Blue Like Jazz- Don Miller

The past few years has signaled another shift within the paradigm of what is known as ‘evangelical Christianity’. The ever-changing entity of evangelical Christianity has seen almost daily changes within the extremes. One end you have the militant fundamentalists who preach exclusivity and elitism. On the other extreme you have an almost Unitarian seeker sensitive movement. This movement’s mission is to attract the ‘lost’ by any means possible and its greatest fear is condemning or alienating the sinner. As a reaction to both extremes has come the movement known as the emerging church.
The emerging church is not so much a collection of churches, but a group of people with a mindset to correct what they see are the biggest problems facing evangelical Christianity today. Namely, those problems include hypocrisy, legalism, elitism, and to a certain degree, what I call ‘condmenationism’. These group of men, led by thinkers such as Brian McLaren, Dallas Willard, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, Spencer Burke, and Erwin McManus among many others. The emerging church belief is that the church is stuck in ‘modernity’ and must adjust the culture, namely post-modernity. They focus their teachings on narratives rather than systematic theology. It has been said that trying to define the emerging church is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. The moment you think you can define it, it shifts and is something else. The movement does not hold to a singular belief when it comes to ‘ecclesiology’ or ‘doctrinal statements’. If you go onto a website, you will be hard pressed to find any doctrinal statement. That is because their desire is to not get caught up in those things, but to concentrate on the person of Christ and the body of believers.
The main ecclesiological belief of the emerging church is strip everything away that may cause a block to reach our culture. This has led to an almost complete desertion of anything that is known as a modern Christian tradition and turning to a more ‘medieval’ setting for worship, a setting where everything is stripped away. There is a large emphasis on community and what your ‘journey of faith’ is.
I say all of this so that we may better understand the perspective of the author, Donald Miller. Donald Miller was raised in a ‘christian’ home, raised in a Church setting. As Miller grew up he grew to question many of the things that were fed to him and question the ways and thoughts of what knew Christianity to be. He did not like the way that Christians saw themselves as being elite or better than sinners. He did not like the way that they shunned ‘tough questions’ and the way they treated sinners. He says that they told him of the evil world that is out there and the preachers spoke of the overwhelming evil of everything within the world. He chafed against the idea that Christianity = Republican and that liberal = sinner damned to Hell.
When Miller got out on his own, he found a world that he did not know existed. He surrounded himself with these influences, from liberals to pot smoking hippies and found that many of them had soft hearts and cared more than many of the ‘Christians’ he grew up around. He found that they were better examples of love and learned much of what he knows about human nature by surrounding himself with these people.
This is mostly what the book is about. The subtitle to “Blue Like Jazz” is ‘Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality’. What exactly that means is not 100% clear, but that is a very ‘emergent’ statement to make. Miller chooses to approach spirituality from a non-religious perspective. He speaks more of learning principles from ‘the world’ than he does from the church or the Bible. In fact, there is not a single scripture reference within the entire book.
One of the most interesting things is that Miller seems to come to multiple conclusions by watching these unsaved people live rather than discovering that the Bible teaches that exact idea. An example is when Miller went and lived in the woods for a month and lived with pot smoking, love making hippies. He said that it is there that he realized about being genuinely caring about someone. He also recounts times when he was at Reed College, a famous bastion of liberal education, that he learned more about people there and interacting and true love and care than he did in the church.
A frustration that I had through the book was trying to figure out when Miller was saved and when he wasn’t. He admits that he wasn’t saved when he was growing up and really went through a ‘journey’ in finding what faith really was. The book isn’t presented in a chronological order, but more a grouping of ideas with illustrations from his life. The problem comes when he speaks of smoking out with guys, partying, and cussing and you aren’t sure if he’s saying that was before he was saved. Miller’s reaction to this complaint would be that he was describing his ‘spiritual journey’. Miller would say it isn’t about a time of coming to faith, but the journey you take getting there. This is has obvious implications. We aren’t to try to distinguish between those that do or do not know Christ, but just admire that they are all just on their own individual journeys to God.
Just like the emergent church movement, Miller makes many good observations. I agree with many of his complaints with evangelical Christianity. I agree that Christianity does not equal being a Republican. I agree that there are a lot of judgment problems and elitism problems in evangelical Christianity. Yes, hypocrisy is a huge issue in the church, and people have forgotten to be genuine with their faith. But the problem is the conclusion he makes with those observations. It is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Probably the most telling example of this in Miller’s book is his testimony of working at a Christian camp for the summer at the beginning of chapter 7. He calls this time in his life the ‘self-righteous apex’. He surrounded himself with these friends, and he says, “We would fast all the time, pray together twice each day, memorize Scripture, pat each other on the back and that sort of thing.” Miller says that these exercises bore a pride that he grew to detest. Miller speaks of moving on from that summer and slowly surrendering many of the commitments he had made.
The problem is that he saw the pride and self-righteousness that came out of that group and automatically equates those things with the poor attitude that followed. The issue is that this conclusion is ignoring the whole of Scripture, where it warns that knowledge puffs up. It doesn’t mean that these things are wrong, just that they were pursued in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. The conclusion isn’t to just throw these things out, but to hold to the whole counsel of Scripture and let that change your heart. He decides to throw the baby out with the bath water instead of doing things the right way. Because he saw exegesis and spending as much time in Scripture leading to this attitude, he’d rather see these things abandoned. In his mind, studying the Greek language is equated with legalism.
Miller has many good ideas but takes them in dangerous directions and creates dangerous implications. This sort of attitude has led men like Brian McLaren to suggest things like ‘having a five year moratorium on homosexuality’ mostly because its too divisive. This movement encourages people to question everything that Christianity has concluded for the past couple hundred years. While there is great value in approaching the Word of God with pure eyes and not letting systematic theology and church history interfere with your exegesis, this idea creates a dangerous suspicion of theology and a dangerous new hermeneutic. The Word of God is given the back seat in favor or personal pursuits and the experience of the body of Christ. Miller himself admits many times about coming to conclusions and taking part in these pursuits and not opening his Bible.
I found myself often getting frustrated because it just seems that Donald Miller just had a bad church experience growing up. I began to realize that I have been very blessed with godly, biblically based churches. I realize that this hypocrisy and legalism is a large problem, but does not call for the changes that the emergent church and Don Miller calls for. The challenge is for each Christian to personally approach the Word of God with a humble heart and to live with the fear of the Lord. Miller makes many good observations, but fails in making wise conclusions.

