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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Book Review

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I have never been so nervous about giving a book review in my life. I have so many friends who love this book that I feel that anything but supreme approval will disappoint them.

Before I tell you about the book, I'll tell you my take about the author. I think he's hilarious, brilliant and deep. I think I would love to sit in a room and have a long conversation with him. I think if we spent a lot of time together and tried to become friends, we would drive each other nuts.

+He's a romantic. He dreams big and pushes you to ask, "why not?"
+He won't settle for "easy answers." Dont' just give him cliche and expect him to be okay with that.
+He hammers the issue of total depravity. He gets that none of us are worthy of God.
+He's really funny. The book is full of sentances that make you laugh aloud. (And also make you feel like an idiot when you are laughing by yourself in public.)
+He knows that no works lead to the approval of God. He is very intolerant of those who may think their outward rules determine their relationship with God.
+He is an amazing wordsmith. He puts words together like few others. Every paragraph is entertaining. I liked reading it.
+For being single, he's pretty insightful about marriage. He listens to his friends as they share, and really chews on what they've said.
-He's too analytical about relationships. He's cursed by his mind, which causes him at times to think too much.
-While his sentances are amazing and his paragraphs keep you captivated, his chapters, at times have nothing to do with each other.
-He's inconsistent about sanctification. At times, he seems to really celebrate smoking and cussing; almost as if that's the sign of a mature believer. Then, later in the book he refers to a guy who grew in his relationship with the Lord, and his proof is all found in actions (talked nicer, more gentle). It seems that at one time, he thought his actions earned favor with God. When he realized that wasn't the case, he seems to abdandon right actions instead of seeing them as an outflowing for what God has done.
-I can't always pick up his humor. Sometimes he says troubling things and I'm not sure whether he's serious or not.
-The doctrine of total depravity is beautiful if it causes you to glory in the grace of Christ. I just don't sense Miller doing that. (More on that at the end.)
-He fails to see that some of the typical Christian answers are usually given because they are right. Miller speaks of finally becoming passionate about God when he was reading the Word more than ever before in his life. He doesn't seem to recognize this correlation, however. When he does quote the Word (very rare) he doesn't cite a text, but instead, just says, "an ancient texts says..." It seems the baby is thrown out with the bath water.
-He's a romantic. He spends the whole book talking about how the church isn't as loving as other environments he's been in. He mentions a very unique person who he is sure would be made fun of in church, but claims that on a secular campus the man would have been "loved and accepted by all." C'mon. While the church should be the place where a person is loved and accepted by all, and while we aren't doing that like we should, I hardly believe his secular campus is the social utopia he paints it.

According to Miller, the campus life at Reed College is quite pagan and secular. Miller has a very loving heart toward the students at Reed College. But he seems so blinded by his romanticism of the Reed life, that his heart doesn't seem to break over all the drinking, drugs and free sex kids are openly engaging in. He's searching so hard to see where God can be found in the midst of the campus, that he doesn't seem to care that some students could be making mistakes that they may pay for the rest of their life.

I also found the book to be a little too "man-centered." Even with the issue of total depravity, Miller seems to spend most of his time focused on what it means to humans, than what it says about God. He focuses and confesses the failures of the church, but doesn't always steer a person toward God in the midst of the conversation. (I know the God-centered/man-centered thing sounds like a harsh criticism, it's not so much so. Unfortunately, most books probably fit in that category.)

Do I recommend the book? I don't know. It's very well written. It's quite entertaining. He says the title of the book comes from the fact that jazz music doesn't resolve. I guess this may have been his intention, but the book doesn't seem to resolve either.


  • At 9:03 PM, Blogger ~d said…

    hmmm, thought i wanted to read this book...now not so sure. i like good, entertaining writing, but i also want substance. time is short.

  • At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I just finished this brilliantly written and deeply thought-provoking book myself. I really admire the way Miller communicates perceptive, and sometimes profound, thoughts humorously and simply. I love what he has to say about grace, community, worship, and his own search for God in particular; his honesty is refreshing.

    However, a couple of things he says didn't sit quite right. He seems to make much more of an issue of the Christian liberty to cuss, drink, smoke, etc. than necessary. Also, he shares that a group of hippies in the woods showed much more love to him than 'fundamental Christians' ever did. I found myself wondering how much love he showed them by failing to approach them about their destructive lifestyle (pot smoking, immorality), and most of all, by failing to share the hope of Christ with them. If he did share these things, he never mentions it in the book. I think at times he confuses acceptance and love. It also bothered me that he has a very condescending / superior attitude toward the believers at the camp in Colorado, calling them "cute little Christians" who look like a Banana Republic advertisement. Earlier he puts down other believers who dress in Gap clothes. I get what he's saying - we can get so caught up in looking a certain way and living by certain rules, that we lose sight of the bigger picture and fail to show Christ's love to those different from us. Ironically, he doesn't show much love or tolerance toward those he calls "fundamental Christians" - not nearly as much as he shows to non-believing friends. I was acutely aware of this after reading "The Mark of the Christian" by Francis Shaeffer. I guess it all just seemed a little inconsistent.

