“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.” ?Donald Miller
In Donald Miller’s early years, he was vaguely familiar with a distant God. But when he came to know Jesus Christ, he pursued the Christian life with great zeal. Within a few years he had a successful mini
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it was ok
I thought of several different ways in which to begin this review – several witty comparisons that would surely catch the reader’s attention. But that was a month and a half ago. See, I started reading Blue Like Jazz on the 20th of July and it is now the 4th of October. I have four pages left and I’m not sure I have the strength to continue.
For you see: Donald Miller is wearying. Endlessly self-amused and self-absorbed, he seems to want nothing so much as to be hip, cool, edgy (despite his own p
I wish that reviewers on this site would review books for what they are meant to be and not insist that they be something else. “Blue Like Jazz” is not meant to be a deep theological treatise. If you thought it was supposed to be, then of course it doesn’t compare to Augustine or C.S. Lewis. Miller’s book is instead meant as a memoir of one man’s walk with God, his struggles along the way, and what he’s learned from them. I enjoyed this read a lot because I related to many of his struggles. Whil
Yes, Jesus does say to love him with “all your mind.” Yes, I think it’s great for people to read theological classics. But I hope that along the way, we don’t forget that Jesus does say to love him with “all your heart.” The heart is the seat of our emotions and it’s also where we keep the things dearest to us. I think it’s important for Christians to cultivate that sense of the awe and grandeur of God, and also to cultivate a deep and affectionate love for Christ. If we don’t have those things, how will our lives reflect the love that Christ has shown for us?
One of the saddest things for me is to see people who continue to outwardly live “good” lives, but who have lost their passion for the things of God. I know we all go through dry seasons where sometimes all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, and I have sympathy for that, but I hope that’s not the place we stay. I think we ought to be striving to maintain closeness to God as much as we can, and do our utmost to keep Him in the center of our hearts, souls and minds.
Originally this got three stars, now it has one. The more I think about this book the more I realize that it is nearly as noxious as most evangelical attempts at converting someone. What makes Miller really any different from the whorish looking teenage girls mentioned further down? Whorish teenage girls probably wouldn’t do much to convince me I should be a Christian, but in the right frame of mind (where I excise parts of my brain and forget to be critical) his descriptions of loneliness, feel
This book is deceptive, and I’m not sure if it is intentional or not, but it still is deceptive.
Below I start the review with a story about two born-again Christians, one who I don’t talk much about. This one was of the annoying breed of BA Christians, and he used an argument favored by practitioners of deception all over the world, the one where appeals are made to similarity between himself and the target. That was a shit sentence. What I mean is he would make arguments like this: “Man, I get that you don’t like God, I was just like you, I was studying Environmental Science, and enjoying college, smoking lots of pot, just like you, I believed in Darwin, but then Jesus came to me and I realized Satan put fossils in the ground to deceive us.” (how I wish I was making this up, this is really something he said).
What this guy and Miller are doing is trying to make me relate to them, and then see that I need to take the same path they did, because if they couldn’t find a way out of their problems (emotional or intellectual), then how could I who am just like them.
I thought of Miller as the non-obtrusive Christian, but I think he really is just a more subtle version of his friend. The non-obtrusive Christian I think just really liked that religious people were paying him to skateboard. I remember one of the times we were talking to him he brought up evolution and Darwin, and started asking questions about what he had read in a book on Creationism and what Darwin really said about certain things. I didn’t know much about Darwin or Evolution, so I couldn’t really answer him except with what I ‘felt’ was true’, I think he was genuinely interested in finding out if what he was being taught was true, or if it was bullshit.
Deep down I don’t think Miller really cares if what he believes is bullshit, he’s just searching for things to prop up his belief structure.
On Easter evening in 1999 my friend Mike (I’m so tempted to call him Mike the Goth or fill him with some hyperbolic characteristics that would make him sound cooler than any person could really be, but I won’t succumb to Miller’s influence) were hanging out at an almost empty coffee shop in town when two guys about our age approached us. At the time I was finely attuned to when someone was making an approach to hawk Jesus, in upstate New York it happened fairly often (more on this a little later), in New York City it doesn’t happen in the same way. Now this skill set can pick out someone making an approach asking for spare change.
