is untrustworthy” or “I’m amazingly ignorant of the Bible AND the facts of reality”? Either way, WHY is he writing this book? He tries to argue that God, being so far above us, should contradict reason. No Jew would describe God the way he does, and no Christian philosopher for 2,000 years. What he fails to see, I hope, is that he has just told us that God is absurd. His idea of God is more Hindu or Zen than Christian in this sense, but he doesn’t convey that he is a heretic as much as he is too simple to understand his own philosophy. If I felt he understood philosophy, metaphysics, or simple biblical theology, I would call him a heretic. He’s made the case that he is not smart enough to realize that he is a heretic. That’s fairly impressive if you think about it.

He then claims that “You cannot be a Christian without being a mystic,” which is either an abuse of the word Mystic, or proof that Don is a fool. He seems to try to argue over the next few pages, that he cannot worship that which he understands. Yet, if he doesn’t understand, what makes him think he has found something worthy of worship?

I wonder if he talks about his wife like this: “I love my wife mainly because I don’t know or understand the first thing about her.” Ain’t THAT romantic? If this book is any indication, that will be the foundation of his book on marriage.

He gets very existential for this whole chapter. “There never has been an up and down. Things like up and down were invented so as not to scare children, so as to reduce mystery to math.” He’s gotten so deep that he’s up to his eyeballs in it, but it isn’t truth. This idea is as stupid as it is patently false. If he intends this to be a metaphor for something else he fails to make it known, and therefore conveys neither knowledge nor truth. Quite the opposite.

He ends with “I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one…” as if he can question our understanding of God without also calling into question God’s own revelation. Don might be too stupid to realize that he is also criticizing God’s ability to communicate to us, but he is still guilty of it. By calling God absurd, irrational, and beyond understanding so that our theology is as reliable as a lottery ticket, he calls into question the truth, validity, and trustworthiness of scripture. He concludes this chapter with “And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers…I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” So, worship is a feeling? And a feeling based on having no answers? This goes beyond simply being wrong. Don mistakes ignorance with truth, and emotion with honor. Don is a tool. I can’t say if he is a heretic, but he is a moron. And probably a heretic. He should spend less time calling Marc Driscoll the cussing pastor and listen to his series on Doctrine. It might help him write something worth reading.

Chapter 18- Love. He goes ON AND ON for pages about this collection of hippies he lived with one summer. They were pot smoking, poetry slam, anti-religious, liberals, who were as far from Republican Church goers as one can get, and Don is certain that they were the greatest people who have ever lived. They didn’t judge. They LOVED. Again, I don’t know if he intends to make himself look stupid, as he doesn’t come to the point of self accusation or repenting for his action and behavior, but he does make himself sound amazingly stupid. He spends more than two pages recalling a conversation where he was in full pot-smoking hippie mode where a woman at a Christian camp was trying to get him to realize that he needed to shave and shower, because he hadn’t in weeks, and he keeps responding to her in the kind of dialogue from the basement of That 70’s Show.

“I had never felt so alive as I did in the company of my liberal friends.” He fails to realize that the Hippies were non-judgmental because they didn’t care what be believed, and no doubt rejected the idea of truth all together. And nothing in this book gives me the idea that his Christianity was the kind that was real enough to ruffle any feathers. Any liberal will be ok with the idea that someone who hates the church as an institution, and the Republicans, sort of believes in Jesus most of the time. With a weak faith like that based almost exclusively on emotion, what is there to judge? The Christians he complains about as being CONDITIONAL with their love have eternal truth, and the law handed down from God. They have a right and wrong. They have an up or down. In his ignorance and weakness, Don mistakes a world without borders to be a world of freedom, instead of the meaningless void it is.

Furthermore, he accuses those who join the Christian community of being liars and fakes all at once. He says “By toeing the party line you earned social dollars; by being yourself you did not.” He outright rejects the idea that there are people who go to church, vote Republican, and refuse to speak swear words or drink beer because that is who they really are. This kind of writing makes the accusation that people are the kind of Christian Republicans he wants so badly not to be because he thinks they feel they MUST to be accepted and betray their true selves for acceptance. A few months in the woods with pot smoking hippies without hygiene can do things to a man. Especially a man like Don.

