review by Michael Messenger
'I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself… I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened.'
With these words, author and campus ministry leader Donald Miller begins a meandering narrative about life, faith and meaning, chronicling through a series of essays his personal journey toward an authentic Christian spirituality…
Through careful observations that are at times hilarious and poignant, he shares his doubts, grapples with the paradoxes of Christianity and searches for joy. He explains how he came to 'throw out Christianity and embrace Christian spirituality.'
While I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester in Washington, D.C. in a seminar program. All thirty students, most of us earnest evangelicals, were studying at faith-based universities. Motivated by our beliefs, we wanted to understand public policy fit within the framework of Christian faith. We were housed in a low-rise apartment building right on Capitol Hill, about three blocks from the Library of Congress. The classes and internships were stimulating, but what I remember best was the conversations with my friends. Our apartment had a rooftop deck, where some of us would congregate at the end of the day. I spent many evenings watching the sun set over the Washington landmarks. The view was inspiring, even to a Canadian.
We spent hours talking about the nature of religion, relationships, politics; we considered the meaning of life, we mused about the reason we were created, we wondered about God's will, we wrestled with the mysteries of faith, and we dreamed about making a difference in the world. No topic was off-limits. Our conversations would stretch into the night and meander in any number of directions. It was a heady time for me. I was invited to think, to explore, to dream, to question. I learned that questions did not undermine my faith. I longed for a spirituality that had implications on how I should live, treat others, and act, following Jesus' example of radical living.
Donald Miller would have liked those conversations. While reading this book, I felt transported back to those evenings on the roof. Miller introduces us to his offbeat friends-including Tony the Beat Poet, his “flaming liberal” friend Andrew the Protester, Mark the Cussing Pastor, and Laura, a brilliant student who feels pursued by God. From each he learns about life, love and what Christian faith lived well looks like. We join Miller on his elliptical journey as he shares his own growth as a twenty-something adult making his faith his own. He writes on a series of topics, seeking truth, realism and integrity:
“The more I climb outside my pat answers, the more invigorating the view…”
Like a jazz musical composition, he freely riffs on subjects relating to theology, relationships, money, the institutional church, the “magical proposition of the Gospel,” and the need to receive God's grace.
I enjoyed Miller
9;s ability to see moments of spiritual truth in the midst of daily living. I laughed out loud at some of his asides. Without being glib, Miller is refreshingly honest and open:
“The goofy thing about Christian faith… is that you believe it and don't believe it at the same time. It isn't unlike having an imaginary friend. I believe in Jesus; I believe that he is the Son of God, but every time I sit down to explain this to somebody, I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek convention who hasn't figured out the show isn't real. Until one of my friends becomes a Christian… I see in their eyes the trueness of the story.”
Miller's personal approach is a strength. He does not attempt to resolve the paradoxes of theology or replace life's shades of grey with black and white; that is his point. We are called as followers of Jesus to respond to the free gift of grace and seek transformation even in the midst of uncertainty:
“Too much time is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe. By reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder…”
Miller is not prepared to accept a shallow spirituality. He emphasizes that there are implications of the choice we make to follow the Gospel: “The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something.” Our faith must make a connection to our heads, yes; to our hearts, too; and also to our hands. The Gospel message must transform us, and we must respond. His stories of living out his faith on a secular university campus-including his 'reverse confession booth'-are wonderful examples. Miller's jazz metaphor continues through the book.
“I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something you feel. I think it is something very difficult to get on paper. But it is no less real, no less meaningful, no less beautiful”
As a music 'birthed out of freedom,' he says, jazz is the 'closest thing I know to Christian spirituality.' This book would be good for people searching for meaningful spirituality, questioning faith or who may feel hostile toward the institutional Church. It would appeal to all who value integrity and for Christians who want a deeper walk with Christ. You don't need to be a recovering fundamentalist, a cynic or an earnest evangelical to hear and appreciate the authenticity of Miller's experience of God's grace, love and acceptance. The book comes complete with an invitation to commitment, a post-modern altar call. It's a call worth responding to.
Review reprinted from the Diocesan Times, Diocese of Nova Scotia/PEI
Written by Michael Messenger.
This is a partial and edited version of his review, for the whole text, go to page 7 of the December issue:
Blue Like Jazz can be ordered online from amazon.com or chapters.indigo.ca