Book Review – Blue Like Jazz

I didn’t exactly hide the reputation of Reed College from my parents when I was doing college applications, per se. I just emphasized certain aspects of its reputation more than others. To be fair, Reed didn’t make it easy on me. The day that I called my parents to tell them that I had made my decision, the news broke that a Reed student had died of a heroin overdose. I knew that my parents had a lot of confidence in me to make good decisions, but I also knew better than to emphasize its eternal presence on the “Students Ignore God On A Regular Basis” list or its toleration of experimentation to my conservative Christian parents. Imagine my surprise, then, when my mother told me that all of her friends had already heard of Reed College through Christian writer Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

In theory, this should have been the perfect book for me. I grew up in the church, but unlike myriad other gays that grew up in the church, I don’t hate it, and I don’t hate Christians. I like most Christian people, and still consider the people in the church that I grew up in part of my family, even though I think very differently than I do now. It’s one of life’s little ironies that all of the Christian education that I went through as a child worked. I carry the Bible in my heart exactly like they wanted; I can no more divorce it from my psyche than change the color of my eyes. I am comfortable with that, my problems with Christianity rarely lay in the Bible. I left the church because once I left for school I was confronted with people that made lifestyle choices and thought in ways that the church had always said would lead to immorality, and found that I could not condemn them. Once I realized that I was learning more about universal love and acceptance in a dead secular academic environment than in church, I had to leave.

That is a story that would be extremely familiar to Donald Miller. His story parallels my own, except where I left the church Donald went on an epic road trip to the Cascades and found Jesus again. This book is a collection of essays written mostly after that road trip when he first moved to Portland, Oregon and started attending church in Portland and auditing classes at Reed College.
I liked most of the book. He has a belief about the need for churches to begin again to orient themselves toward serving the poor, the homeless and the sinners than being clubs for the “righteous” that I think is absolutely true. It’s worth remembering that for most people throughout history, the church was their social security; it ensured that there were people that would help you if you fell on hard times. Like me, Miller sees almost no resemblance between the American Evangelical church and the movement that Jesus founded. He also sees the politicized church’s mobilization against gay rights and liberal and progressive politics as potentially contrary to the spirit of Jesus.  He writes honestly and from the heart, and some of what he writes is genuinely and truely moving.
And yet, there were some things that I found a little troubling. Miller writes in a loose, self-consciously ironic style filled with short, idiosyncratic sentences punctuated by non sequiters. I found it endearing at first, but then found it annoying, and later yet, confusing. Put bluntly, I worried that not only were they “Non-religious Thoughts” but “Non-religious Non-Thoughts.” I am still divided as to whether it is simply a rhetorical device or a crutch to hide behind in order to distance himself from his own ideas.
Even more than that, I occasionally found his lack of intellectual curiosity and ability to think in someone else’s shoes frustrating. The most egregious example is when he talks about his exploration of Buddhism through a Buddhist friend:

And then I started thinking about other religions. I wasn’t cheating on God or anything, I was just thinking about them… There were times I wished I was a Buddhist, that is, I wished I could believe that stuff was true, even though I didn’t know exactly what a Buddhist believed. I wondered what it would be like to rub some fat guy’s belly and suddenly be overtaken with good thoughts and disciplined actions and a new car.

This really bugged me. Either he studied Buddhism, and got nothing from it (I mean, I’m no expert on Buddhism but I would never think of “rubbing some fat guy’s belly” as the central tenant of the faith (also, it’s a little disrespectful for anyone, let alone a writer who admits that “to be a Christian you have to be a mystic”)) or he was afraid to seriously look at other religions because that might upset his faith. That’s an instinct that I see a lot in my Christian aquaintances that I have never understood. I remember one of the most uncomfortable moments ever of my church life was in a meeting in youth group before a Junior High School missions trip to a Navajo reservation. The trip leader was making fun of the Navajo belief in Skinwalkers and everybody was laughing along with him. I was drinking the Kool-Aid back then, but even then I found it hypocritcal for a man who wanted to tell the Navajos that they would burn for all eternity after death if they didn’t ask forgiveness from a man dead two thousand years.
You see it in the political arena too. It came up when I was arguing with my mom about parental notification about abortion. Personally, I find abortion to be absolutely horrific. I also recognize that there are circumstances where it can be necessary. I can certainly imagine a scenario in which an underaged woman would be in physical danger if her parents knew that she had the abortion, or even if she needed an abortion. That, for me, is enough. I was trying to explain my position to my mom, and told her that if you think that the only reason that your daughter is not having abortions left and right is because you have to be notified, something is already wrong. If the only reason that your marriage is working is that gays can’t get married, you have deeper problems. If the only reason you believe in Christ is that you are completely ignorant of other religions, your faith is not that strong.
More troubling to me is his allusion to his friendship with Mark Driscoll, one of the most loathsome people than I hope never to meet. This is Mark Driscoll:

