December 18, 2017

Donald Miller pulls me out of the pit: A review of “Blue Like Jazz” and “Searching for God Knows What”

searchgodknows.jpgI can still hear Miss Morris, my senior English teacher, saying it: “Too many “I’s. Too many “me’s.” We were writing essays, and she was simply correcting us with one of the cardinal rules of good essay writing: the essay was about the thesis statement, not about “I,” “me,” or “my.” The reader didn’t need to be confronted with the subjective wanderings of the writer’s mind. The reader can see the writer’s name on the cover. He/She knows to whom these thoughts belong. Miss Morris believed all the roads that brought you to your conclusions were distracting to readers who only wanted to know the content of the essay.

Christian essayist Donald Miller was definitely absent the day these points were made. Miss Morris would not have been pleased with Miller’s “new realism” essays, where every page is an exploration of subjective experience, interpretation, thoughts, feelings and opinions.

I recently finished reading Miller’s two most recent books, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, and the just released Searching for God’s Knows What. “Jazz” is a meandering version of Miller’s own spiritual journey, with little respect for chronology or evangelical mythology, prefering, instead, to explore how Christian spirituality (never Christianity) is relevant and real. (Thanks to Kent Runge for the recommendation)

“Searching” is an extended reflection on the gospel itself; a meditation that seeks to put traditional gospel presentations into retirement with an appeal to a relational dynamic best told in stories, art and conversation. Miller writes both apologetically to the outsider, and prophetically to the believer, taking on some of the central challenges to the integrity of the gospel in a time of ascendent conservative evangelicalism.

I don’t know what I was doing reading these books. There were moments in “Blue Like Jazz” that several other books in my “to be read” stack looked at me and said, “What are you doing wasting your time with THAT? Like is too short, Mike. Read something worth reading.” I would feel like anyone who knew I was reading such a book would laugh at me, like finding out that your pastor reads middle school romance novels.

And then I would come across one of those “wow” paragraphs. There are quite a few in “Blue Like Jazz,” and “Searching for God Knows What” is thick with them. Whatever the price to get to those paragraphs, they are worth the trouble.

Who is Donald Miller? Miller is young- his work has a distinctive “twenty-something” ring to it. He’s not a pastor. He’s not a scholar or a seminary trained teacher. He’s very left of center politically and relentlessly points out what jerks conservative Christians can be. He gets more than a few things factually wrong. His analysis of Shakespeare is whack. He’s obviously a rather odd bird, and admits to a lot of difficulties with relationships. He doesn’t put himself out there- Joel Osteen style- as the example of all he’s selling. Far from it. He usually prefers pagans to Christians, and his idea of heaven seems to be something between a hippy colony and the campus of hyper-leftist Reed College in Oregon, a school that most Christians would find extremely hostile. He’s involved with Imago Dei, an emergent, pomo church in Portland.

So why do I like this guy? That’s an excellent question, and I have several answers. Consider these thoughts my review two fascinating and provocative books.

1. If any of you read my “Pit Stop” posts several months ago, you know that I reported in from one of my occasional faith-crisis, evangelical-loathing phases. Well, Miller was exactly what the doctor ordered. He understands it all: the horror at being part of protestant revivalism (He grew up Baptist with the whole array of nonsense), the attractions/revulsions of fundamentalism, the lack of easy answers to questions about creationism, secular science, Biblical interpretation, and the whole intellectual shooting match. Miller has found his way through all this to a vital faith experience, and he’s been very helpful to me, simply as a fellow pilgrim.

2. Miller is a lefty. Though he says he’s non-partisan, that’s not very believable. Press the “Activism” tab at Miller’s site, and if you are typical red-state, Bush voting, evangelical conservative, prepare to be horrified with the likes of Greenpeace. When Miller uses Al Franken’s “Supply Side Jesus” comic, I am shaking my head at a high rate of speed. Nonetheless. I need Miller’s perspective. He says things about conservative, cultural Christian types that really, really need to be said right now. Miller’s left side of the aisle Christianity isn’t perfect, but listen—- it will clean out the pipes and do you good. If you are starting to admire Scrooge BEFORE his conversion for his neo-con economics, this will fix you. If nothing else, it will make you mad, which won’t hurt at all.

For example, Miller takes several pages in “Searching” to pointedly confront evangelicals on the fact that abortion and gay marriage now define them more than anything else they say they believe. No matter what you think of these issues, I think Miller is dead-on target with that critique, and it seems to me there has to be a conversation over the fact that tens of millions of non-confessional evangelicals now determine acceptability to God on the two issues of abortion and homosexuality. Miller feels that something worse than awkward has happened, and I am very sympathetic to his view.

