‘Blue Like Jazz’ takes on spirituality from post-modern, personal viewpoint

January 18, 2018 GMT

I mentioned at a Christmas dinner that a friend had attended Reed College. A guest mentioned a book with stories about Reed. My wife gifted me with “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality” (2003) by Donald Miller, a campus ministry speaker. I read this book with skepticism, as “spirituality” is an elusive phenomenon.

The author writes “new realism essays” on faith, redemption, grace, confession, church, romance, money and worship. The book is an entertaining memoir of a young man’s struggle in a post-modern society. He grew up in fundamentalist Houston with no father around, traveled to the Northwest, lived with hippies, resided in Portland and took courses at Reed.

Miller is a good storyteller, describing his struggles about doubt and faith, literalism and imagination, conventionality and eccentricity, hypocrisy and honesty. The reader will laugh as episodes unfold in a confession of disbelief which too often returns to tedious platitudes of faith suggesting a spiritual shallowness.

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I particularly enjoyed his tale of building a “reverse confessional” booth in the middle of campus at an annual festival. Students get drunk and naked, smoke pot and take mushroom trips. Miller and friends invite classmates in for confession. They hear apologies for Christian behavior.

The plan is: “We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the televangelists ... for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus.” Their apology included the Crusades, Columbus and the genocides committed in the name of God, and the slaughter of the Indians in the name of Christ. (This gives a new twist to Christian apologetics!)

Miller understands spirituality as something we feel, something that cannot be explained. You cannot make sense about God and Jesus.

He admits, “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.” What happened was seeing that Jesus had relevance to daily life. This book may be experienced as spiritual fluff to readers of systematic theology, higher Biblical criticism, church and doctrinal history.

Readers who have found healthy congregations and clergy who preach on social justice may feel Miller may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It is difficult to write a memoir, i.e. how to be honest but keep secrets? How to write about oneself without becoming self-absorbed? How to avoid reductive psycho-biography and acknowledge mysteries? Miller succeeds as much as he fails in these endeavors.

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Students of psychology of religion will remember that William James’ classic, “Varieties of Religious Experience, “was composed from memoirs, diaries and journals documenting religious experiences. James concluded the ultimate authority on such experiences was the individual who had them. The reader will judge their relevance by their impact upon the storyteller: “By their fruits, ye shall know them.”

In the case of “Blue Like Jazz,” it continues to be sold for it speaks to a generation distrustful of the institutional church but who still seek deeper meanings.

The book was made into a film satirizing evangelical culture. Miller continues to publish and is CEO of StoryBrand which clarifies marketing messages for businesses.

David J. Dalrymple, Ph.D., is an affiliate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston, a pastoral psychotherapist and Jungian psychoanalyst. He has been adjunct faculty in Marshall University’s Department of Religious Studies.

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