I don’t know what Mike was wearing, probably something all black, or black with military pants. I know that I was wearing my Amebix t-shirt that had a guy crucified on the front, and ‘No Gods, No Masters’ on the back. I wore it because I was a shit who liked to passively get a rise out of people, and it was Easter–or Zombie Day as I had wittingly started calling the earlier in the day when Mike and I were heading to a store meeting at Kinko’s.
So anyway there we were, and these two guys approach us, and the one starts talking to us, making small talk, and I go into shutdown mode, knowing what is coming. Mike keeps answering the guys questions. The other guy who isn’t doing much of the talking looks like he is about to explode with excitement, he just wants to say something, and after a minute or two he just blurts out, “Hey, what do you think of Jesus?” I say nothing. Mike starts blurting out Crass lyrics like “I am no feeble Christ not me, he hangs in glib delight…” and “Jesus died for his own sins not mine”. Mike seems to be enjoying himself, the Christians seem to be enjoying themselves in some perverse way, and I’m really fucking embarrassed. I will them away but my powers of mind control are absent because by some occult means they end up taking a seat at our table. We talk to them for the next hour. Well Mike talks to them, I sometimes give one word answers to a question if I’m asked directly, but I just stare at my coffee cup and listen.
To make a boring story shorter, they all talked, and they tried to get us to sign up for the eternal Jesus plan of salvation insurance, Mike had some fun with them, and every few minutes they would all start kind of talking like normal people, until usually the excitable one would once again shot back with some kind of Jesus thing.
A week or so later, maybe more, but not much more, Mike and I were back at the same coffee shop (where we were everyday at some point), and the guy who didn’t talk about Jesus quite so much in the conversation showed up and asked if he could join us. We all talked, I was a little more involved in the conversation, and the Jesus guy (sorry I don’t remember his name) turned out to be a pretty decent guy, and didn’t really talk about Jesus at all.
A couple of more times the decent Jesus guy showed up and asked to join us and then sat and talked with us for an hour or so. I didn’t mind if he showed up, he was actually a fairly interesting guy, and he was a Christian, but kind of in the same way that I was a vegetarian at the time. I really cared about not eating or wearing animals and if asked I’d talk about why I felt that way, but I never felt the need to ask someone eating a hamburger if they knew they were eating a cow. I’d like it if everyone stopped eating meat, but I wasn’t going to preach to someone, they would do what they liked. He was kind of the same way, he never pushed Jesus on us in these conversations.
Instead we found out that he was part of this group called Word of Life, which is a Christian all year camp / school for kids to be trained to be evangelical missionaries. The group itself I hold in very low regard, but this particular guy was just a normal individual without a pathological need to share and convert (he may have gotten that part erased from himself over time). He lived at this place, and part of each day he studied the bible and was trained to go out and spread the word of Jesus, and the other half of the day he skateboarded. Seriously, he skateboarded and worked on getting better at this Bible boot camp in order to ‘infiltrate’ the skateboarding youth culture that hadn’t been to receptive to the good word so far.
I kind of think of Donald Miller as this guy.
As an aside, one of the other battle tactics of the Word of Life was to bring young girls to Saratoga Springs on a Friday or Saturday Evening in nice weather and unleash them from their vans on Broadway. Lots of people are out on the main drag of town in nice weather, and Saratoga is a kind of artsy town, and one of the only towns with a vibrant downtown that people come to, so these girls would be unleashed on the streets to convert people to Christ. On a particular Friday evening I was sitting on a planter in front of a coffee shop that had recently banned me from their premises, reading the brand new collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, when the live action show I’ll call Brief Encounters with Hideous Nubile Girls started. I saw the small army of young girls (probably around 15 to 18 years old), unloaded out of the van, and disperse to conquer the hordes of heathens out of the street. All of the girls were wearing very revealing (or slutty) clothing and their approach was to go up to men and start flirting with them, before changing to conversation around to Jesus. It was one of the most surreal things I saw, not legal girls flirting with guys in their late twenties and older and then trying to convert them. Jailbait for Jesus. I don’t know if they won any conversions, but they had no trouble getting guys to keep talking to them.
