Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Some Thoughts & Snippets on "Blue Like Jazz"

Book Title: Blue Like Jazz – Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality
Author: Donald Miller
Published: Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

This book is essentially a memoir, a kind of spiritual journaling that describes the author’s personal struggles. This occurs in an environment hostile to traditional religions, but greatly receptive to forms of spirituality that is perceived as genuine. Beginning with his sudden marvel about jazz music, something which he has never understood, he leads readers to follow along his own personal tussles and how he was able to emerge out of ‘religion’ into authentic spirituality.

His book subtitle speaks volumes about his intent. ‘Nonreligious thoughts’ appeals to an increasingly popular stance of “I am not religious but I am spiritual.” The term 'nonreligious' needs to be understood properly. It is not simply secular. It simply means non-traditional, or non-institutional. The author is not lumping new age or non-Christian religions into the pot, though he does dabbles into various new age religions in the process. Honesty and authenticity form the punctuation marks of the book. Miller represents the pool of people who on the one hand, hates the hypocrisy of traditional religions yet on the other, hesitates from abandoning the links with the church at large. He traces his spiritual pilgrimage by digging deep into his soul, hating the dirt that was excavated, and bemoans the spiritual crater that he finds hollow and shallow. Coming from a broken family, his image of God is shaped by an earthly father who abandoned his children at a tender age. God and religion fail to mix in his inner vessel.

He learned from watching television that there is both good and evil in this world, in contrast to sermons he hear that totally condemns television. He realizes that life is not exactly a physical “good vs evil,” but whether one is worthy to make that call in the first place.

“I rage against American materialism in the name of altruism, but have I even controlled my own heart?” (22)

His Struggles
He grew up in a church where he hears the gospel as if they were like supernatural pills. Life essentially has so many problems that the fastest way to resolve them is through magical solutions. He revolts against ‘Sunday-School Christianity,’ which reduces Christianity to a series of simple Bible stories that is intellectually naïve. In the adult version, he speaks out against the use of Christian conversion as the solution toward all of life’s problems.

His time at Reed College represents a shift in his life perspective. He was intrigued with human-rights groups, which moved his focus from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. Through his interactions with Christians on campus, who shared not only their faith but their lives, Miller found redemption for his Christian faith.

His story about Don Rabbit is interesting and humourous.

“There was once a rabbit named Don Rabbit. Don Rabbit went to Stumptown Coffee every morning. One morning at Stumptown, Don Rabbit saw Sexy Carrot. And Don Rabbit decided to chase Sexy Carrot. But Sexy Carrot was very fast. And Don Rabbit chased Sexy Carrot all over Oregon. And all over America, all the way to New York City. And Don Rabbit chased Sexy Carrot all the way to the Moon. And Don Rabbit was very, very tired. But with one last burst of strength, Don Rabbit lunged at Sexy Carrot. And Don Rabbit caught Sexy Carrot. And the moral of the story is that if you work hard, stay focused, and never give up, you will eventually get what you want in life.

Unfortunately, shortly after this story was told, Don Rabbit choked on the carrot and died. So the second moral of the story is:

Sometimes the things we want most in life are the things that will kill us.”

Miller was trapped. Caught in the whirlwind of romanticizing his new found Christianity, he found himself choking under the guise of doing things not because they are the right thing to do, but doing things on the basis of whether he liked or not liked doing it. He is horrified to realize his over-reliance on self-addiction to do the right things, even the things of God.

Calling himself once a fundamentalist, he obeyed the routines of spiritual disciplines, faithfully doing all the religious things expected of him. He learned about grace, that “a beggars’s kingdom is better than a proud man’s delusion.’ Love rather than strict religious duties should motivate obedience. (86)

He then deals with doubts by experimenting with other religions, eventually realizing that it was due to boredom that led him to read other religions. He sees himself as “I had the image of a spiritual person, but I was bowing down to the golden cows of religiosity and philosophy.” (94)