3. Miller is an example of what is good in the emergent, post-modern church right now. Now even as I say that, I can hear the permanently caged Calvinists arming themselves for battle, and even Miller himself puts a theological disclaimer at the end of “Searching for God Knows What” to make it clear that he believes a lot of things he chose to not write about. Reading Miller, I am convinced that the predictions of Oprah spirituality in the emergent church may (may) be over blown. At times Miller makes it very clear that he isn’t Rick Warren or advocating whatever it is that the megachurches are trying to do. He likes community. He likes the smallness of the emergent churches. He likes the sacraments. He likes Biblical exposition as long as it has some intelligent sensibility to the message of the whole Bible and the centrality of Jesus.

Interestingly, Miller only once mentions postmodernism, and that is to say he doesn’t know what it is. He never mentions the emergent church, and when he does, he avoids all the trendy advocacy that annoys many of us.

Be very clear: if you are looking for “Outlines of Systematic Theology,” you have come to the wrong place. “Jazz” is Miller’s own story, told in a very entertaining, witty and piecemeal fashion with meditations and lessons thrown in. “Searching” has more meditation and reflection on scripture and theological categories, but it sounds a lot like those talks you used to have with your college buddies, and Miller’s approach to the Bible takes huge amounts of interpretative information for granted. I forgive him. Where he arrives is a place I need to be.

4. Miller is an apologist. He wouldn’t want the label, but it’s hard to miss. In an introduction to “Jazz” on his website, Miller says

“There is a growing chasm between Christian culture and lost people. Our vocabulary, our personalities, and certainly our values are different. Many lost people will not consider Jesus because they do not believe they are good enough or that He would like them were they to meet. Blue Like Jazz is a contemporary presentation of the gospel. It is a book that Christians will want to give to their lost friends to explain what they believe, and to help people understand how relevant the gospel of Jesus is. Campus Crusade for Christ is interested in passing out thousands of these books to students on college campuses all over the country. Why is the title so vague? What does it mean? We’ve titled the book Blue Like Jazz to capture the artfulness of the book. While this is not a literary title, we want it to have a literary feel. Many lost people mistake beauty for spirituality, so we wanted to package spirituality inside of poetic beauty. It was very important for us not to use a title that sounded combatant. Specifically, Blue Like Jazz alludes the idea that one can enjoy Christian spirituality the way one enjoys jazz music, and that like jazz music, Christian Spirituality is something you feel in the soul. This is not a book that says Christianity is right or true; it says that Christianity is relevant and meaningful. Blue Like Jazz is a book that a believer can hand to a nonbeliever and not be embarrassed about the way the gospel is presented.”

In “Searching,” Miller demolishes “Four Spiritual Laws” type Gospel presentations, and argues for a relational, narrative, beauty-oriented communication of the Gospel. This is the pomo edge, but it is also a disarming apologetic. When Miller tells stories of evangelists cornering his friends, you feel the outrage with him, and when he says that evangelicals have forgotten that the beauty and experience of Jesus are more importantly than outlines and charts, you must agree. (I know some of my friends with philosophical and theological bents are going to hate this, and I would say you might want to avoid the books.)

5. Miller has the honesty that the Internet Monk admires. Example: In one section of “Searching,” Miller recounts how he was in a “secular” music store and asked an evangelical friend to find a CD with an ugly person on the cover. It didn’t take long to find such an item. (Probably standing near the Tom Petty or Bob Dylan sections 🙂 A few hours later, Miller and friend are in a Christian music shop, and Miller asks his friend to find an ugly person on a CD cover here. Point made. (Well….he could have gone to the Southern Gospel section 🙂

In a fascinating story in “Jazz,” Miller and the handful of Christians at Reed College set up a “Confession” booth during a week of campus pagan frolicking and excess. The thing is, the booth wasn’t for students confessing their sins, but for Christians to confess THEIR sins to the Reed students. Dressed like monks, Miller and company asked Reed students for forgiveness for not loving them or acting like Jesus. A bit much? Maybe, but I have to admire such honesty. Throughout the book, the level of honesty about depravity, evangelical nonsense, Christian excuse making and the truth of the words of Jesus constantly challenge the reader. It isn’t a comfortable read, and that’s fine with me. I have too much comfortable reading.

6. Miller is all about Jesus. Not as a theological doctrine or a figure at the center of a belief system, but as the compelling presence of God in the world. Jesus is the lover, the bridegroom, the pursuer of a lost humanity. In “Searching,” Miller spends chapters building an interpretation of Genesis that matches human experience. It is the most impressive part of Miller’s writing, and is as fine an apologetic effort as any Ravi Zacharias talk. But it is bringing Jesus into the story that makes Miller’s work special. Miller takes pains to explain the personality of Jesus as revealed in the gospels, with the simple goal of showing that the Holy God arrives on earth….and likes us. He really likes us. Loves us, in fact, so much that he spends his life demonstrating how all our deepest needs for significance, love and forgiveness are lavishly met by our creator. Miller writes about Jesus with authenticity and fresh excitement. These are books where the reality of Jesus’ appeal to all people at the deepest levels of their humanity is unpacked and displayed.