I cannot express in words how little this young urbane bisexual male musician cares for the vision of Christianity that Driscoll projects. I can’t for the life of me understand what Miller sees in him. Here’s Driscoll again:

You have been told that God is a loving, gracious, merciful, kind, compassionate, wonderful, and good sky fairy who runs a day care in the sky and has a bucket of suckers for everyone because we’re all good people. That is a lie… God looks down and says ‘I hate you, you are my enemy, and I will crush you,’ and we say that is deserved, right and just, and then God says ‘Because of Jesus I will love you and forgive you.’ This is a miracle.

Putting aside how gross that statement is, it runs contrary to everything that Miller says in his book (except maybe the day care and the suckers).
Even with these reservations, I would definitely recommend giving it to some of my more closed minded Christian friends, to make them think if nothing more. I did a lot of internet research on the book before I bought it, and there were many positive and negative reviews. In the true spirit of Oscar Wilde, he had impeccable taste in enemies.  Most of the negative reviews castigate him for not being harder on the pot smoking, gay, promiscous hippies. If that’s where the book is hitting them, they are already lost.
*A final note: This is really picky and not important, but the title really bugged me. It makes no sense. He compares the undefinable feeling of religious peace brought on by Jesus to the “soul” that helps jazz musicians find the right notes. That is bullshit. Jazz musicians play the right notes because they’ve practiced a lot and studied more to get there. He says “The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It’s a music born out of freedom.” Apart from being factually incorrect (about the timeline), jazz evolved becuase black musicians could not attend traditional music conservatories and schools in America. Whole generations of black musicians moved from classical music to jazz becuase they couldn’t make a living playing or writing European music. It is a music born from a response to discrimination, not freedom.

5 responses to “Book Review – Blue Like Jazz”

  1. Matt,
    We actually have a number of things in common. I too am a former Christian that can’t bifurcate his future from his past and still looks fondly on his formative years as a Christian. For that reason, I am actually surprised we part ways here. I haven’t read a lot of Donald Miller (a bit of the beginning of two of his books), but he seems to try and be thoughtful. He seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of a great deal of the schlock in most Christian bookstores. I’ll eat Blue Like Jazz before I read another Joshua Harris book.
    Moreover, I completely disagree on Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is one of the few pastors I both respect and enjoy. You say you’re an urbane, urban bisexual artist that has nothing to gain from Driscoll’s vision. I’m wondering which part doesn’t connect with Driscoll? Is it the elevation of masculine forms and attitudes? If so, are you drawn to less overtly masculine (more feminine?) religious environments? Is the pursuit of the masculine not in keeping with your artistic vision? Do you feel there are other traditional or contemporary religious surroundings you can draw from that is explicitly and distinctly Christian (not, in other words, universal humanist dictums with Christian language)?
    Toolbit out.