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8 comments on “Blue Like Jazz- Don Miller

  1. T-Bone says:

    I guess I should explain why I put this in here and why its so long. Over the past couple years this book has become on of the most popular books along the college circuit. This is also part of the voice of the growing movment of the emerging church or ‘church emerging’. I know that this hasn’t become a huge thing in the north east, but I promise, its coming. It causes us to look at the way we do ‘church’ and forces us to confront some of the conclusions that have been made by this movement.

    I hope this review is helpful in some way and if you disagree, I’d love to talk!

  2. Beth says:

    Who is “T-Bone”?

  3. Beth says:

    I read the book last summer, and basically read and picked out the things I liked- but obviously a lot I didn’t agree with- I wasn’t sure about the “emerging church” thing, but I identified it with the seeker church movement.

    I liked the part where he joined a church and they had him live with a houseful of guys from the church. At first the housemates drove him crazy and he could barely stand it, but in the end it caused him to grow.

    I would call it a “buffet” book- some good stuff here and there, but I wouldn’t want to base anything on it.

  4. Beth'sMomToo says:

    His whole focus sounds man-centered, rather than God-centered, to me. The correct approach would be to be exposed to God and His Word and to be obedient to it. I have NEVER felt like a “cookie-cutter” Christian (the advantage of being saved as an adult), nor do I tend to base decisions on what “everyone else” is doing, so I guess I don’t find myself facing the frustration of having to deal with “proud” believers, such as he describes. If I do, I feel no compulsion to emulate them. Such a believer would be sinning with such an attitude, wouldn’t he/she?! I agree with you that the answer isn’t to abandon God’s Word, but to properly understand and obey it.