Forgive me Jesus I have sinned once again in a really long and rambling tangential personal story in what should be a book review.
I wanted to hate Donald Miller. I didn’t though. I think that he is terribly misguided and unconsciously (or unintentionally) dishonest but I think he’s probably got his heart in the right place. Of course I’ll say that because he’s pretty much the same person I am, but where I have wrestled with dis-belief in all things for most of my life he wrestles with belief. We are both reclusive, self-obsessed and overly self-conscious. We both have a similar sense of moral outrage at the world, and seem distrustful of institutions, and even ones that basically profess what we believe. He’s a Christian who finds churches stifling and judgmental; I’ve been at separate and overlapping times a punk, an anarchist, a philosophy student and a vegetarian who for the most part has been unable to bear being in the company of others who shared my level of interest or commitment. He would leave church early just so he didn’t have to talk to people afterwards, I’d bring pre-calculus homework to punk shows my band played in and then sat off to the side doing that once my band had played just so I didn’t have to deal with the people.
I relate to him as a person, and there is something likable about him in the book. (He’s probably a much more likable person than I am.)
In the comments to Ben’s review of this book, I said I couldn’t wait to rip Miller a new asshole in my review. I’m not going to do that, the book didn’t turn out to be nearly as awful as I wanted it to be. But I was ready for it to be, and the first chapter nearly did me in with his description of having his first real interaction with God. I quote it below:
My slot-machine God disintegrated on Christmas Eve when I was thirteen. I still think of that night as ‘the lifting of the haze,’ and it remains one of the few times I can categorically claim an interaction with God. Though I am half certain these interactions are routine, they simply don’t feel as metaphysical as the happenings of that night. It was very simple, but it was one of those profound revelations that only God can induce. What happened was that I realized I was not alone in my surroundings. I’m not talking about ghosts or angels or anything; I’m talking about other people. As silly as it sounds, I realized, late that night, that other people had feelings and fears and that my interactions with them actually meant something, that I could make them happy or sad in the way that I associated with them. Not only could I make them happy or sad, but I was responsible for the way I interacted with them. I suddenly felt very responsible. I was supposed to make them happy. I was not supposed to make them sad. Like I said, it sounds simple, but when you really get it for the first time, it hits hard.
I was shell shocked.
This is how the bomb fell: For my mother that year I had purchased a shabby Christmas gift–a book, the contents of which she would never be interested in. I had had a sum of money with which to buy presents, and the majority of it I used to buy fishing equipment, as Roy and I had started fishing in the creek behind Wal-Mart…. (some stuff about opening gifts)
…So in the moonlight I drifted in and out of anxious sleep, and this is when it occured to me that the gift I had purchased for my other was bought with the petty change left after I had pleased myself. I realized I had set the happiness of my mother beyond my own material desires.
This was a different sort of guilt from anything I had previously experienced. It was a heavy guilt, not the sort of guilt I could do anything about. It was a haunting feeling, the sort of sensation you get when you wonder whether you are two people, the other of which does things you can’t explain, bad and terrible things.
The guilt was so heavy that I fell out of bed onto my knees and begged, not a slot-machine God, but a living, feeling God, to stop the pain. I crawled out of my room and into the hallway by my mother’s door and lay on my elbows and face for an hour or so, going sometimes into sleep, before finally the burden lifted and I was able to return to my room.
One, this is called becoming an adult in your awareness to other people, as opposed to a child who has difficulty in cognitively having mature interpersonal thoughts (but good for you to think about others, there are lots of people who may never mature enough to realize that what they do or don’t do can effect other people). I don’t want to belittle anyone’s experience, but doing a shitty thing and then feeling guilty about it doesn’t need a God in the sky to make that happen; I also think that if I was in the midst of being that close to the omnipotent creator of the whole fucking universe, or feeling so terrible, I wouldn’t be falling in and out of sleep; but then again at thirteen I couldn’t sleep on my back, because once I lay on my back I’d think that this was the position I would be put in a coffin when I died and the final position I’d ever be in, and that would make me feel claustrophobic, as if I was really in a coffin, and then I’d realize I was going to die, and I’d start calculating how much of my life I’d already lived (this would later become calculations on how much of my life I’d wasted so far), and then I’d think about everyone else I knew and loved dying and I’d keep thinking about this until I stopped laying on my back and distracted myself with other thoughts. (Forgive me again Father for I have once again sinned in transgressing the bounds of book reporting).
