Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blue Like Jazz

So I'll admit, I did not expect to like this book. My mind associated it with books like Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell and The Shack by William Young. I thought it was a postmodern creed full of spiritualist gobblygook and that totally abandoned the gospel. Yet, after having one too many conversations with people that included me saying "well, from what I've heard, the book says...", I decided that enough was enough. It was time for me to suck it up and actually read the book. And the verdict? Well...

First, let's start with the good stuff. Donald Miller is a great writer. The book (which is merely a collection of essays loosely connected by Miller's personal journey through his faith) was absorbing from beginning to end. I really felt like I knew Miller by the end, and I appreciated his many insights into life, human nature, and religion. There were moments when he would wax eloquent that would literally take my breath away.

He also makes many great points. For a book by a guy who doesn't like fundamentalism, he spent a lot of time showing the truth behind many fundamentalist doctrines like human depravity and God's sovereignty. In fact, the book was surprisingly orthodox to me. He also made some valid criticisms of the modern church, especially the lack of humility and the legalism present in many orthodox churches. There were definitely times when I felt like he was blowing a problem out of proportion, or like I wanted to quibble with his focus, but these were mostly minor points.

That is, until his last two chapters. Suddenly he started talking about how to love yourself. And although I think I know what he was trying to say, what really got me was this paragraph right at the end:

All great characters in stories are the ones who give their lives to something bigger than themselves. And in all of the stories I don't find anyone more noble than Jesus. He gave his life for me, in obedience to His Father. I truly love Him for it...I think the difference in my life came when I realized, after reading those Gospels, that Jesus didn't just love me out of principle; He didn't just love me because it was the right thing to do. Rather, there was something inside me that caused Him to love me. (page 238)

Like I said, I think I know what he means by this. However, I think this was the great problem I had with this book: it's all about what Miller thinks, how he feels, how something doesn't feel right, how something feels wrong, etc. And when he's right, he's right. But he never backs anything up with Scripture, so sometimes he misses the mark, and he's okay with that. So long as it feels right to him, it's okay if it's not quite what Scripture says. His Christianity, although it has many orthodox parts, is ultimately a very "spiritualistic" thing, and he makes this point many times, that he doesn't think that doctrine can really be defined or that it's really that important anyways, and that Christianity is all about being in love with Christ.

Now don't hear what I'm not saying. We should be in love with Christ, but the way to get there is not through seeking experiences, it's through studying his Word. And like I said, that's what's glaringly absent from this book: God's Word. I can also predict that many are going to say "you have to remember his target audience, Sam. Look at his subtitle: 'Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality.' The Bible is religious, so he doesn't use it." And that's just my problem. The Bible is the very foundation of everything we believe. I can understand why he wouldn't start with it in a "I'm going to thump this Bible over your head until you agree with me" sort of way, but at some point he should have started coming back to it, and he never did. The closest he got was reading the gospels to find the real Jesus, the one who loves him for something inside of him (which completely contradicts Scripture, by the way. The whole point is that he loves us despite what's inside of us).

So that's my problem with the book. He bases his entire religion on feelings, and in the process manages to pervert certain crucial Christian ideas. This is not to say that this is a bad book; on the contrary, I would actually recommend it highly to friends with some level of spiritual maturity, because I think he has some very helpful insights. But, I would not give it to a non-Christian or a new Christian, because I think it could actually be dangerous. A little wrong doctrine at the start can lead to some major problems down the road.

Final verdict: a pleasure to read, but misguided in several crucial areas.


Sarah S. said...

So, yes, I should be asleep, but after re-reading your post and thinking through our conversation with Samantha, I had more to say...

I would have to disagree with you slightly (I think--it may not be a disagreement at all) on the dichotomy you seem to be placing on the role of experience and Scripture. You say, "We should be in love with Christ, but the way to get there is not through seeking experiences, it's through studying his Word." I would agree with this if you meant that we should always seek to have our experiences guided by the Word, or if you meant that we must always have Scripture as our basis and must continuously come back to it, refining our ideas against it. However, if you mean that experience *isn't* a valid way to come closer to Christ (which I was a little unsure of your position on during our conversation and reading your post) then I would disagree.

I think what Miller and Samantha would say, (and I would agree with them) is that eventually, we have to move through the doctrine (not beyond, and never leaving it behind, but allowing it to lead us) into an understanding that we are indeed personally involved with God. Yes, we need revelation to come to that, but how often do people stop at a doctrinal understanding of Christianity, and never move to an understanding that God isn't a proposition, but a Savior who died to redeem them?

I'm pretty sure we would agree on this, but I wanted to inquire a little more deeply seeing as we all had to retrench due to dratted papers...

tbranchaw said...

I liked your focus, Sam, I'll have to get my hands on the book. Mom