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Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
[ baker book house, 2003 | 256 pages | review by hollie stewart ]


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Blue Like Jazz - Click to view!I have to admit, I judged this book by its cover upon initial encounter: a night view of a bridge arch, lines of wire crossing the sky, a non-serif font, and a title that sounded more like a collection of poetry than a book about Christianity. A quick scan of the interior showed a conversational tone and a humor that included illustrations (and yes, I had to look at all the illustrations). Any book on Christianity that tells stories of Don Rabbit chasing Sexy Carrot and Don Astronaut circling the earth for 53 years was well worth the price.

I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with this book (unless of course you're looking for a theological construction of religious buzzwords like "hermeneutics" and "dispensation"). And that's not to say Blue Like Jazz avoids Christian thought. It instead takes a more human approach to finding the Creator. In this memoir documenting his own search for God, Donald Miller brings a humorously real account of the pros and cons of the current Christian establishment while making God as real as the next-door neighbor.

Miller's words hold a cynical, sarcastic bite, drawing me into his world immediately. His world covers all aspects of society with humor, not just the church. He discusses the pitfalls of writing, for writers make no money. "We make about a dollar," he says:
It is terrible. But then again we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee…. read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. (187)
He also talks about television, saying "television drives me crazy sometimes because everybody is so good-looking, and yet you walk through the aisles of the grocery stores, and nobody looks like that" (225). Miller used to not own a television (because that was the trendy thing for writers to do), but this changes: "A couple of years ago... I visited a church in the suburbs, and there was this blowhard preacher talking about how television rots your brain. He said that when we are watching television our minds are working no harder than when we are sleeping. I thought that sounded heavenly. I bought one that afternoon" (15). I could construct pages of this rhetoric; Miller's humor comes naturally and casually, then it creeps up behind and slaps you in the face.

This humor bites against the current fads and ideas that have been added to Christianity. At one point Miller writes in the voice of an Israelite talking to Moses after being caught making the golden calf. He says, "We need a god to worship. We need a god to touch and feel and interact with in a very personal way. So I made a cow. You can also wear it as a necklace" (92). He talks how, when growing up, he "was into habit. I grew up going to church, so I got used to hearing about God. He was like Uncle Harry or Aunt Sally except we didn't have pictures" (13). After a while he describes his suburbia church, saying how "it was like going to church at the Gap" (38).

The beauty of all this parody and finger-pointing is that it maintains a purpose. Miller seeks to reawaken a generation that has forgotten fundamental issues of Christianity. He attends Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and all his Christian friends caution him to avoid the heathens, the drug addicts, and the three-day festival Ren Fayre, where the campus shuts down and students run down the streets naked. But within this environment Miller finds some of the most loving and caring individuals. For instance, the student with the Elmer Fudd voice is never criticized at Reed, while he would be teased in a church setting. Miller acknowledges that "interacting with these guys showed me how shallow and self-centered my Christian faith had become. Many of these students hated the very idea of God, and yet they cared about people more than I did" (42). So rather than hide during Ren Fayre, Miller and his friends in the Christian club make their presence known, and many lives are touched with genuine love. Chapter 11 is one of those chapters everyone should read.

So is chapter 10, "Belief: The Birth of Cool." Here the issue of relevancy undergoes a little dissection. "The problem with Christian belief," Miller says, "—I mean real Christian belief, the belief that there is a God and a devil and a heaven and a hell—is that it is not a fashionable thing to believe" (107). Because of this fact, the Church can never be completely relevant to society in this degree; an amount of opposition will always exist. Yet we strive for cultural acceptance and relevancy, so we as a Church have transformed our beliefs into trendy expressions: "We don't even believe things because we believe them anymore. We only believe things because they are cool things to believe" (Miller 107). Miller also admits, "I don't think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing" (111).

Miller believes that the solution is to embrace Biblical principles of love and spiritual relevancy. Without love, people will not listen to us: "Nobody will listen to you unless they sense that you like them. If a person senses that you do not like them, that you do not approve of their existence, then your religion and your political ideas will all seem wrong to them. If they sense that you like them, then they are open to what you have to say" (Miller 220). Without spiritual relevance in addition to love, the church will remain powerless: "It took me a while to understand that the answer to problems was not marketing or programs but rather spirituality. If we [Imago-Dei, Miller's church] needed to reach youth, we wouldn't do a pizza feed and a game night, we would get together and pray and fast and ask God what to do... rather than the church serving itself, the church is serving the lost and lonely" (136). Miller writes about people who put this kind of life into action, like his friend Andrew the Protestor. Andrew is liberal, a political activist, and more adamant about loving people and feeding the poor than most Christians I've ever come across, including the one that looks me in the mirror every morning. Miller admits, "I used to say that I believed it was important to tell people about Jesus, but I never did. Andrew very kindly explained that if I do not introduce people to Jesus, then I don't believe Jesus is an important person. It doesn't matter what I say" (110).

To get from mere words to the actions of faith (for faith without works is dead) is just one of the many lessons to be learned from this postmodern text. Blue Like Jazz is a call to be real about Jesus Christ and to love the people He loves. It moves beyond personal memoir into a more general critique of society. It's a book for change—for the change that we need to make in ourselves.
- Hollie Stewart
October 2004

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