Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

by Donald Miller (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003. Pp. 242. Illustrations.)

Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

In his book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller opens the window to let in cool, fresh air on the subject of spirituality. His writing revives the reader accustomed to the dull, unimaginative thinking so pervasive in the American church. Miller prefers to grapple with his thoughts on varied subjects (faith, grace, church, romance, worship, community) rather than embrace neatly packaged ideas popular in the Christian church or society at large. He prompts the reader to participate in his thought processes.

Authenticity is largely what is spurring the author’s work. He is looking for authenticity in his faith, relationships and church. He wants to be able to reveal who he really is. He craves this for others too. Miller does not want to wear a mask about who he is or what he believes.

Miller is a Christian wrestling with living out his faith.

He comments frankly, “…the trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything.” (107)

As his friend Andrew challenged Miller, “…what I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do.” (110)

Blue Like Jazz is crammed with examples of his ‘doings’. He covers everything from his laundromat conversation with a homeless man to his cross country trek to visit the environs of Emily Dickinson to his motorcycle rides up Mount Tabor to watch sunsets each evening one summer.

Some of what Miller writes reminds me of Jonathan Edwards, the theologian and pastor of the eighteenth century “Great Awakening.” Edwards was out of step with most believers of the time, just like Miller is on the edge with his thoughts and writings. Miller expresses thoughts most people are not even thinking, although they probably should be. He’s out of step in the sense that he is willing to reflect on matters many of us do not question or even consider relevant.

In the 18th Century, Edwards felt Christian experience is a gift of God and spent much of his professional efforts defining how individuals can participate in it. Miller is doing the same thing, but three centuries later. Miller conveys his experiences so that other seekers can learn from them just as he has. His contemporary setting helps us get into his rationale because we can relate to it. He is not droning on and on from the pulpit or in a classroom, but invites the reader to become intimate with him as he shares his deepest thoughts and wonderings.

“At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And 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,” writes Miller.

Some of Miller’s thoughts sound so much like my own. He writes: “There is no up and down. There has never been an up and down. Things like up and down were invented so as not to scare children, so as to reduce mystery to math. The truth is we do not know where there is an end to material existence. It may go on forever, which is something the mind cannot understand.”

When he writes about ‘up and down,’ he resonates with me. As an undergraduate freshman I tried to convince my math professor that math is really random and makes no sense. I firmly believe we do not truly understand much about this universe in which we live. We just think we do.

He continues, “I was talking to a homeless man at a laundry mat recently, and he said that when we reduce Christian spirituality to math we defile the Holy. I thought that was very beautiful and comforting because I have never been good at math. Many of our attempts to understand Christian faith have only cheapened it. I can no more understand the totality of God than the pancake I made for breakfast understands the complexity of me. The little we do understand, that grain of sand our minds are capable of grasping, those ideas such as God is good, God feels, God loves, God knows all, are enough to keep our hearts dwelling on his majesty and otherness forever.”

Miller wanders around through various topics allowing readers to shadow his private musings and failings. Miller is candid about his fears, his flaws and his occasional shallowness. For those who are not cookie cutter Christians, Miller leads us on a sojourn to discover more about the meaning of faith, church and relationship with Jesus Christ. He does not wrap the subject matter up at the end of his book but invites the reader to continue the journey. This book has much to say to those who have been alienated from God by Christians and the church. Miller tends to spark one’s hope.

J. S. Maverick