Friday, January 05, 2007

Book Review: Blue Like Jazz (Donald Miller - Thomas Nelson Publishers

Do you have an uncomfortable friendship? The kind of relationship that puts you in situations that are way out of your comfort zone and challenges you to think about what is really good and bad and what is just... uncomfortable? I have some friends like that, and I am thankful (most of the time) for them.

Reading Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is a little like spending a weekend with one of those friends. Miller subtitles his little book, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality and that right there ought to give you a good idea of what it is like to read! I finished this book over two months ago but have found it very difficult to write a review. There are several reasons for this.

First, I tend to like Miller’s writing style – it is a love it or hate it kind of thing. He writes in a breezy, conversational, near stream-of-consciousness fashion that I found quite winsome. Besides this, he has a wonderful turn of phrase and descriptive ability that perks up the preacher in me. I like to read good simile and Miller knows how to make comparison!

Phrases like food stamps representing “the bright currency of poverty” are shot throughout the chapters. And quick one-liners are in nearly every paragraph; “Living in community sounded so, um, odd. Cults do that sort of thing, you know. First you live in community, and then you drink punch and die.”

Plus, there is a realism to his writing that resonates with the reader. I have not read many modern authors who can capture the lure and sting of sin with such punch. His page and a half description of discovering pornography with Roy in the woods is shockingly realistic – a nod to the realism with which he writes the entire book.

But it is just this realism that might be the Achilles’ heel of the project. As much as I appreciated the literary skill of Miller and the jolt of refreshing illustration it provided, I was unimpressed with his resolution. Right away someone might suggest that non-resolution was the point – like Jazz. But I am too much a fan of that genre of music to fall into that trap. All good jazz resolves both in the song and by the end of the song. The diversity you hear in the midst of a piece is a reflection of the mutual trust and challenge of the musicians. They are playing off one another in a way that only Jazz allows – but this is not a solo or an experiment in purposelessness. They work toward something.

Miller seems to spend the first 70% of this book working toward something – even dangling out some hope that resolution is coming – but he never gets there. And here is why. From start to finish, Donald Miller’s source of ultimate authority is Donald Miller. So although he seems to come to some form of personal peace, you cannot expect that peace to be transferable. Jesus Christ is not given the place of ultimate preeminence here, so what could be a grand and glorious finish instead sputters and gasps in a man-centered, Donald-Miller-devised salvation of sorts.

Miller is a little like a friend who provokes you to re-consider your values and allegiances by his odd manner of living. But at the end of the day, you will find there is nothing better than life in Christ. A humble, self-denying, cross-carrying walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, all through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.