    Learning Greek is bad, huh? Not in my book!! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been telling someone how excited I am about something I am studying, and they inevitably say, “Knowledge puffs up”, as if you SHOULD NOT learn God’s Word, or they quip, “It’s more important to be doing God’s Word than studying it.” Where did they get the idea that it’s an either/or? To me you can’t honestly spend time in the Word without being convicted, which brings obedience, which results in spiritual growth. (The better I know God, the better I understand my own sin!) Does knowledge alone keep you from sinning? Of course not. But I don’t like the attitude of abandoning studying God’s Word! I usually ask them where they find that in the Bible, and if they take me to a verse, I ask them to explain it in context. I suppose there can be a tendancy to mouth Scripture in little maxims, but…oh, I find it annoying. Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging one another on to a deeper knowledge of and obedience to the Lord? Paul wrote to the Philippians (1:9), “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and moe in KNOWLEDGE and all DISCERNMENT, (with the result that) you may approve the things that are excellent (with the result that) you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ…”

  5. Beth'sMomToo says:

    I was looking through Amazon.com the other day (yeah, I know…like it never happened before…;) and came across someones list on Listmania that had the theme of “The Emerging Church”. Someone has certainly been impressed with the idea! Who knew there were already enough books out to actually make a “best of” list!! Btw, I didn’t bother looking at his list. It propabably would have been informative to have done so, in order to become familiar with the authors who are promoting this line of thinking.

  6. T-Bone says:

    yeah, i don’t think you all in the NE understand the magnitude of the emerging church movement. its the next great challenge facing our idea of ecclesiology. i would take a look at those authors just to know their names, because I guarantee you people will pick up a book that was recommended to them and not know the background.

    unfortunately, one of my heroes appears to be going this way…. Derek Webb. I had told Leah a couple months ago that I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the direction Derek was going. A lot of his passions seemed to be lined up, which is a shame to say. Obviously those things should be the passion of Christians everywhere, but its where we take those passions. I had seen endorsements of Derek’s new album and there was a big quote from Brian McClaren. sad… and Derek’s podcast has a big four part series with Don Miller. I’ve listened to one, so far.

  7. Beth'sMomToo says:

    I looked at the “List” someone put up on Amazon and was amazed to see so many books included. The authors were all unfamiliar to me (I guess that’s a GOOD thing ;). Here are their names, as well as some Critical books concerning the movement. [I thought it was commendable for the guy to also list books critiquing the movement. At least one of them presents multiple views, so that one may not be too definitive.] I’ll email you the names of the actual books.
    Authors Promoting Emerging Church:
    Dan Kimball, Steve Taylor, Brian D. McLaren, Donald Miller, Doug Pagitt, Eddie Gibbs & Ryan Bolger, Robert Webber, Leonard Sweet, Dave Tomlison, Darrell Guder and Chuck Smith Jr.

    Most of the titles carried the idea of the movement being a response to Post Modernism. Well, Modernism was WRONG, and Post Modernism was developed in opposition to it, BUT that doesn’t make Post Modernism correct! I got the feeling that if you were against Post Modernism [a good response ;)] then you would find the rebuttal to it in the Emerging Church movement. But it seems to me, “the truth”, “the answer” is where it has ALWAYS been…in God’s Word!

    The books HE lists as Criticisms of the Movement included:
    “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, D.A. Carson [a writer I definitely DO know!]

    “Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accomodation in Postmodern Times”

    Truth & the New Kinds of Christian, R. Scott Smith

    Church in Emerging Culture: 5 Perspectives, Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, Brian McLaren, Erwin McManus, Michael Horton and Frederica Matthewes-Green [the is the multi-view volume…who ARE these people?]

  8. T-Bone says:

    I would totally recommend Carson’s book. McClaren is sort of the the spokes person for the movement. He is the guy everyone goes for with questions and kind of the ‘ring leader’. Michael Horton is solid, I would imagine that he is the dissenting voice.

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