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.


  1. I read the book and drew the same conclusion as you, just not as eloquently articulated. Thank you for a theocentric review.

  2. "So although he seems to come to some form of personal peace, you cannot expect that peace to be transferable."

    I suspect that Miller would agree with your assessment above and say something about his readers needing to come to their own solution and not see his as the only way. As long as his authority is Donald Miller, he would be right. Leaves one wondering what the point of the book is, but maybe it's just autobiographical, not meant to suggest solutions to anyone. It's the pomo thing to do.

  3. 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.

    That's a pretty accusatory line. I think you've just missed the point of Miller entirely. My recommendation would be not to read him further. You'll just get frustrated and miss the point.


  4. Rob -

    "Accusatory" - containing or suggesting a claim that somebody has done something wrong

    If that is what you mean by the word, then you are most correct to suggest that what I wrote is accusatory. It is a book review, and as such it evaluates the work of the author. I think you will agree that much of the review is quite positive in nature, except for my dissatisfaction with the book's conclusion... wherein I state how I think he erred.
    To suggest I missed the whole point of the book and that I ought not read any more of Miller... well, that is just silly.

  5. Hey Paul,

    Normally I would agree with you. It's silly. Miller writes not to resolve. That's why the book is called Blue Like Jazz. The entire point of the book is that life is a journey and doesn't necessarily resolve into neat formula's.

    The 7 steps to being a better Christian, the 4 spiritual laws aren't the beginning and end of Christianity.

    I suggest that saying Miller's authority is Miller is accusatory and dangerous. Judging someone's character like that based on the mis-reading of one of his books is problematic for me.

    I also suggest not to read more because it will frustrate you and prompt more reviews. Miller doesn't like the formula's, he doesn't like to resolve. If you have that expecation you won't be happy.

    I'm not suggesting your not intelligent enough to read Miller. I am suggesting that you will dislike his point.


  6. Hey Rob -
    Thanks for getting back to me. But I am confused, my friend!
    First I am told I don't read enough emergent types, therefore my opinions on the emerging church don't count. I believe (without checking all my comments) that you have levelled that one at me a few times.
    So, then I DO read and think about what I read and don't write a reactionary review but think and pray and ponder and try to construct a helpful and specific review... and you tell me I don't get it.
    Rob, you've got to do better than that! Where have I ever suggested the Christian life is a series of 4 steps or 7 laws or 13 principles or this or that?
    (And like I said in the review, if Miller wants to suggest that Jazz as a musical genre is without resolution, then I do not think he understands Jazz.)
    And besides all that, friend, you do not seem to acknowledge the fact that I enjoyed and profited from much of the book!
    When I say that Donald Miller is his own ultimate authority, I am saying that he lives a theologically pragmatic life. If it works for him, then it must be right. That so much of what "works for him" agrees with the Scripture is great. But such theological pragmatism is a faulty foundation upon which to build one's faith.
    Your argument needs to be with that... at least that is what I think! :-)

  7. 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.

    Excellent point. I hope every Christian who reads this book comes to the same conclusion. I was in the congregation when I heard a pastor "preach" from this book. He used one tiny verse from 2 Corinthians, taken out of context, and the rest of his talk came from Blue Like Jazz. He was completely disenchanted and jaded and depressed, and his emotions totally came through in his "sermon." He had next to nothing to say and ended his sermon with, "Right now, I have to be totally honest and say that I want God's gifts more than I want God." My "decision" at the end of the service was to never read BLJ. And from all of the reviews I've read, it's a good one to avoid. One could find fault with me and say, "Ignorance is bliss," but why would I want to read a book that is written to draw me away from my Savior and toward depressed disillusion?

  8. The question of the source of Miller's authority was one thing that really leapt out at me when I read and reviewed the book.

    Miller even agrees with you when he writes:

    My friend Julie … says [statement deleted], and what she says is right because my personal experience tells me so.

    There is stuff in the book that is transferable, but not much, and even less that's intentionally so. And that may have been what Miller was going for. But if so, this book needs to be on the biography shelf.

  9. Leslie, I don't think it's fair to ascribe motivation to Miller as you do in your last sentence. I'm fairly certain that it was not written to draw you away from Jesus or toward depression.

    If I understand the BLJ apologists correctly, it probably wasn't written to draw you in any direction.

    While I have some huge problems with the book, your illustration speaks volumes about that pastor, and little about Miller.

  10. Blue Like Jazz is a good book for anyone to read... you can't put everything in reformed theology into a reductionistic equation of y=mx+b . That's why this book may shake you up a bit... which in the end, you should be thankful for. It's refreshing to hear some honesty written from Miller; moreover, for someone like Miller to simply admit that there are struggles in fully understanding the council of God.

  11. Reading this book was fun for me. I wouldn't agree with all of the things the author has written, but in a way I feel like I could be the author's friend. Donald's questions are honest, and they are questions that others have as well. I think I was just a little uncomfortable with how loudly they were asked. :)

  12. Clyde -
    I know what you mean about enjoying reading Miller. He is very funny and fun to read.
    In fact, I like that he asked his questions "loud." It was how he got to his answers that I think is suspect.
    The fact is, the Bible can handle all the questions Miller asked. All the questions everyone is asking, for that matter!
    Thanks for your comment. I liked how you expressed that.

  13. When I read many of the comments left here, it occured to me that our impressions about a book and/or music are much like our experience of Christianity. It is very personal and relational...and most importantly experiential. Nobody has the same experience of it, and to try to explain it is futile. Plus, there is NO RIGHT OR WRONG. That is why I generally avoid reading book reviews. I only read this because my friend sent me the link! One of my favorite quotes is "there is God's word, and everything else is just commentary". So there is mine. Personally, I LOVED the book. Not that you should understand why or care. God bless.

  14. Pastor Paul,

    As a jazz musician I can't fully agree with your assesment of the musical genre. It's just not true that jazz always resolves. You certainly are right to say that good jazz is never purposeless but sometimes in jazz intentional nonresolution is the purpose.

    I haven't read Blue Like Jazz yet so I can't say whether Miller is doing the same thing. From what I've been told abou the book, though, I get the sense that Brendt is right when he suggests this would be better understood as a Biography on Miller's spiritual journey.