  2. Toolbit-
    I, too, would rather read Donald Miller than just about any other pop Christian writer. I have reservations, but this is generally a positive review.
    On the other hand, I was willing to give Driscoll another shot after reading your comment (I hadn’t watched the video since this post went up) but ended up as incredulous as the first time I saw it. I came upon his name in the NYT article about ‘the cussing pastor,’ and poked around YouTube for some of his sermons. When I saw this one, I was completely dumbfounded by the number of offensive and not-offensive-but-will-drive-me-as-far-away-from-your-church-as-possible remarks he was able to fit into a mere 1:54.
    Let’s tackle the statements that I find distasteful, but not offensive. I believe that masculinity is a continuum. I am comfortable with my place on it, and embrace men who are both far gayer than I am and much straighter than I am (not to mention asexual). I understand the need for church spaces where people of all different temperaments can participate, not be sidelined or feel like they are observers. That’s why I roll my eyes at the rah-rah, let’s ride ATVs and shoot guns and shit, flavor that I find in (especially) youth and men’s programs, but don’t really care one way or another about it.
    On the other hand, I think it’s stupid when grown men conflate those “macho” activities with heterosexual masculinity. The idea that masculine activities, masculine activities, and heterosexuality are not one and the same is one of those ideas that I forget needs constant reinforcement. You’re not straight because you work on your truck. You’re not in danger of being turned gay by your effeminate pastor if your church is sea foam green. I cut adolescent boys a lot of slack for those attitudes. If I see them in adult men, much less adult men with a serious purpose, I cannot take those men seriously.
    This is perhaps over-specific, but it also rubbed me the wrong way when he talked about needing young “punch you in the nose” men in the church. I don’t even know what he means. If there is one lesson about masculinity that appears over and over in the OT, it is that rash actions lead to stiff consequences. Did Driscoll mean brash young men that could be mentored to be more temperate in the service of God? Isn’t that what Driscoll would call chickification? Also, I hate that popular culture tells us that to be masculine, or a leader, you must ignore subtlety and other views and perspectives, and act quickly on instinct. I don’t want to hear that from cable news and I don’t want to hear it from the pulpit either.
    Let’s move onto the truly offensive. I think it’s crazy the way that he considers women and non-macho or non-heterosexual men incapable of innovation (not to mention being incapable of running a successful business, having a family or leading an active lifestyle). But that is nothing compared to the complete disregard he has for their presence. His standard for innovative church outreach is drawing young men to church. In Mark Driscoll’s world any congregation that is 60% women is dying. A church supported by women (or, God forbid, led by a woman) has no value. If I was a smart teenage girl, I would want to get as far away from him as possible (and not just because of his greasy hair and douchey necklace).
    Now, about Driscoll’s claim that all you need to attract young men because they will bring their wives and families, I can’t tell whether it’s offensive or just delusional. It barely works in the world we live in now, and certainly won’t in the future. Again, however, it shows his general disregard for the presence and will of women.
    I don’t know if this answers your question. I don’t think that religious spaces or communities have to be either masculine or feminine. I believe that a healthy community has room for all different temperaments, just as a healthy church will have opportunities for those who like outreach work and other opportunities for those who are more interested in biblical study.
    There are Christian settings that I find attractive. I was raised in a non-denominational church, so basically anything with a liturgy I find attractive. I like the stability of old things. I have attended a couple of Episcopal services this year and have been drawn to that kind of experience. Plus, they have women and gay priests.
    On a final note, I thought it was hilarious that Driscoll used David as an example of his “dudes.” David was indeed tough. He was a war king that made himself from nothing. He also LITERALLY walked around writing emotional love songs to God (plus, he is the closest thing we get to a biblical homo).