As I said earlier, there is much one could complain about. Miller’s “new realism” style of essay is completely subjective, and stays in the writer’s “stream of consciousness” mode to the point you feel you are living Miller’s life. His editor is obviously brave enough to let Miller be Miller, and the payoff is unlike anything else I’ve read in Christian essays. It encourages me as a Christian, as a writer, and as a human being.

Take some of that Christmas money and pick up these books. Don’t throw them down when they challenge or frustrate you. Underline the good parts and appreciate the Christ-impassioned message of a fresh voice in Christian literature. Here is a book you can give to anyone with high hopes they will discover Jesus along the way.

Comments

  1. Nice job Michael. Donald Miller’s writings have deeply influenced me, he’s part of the reason I’ve got my photography back.

  2. Michael –

    I’ve been really meaning to read Miller’s work. A friend of mine – a Bush voter – read them and nothing bad to say. But that junk on the website really, really bugs me. Moveon.org is “doing God’s work?” Who is this guy kidding? I’m still really excited about getting into the books, but still…

  3. I’ve read both Miller books and I very much like them, despite the fact I’m a philosophy minor, 5-point Calvinist, conservative Christian. I agree with him on most of what he has to say and I think his books are needed, especially when so many books dealing with Christianity are frankly dishonest. Miller is real in these books and that’s something I can respect.

  4. Great reviews– and right on target! Miller is a fresh, compelling voice who is not afraid to entwine his deep love for Jesus and a curious intellect. He doesn’t see those two as antithetical– and I think that is where the deep sense of “real-ness” comes from. It’s just so nice to read an evangelical who refuses to use the accepted ( and oh, so tired– and tiring)lexicon of faith.

  5. I’ve been a fan of Miller’s books since his first one, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance (which is now out of print, but he’s doing a rewrite of it that’ll be out next year). Somehow he manages to put out a book whenever I need his perspective most. 🙂

    As a side note, I believe he’s also a Calvinist, which is why he’s so Christocentric.

  6. I just got my hands on ‘Jesus in the Margins : Finding God in the Places We Ignore’ by Rick McKinley (You may know him as the pastor of Donald Miller Blue Like Jazz). This is a must read if you like Miller stuff.

  7. Read “Blue” a few months back, with almost an identical reaction as yours. His politics makes me squeamish, and some of his stuff is edgy for a guy who went to a fundamental Baptist Bible college like I did–but boy, you just get the sense that this guy loves Jesus and acts with an authenticity that Jesus applauds. I mean, Jesus was anything but predictable–but we sure try to tame that Lion of Judah, don’t we? I’ll need to pick up “Searching”; thanks for a dead-on review!

  8. I appreciated your commentary. Don Miller’s book leaves me a little more than “uncomfortable.” I would not have even bothered with the book except that I heard Miller give a sermon recently. If you want a vignette of what Don Miller looks like when he preaches check out my blog at http://www.godsgrrl.net/reppert.html.
    The fruit of this kind of thinking may leave you more uncomfortable than the musing does.
    JR

  9. Ken Murrel says:

    Michael, Thanks for your review. I was intrigued enough to buy the book and Wow! it is in my opinion a “Mere Christianity” for the Post Modern age. I gave it to my pastor, he loved it, passed it on, and it is next on the list of our Saturday morning men’s breakfast/book club. (We are reading Screwtape Letters now}. Keep up the good work. Ken Murrell / Matt. 16:16

  10. jacksonlit says:

    I’ve only just found Don Miller’s books in the past couple months (in an Easter display at Barnes & Noble) and I feel him speaking right to and from my own heart. I just heard a podcast interview with him and it only re-affirmed my opinion that this is a man who is authentic in his faith—not a leader but a communicator of 21st century Christian reality for many. I study my bible and fellowship with a small group, but the general Christian “mind-think” has kept me away from organized churches for the last several years. Oddly enough, I feel closer to God and His scripture than I ever was when I was a mainstream “churched” Christian. One thing that Miller said really has convicted me though: We need to present the Gospel in LOVE, to whoever God puts in our path, regardless of how we feel about the nature of their apparent sin. We also need to start confronting (with LOVE) the members of the body who are co-opting Jesus Christ for their own political gains and agendas. Ain’t that a challenge in this knee-jerk, polarized, and reactionary climate.