His main flaw is combining too many ideas together without having the Biblical knowledge it takes to define them. Right wing, conservative Christians CAN be unloving, but they do not HAVE to be. Liberals can be accepting, but often they can be the MOST hateful, irrational, judgmental bigots. ALL people are likely, because of Pride and other sin, to reject and dislike those who disagree with them. His hippie friends were not accepting BECAUSE they were hippies but because he obviously never challenged them with the truth. His Christian friends seemed close minded because they made the American mistake of thinking the truth they believed made them better than other people, as if they had saved themselves by being so clever instead of remembering that Jesus saved them, and the truth of Christ should make them humble and loving toward those that need him. Christianity teaches that we love our neighbors, but not that we reject truth or ignore lies and sin. The liberal attitude that everyone should be the god that writes their own moral law is not loving. To love someone is to take the gun away from their head before they pull the trigger, not to hand them free bullets. Don shows nothing so much in this chapter as his ignorance, especially his ignorance of what love is and what a Christian community should be.

Chapter 19- How to love yourself. Don again continues to show amazing blindness. Although he explained near the start of the book that his college, Reed, was full of drunk, drug abusing pagans who hate Christians, he says here he never thought of Reed as being an immoral place. His reason is, because a guy with a lisp can go there without being made fun of too much. He compares this to his church and decides that, someone at his church WOULD make fun of the lisping guy. I’m guessing if we looked at the number of 12 year old boys at each location we might find the reason, but it’s still a judgment which makes him seem, even if he is correct, AMAZINGLY stupid.

He goes through an episode that shows he has too many emotional issues to have a healthy relationship with a girl. Shocking. He gets a therapist to talk to, and she says “God wants you to receive his love and to love yourself too.” He acknowledges that this sounds arrogant, to love himself, but the only alternative he seems to come up with is hating himself. Eventually he comes up with “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which is about loving other people, and he decides that it’s actually about loving himself. One doesn’t need to be a genius to see the grammatical flaw here. For some reason he comes to the conclusion that, because he loves other people, he shouldn’t hate himself, which is like saying because he waters his plants, he shouldn’t mind when it rains during his bike ride.

The idea that we should love ourselves is one I keep hearing among Christians, but I can’t help but feel that it is arrogant. The Bible teaches that love is considering others as more important than myself. If I love me, who must I treat myself as better than? When Jesus told me how to love my neighbor, he assumed I was doing fine taking care of me. CS Lewis could teach Don a lot about what God expects of us. And if Don can’t find any answer to self loathing other than self love, I think he needs to look harder. There are more than two options. It’s like he’s said the only two options are the priesthood, or polygamy. Look again, Don. There MAY be a middle ground you haven’t considered.

Chapter 20- Jesus. After two pages of emotional Oprah style stories, he comes upon the idea that Jesus looked like Osama Bin Laden. OK, I think we can be sure he didn’t look like the bearded woman in a toga Jesus of Sunday school art, but a cave dwelling terrorist? That’s wrong for all kinds of reasons. First, because it is an offensive comparison, and secondly because, like a lot of things in this book, it’s simply false. No Jewish Rabbi would look like a crazy cave dwelling Muslim terrorist. They had a dress code. And Hygiene.

On page 239 Jazz comes back for a brief reprisal. “I think Christian spirituality is like Jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something you feel….I want Jesus to happen to you…”

Again, it doesn’t take more than a reading of Jesus own teachings or Paul’s writings in the New Testament to see that Don is an ignorant fool. Jesus doesn’t point us toward a feeling about him. Paul doesn’t encourage the early church to warm fuzzies. Don is not a Christian so much as an existentialist. To him, the TRUTH of Jesus is not as important as the EXPERIENCE of him. He’s the Zen Buddhist of Christian writers, which makes him no better than a heretic.

In conclusion: This book does not seek to educate, nor encourage, nor persuade. I don’t know what his point is, except to share a set of emotional experiences in the hope that we can have a similar emotional experience. If Don Miller is a heretic, it’s probably by accident, but that doesn’t make him any less a fool. He paints himself as an ignorant and selfish person with a sadly weak faith. He hates and rejects everything American Christians are, which can only make one ask what he thinks they should be. He needs to come to the place in his faith where he can say with some certainty that he believes in Jesus. He needs to learn to love and accept Christians the way he loves and accepts pot-smoking liberal hippies. He needs to read every book by CS Lewis, Lee Stroble, G.K. Chesterton, William Lane Craig, and everyone at Answers in Genesis. And he probably needs to read the Bible to learn what it actually says. Maybe at that point he will be ready to write a book that is worth reading. In the mean time, life is too short to waste it reading books by ignorant fool who have no answers.

Skip this book, and if it is any indication, anything else written by Don. In all seriousness, check out Doctrine by Mark Driscoll. It’s a good coverage of all things Biblical worldview, but written to be enjoyed and understood in the Driscoll fashion (which, I will add, does NOT include swearing.).  And if you run into Don, maybe give him a copy.

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