  3. Matt,
    At the heart of your discontent seems to be mismatching visions of masculinity. I think if Mark Driscoll were standing between us, he would agree with most of what you said. The problem with masculinity and femininity is that the minute you define it, it becomes distorted. Like the Heisenberg Principle, you can’t wholly describe it and prescribe it at the same time. I think we could both agree Driscoll has a more “traditional” view of masculinity.
    Ironically, it’s his emphasis on bringing men into the church, and not his macho posturing, that I find most appealing and correct about him. Women are, by nature, more spiritual than men, so if you want to recruit men into that sphere, you have to cater to them more if you value church growth. I don’t equate money and numbers with holiness, and to each his own if you have found a spiritual home in the Episcopal church, but the truth is that the Episcopalian denomination is dying (in terms of numbers and funds) and Driscoll’s church is huge and growing. Christianity fundamentally wants to instill values. In politics, you have to get elected before you can rule; in religion, you have to get congregants before you can get saints. He gets men because he “gets” men.
    “Now, about Driscoll’s claim that all you need to attract young men because they will bring their wives and families, I can’t tell whether it’s offensive or just delusional. It barely works in the world we live in now, and certainly won’t in the future.”
    I’m not sure what you mean by that. If you mean sheer numbers, it seems Mars Hill is doing quite well for itself. And, I’ve been told is basically 50/50 male to female. How many churches can boast that? Very few, I imagine. I guess I’m either misunderstanding what you’re getting at or that you’re just wrong.
    Not knowing you and potentially being off the mark, my impression is that you’re turned off by that because Driscoll represents a threat to your vision of sexuality. That’s not to say I think you’re afraid of your sexuality, but that if a significant portion of the population saw gender the way he did, it would impact the way people relate to you. For Driscoll, sexuality has a measure of aspiration to it — dynamic both in ontology and phylogeny. Being a bisexual male, I can only assume you hold (and I’m not disagreeing) that gender is a more static force. I can see someone like Driscoll saying that you can’t wholly change an individual’s nature, but by influencing various inputs you can help it express facets of its nature to find its maximization. You can’t turn a cat into a panther, but sometimes you can turn it into a mouser or to come and rub up against your leg if you train it properly.
    Put another way, I went to college in a small Midwestern town that disallowed dancing (in its past) and had a higher-than-average teen pregnancy rate. The argument was made by some that the two were related; that is, dancing was a form of release. I think what a lot of men see in Mars Hill, and this irreligious non-churchgoer is one of them, is a place where a part of many/most men’s soul’s can find expression. Half a century ago, most men were involved in some male-centered activity, beit a poker game, bowling league or a rock band. Not wholly without benefit, these groups have diminished. You can debate whether or not these specific activities are “male” by nature, but what I find less arguable is that they were masculine in one crucial way: women were excluded.
    What makes Mars Hill a boon to men is not that it requires men to shoot a gun and drive 4-wheelers, but that it diminishes the necessity for men to take on feminine traits to be part of the whole. You say that church doesn’t need to be feminine or masculine. That argument reminds me of people who claim that church is going to do away with forms — it can’t. The form can be ugly or beautiful, simple or complex, intellectual or egalitarian, but like your observations on jazz, the seemingly improvisational nature of it actually derives from deep knowledge of music theory. You can play music well or poorly, but you’re not getting away from basics like rhythm and pitch. Likewise, if you hold church services in a cellar or a cathedral, play hymns or praise and worship, or fill the sanctuary with flowers or fuchsia or exposed pipes and bare cement floors, men and women are broadly going to respond to these aesthetics differently. I’m a libertarian and believe to each his own, but my prediction is that the more churches try and get people like me, they’ll grow; seek people like you and they’ll slowly become less and less relevant. I’m not arguing this is good or bad, just the way it is. Note that even when you find a church you find appealing, you attend infrequently (though, more than I do).
    I think I mostly made my point, but I wanted to address this:
    “In Mark Driscoll’s world any congregation that is 60% women is dying. A church supported by women (or, God forbid, led by a woman) has no value. If I was a smart teenage girl, I would want to get as far away from him as possible….”
    Well, let’s consider a (let’s assume straight) teenage girl. Or, just to make the comparison a bit easier to illustrate, a young single woman. Let’s say she’s looking for a mate and has three options: a “liberal” church that is 60% female and the men it has sees the church comparably as you do; men (like me, I guess) who are irreligious and spend their free time in non-ecclesiastic activities (say, bar hopping and club going); or, Mars Hill with a higher concentration of men who are being told to wait for marriage to have sex, be faithful to their wives, not be “sissies” and shoot shit with guns. Not a slam dunk for all women, but all things be equal I would probably choose the latter. Not to mention this in the most liberal city in the U.S.
    My apologies if this comes across patronizing. Most of all, I don’t want to give the impression that I think you should change your behavior. I only wish to put forth the idea that you are an outlier in the Church and any catering to people of your persuasion (I’m not speaking just of sexual orientation) will will accolades from non-believers, but it won’t grow churches or political influence. Whether or not it would make people holier is likely in the eye of the beholder.
    Now I’m off to be a good apostate and look for some hedonistic activity to participate in.
    Toolbit out.

