January 26, 2006

Blue Like Jazz

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

A couple of weeks ago (yes, I’m behind in my blogging!), I galloped through Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I’d heard about it online, especially in connection with “Emerging Church” stuff, and at first I didn’t know what I was going to make of it. But on the whole, I found to my surprise that I liked it.

That’s not to say I liked everything. I was irritated by Miller’s left-leaning politics, though I do appreciate that he’s reacting to a background in which (or so he implies) being a faithful Christian was inextricably linked with being a Republican. His insistence that Jesus was a religious figure, not a political one, suggests that he could use a dose of N. T. Wright.

Furthermore, it often appears that Miller’s beliefs are grounded on feelings and “what makes sense to him” and whatever seems cool to him. If there’s a scriptural foundation, it’s rarely obvious. But here I should note that this weakness is also one of the benefits of the book. I suspect that Miller is hardly the only one in this particular boat. Pastors may think that the members of their congregation know what they believe and why but I suspect that many members simply drift along, believing whatever they’ve learned growing up or whatever makes sense to them or whatever seems cool.

In fact, Miller himself points out how important it is to the people around him, and to him himself, to be (or at least appear to be) cool:

In the end, the undercurrent running through culture is not giving people value based upon what they believe and what they are doing to aid society, the undercurrent is deciding their value based upon whether or not they are cool (p. 105). 

He talks about a girl he knew who

decided what to believe based on whether other people who believed it were of a particular fashion that appealed to her. I saw myself in her quite a bit and that scared me (p. 106). 

As he says later on, “Even our beliefs have become trend statements…. We only believe things because they are cool things to believe” (p. 107). But, as he points out, the gospel isn’t a fashionable or cool thing to believe. And yet it is the most relevant thing. In response to a friend who thought that the new church in America, unlike the old, would be “relevant to culture and the human struggle,” Miller writes:

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 (p. 111). 

But does Miller himself fall into the trap of chasing the cool instead of the true? He may indeed. And if you were to point out examples in this book, he’d probably agree that you’re identifying a problem in the way he behaves, a problem he’s only just becoming aware of. But it’s a problem that many people, including people in our churches, share.

And that’s one of the great benefits of this book. Miller is very honest about his thoughts and feelings and struggles as an evangelical Christian (and the theology that does come through in this book appears to be evangelical, though I’d want to take issue with some aspects of it) and the result is a pretty good picture of where a lot of Christians are at today.

The coolness thing is only one example. Elsewhere, in a couple of passages, Miller talks about his struggles with evangelism:

So much of me believes strongly in letting everybody live their own lives, and when I share my faith, I feel like a network marketing guy trying to build my down line (p. 114). 

I have to admit that I recognize the feeling. I’ve walked up to people in a park to talk about the gospel, and it does feel very much as if you’re imposing upon them, intruding into their activities, like a salesman trying to push a product. I don’t like telemarketers calling me, and some forms of evangelism make me feel like one myself.

Here’s another observation worth thinking about:

I associated much of Christian doctrine with children’s stories because I grew up in church. My Sunday school teachers had turned Bible narrative into children’s fables. They talked about Noah and the ark because the story had animals in it. They failed to mention that this was when God massacred all of humanity (p. 30). 

Like many people, Miller struggles with grace:

I love to give charity, but I don’t want to be charity. This is why I have so much trouble with grace (p. 84). 

Which leads up to this gem at the end of the chapter:

In exchange for our humility and willingness to accept the charity of God, we are given a kingdom. And a beggar’s kingdom is better than a proud man’s delusion (p. 86). 

But for me, the heaviest punch of the book came toward the end, in the chapters where Miller talks about being alone and living in community. Miller is single, lived on his own for a long time, and now lives with some other single men.

When you live on your own for a long time …your personality changes because you go so much into yourself you lose the ability to be social, to understand what is and isn’t normal behavior. There is an entire world inside yourself, and if you let yourself, you can get so deep inside it you will forget the way to the surface (p. 152). 

Loneliness is something that happens to us, but I think it is something we can move ourselves out of. I think a person who is lonely should dig into a community, give himself to a community, humble himself before his friends, initiate community, teach people to care for each other, love each other. Jesus does not want us floating through space or sitting in front of our televisions. Jesus wants us interacting, eating together, laughing together, praying together (p. 173)

Miller talks about his experiences as he moved into a house with several other guys, after living by himself for a long time. The transition was hard. One of his roommates kept dropping by at times when Miller would prefer to be alone. He’d want to talk and Miller would try to drop hints to make him leave.

Living in community made me realize one of my faults: I was addicted to myself. All I thought about was myself. The only thing I really cared about was myself. I had very little concept of love, altruism, or sacrifice. I discovered that my mind is like a radio that picks up only one station, the one that plays me: K-DON, all Don, all the time…. 

Having had my way for so long, I became defensive about what I perceived as encroachments on my rights. My personal bubble was huge. I couldn’t have conversations that lasted more than ten minutes. I wanted efficiency in personal interaction, and while listening to one of my housemates talk, I wondered why they couldn’t get to the point (p. 181).

As someone who lived alone for many years, including the first five years of my ministry, I found these chapters illuminating. They shed light on who I am and what makes me tick. I’ve lived alone too long, and I bless God for giving me a loving and patient wife with whom I’m learning what it means to love.

I highly recommend these chapters to all singles — to single guys in particular — and I second Miller’s recommendation: Difficult though it is, don’t live on your own; live in community and learn that way to put others ahead of yourself.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:03 pm | Discuss (0)

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