On an unseasonably warm Wednesday evening in mid-January, I set out for the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville to see a program featuring Donald Miller, author of a popular book called “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.”
As I approached the theater, driving up 21st Avenue, I saw a line of people stretching halfway down the block. I was impressed that such a crowd had showed up for the event, but was puzzled as to why they had not been let inside.
I parked my truck, found the end of the line, and soon discovered that 600 people had already been let in. The promoters had decided to add a second show at 9:00, and someone was moving down the line handing out tickets to a second set of 600 people. The tickets ran out about 20 people in front of me, and there were nearly 100 more people in line behind me by that time.
This means that on a Wednesday night in January in Nashville, Tenn., about 1,300 people came to see Donald Miller, an author I had never heard of one week earlier. Since I did not get into the show, here are some reflections on the book.
Blue Like Jazz is a very frustrating book to read. Miller is being compared to Anne Lamott. The one thing they have in common is a surprising honesty that sometimes goes too far for some readers. On the other hand, Lamott is a gifted writer whose carefully polished prose far surpasses Miller’s.
The quotation that is placed on the cover of Blue Like Jazz hints at great promise. “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself…. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.”
Much more often, the book is a waste of words. Here is a sample: “What people believe is important. What people believe is more important than how they look, what their skills are, or their degree of passion. Passion about nothing is like pouring gasoline in a car without wheels. It isn’t going to lead anybody anywhere.”
Honest! Those four sentences are actually printed in a published book that costs $14. Fortunately, I read a copy that was loaned to me, so I did not have to calculate the percentage of the book comprised by these sentences and write Thomas Nelson Publishers asking for a refund of that percentage of the price.
If you are a reader of great religious writers and thinkers like Lamott, Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Will Campbell, Walter Wangerin, Madeleine L’Engle and Wendell Berry you will probably be disappointed by the style and content of Blue Like Jazz. It reads like an above-average college student’s journal.
Looking around at various reactions to this book, it is stunning how many readers find such mundane thoughts “revolutionary” and “refreshing.” This is something to which we ought to pay careful attention, though, and a reason that this book may be of importance.
Every time I was about to quit reading Blue Like Jazz–after 10 or 20 pages of vacuous, spiritual navel-gazing–I would come across a good paragraph or two that would keep me going.
For example: “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 is when God massacred all of humanity.”
Unfortunately, Miller does not go on to explore what an adequate hermeneutic for the postmodern church might look like.
Later, he lists the things he has not liked about the churches he has attended: “First, I felt like people were trying to sell me Jesus….They seemed to be parrots for the Republican Party….The churches I attended would embrace war metaphor. They would talk about how we are in a battle, and I agreed with them, but they would not clarify that we are battling poverty and hate and injustice and pride and the powers of darkness.”
I was especially glad to read the last one, because I have come to a place where I can not sing all those hymns filled with militaristic imagery any more. I have to stand silently in church while they are being sung.
I wish this book had been written more carefully. Miller either does not know, or fails to acknowledge, that the questions, musings and misgivings he has about the Christian faith have been expressed for hundreds of years by writers like St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Theresa, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Dorothee Soelle and many other saints who are less well known.
They have usually expressed them better. Preposterous statements like “Jesus never mixed His spirituality with politics” make me wonder if Miller has read the gospels and paid attention.
Much is revealed, however, in Miller’s observation that “There’s not a lot of money in the Christian [writing] market if you don’t write self-righteous, conservative propaganda. I write new-realism essays. I am not a commodity.”
For those who have read little other than books like The Prayer of Jabez or The Purpose-Driven Life, I suppose Blue Like Jazz is a breath of fresh air.
I often wonder why people read books on spirituality that do not match what they feel inside. We all know that our true selves can never match up to the self-righteous nonsense that fills much popular Christian writing. I suspect it makes readers feel pretty badly about themselves. Donald Miller’s honesty offers an antidote to all the “self-righteous, conservative propaganda.”
Perhaps 1,300 people in Nashville had finally found a book that matched their spiritual experience. Somehow, Blue Like Jazz has found its way to them, while many better books have not. I decided to feel glad about that. Now I need to get over the depressing realization that all 1,300 of them were younger than me.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.
Order Blue Like Jazz from Amazon.com.