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.
DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS ENDORSEMENTS
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.
DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS SENTENCES
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.