Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
The strange name of this autobiographical tale borrows from Miller’s appreciation of the free-spirit characteristic of jazz music. As jazz music is almost impossible to score, being the language of the soul, so Miller sees the Christian life as the meanderings of the soul with few boundaries, rules or restrictions. Christian spirituality is “music birthed out of freedom. Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands” (p. 239). Actually, I think Miller could have more accurately named his book after another analogy he used, “A Guide without a Map.” While traveling with a friend he resented his friend’s constant reference to the roadmap, even as he admitted that the alternative was to get lost. Spiritually, Miller prefers to travel—even proposes to guide others, without a map. We could admit that jazz music may float freely from the soul and still be beautiful music (at least to some); traveling without a map may prove adventuresome, even if one is lost; but spiritual travel without God’s guidance will prove disastrous. I fear that this is exactly where Miller leads his unsuspecting reader.
Backing up, Miller is a cross between a philosopher and Dave Berry (the humorist). He is funny, disarming, thought-provoking, vulnerable, honest, sarcastic and fun to read. He describes epiphanies that have changed his way of thinking (e.g. pp. 94, 219) as well as the struggles that led up to those moments. What is disturbing about Miller is his lack of biblical understanding (he admits that he has never read the Bible through, reads the Bible most often out of duty and is usually bored, and goes long stretches of time without scriptural input (pp. 80, 175). His spiritual turning points inevitably come through movies, secular literature, lectures, encounters with people, or God “speaking” to him and others (pp. 48, 85, 136, 230)—but virtually never from the Word. Miller is, at the same time, highly critical of Christians and churches that pay close attention to the biblical score. He has much distain for Fundamentalists as well as Republicans and conservatives of any type (pp. 17, 19, 79, 130, 137, 188, 210, 211, 215, 236). But he lavishes praises on freeloading, pot-smoking, homosexual “hippies” who love unconditionally as they steal food from the rich and give to the poor (themselves and him) (chapter 18). Miller makes it abundantly clear that he loves to smoke and drink and finds it somehow amusing and authentic that his pastor is a prolific curser. It is the hippies, drug addicts and Unitarians who have taught him love, not the Bible or evangelical Christians. And he makes it all sound so attractive. The biblically-oriented life is dull, full of rules and judgmental people. Jazz-spirituality is where it’s at. Just do your own thing. Never mind the directives of Scripture, just as long as we all love Jesus—that’s all that matters.
The closing paragraph of Chapter 17 is a good summary of Miller’s views, “At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” Add to this Miller’s gospel message, “Ask Him to become real to you. Ask Him to forgive you of self-addiction, ask Him to put a song in your heart” (p. 240), and we have a man who writes well about the questions, but comes up with the wrong answers.
And this is a shame because Miller’s writing style would relate well to postmodern people. If he could lead them to God, according to the path of Scripture, rather than on some journey to spiritual jazz-land, then Blue Like Jazz would be a valuable resource. But Miller lacks the map himself. His journey leads him to Gandhi (p. 106, 116), Mother Teresa (p. 106, 201) and Brennan Manning (p. 182). It leads to a world which lacks rules and expectations (p. 210, 214, 215), elevates tolerance (p.216), self-love (chapter 19) and grace—as long as a person is not a Fundamentalist (see p. 15, 33, 79).
What Miller needs is to refine his theories through the grid of Scripture—there he will find a need for major adjustments. Then Blue Like Jazz would do more than relate or incite. It could also guide in the paths of righteousness.