What We Should Have Learned From Blue Like Jazz

I recently reread Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. When I put the book down I thought, why was everyone so fired up over this book? 

If my memory serves me correctly there was a lot of hubbub and kerfuffle and brouhaha when Blue Like Jazz  was first published in 2003. Miller was criticized as being anti-church, anti-theology, and maybe, possibly, heretical. But after rereading the book I came away with some very different conclusions.


One reason Miller was judged so harshly was because he was associated with the Emergent/Emerging Church movement, which, along with ska music, was all the rage ten years ago. And there definitely was some goofy theology being espoused by prominent leaders of the movement. Brain McLaren, who endorsed the book, was/is far outside the stream of orthodox theology. Unfortunately, some of the criticisms of McLaren and the Emergent church were automatically assigned to Donald Miller.

But Blue Like Jazz is not an unorthodox book. Sure, there are some parts where Miller’s theology gets a little squishy. He said some things I wouldn’t say. But he clearly believes in original sin, in Jesus as the Son of God, and in the need for redemption.

And [insert dramatic pause] I suspect Donald Miller might be a Calvinist without even knowing it. When he describes the conversion of his atheist friend Laura he is describing God hunting someone down. He is describing a God who saves those who would never choose him. When he describes the human condition he is describing the bondage of the will. He says:

Because of sin, I am self-addicted, living in the wreckage of the fall, my body, my heart, and my affections are prone to love things that kill me. Tony says Jesus gives us the ability to love the things we should love, the things of Heaven. (pg. 77)

Sound like anyone else? Martin Luther perhaps?

When reading a book we need to allow the book to stand on its own. We shouldn’t criticize a book based on the associations of the author. And even if we don’t agree with everything the author says we should still be able to benefit from the truth in the book. After all, C.S. Lewis was an Anglican who denied the inerrancy of Scripture and who suggested a person could get into heaven apart from Jesus Christ. Not exactly orthodox theology, and yet we Reformed folks drool over him. G.K. Chesterton was Catholic and we Reformed folks idolize him.


I know, this sounds a bit like crazy talk, but hear me out. There are certain sections of Blue Like Jazz I flat out disagree with. When Miller talks about setting up a confessional booth on Reed campus and then confessing the sins of The Church to Reed students, I disagree. That particular section makes him sound anti-church and anti-Christianity.

But as the book progresses it becomes clear he is not anti-church. Yes, there are certain things about The Church he doesn’t like. But doesn’t everyone feel that way? Miller makes it very clear we need community. He says:

So one of the things I had to do after God provided a church for me was to let go of any bad attitude I had against the other churches I’d gone to. In the end, I was just different, you know. It wasn’t that they were bad, they just didn’t do it for me. I read though the book of Ephesians four times one night in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, and it seemed to me that Paul did not want Christians to fight with one another. He seemed to care a great deal about this, so, in my mind, I had to tell my heart to love the people at churches I used to go to, the people who were different from me. (pg. 137)

When reading a book we need to take in the whole book before we criticize particular sections. We Reformed folks like our theology like our fourth down measurements: precise. And this is good. But, it tends to make us reactionary. When we read a sentence that smells the faintest bit unorthodox we tend to dismiss the entire work. This happened with Blue Like Jazz and happened more recently with Jefferson Bethke’s poem “Why I Love Jesus But Hate Religion”.

Before criticizing a book or poem or album we need to make sure we get the big picture of what the author is saying. Otherwise we come across as both reactionary and unfair to the author.

Do I agree with everything in Blue Like Jazz? Of course not. But I don’t agree with everything John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, and Mark Dever say either. If you haven’t read Blue Like Jazz recently go ahead and reread it. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

  • Jared

    I'm trying not to judge a blog post by its sentences, but please get those apostrophes out of the section headings. They're violating my corneas.

    On a more serious note, when I read "Blue Like Jazz" back in the height of its popularity, I didn't come away feeling it was heretical or even squishy, I guess, but I was nevertheless unimpressed because it just seemed so banal in its self-impressed-ness. (And I know that's not a word but I'm gonna leave it in until you banish those errant apostrophes.) ;-)

    • Stephen Altrogge

      As you wish! However, I was under the grammatical impression that an apostrophe should be in place when the word is possessive. I was home teached though, so I could be wrong.

      DeYoung and Kluck took Miller to task pretty well in their books. I didn't feel like the book was banal. He made some rather profound points in some very creative ways. Actually, I think Miller is a very good writer, and Reformed theology could use some more good writers.

      • Photini

        Good for you for using proper punctuation! Imagine how hard it would be to read things if you didn't use it. How would you know (easily, because of course you could figure it out in context, but it would slow you down) what were means? or shed? (is it we're? or were?…shed? or she'd?)

  • http://twitter.com/JoshCalvetti @JoshCalvetti

    Can you explain why you found his confession booth to be anti-church or anti-Christianity? It's been a few years since I read it, but as I remember, I thought he was apologizing for some of the un-Christian attitudes that the church (sadly) still demonstrates.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      The main reason I didn't agree with it was because he was making sweeping statements about The Church as a whole. It is appropriate to apologize for individual sins. However, to apologize on behalf of the entire church universal lumps everyone together and assumes that all churches act the same way. I don't think this is fair way to critique The Church. For example, I don't think I should apologize to other for the fact that John Calvin presided over the execution of a heretic. Was it wrong? I think so. But the church as a whole was not responsible for that particular action. Does that make sense?

  • http://twitter.com/RealMattBlick @RealMattBlick

    You don't agree with everything John Piper says!?


  • jason

    Great thoughts. I remember when it first came out and everyone saying how heretical it was but no one could say why. (Southern Baptists are like that.) I read it a couple of years later, and it shook me to the core, not because of the theology but because I had never read a Christian author who wrote like that. I loved the book but at the time didn't get much out of it. I did end up reading his other books, though, and I thought "Searching for God Knows What" was a lot more powerful theologically speaking.

    Anyway, I reread "Blue Like Jazz" again before the movie came out, and I have to say I got a lot more out of it the second time, I think because I had matured a bit spiritually since then and was better able to appreciate the "love" and "grace" aspects of the book.

    And for the record, the Reed confession section of the book still rubs me the wrong way (although I understand why he did it), but in the movie it's actually a really touching scene.

  • http://twitter.com/heybros313 @heybros313

    While I basically agree with your statement, 'When reading a book we need to allow the book to stand on its own', I believe that when critiquing a book we DO need to consider the author's associations, influences, literary genre, and historical context. That is what informed criticism is all about. We read first, then we critique.