At a recent publishing industry event, I heard more about Donald Miller's BLUE LIKE JAZZ than any other individual title. The buzz wasn't a result of a massive media blitz, nor did it have that feel. It was a result of people talking among themselves, excitedly at times, quietly at other times, but always in that tone that says: This is a book worth reading.
I agree. This is a book worth reading. We're the richer for reading it, because Miller has given us a living, breathing example of a follower of Jesus who has expressed his many doubts about God and revealed his many frustrations with Christianity, and not only lived through it but actually got his book published by a Christian publisher. That's empowering.
Miller accomplishes all this through a series of memoirish essays arranged topically. That's an accurate description of the structure, but there's a whole lot more life in the book than in that description. Much of that life takes the form of Miller's friends and acquaintances --- Andrew the Protester, Tony the Beat Poet, Mark the Cussing Pastor ("maybe he didn't know he wasn't supposed to say cuss words and be a pastor") --- and Miller himself, the borderline Captain Trendy Spiritual Writer. Oh, and there's Penny, whom Miller regularly proposes to simply out of habit, despite their romance-free friendship.
Those and other characters populate chapters with intriguing titles like "Faith: Penguin Sex," "Belief: The Birth of Cool," and "Church: How I Go Without Getting Angry," the first chapter I turned to, desperately seeking wisdom. (He learned to love the people in the churches where he didn't fit in, even the "wacko Republican fundamentalists.") "At the time," he writes in an earlier chapter titled "Shifts: Find a Penny," "I was attending this large church in the suburbs. It was like going to church at the Gap." If you don't get that --- if that doesn't make you smile outside and chuckle inside --- you may not get the rest of his humor, which I loved. My copy of BLUE LIKE JAZZ sports nearly fifty Post-It flags marking passages I might want to quote in a review. Some flags represent multiple passages. This guy is quotable in a major way.
The temptation for me is to tell you so much that you wouldn't need to read the book, and that would be your loss. Let me share one story, though, that shows Miller's heart and defines the world in which he lives. While a student at the ultra-liberal Reed College, Miller and the few other Christians on campus took a crazy idea, twisted it on its head, and ran with it. At the college's annual Ren Fayre, a festival dedicated to debauchery, the Christians built a confessional booth. As curiosity-seekers came in, the Christians were the ones who did the confessing --- personal sins like failing to follow Jesus by feeding the poor and healing the sick, and communal sins like mixing spirituality with politics and having an agenda instead of a genuine friendship with unbelievers. Miller himself "went in [the booth] with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus I was ready to die and be with him."
About those doubts ("Every year or so I start pondering how silly the whole God thing is"), Miller writes this: "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." At the end of the day, if many of us would be as honest as Miller, that's also what we have. And that, of course, is all we need.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on July 17, 2003