Saturday, July 09, 2011

Book Review: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I can’t remember when I first heard about this book. A few years ago, some of the Christian blogs I follow were buzzing about a book called “Blue Like Jazz”. I don’t particularly like jazz, so I ignored the book.
Later, Thomas Nelson offered me a copy of “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” by the author, Donald Miller. I took it since it was free. I just had to commit to a review of it by a specific date. I found it to be a quick, humorous, enlightening, and highly enjoyable read that caused me to rethink the way I look at the world. I like books like that. That’s why I’m “The Stand Up Philosopher”. I hope someday to be able to help others challenge their assumptions and outlook about the world.
Like “A Million Miles”, “Blue Like Jazz” was a very quick read. I started it Wednesday night and finished it Saturday morning. I read the bulk of the book Friday afternoon. It was quick, humorous, and enjoyable. Also, like “A Million Miles”, it challenged my assumptions about my life and faith.
Through events in his life and recounts of conversations with friends, Donald Miller explores his journey to the point he was at when the book was written. It’s sort of like a conversation, although one sided. The writing is very conversational, and I found myself enjoying the company of a writer who wasn’t here with me in any format other than his book, although I feel like if I met him, I’d already know him well enough to enjoy a beer and some time together. At times Blue Like Jazz made me laugh, at times it made my eyes tear up, and at other times I felt relief.
It’s hard to think of a good way to review this book. I’ve read both praise and criticism of it. I have nothing but praise for it. Donald Miller is a committed Christian. He believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God. he says he’s not a fundamentalist, Republican who tows the party line (I don’t consider myself to be either). He’s been accused of being part of the Emerging Church, although his Wikipedia entry says he denies it. We seem to live in a world where we see everything in a binary way. It’s either one thing, or the other. One or zero. If I tell you I’m not a Republican, most of you will assume I’m a Democrat. I’m not. Believe me, I’m far from that. Neither label fits me. Likewise, I don’t believe Donald Miller to be the binary opposite of what he claims not to be.
If anything, I think his books and writing show us partly what living a missional life is about. That’s sort of a buzzword in some circles of the church lately. I’m not entirely sure what it means. I’m sure it means something different than showing up at church once a week to be lectured at, lie to everybody who asks about how you’re doing, then going home and forgetting about it for the next week. I think it has something to do with living your faith out in the open, in community with other believers and also seeking community with those who aren’t believers.  I can’t quite get the words to come together to explore that, so I’ll save it for later.
One comment made by Donald Miller that really rang true for me is in the chapter “Confession” on page 115:
In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him I couldn’t do it, and moreover, that I didn’t want to defend the term. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him yes. “Then why don’t you want to defend Christianity?” he asked, confused. I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity; they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Christianity meant something that no Christian I know would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry. I won’t do it. Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people? (emphasis mine). I told the radio show host that I would rather talk about Jesus and how I came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me. The host looked back at me with tears in his eyes. When we were done, he asked me if we could go get lunch together. He told me how much he didn’t like Christianity but how he had always wanted to believe Jesus was the Son of God.
Another very poignant observation I’ll share here (of the many I marked) is in the chapter “Love. How to love yourself” on page 231. It’s about Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself:
And I thought about that for a second and wondered why God would put that phrase so strongly in my mind. I thought about our neighbor Mark, who is tall and skinny and gay, and I wondered whether God was telling me I was gay, which was odd because I had never felt gay, but then it hit me that God was not telling me I was gay. He was saying I would never talk to my neighbor the way I talked to myself, and that somehow I had come to believe it was wrong to kick other people around but it was okay to do it to myself. It was as if God had put me on a plane and flown me over myself so I could see how I was connected, all the neighborhoods that were falling apart because I would not let myself receive love from myself, from others, or from God. And I wouldn’t receive love because it felt so wrong. It didn’t feel humble, and I knew I was supposed to be humble. But that was all crap, and it didn’t make any sense. If it was wrong for me to receive love, it was wrong for me to give it because by giving it I am causing somebody else to receive it, which I had presupposed was the wrong thing to do. So I stopped. And I mean that. I stopped hating myself. It no longer felt right. It wasn’t manly or healthy, and I cut it out. That was about a year ago, and since then I have been relatively happyy. I am not kidding. I don’t sit around and talk bad about myself anymore.
I found that a brilliant observation. How many of us beat ourselves up and kick ourselves around in a way we NEVER would do to anybody else? I never thought about the reciprocity of “love thy neighbor as thyself” before.
Since this is a physical copy of the book, if you want to read more brilliant observations, you’ll have to buy your own. I typed both those excerpts myself. I thought it was a good book, and I recommend it.

Blue Like Jazz

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