Blue Like Jazz. By Donald Miller. Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2003.
“God’s love will never change us if we don’t accept it.”
I feel guilty after having finished Blue Like Jazz. It’s as if I found pages of Donald Miller’s diary and prayer journal scattered on the floor, picked them up at random, and read every note he had jotted down. Some told stories, some felt as if Miller had only a few moments to scribble out a thought. Nothing is in chronological order, no two things appear to point toward the same objective, yet his writing all flows together with such ease that I found myself with a finished book long before I realized I’d read half of it.
The guilt is also a result of my initial assumptions regarding Miller’s memoir. It is a “feel-good” sort of book, yet I was still left with so many questions. Perhaps, though, that is what Miller had intended:
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.
What is most refreshing about Miller’s journey is that he resolves very little and does not aim to do so. Instead, he invites the reader to enter his thoughts and to relive his spiritual discoveries, doubts, fears, and joys alongside him.
I assumed Blue Like Jazz would be a typical story of ‘boy is raised with God, boy rejects God, bad things happen to boy, boy finds God, The End.’ Even if we ignore the fact, however, that Miller’s book doesn’t follow a single train of thought, Blue Like Jazz would hardly fall into that category. Rather than forcing a happy ending, Miller makes it very clear that Jazz is only the recollections and realizations that came with the first part of his life-his story is hardly finished. This is perhaps why he chooses to omit the resolution that he claims to desire. The idea of Blue Like Jazz is not to comfort Christians who are already secure in their faith or to convert intellectuals who are convinced of the impossibility of Christ’s resurrection. It instead disrupts the protective bubble that many Christians have created for themselves by questioning our security and challenging us to examine our true motivations for belief. It forces secularists to juxtapose their attempts to rationalize and disprove religious belief with their own personal insecurities and qualms about religion. Miller compels us all to take a step back and examine why Christianity is a persuasion that we hate, or a faith that drives who we are, and how our way of thinking can limit who we are.
In a chapter entitled “Confession,” Miller tells of his time at Reed College and how he and the sprinkling of other Christian Reedies, after ceaseless harassment by the agnostic, atheistic, or simply apathetic students of Reed, decided to build a confession booth in the midst of Reed’s annual festival of debauchery, Ren Fayre. Rather than using the booth for Reed students to confess, Miller and the other Christians chose instead to admit their own faults, and apologize for the hypocrisy that Christianity has displayed throughout time. Miller admits that he expected the booth to be burned down, but he was instead surprised to find that students, who initially thought of the booth as some sort of joke, were responsive and forgiving. Instead of proclaiming the values of Christianity and ignoring its flaws, Miller apologizes for an assortment of negative events that have occurred for the sake of Christianity, such as the Crusades, as well as his own hypocritical actions, including not feeding the poor. “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick,” Miller tells his classmate, “I have never done very much about that…I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted.”
While at Reed, Miller also developed a friendship with a girl who was struggling with her sense of spirituality and secularism. She felt that God was calling after her, but she was not able to ignore the scientific impossibilities of Christianity. “This hurts,” she said, “I want to believe, but I can’t.” Rather than coming up with hard evidence supporting every event of Christian history, Miller admits that this aspect of his faith is often hard for even him to grasp. “I don’t think there is an explanation,” he writes. “My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief… Love, for example, is a true emotion, but it is not rational… love cannot be proved scientifically.” God does not make sense, Miller acknowledges, yet it is disbelief, he finds, that makes the least sense of all.
Perhaps the only refrain that is consistent throughout Blue Like Jazz is Miller’s struggle with love. Miller admits that many of the trials he had with his faith were a result of his own insecurities about God’s ability to love him. “A person who thinks himself unlovable cannot be in a relationship with God,” he writes, “because he can’t accept who God is; a Being that is love.” It is not enough that we know that God loves us – one-sided relationships never work, as Miller describes near the end of his book. After a failed relationship, Miller is informed that his largest problem was a result of his own inability to accept who he is. “Your value has to come from God,” a friend informed him, “And God wants you to receive His love and to love yourself too.”
Miller’s simple truths make Blue Like Jazz a powerful work. It is not preachy, nor is it overly analytical. Instead, Miller presents one man’s journey through the practical struggles that not only Christians, but all people experience. Some of his realizations seem profound, while others simply reiterate a truth that we have known all along yet have forgotten. By bringing such things to light, Miller reminds us not of the purpose of God, but of God’s purpose for us. This distinct difference is what leaves the reader with a mixed feeling of enlightenment and doubt, yet it is ultimately what probes us to continue searching, trusting, and questioning a God who welcomes us in this journey of exploration.
Alee Lockman ’10 is a first-year student in Grays Hall.