Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Blue Like Jazz

I'm late to the party, as usual.

Six years ago, when Blue Like Jazz came out, a bunch of people recommended it to me. I didn't read it. I tagged it TBR in my LibraryThing catalog. Every time it came up in conversation, or was mentioned in a book or an article, I'd say to myself, "Oh, yeah, I need to read that book soon."

So here it is, six years later. I borrowed it from a friend and read it in one day. The whole time I was reading Blue Like Jazz, I was pissed that I hadn't written it.

Donald Miller charts his spiritual journey in a series of autobiographical essays. His voice is sweet and almost child-like; he's real, and transparent, and funny. Miller, a lapsed Baptist reconditioned into a non-denominational Jesus-lover, struggles with the same existential dilemmas that keep me awake at night: the responsibility of being human, the irrationality of God, the meaning of life, and why girls like Pride and Prejudice so much, but guys don't.

He acknowledges that sometimes faith is inexplicable: "My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief." I feel Miller's pain on this. It doesn't mean that he believes that faith in Jesus is completely irrational; it means that even though some parts of the faith scenario make rational sense, some parts don't, like the resurrection, like the notion that a guy who lived 2000 years ago could have life-altering relevance today. It means that sometimes we just don't feel the presence of God in our lives, even though we confess that God Is There. It means that sometimes believing in God feels like having an imaginary friend.

That's why it's called faith--but there are not many modern Christians who write authentically about this struggle between their heads and their hearts. Miller's unpretentious struggle gives the rest of us the ability to admit our own doubts and fears.

Miller's faith encompasses his emotions, but it does not rely solely upon them. "Early on," he wrote, "I made the mistake of wanting spiritual feelings to endure and remain romantic...When this didn't happen, I became confused." From this confusion and fear, Miller decided to try self-discipline as the means for overcoming the encumbering sins of self-addiction. You know what happened: It didn't work. It never does. The cycle, Miller said, was dehumanizing.

Again: haven't we all been here? We misunderstand or misinterpret the gospel. We have been taught that as believers, we must look different, behave differently--and we want to, we really do. But sooner than we can say "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" or some other annoying Christian catchphrase, we're back in the middle of whatever idolatry holds our hearts.

This is why Miller emphasizes the relationship with Jesus, emphasizes the grace of the cross. Because it's what makes Christianity--or Christian spirituality, as Miller labels it--different from other faiths. We rely on something outside of ourselves to change us, to redirect us. We fall in love with Jesus, and it fuels our change.

I felt kinship with Miller in his pursuit of faith that is deeply connected to the heart, that is deeper than mere intellectual assent. "Too much of our time is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe," Miller writes. "By reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder."

As the product of a strict, behaviorist upbringing, I am painfully aware of the struggle to grow a faith that is as real to my heart as it is to my head. In our household, loving God meant having the right behavior, with little or no regard for what gurgled behind the scenes in our hearts, in our emotions.

Miller gets this, and even though the Baptists don't like it, and the Presbyterians get nervous with this crazy talk about feelings and emotions (ohmyword is someone going to clap in church?), and even the de-converted despise his "tepid theology of the feel-good variety," his message is valuable to both believers and non-believers.

Miller--whose photo on his website makes him look like my boyfriend, Vincent D'Onofrio--said that when he started writing Blue Like Jazz, he "wanted to end up with something like Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies." He succeeded. I love Traveling Mercies (reviewed here) for the same reasons I love Blue Like Jazz: both authors speak honestly, transparently about what it's really like to be a Christian in a post-modern world.

So, better late than never: Put Blue Like Jazz on your reading list for 2010, if you passed it up in order to re-read Stephen King's The Stand (the uncut version).


steve said...

I believe that the faith Jesus and Paul taught was about sharing meals and lives and resources across lines of division, bringing all creation in union with one another and God. Along these lines: Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, by Reta Halteman Finger. On the practice of sharing meals and property in the early church. You know, a certain pastor we know and love made me feel made fun of when I wore a T-shirt about solar energy at church youth group gatherings. I was "Solar Steve", that is, radical, on the fringes, emphasizing things that are not central to biblical faith, a phase in my adolescent development that I would outgrow. NO, NO, NO!!!! I was on the right track, I now realize decades of being derailed by such voices. I was simply being a Christian, as applied to today's circumstances, whereas what occupied the center of said pastor's (and most people's) understanding of what Christianity was about was merely the rhetorical and ritual dressing whose substance SHOULD HAVE BEEN the practice of a community in which the walls of race and class are broken down and the struggles of the poor and excluded to survive are at the center of the community's concern. RHF's book is one of many that are leading me to conclude that the middle class Christianity that surrounds us would be scarcely recognized by Jesus and the apostles. Neither the Enlightenment-influenced quest for the perfect doctrinal system, nor religion as individualistic psychotherapy express the heart of Jesus' concerns. But the PRACTICE of Jesus-community in the here and now can put us in more vital touch with the meaning of the ancient symbols and rituals. My family and I are now in a Mennonite church where this is being practiced to an extent greater than most churches in my experience, and it is SO refreshing and life-giving by comparison.

Boy George said...

Hmm... I clicked over to the review on the de-conversion site, and alas(?) that review seems to indicate the book wouldn't be for me. However, there is a book I read this summer that I found extremely good: An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God by Erik Reece. (I just looked it up at Amazon, and it's on sale for only $7.78 right now!) The author has a website:

Reece makes a very strong case for continuing the kind of journey that it would seem Jesus was actually trying to guide us toward, one that is so far removed from what the world's religions (especially the major monotheistic ones) devolved to. Reece received much of his wisdom from Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, and others, and his insights are (to me, at least) eye-opening.

David said...

I saw Miller at Calvin a few years ago - their writing conference I think, Eve. Very funny and self-deprecating. So comfortable talking on stage we could have been standing together in a kitchen.

J said...

i'm glad you read it! i LOVED that book, and i recommend it to people all the time. and, like with "travelling mercies", i was PO'd for not writing it myself.