Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: Blue Like Jazz

Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz had been something that I'd seen in bookshops many times and never bought. It seemed a bit strange, just from the cover and title. Then I found a copy going for 40p in a charity shop recently, and added it to my shelf of 'to-read' books above my desk. There it sat for a while, and then I discovered that the last book I read and reviewed, Why We Love The Church, references this very book in not very positive tones, so it had to be the next book I read.

Just as I imagined it to be strange from the cover, so I continue to think having read it through. The subtitle declares that it is providing 'Non-religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality' which sounds very postmodern, and that's exactly how the book turns out.

At times I loved it, particularly when Miller finds himself reasoning his way to total depravity, that the soul of man, unwatched is perverse. He experiences the truth of the Christian doctrine (not just a fundamentalist dogma) as he reacts to tragedy and evil in the world, realising that 'I am the problem' when it comes to changing the world.

Yet even as he describes self-absorption as the heart of sin - only ever being interested in yourself - the whole book is a presentation of his thoughts, actions and words; his seeking significant spiritual experiences and finding more of them at a notorious college than at church. Very postmodern, very cool, but seemingly very self-absorbed.

Sometimes, he doesn't seem to go far enough, as he bases his faith on his feelings: 'I imagined Him (that is, God) half-angry because His beloved mankind had cheated on Him.' Seriously, only half-angry? It's this under-estimation of God's wrath towards us (borne in Jesus for those who trust him) that is at best a half truth, and ultimately unhelpful.

He also seems to slip up when praising wonder as the grounds for worship: 'Wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don't think there is any better worship than wonder.' It seems that all that we know about God, all that God has revealed in the Scriptures through his Son the Lord Jesus is bound up in Miller's phrase 'our silly answers'. Without the revelation of God, we would only be wondering about God, but not knowing anything. Rather our wonder comes precisely through what God has revealed - that despite our great sin, he loves us, that Jesus has carried the punishment that our sins deserved, and that we can be forgiven and saved and redeemed. Wonder isn't abandoning all knowledge, but rather is found in Paul's words - 'the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.' (Galatians 2:20).

Another classic postmodern quote coming up: 'I don't think you can explain how Christian faith works either. It is a mystery. And I love this about Christian spirituality. It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul.' Well, it's hard to know just where to start with that!

I really did struggle with this book. Miller is engaging, clever, humorous, at times entertaining, and he is fairly honest about his thoughts, feelings and doubts. He's also sometimes very clear on what is vital in Christianity: 'I don't think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless is believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.'

He does mention Jesus a few times and his gospel in passing, but never spells it out. Never explains what he means by it, and so, mired in the trappings of postmodernism and seeming emerging church language, it's just so hard to know how to decide on the book. I'm not sure I would recommend it - unless you were going to follow it up straight away by reading either DeYoung and Kluck's 'Why We Love The Church' or Carson's 'Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church'.

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