His next spiritual change occurred as he learned to surrender to God’s grace rather than seeking God’s grace via good works. He has progressed from intellectual skepticism to a deeper, emotional and authentic Christianity. In meeting Jesus, he learns to move out of his selfish personal chamber of food-shelter-happiness toward cultivating passions for “justice, grace and truth” and to share Jesus with others. Miller makes a distinction between “Christianity” and “Christian Spirituality” saying that only the latter excites him to share his faith. For him, “Christian Spirituality” is more relevant to the modern world, as the institutional church is increasingly out of touch with the ‘real’ world. Interestingly, it is with this perspective that he started to enjoy going to church, writing a whole chapter on “How I go (to church) without getting angry.” He is able to go to church meaningfully as he recognize what he dislike:
• He dislike people selling him ‘Jesus’, treating Jesus as a product
• He dislike the Church participating in politics, making the support of a political figure as synonymous with church identity
• He dislike churches trumpeting the need to go to just war situation.

Four things he liked drove him on.
1. Imago Dei is spiritual
2. It support the arts
3. Community
4. Authenticity

He learns how to go to church without getting angry. His formula for going to the right church is as follows (138)

  • Pray that God will show you a church filled with people who share your interests and values
  • Go to the church God shows you
  • Don’t hold grudges against any other churches. God loves those churches almost as much as He loves yours.

Marriage is like losing all your freedoms and gaining a friend. He describes his paths of contemplating getting into a relationship, his crush on a Canadian girl, marriage, community living and thoughts about money. He has interesting thoughts about technology, quoting Ravi Zacharius who said that technology is man’s new substitute for contemplating wonder about the divine.

He ends the book with a large section on love and Jesus. He is skeptical about modern day Christianity, and continues to differentiate between religious and the spiritual. He covers two chapters on love, a rough reflection on his dealings with love for others and love for self. This is the crux of his book. The need for loving others as well as self. He ends the book with love for Jesus.

Some Snippets

“The problem with Christian community was that we had ethics, we had rules and laws and principles to judge each other against. There was love in Christian community, but it was conditional love. Sure, we called it unconditional, but it wasn’t. There were bad people in the world and good people in the world. We were raised to believe this. If people were bad, we treated them as though they were either evil or charity: If they were bad and rich, they were evil. If they were bad and poor, they were charity. Christianity was always right; we were always looking down on everybody else. And I hated this. I hated it with a passion.” (215)

“Science has shown that the way people think about cancer affects their ability to deal with the disease, thus affecting their overall health.” (218)

“When I am talking to somebody there are always two conversations going on. The first is on the surface; it is about politics or music or whatever it is our mouths are saying. The other is beneath the surface, on the level of the heart, and my heart is either communicating that I like the person I am talking to or I don’t. God wants both conversations to be true. That is, we are supposed to speak truth in love. If both conversations are not true, God is not involved in the exchange, we are on our own, and on our own, we will lead people astray. The Bible says that if you talk to somebody with your mouth, and your heart does not love them, that you are like a person standing there smashing two cymbals together. You are only annoying everybody around you. I think that is very beautiful and true.” (221)

Do I like this book? In order to read this book fairly, I think we need to catalog the book properly as a memoir of his life. His experiences cannot be divorced from his growing up years of frustration at home, his exposure to churches that push simply solutions down the throat of unquestioning church members. His book is also partly a rebellion against the established church. More importantly, he is activating his "consciousness" and cries out for more authenticity for self, neighbour and God. Fortunately, he was able to anchor himself on Scriptures.

What is unfortunate is that he may have overplayed his "authenticity" card, without a equivalent treatment on human sin and human propensity to behave badly. If man is perfect, being authentic is natural. If man is fallen, being authentic does not necessarily being truthful. Who defines authenticity? Subjective feelings or behaviour? Or should there be some objectivity in it, to draw some boundaries so that one do not go to the extreme of seeing authenticity only in terms of feelings and emotions. I guess, his book appeals to a new generation who wants to be noticed, and who desires to question assumptions instead of merely accepting them. I am not against questioning and probing further for meaningful answers. We must always learn to know when to ask and when to refrain and live a life of acceptance. Just like asking a child not to play with knives or matches, for fear that they may harm themselves if they are not well taught.

We should not abandon tradition simply because we do not like it. They are there for a reason. They are there for giving us a good sense of identity. This book may be very interesting to read, but I will caution readers on accepting everything that was said as gospel truth. It is but one person's story.


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