  4. I’d like to hear more about this expression of men’s souls, and the feminine behaviors that men adopt in feminine church environments. As an (at least aspiring) intelligent person, I am always willing to look at a perspective that is not my own, but it’s time to drag this out of the abstract.

  5. Matt,
    Well, like I said, the moment you try and give it flesh you distort it. I think a more convincing case could be made not in defining masculinity and femininity, but in an Aristotelian view of perfection. Aristotle argues that happiness comes from the perfection of our abilities. So, if men have certain abilities women don’t, and vice versa, the happy and good person will seek ways to grow them.
    For instance, if you see male aggression as morally neutral without context, then one facet of a man’s completeness is found in expressing this aggression. Like sexuality, like eating food, the impulse for men to fight can be used to hurt, but it has the potential to be part of a healthy dynamic in the human race. Such aggression in a sports context may breed solidarity, physical health, and so on. Instead of arguing that this quality is from the “occult entity” of a “soul,” I would simply say that men typically have more of this quality than women. The cause of it (e.g., societal influence, evolution, part of the metaphysical make up of men) is a secondary issue.
    What I see as a problem is not the inherent nature of most churches, but in their failure to try to acknowledge the male as having specific needs. Most every church has a children’s program and women’s study groups, but often (this is changing) lacks a male equivalent. Men, for better or worse, are often less interested in what a church has to offer. As a musician, you have a place in most congregations. But, if a man doesn’t sing or play, and doesn’t like children’s ministry, there are usually few alternatives.
    And this may be inherent to what Christianity is. If we are the bride of Christ, men must become “like women” to approach God. This may be a tension that can’t fully be resolved. Perhaps trying to marry sports and shooting guns and driving fast cars to Christ would be a tenuous affair. It’s not hard to see how music can both elevate human souls and be made God-centric: it’s harder, at least for me, to see this in Nascar. One theory I have, and I’m willing to be proven wrong, is that men are more drawn to perfection in activities. This is the glory of sports. On a regular basis, a sports fan sees what nearly perfect human bodies can accomplish, or as George Will puts it, “Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” Likewise, it seems to me that men have greater intensity in seeing things done really well. My guess is, and feel free to correct me, that men are more likely to do well in, and enjoy more, a music theory class. Things that require technical (physically, mentally) skill and have some measure of objective merit, men will probably always have a greater portion of. I would go on to say it’s not because women are incapable of such performance, but they simply have other things to be about. Women have a greater longing for belonging and inclusiveness. Perfection, by its nature, is antithetical to inclusiveness. There is perfection and everything leading up to it, but you can’t mix the pure and the paltry and get something more noble.
    On Will Wilkinson’s blog (see below) an answer to his question, “Why Are There So few Women in Philosophy?” Good argumentation is just like throwing a spiral or playing a concerto: it can be done poorly or well. At the highest levels of philosophy are men. Men are the majority of philosophy majors, along with engineering, computer science, physics. Women don’t lack the ability to compete at the highest levels of these subjects, but what I find most often is that they find their happiness tied into other things, usually family and community. It’s not that women can’t find flaws in analytic philosophy or write a great symphony, it’s that men are more likely to find pleasure and reward in these things. Part of this is sexual: a man who masters the guitar will get women; a woman who masters the guitar only marginally improves her sexual opportunities.
    I do believe that as science progresses, we will find more and more that there are in fact differences between men and women and that they can only be bent and modified by environmental manipulation.
    And like I said at the beginning, the more one tries to say about it, the more one gets lots in sexuality’s amorphousness — or mystery if you prefer. I suppose that’s where I must leave off. Admittedly, if you read this and find me sexist and having a myopic view of sexuality, I wouldn’t blame you. I think I’m right, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this, but I am also quite humble in my notions of gender. If I am a fool, then my peace is in knowing this is so.
    Toolbit out.

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