    Miller makes the comment (regarding the Hippies): "I had met the enemy in the woods and discovered they were not the enemy. I wondered whether any human being could be an enemy of God." Check out Romans 5:10! As uncool and narrow as it sounds, God is not OK with those who reject Him, although He loves them deeply.

    I give this book a 9.5 for artistic quality and a 5 for content. I found Donald Miller fascinating and would love to hear him speak sometime; however, he fails to bring much authority to what he says, at times making the comment that he knows something to be true because of his own experience or feelings - and not mentioning any outside source of truth. Often when he shared his take on any given subject, I found myself asking "So what? Why should I believe this because of your experience?" There is a distinctly postmodern flavor to the book, for sure. But many of Miller's interactions with people challenged me to engage in authentic dialogue with those of different faiths (or no faith), and those different from myself. It is apparent that some of what he says is a reaction to rejection he's experienced at the hands of other believers and even his own father.

    I would recommend this book to anyone who appreciates great writing and humorous storytelling . It is a thought-provoking and interesting read.


  • At 3:13 PM, Blogger David said…

    Well, I suppose you've anticitipated this already, but I am rather disappointed. To preface this I will say that everything you pointed out negatively about the book was more or less accurate. However, I think you missed the point of reading this book by miles. Honestly, and without insult, this is why I suggested it first to Charity. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume she really liked it.

    This book is not a doctrinal work. No secret there. I didn't read it to be Biblically educated. There are several reasons I consider it among the best books I've read in years, and we will discuss them here.

    - It is, first and foremost, a work of literature. Miller is among the best writers I know of, and I believe good art has intrinsic value regardless of philisophical or doctrinal unsoundness. disconnected chapters and unresolved endings are part of journaling, which in essense is what he was doing with this book - journaling for other people to read. And I think the book did resolve, it was just a subtle, messy resolution. Welcome to life. Reread the author's note. Maybe the ending will make more sense.

    - His lack of help in offering solutions to problems he points out in the church is discontenting and predictable, yes. I think any reader with a head on his or her shoulders would see these inconsistencies. This is also why books should be read and discussed in community. Danny, you and I have often gotten together and pointed out problems we see without being able to provide solutions to them. I think his church and home past provides some insights into his attitude as well.

    - Doctrinal weaknesses and practical inconsistencies aside, this was the most convicting book I have read this year, with the possible exception of "The Ragumuffin Gospel" by Brennan Manning, for the which the same complaints could be made. "Blue Like Jazz" made me ask, "Am I loving people? Who and where are the poor around me and how can I do anything for them? Am I content with trite answers to difficult questions? When people have real problems, am I just giving them spiritual band aids and then washing my hands instead of being willing to get my hands really dirty in their lives? Am I pushing an agenda that Jesus never did with people?"

    - And, rehitting my first point, aesthetically speaking, this book made my heart sing. I read the last 200 pages in one day.

    Dee, you should read the book. Really. I unflinghingly recommend it. We can talk about it when you're done. I would like to know what you think. Danny, I'm looking forward to your counterpoint. And yes, you're still my friend.

  • At 3:40 PM, Blogger danny2 said…


    not much of a counter point here.

    he's a great writer. very entertaining. very good. very brilliant man.

    i know the intention was not a doctrinal thesis...but is it possible to write an entertaining book AND be doctrinally accurate about issues? i'd LOVE to see both, and i think this guys is smart enough to pull it off, if he focused just a tad bit more on the Word and not just his own thoughts.

    i'm ok with asking questions that don't have answers. you're right. i do that too. probably too much.

    i'm fine with you loving the book too. honestly, it bothers me that i can't bring myself to like it (beyond just entertainment). i often feel like the only postmodern age person who totally doesn't get postmodernism. i know that if donald miller would walk into joe's, he'd be polite and we'd laugh some...but you and he would really be closer than i could ever get. he and i just wouldn't be on the same plane. i also knows that means you're much better equiped to reach a postmodern for Christ than I am. that bums me out, but i have to acknowledge i am who i am (and God must have some divine purpose for that).


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