Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: "Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller

There is a precise reason that I decided to read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz in this last week of August. In another week or two I will have an essay published. I was commissioned to write the essay about two years ago for a forthcoming book, a festschrift, celebrating Reed College’s centennial. My alma mater chose a graduate from each major to write about his or her experience at Reed and the value of Reed’s education. I was the religion major selected. It will be a fun collection of essays. Some of the other essays come from highly regarded writers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Snyder.

I began my contribution to the festschrift by writing a bit about Donald Miller’s 2003 book Blue Like Jazz. I wrote some things about his book that are highly critical. A number of years ago I read extensive portions of Blue Like Jazz and skimmed the rest. I didn’t care for it, or at least most it. Now, with my essay being published, I wanted to give the book another try to see if I would still stand by my criticisms. Plus, there is a movie version loosely based on Blue Like Jazz that is supposed to be released this fall, which will mean that the book might soon receive a lot more publicity.

Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality is sort of a memoir, sort of a collection of essays on the Christian religion, and sort of a work of apologetics, which is to say a genre of literature that attempts to prove or defend the Christian faith. Don Miller grows up as a fundamentalist Christian in Texas, but his relationship with the church is uneasy. He is drawn to spirituality but disappointed by many of the trappings of the church. He condemns its hypocrisy, exclusiveness, and Republicanism. Told all his life that the world is evil and fallen, and taught to fear atheists, Democrats, and gays, Don sets out to discover a different way of being Christian.

Don moves to the Pacific Northwest where he struggles to earn a living as a Christian author and searches for authentic community. Don, or at least the persona he develops in his memoir, is a bit of a loner. He is awkward with women. He really struggles to live in his own skin.

Though Don remains a committed and evangelical Christian, he grows and develops as a person by entering into communities of the liberals he was taught to fear and judge. He writes about living for a month with hippies in the woods. He attends a Unitarian church. And, he writes about hanging out at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I will return to Reed in just a bit.

Let’s consider what he writes about the Unitarian Church:
I began to attend a Unitarian church. All-Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs was wonderful. The people were wonderful. Like my friends in the woods, they freely and openly accepted everybody the church didn’t seem to accept. I don’t suppose they accepted fundamentalists, but neither did I at the time. I was comfortable there. Everybody was comfortable there. I did not like their flaky theology though. I did not like the way they changed words in the hymns, and I did not like the fact they ignored the Bible, but I loved them, and they really liked me. I loved the smiley faces, the hugs, the vulnerable feel to the place, the wonderful old gray-haired professors, former alcoholics and drug addicts, the intellectual feminists who greeted me with the kindest, most authentic faces that I understood as invitations to tell my story. I began to understand that my pastors and leaders were wrong, that liberals were not evil, they were liberal for the same reason Christians were Christians, because they believed their philosophies were right, good, and beneficial to the world.
Don’s observations are perhaps idealizations. He has good experiences with liberal groups, but there is a sense of otherness in his descriptions that bothers me. Blue Like Jazz is not famous for his attempts to describe the Unitarian church. The book is famous for his stories about Reed College, so much so that when I wear an old Reed sweatshirt out in public, people stop me and ask me if I've read Blue Like Jazz.

Only about 25 of the book's 250 pages take place at Reed, but those passages are the ones that the book is best known for. At around 30 years of age, Don decided to audit a few classes at Reed, hang around the campus, and befriend some of the students, especially Christian students. (I graduated from Reed before Don Miller arrived, but I knew a few of the students he writes about in his book.) When Don came to Reed he was still involved in some conservative evangelical circles and he was warned to avoid Reed, that it was a godless place full of sexual immorality and drug use. He’d be eaten alive.

Miller, by his own account, falls in with a group of Christian Reedies and together they form a neat little community. Most famously, they set up a confessional booth at Reed’s end-of-the-year weekend-long party. The confessional booth is not what you think. It is not expected that drunk students will come and confess their sinful partying ways. In the confessional booth the Reed Christians take turns confessing the sins of the Christian church, ancient and contemporary, to any student who will listen. The story about the confessional booth is probably the most powerful story in the book. The movie version may just be an excuse to film this scene.

However, the movie version makes one very big alteration. It shaves ten years off of Don’s life. Don becomes an eighteen year old freshman, not a thirty year-old dude who hangs around the campus. This brings me to my main criticisms of his book.

In my essay, my harshest critique of Blue Like Jazz is that Don Miller comes across as “creepy.” Is he really creepy? Well, the makers of the movie version certainly didn’t want to put a thirty year-old on a college campus. Let me be clear. I don’t think Don was putting the moves on anyone, but it is weird to imagine him thinking of a small group of teens as his peer group. While not sexual, the relationship dynamics are awkward to say the least.

This creepiness factor is only increased by the way in which Don Miller writes about women. Part of the persona he cultivates in his writing is that he a nice guy who bumbles a lot and who is unlucky in love. But, he does not come across as sympathetic. He often writes about women as you might expect a middle school student to write about girls.
I think if you like somebody you have to tell them. It might be embarrassing to say it, but you will never regret stepping up. I know from personal experience, however, that you should not keep telling a girl that you like her after she tells you she isn’t into it. You should not keep riding your bike by her house either.
Christianity Today’s review of Blue Like Jazz said that Don Miller comes across as “Anne Lamott with testosterone.” The difference here is that Lamott’s quirks and neuroses are, for the most part, endearing. Miller’s aren’t. I compare Miller to Elizabeth Gilbert, whose writing displays personality quirks that I find off-putting. Maybe it is just personal preference. But, Lamott has walked through the valley of the shadow of death and crossed the slough of despair. She is a plucky survivor. Her distinct personality seems to serve her well in life and the same can’t be said for Miller who often seems at war with himself.

I probably wouldn’t feel as strongly about Blue Like Jazz if it were not for my own perspective on Reed College. To be more honest, I never would have read Blue Like Jazz if it did not mention Reed College. Reed is a really special place to me and I tend to react against attempts by outsiders to label it. A few weeks ago the Princeton Review published a list of the most “godless” schools in America and about a dozen people emailed me the story because Reed was on the list. Yes, it is a school that is famous for its atheism, its laissez-affaire approach to drug use, its weirdness, and a big old party at the end of the year that lasts an entire weekend and tends to involve nudity. It is also famous for its genius students, Rhodes Scholars, amazing faculty, small class size and conference-style classes, and overall academic rigor. A few years back the Wall Street Journal published a story praising Reed for exemplifying what a liberals arts education should look like. To play up its hedonism without playing up its rigor and its excellence is to serve a purpose other than truth-telling. I take it a little personally that this place I really love is best known for how it is defined by a guy who audited a few classes and loitered around the campus for a year. Maybe that’s selfish of me.

Though Miller rejects Christian Republicanism, his faith is by no means liberal. He believes in something like original sin and tends to overlook societal sin and focus on individual sin. He’s rather dismissive of other religious traditions in a way that comes across as ignorant. Satan plays too large a role in his theological worldview. I am always uncomfortable with anyone who quotes Ravi Zacharias as a wisdom source.

As a product of and builder of liberal institutions (Reed College, the Unitarian church) I am curious about Miller’s outsider perspectives on these institutions. While not unkind, his perspectives seem both distant and idealized. If he had stayed longer, what other parts of his worldview would have been challenged and changed?