Miller also says things in the book that sound all emo, and kind of poetic and cool, but which are just wrong. And this would be fine if this was poetry, but he’s using these wrong facts to justify believing in God (and for God’s existence in an indirect way). Here are the two that really jumped out at me:
“My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief. I think Laura was looking for something rational, because she believed that all things that were true were rational. But that isn’t the case. Love, for examaple, is a true emotion, but it is not rational. What I mean is, people actually feel it. I have been in love, plenty of people have been in love, yet love cannot be proved scientifically. Neither can beauty. Light cannot be proved scientifically, and yet we all believe in light and by light see all things.”
Light is a scientific concept, what light is, how we see, even types of light that we don’t have the capabilities to see with our naked eyes. It sounds romantic to say that light isn’t understood, a mystery, and that as a result it’s like God but this doesn’t hold any water.
We hear a little more on this general theme in a second argument with a false premise just two pages later:
In this book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton says chess players to crazy, not poets. I think he is right. You’d go crazy trying to explain penguins. It’s best just to watch them and be entertained. I don’t think you can explain how Christian faith works either. It is a mystery. And I love this about Christian spirituality. It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true.”
I’m pretty sure penguins don’t exist for our entertainment, and as for the further claims of it being a complete mystery that one would go crazy trying to unravel, there are people who do study penguins and have a fairly good understanding of why they do what they do (the penguins being talked about here, are the mating habits of penguins, you know like in March of the Penguins, which is mysterious and beautiful, but not as something utterly unknowable.
My real issue with this quote is the Chesterton quote, and using what is a bullshit statement to make hyper-logical / rational thinking seem as a malady, of which the poetic mind is immune to. I don’t know much about the history of chess, but I know that every grandmaster didn’t go insane. You have Bobby Fisher’s, but you also have Gary Kasparov who I’ve never heard is insane even though he is probably one of the greatest living chess players in the world. On the poetry side I’ll just say Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Lowell, Antoin Artaud, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath; and that is just right off the top of my head.
I have about ten more of these types of examples marked by little pieces of ripped paper in my copy of the book. But I think I’ve made my point, and no need to brow beat the poetic licenses Miller’s emo-ey confessional prose takes (a style I am a sucker for when it’s done good, and hate when it’s done poorly. Miller falls in the middle, he never makes me fall in love with his world, like a great writer of this style would do, but he also doesn’t make me want to throttle him with his own book….. I wonder if Miller ever read Cometbus, and if Cometbus influenced him. Aaron Combetbus is a good example of this kind of personal prose that can work beautifully, although Cometbus won’t make you want to believe in God, it might make you want to go live in squats, travel the country, drink too much coffee, read too many books, smoke too many cigarettes and fall in love with smart beautiful and damaged girls that can only end badly.)
But I’ll share one more little ‘quirk’ of Millers, and then call it a night for this review. His belief that Buddhists all rub the belly of Buddha statues and make wishes on them, and uses this as a way of showing how misguided people can be. This is just silly, untrue and even if it was true not any more silly and absurd as believing that a) by praying to God he makes checks wind up at your apartment on the day rent is due (pg. 188), b) that by giving God his tithe of 10% of what you earn he makes it so that you end up making more money, as if he is some kind of mutual fund (pg. 197), or c) the whole cracker and Christ thing (pg. 237).
I probably have so much more to say, but I’ll leave this review by saying that I found Miller much more likable than I expected, and I imagine if I met him he’d be a nice guy to talk to. Him and I just from different sides who both happen to know that the other side is wrong. Oh, and he seems to have come around to jazz, and I pretty much can’t stand it.