Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian SpiritualityBlue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
Donald Miller
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Can you love a God who doesn't make sense? Like Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies, Miller's memoir-like collection of essays wrestles with the paradoxes of the Christian faith, describing his journey back to a culturally relevant, infinitely gracious Savior. A mind-changing perspective for those who believe that organized religion doesn't meet their spiritual needs.

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Donald Miller lives in Portland, Oregon and currently serves as a writer, speaker and campus ministry leader to students at Reed College. Reed, a college once selected by the Princeton Review as the school where students are most likely to ignore God, provides Don a unique environment in which to interact with students about spirituality, and more specifically, the ideas and relevancy of Jesus.

Don's own spiritual journey began in childhood as he was brought up in a conservative, Southern Baptist church. Since his college years Don's primary work and thought has led him toward two questions: How does Christian spirituality explain and relate to the human struggle? And, how can Christians better communicate the relevancy of Jesus to people who do not know him? Don is convinced that if communicated truthfully, honestly and authentically, the message of Christ will make sense intellectually and emotionally to every human being. In the opening chapters of Blue Like Jazz you describe your personal struggle with Christianity as a religious system, in that it seemed it was a, “…product that kept falling apart, and whoever was selling it would hold the broken parts behind his back trying to divert everybody’s attention.” Why do you think the church has such great difficulty relating significant elements of the faith to those who are seeking?

Don Miller: There are certainly those who try to sell “Christianity” rather than introduce people to Jesus. I know in my own life, I often want to redeem my identity as a Christian rather than tell somebody about God’s love. This is, of course, an enormous mistake. Christianity isn’t a product. The term “Christianity” isn’t even a sacred term. Man invented the term hundreds of years after the ascension of Christ. And the term has been hijacked by thousands of agendas that oppose Jesus. We follow Jesus, so I think we need to give up on making Christianity look good and just focus on Jesus. Nobody cares whether or not Christians are better than any other religious group. As for God, God needs to deal with God. We just need to present Him accurately. So it is okay for us to talk about the flood, about God’s anger about sin, and also about Christ, the loving nature of Christ that ends God’s wrath on those who believe. It’s tough stuff to talk about, but if God, in the Bible, has the guts to say it, we need to say it, and we need to say it in love, trusting that the truth has power. Later in the book you suggest that unless a church believes in Jesus Christ and the power of the gospel it will fail to respond to the struggles of humanity and will no longer be considered relevant by contemporary culture. In your opinion, are the weaknesses of the contemporary church rooted more in a misunderstanding of the gospel message or in a deep-seated arrogance towards modern culture?

Don Miller: I went into a Bible College Class recently and presented a “gospel” to them, telling them it was the gospel of Jesus. I told the class, however, that I was going to leave one important idea out, and asked them to try to listen carefully and figure out what I left out. I told them that man was sinful, and read scripture and told stories which elaborated on the idea, then I explained our need to repent and turn back to God, presenting more stories and more scripture, then I talked about the great reward of being with God in heaven, and how this will complete and fulfill us. The whole thing took me about ten minutes. When I was done, I asked the students to tell me what I had left out. There were 45 students in the class, and none of them, after several minutes, realized I had left out Jesus. I had said nothing about His love, His life and incarnation, His death or His resurrection. I had said nothing about our need to become one with Him through an act of our hearts, to be associated with Him, and have His righteousness cover us. These students had grown up in Christian homes and taken four different theology classes before I arrived. In my opinion, I could go into almost any Christian church in the country and present a gospel without Jesus from the pulpit and very few people would notice, and even fewer would be upset about it. So, all that to say, I believe we subscribe to a false gospel, a gospel of technical truths rather than a relational invitation. This is why we love steps, bullet points and formulas so much. We think they are getting us somewhere. At one point you suggest that, “…the greatest trick of the devil is not to get us into some sort of evil, but rather have us wasting time.” What precautionary advice would you give to a new Christian regarding their devotion to the Lord? How would you encourage them to avoid meaningless devotion?

Don Miller: Devotion is a matter of the heart, so I think we need to ask ourselves what the word love means, then ask ourselves whether or not we love God. I would love to tell you to read your Bible every day or pray every day, and love certainly requires work, but honestly, the wrestling is in the heart, not in the physical actions of a believer. You also conclude, “If he [the devil] can sink a man’s heart into habit, he will prevent his heart from engaging God.” What would you say to those who would disagree with this conclusion? How can those who have been raised in the tradition which tells them to "read your Bible and pray every day," refocus or continue to deepen their devotion to the Lord?

Don Miller: Habit isn’t bad, but the way Satan takes a religiously devoted person out of his relationship with God is to make him think his devotion is his love. It isn’t. And our connection with God is a connection of love. Jesus talks about this endlessly in the gospels, and the apostles speak of it endlessly in the letters of the New Testament. Personal religious structure, checklists, and even devotional habits are rarely if ever discussed. And so I am not going to defend them or offer them as an aid to a believer. But I will defend love. And I will offer the concept of loving God as a devotional tool. I think the church is screaming “but what do I do to love God” and what they are really asking is “what am I responsible for, what do I have to do to be right?” the truth is, if you love God, you will figure it out. Just focus on that. Ironically, it seems that your time as a student at ultra-progressive Reed College has been spiritually beneficial. For instance, in your book you talked about how the non-Christian community at Reed has challenged you, especially in regard to their commitment to the poor and oppressed. Why has the progressive community heeded the call to serve "the widow and orphan in their distress" (James 1:27), while the church has often neglected this essential element of "true religion?”

