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Review: Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller

I would never have picked up this book on my own, but a young friend recommended it earnestly.  He was distressed when, after a brief internet search, I commented that it might be associated with the emergent church movement, and he wondered if I’d read it.  Now I have.

Blue Like Jazz is the beautifully-written, almost dreamlike story of Don Miller’s search for God, meaning, and reality. He presents the gospel and many theological concepts by sharing stories about his life, his personal spiritual discoveries, and his friends.  His goal is to share the song that began when his soul was set free, and the truths that were disclosed when ‘Jesus happened to him’.

Don Miller confesses to being ‘self-addicted’—like the rest of us, of course—but, although he recognizes this flaw, he still bases his book on himself, his story, and his experiences.

Even truth revolves around himself.  In fact, this is how he determines truth:  “What she was saying was true. I knew it was true.  I could feel that it was true.”  Therefore, for him it is true.

Don expects his experiences to influence us enough that we, too, become convinced that it is true.  As I read, I wondered why we should pay any attention to the written word of Don Miller about Christianity since Don seems to pay so little attention to God’s written Word about Christianity. He does not enjoy quoting the Bible.  Toward the end of the book I understood the problem:  Don Miller, even after spending considerable time in ministry, did not know the Bible.  In fact, he wrote that, at the time, he had never read the entire Bible!

Of course then, it’s no wonder that he has to turn inward for his ideas, that his theology is a bit shaky, and that he greatly admires (or envies?) some of those who live ungodly lifestyles, actually preferring them to God’s people.

Even so, there is some value in this book.

  • Blue Like Jazz shows the searching and discoveries of young intellectuals, out to find their own path in Christianity, and it determinedly proclaims the relevance of Jesus, even in our post-modern culture.  Thus it could be of benefit to such seekers and to those ministering to them.  Even so, is it right to begin evangelism by ‘throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality?’
  • Blue Like Jazz also expresses familiar Christian concepts in such unconventional terms that they seem new. This could startle the complacent into a new understanding of God’s Word…if they already know it.  Unfortunately, Miller will not teach them Scripture.

All that being said, many godly people I know would be highly offended by the concepts, the language, and the behavior of the author.  These people have, through the Holy Spirit and a lifetime of reverent living, learning, loving, and serving, gone far beyond the crassness and confusion of Don Miller in Blue Like Jazz.  They might even consider his ‘fresh’ approach an infringement on God’s holiness.  And they are right.

Here’s a mild example of truth spoken in a way that makes me cringe.  “…if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it.”  This is true, but our holy God is neither a ‘thing’ nor an ‘it’.

Because of such irreverence as well as inappropriate episodes and attitudes, I do not recommend Blue Like Jazz to Christian teens.  It’s not worth the time of most older Christians either.  However, if someone is called to understand or minister to young ‘self-addicted’ intellectuals, this book could be helpful.  Young people, exploring the world of ideas, will probably find Blue Like Jazz very appealing, but I suggest that they could learn a whole lot more from books well-grounded in God’s Word.

I am not surprised that Tim Challies, the well-known Reformed reviewer, expressed a viewpoint similar to mine

Update:  Possible alternative books include Courageous Living , Four Letter Words, and Do Hard Things.

Disclosure:  I borrowed this book from the library and have expressed my own honest opinions.

8 Comments

  1. JoAnn says:

    A friend of mine wanted me to read the book too, and like you, I thought it would be emergent. She even gave me the book, but I just never read it. I had other things to do, and just didn’t have the time to read something I knew I wouldn’t agree with. I do like your review, from what I know of the book, I think it is a very right on review.

    1. B says:

      “I had other things to do, and just didn’t have the time to read something I knew I wouldn’t agree with.”

      If we only read things we agree with how does this help our growth or our knowledge of God and who He is? I think it’s good to at least think about new things even if we don’t agree.

      1. Annie Kate says:

        There’s only a limited amount of time in our lives. We need to use it wisely.

        JoAnn made a choice about her time use. Knowing her, she made it in reponse to what she knew God had given her to do.

        That choice is much better than chasing some elusive ‘growth’ in books that are not helpful.

        What’s more, Blue Like Jazz does not increase our knowledge of God and of who he is. It does increase our knowledge of mankind, though, and for that reason it may be helpful to some.

  2. Kym says:

    Thanks for this honest review. I’ve seen this book a couple times, and have been slightly intrigued, but I’m always cautious about stuff coming from the emergent movement. Now if I do decide to read it, or someone suggests it to me, I’ll have a better idea what to expect. It’s sad to me that Christians are more focused on what they themselves think and feel about God and truth, than what God Himself says in His Word about Truth.

  3. B says:

    A pretty honest and balanced review but it seems like you knew before you opened the book that you wouldn’t like it and therefore were searching for negative points while you read it. A few examples:

    1) “Don Miller confesses to being ‘self-addicted’—like the rest of us, of course—but, although he recognizes this flaw, he still bases his book on himself, his story, and his experiences.”

    - I don’t think that anytime one of us uses our own experiences to make a point it is ‘self-addicted’. In fact ‘giving a testimony’ is often something that is encouraged.

    2) “Even truth revolves around himself. In fact, this is how he determines truth: “What she was saying was true. I knew it was true. I could feel that it was true.” Therefore, for him it is true.”

    - Don doesn’t say truth revolves around him or that this is how he determines truth. Granted, his style of writing leans more toward the heart than the mind but I don’t think we can make the jump from the quote to your conclusion that he believes truth is relative.

    3) “…if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it.” This is true, but our holy God is neither a ‘thing’ nor an ‘it’.”

    - Again, this quote from the book is taken out of context and used to reach a false conclusion. In the book at this point Don is talking about the general idea of a higher power and the qualities it would have to have rather than God specifically. After this is established he moves on to talking about God being that higher power.

    Again, I don’t think your review is bad but I’d encourage you to not form an opinion before reading something. It may result in your missing out on something great.

  4. Annie Kate says:

    Thank you for your detailed comment.

    I didn’t know I would dislike the book when I started it, although I had some misgivings. But I read it openly and fairly, enjoying the writing style but slowly becoming more and more unhappy with the book.

    I still think the review is fair and my points are valid. Here are my responses to your criticisms:

    Criticism 1: Don Miller himself said he was self-addicted. That is directly from the book.

    Criticism 2: If you read the whole book you would immediately see that Don does believe truth revolves around himself and his ideas. It certainly does not revolve around the Bible; at one point he confessed he hadn’t even read the entire Bible!

    Criticism 3: This is just one example of how Don does not treat God as the great, holy, all-powerful Being that He is. Don does not treat God with respect. To me this is fundamental.

    I did not “miss out on something great” when I read this book; rather I immersed myself in something foolish.

  5. Let G. says:

    This book is a good way to start spiritual conversations with friends. We could use this book to evangelize to you non-believer friends and share the Gospel to them. It is a good source people seeking for answers and truth. We have included Don Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz as one of the tools we could give to our non-believing friends to come to Jesus. You can check the site at http://booksforevangelism.org. Heaps of great books can be found in the site which can be helpful for you and your readers.

  6. Annie Kate says:

    I’m not sure this book would encourage people to come to Jesus. It might, however, help some people become more open to finding out about Jesus.

    In some demographics it could be helpful for evangelism; in others it would be a disaster.

    I hope it will help your non-believing friends learn more about Jesus. Just be sure to supply Biblically-based resources as well.

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