Don Miller: I don’t know that the church has neglected this. I think most churches do serve the poor in some way, most often in missions. That said, though, the poor, the smelly and the unsightly are not pursued or invited into our congregations. They are left on the street. But the thing about Reed is the students really bought into the idea the oppressed aren't any better than the rest of us. Students at Reed do not see the poor and oppressed as charity, they see them as equals. This is so much the heart of Christ, and the heart of truth. Any long pursuit of truth will have you coming to these conclusions. This was an enormous wake up call for me, because I could no longer use the poor as a way to make myself feel good for being charitable. As for the church neglecting the essential element of true religion, if you turn the church into a self-help seminar rather than a ministry to the lonely, poor and oppressed, then it is going to be a self-help seminar. It was a conscious decision for church leaders to pursue the American Dream rather than the gospel of Jesus. To be fair, though, the evangelical church has done a terrific job at reaching yuppies. And yuppies are people too. I think yuppies are harder to reach than the poor, because the poor are more desperate, but studies do show that yuppies are in fact people, so I think in some strange way God might be pleased. We will have to wait and see. Also, it seems that the church has either failed to notice or is hesitant to appreciate the manner in which the progressives' work for justice and against poverty with the heart of the gospel. Why is the church so reluctant to appreciate the virtue of the un-churched? Wouldn't such appreciation for this group help to open the doors of grace and the truth of Christ?

Don Miller: This is a very wonderful question, and I appreciate you asking it, and even thinking along these lines. There is a part of me that thinks the church thinks Christians have to be better than non-Christians in order for our religion to be valid. This is, of course, a lie. Truth is truth, and everybody has access to it. So many liberals have picked up on civil rights, the importance of negotiating peace, the plight of the poor, the environment and fair trade practices. The church has chosen to oppose Gay Marriage and Abortion, and really consider no other issue. I think this has happened because it is the easiest way to be political. We have a political party, the Republican Party, and they give us abortion and gay marriage and we let them rape the third world and overlook global child labor practices. If we embrace any of the other issues God cares about, things will no longer be clean. So this is how, collectively, we have chosen to go about things. It would warm my heart to hear anything on Focus on the Family or the 700 Club about child-labor and how the far left is wonderful for doing something about it, but I think the church likes clear bad guys and clear good guys, so we can't acknowledge the good that liberals do. It is a shame. In addition to this group of people, are there any authors or books, which have helped you to live out Christ’s call to compassion?

Don Miller: I love Annie Dillard’s work, Phillip Yancey’s work and the writing of Howard Zinn. These writers have helped me understand beauty, Christian spirituality, and oppression. I grew up reading Lewis and Martin Luther King. I like Douglas Coupland a great deal as well. Throughout Blue Like Jazz we are introduced to a number of Christians within your community who enjoy tobacco pipes, drinking beer, cussing, and watching South Park. To many, this may be considered “non-Christian” behavior. How might you respond to those who consider these actions unedifying or unbecoming of the Christian life?

Don Miller: I can’t really defend any of that. I never endorsed it in my book, I just said what different people were doing when I talked to them and recounted what they said. Again, I don’t want to sell the truth, I want to tell the truth. But I also think many of us are very self-righteous. Sorry for the stinger, but so it goes. Community also plays a significant role in your spiritual journey. In this context you were introduced to the idea of bearing one another’s burdens as you fellowship together in Christ. Briefly describe what it means to live in true community? How do you feel the Church has succeeded in promoting true community? In what aspects would you say it has failed to do so?

Don Miller: The community of the church, I think, is the best community in the country. It is truly remarkable. Nearly every evangelical church I go to has some kind of community, a network of friends, prayer groups, Bible study groups. At my church we take community very seriously. This is difficult for me because I am an extreme introvert, but nevertheless I am living in community, and I enjoy it and it is good for me. I think one thing we can work on as churches is to include the poor and oppressed in our communities. It is true that you will lose a lot of yuppies if you do this, but you will only be losing fluff I assure you. These are not committed people, they aren’t lifting up the body spiritually, they aren’t giving their money, they are there because it makes them feel comfortable. Let them go. What inspired you to write, Blue Like Jazz?

Don Miller: I contacted an agent named Kathy Helmers about writing some fiction. She liked my writing and asked a lot of questions about my life. I didn’t know I was living very differently, but she assured me I was and that I should write about it in non-fiction. I piddled with it, then really began to enjoy it. All of this was without a contract, so I was incredibly honest, almost like writing in a journal. Some of that is good, because it is true, but some of it is bad because it can be cynical and way too vulnerable. But I am glad I wrote it all down. I feel embarrassed sometimes, but what are you going to do. You mention that Ani DeFranco is one of the musical artists you really enjoy. What are some of your other favorites regarding music, film, books and artwork?

Don Miller: Beautiful question. I love Ani’s music, but also Patty Griffin, Bob Schneider, Willie Nelson, you know, the Austin City Limits genre, if that is a genre. As for movies, there are a million. I recently enjoyed the Band of Brothers mini series. It made me want to join the army, just for the intense brotherhood, but if I did I would lay awake every night trying to figure out what is and what isn’t a just war. I will leave that to others. I like Gus Van Sant’s work, he is a fellow Portlander, and I like Charlie Kaufman’s work. I would like to write books some day the way Charlie Kaufman makes movies. I am also amazed at how many great Christian singer/songwriters there are out there now. Christian music is about a million years more advanced than Christian books. I am definitely enjoying some of the newer Christian songwriters. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Don Miller: Just a kind thank you to James and CBD for this interview. I used to be in publishing, and one time I was in Boston and was going to meet with CBD and I had no money so I slept in my car and got up in the morning and met with a bunch of CBD guys and they are, quite honestly, some of the nicest people you will ever meet. The place there is huge, with about fifty miles of conveyer belts carrying boxes of books around through a warehouse the size of Kansas, but you walk around and it is laid back and people are very kind, you can tell it is a good place. So thanks. Go Red Sox!