Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Published in 2003
Genre: Nonfiction, semi-autobiographical, spirituality
“I once listened to an Indian on television say that God was in the wind and water, and I wondered at how beautiful that was because it meant you could swim in Him or have Him brush your face in a breeze.”
Though the subtitle of Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller, may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, “nonreligious thoughts on Christian theology” is precisely what the book covers. This is a book that does not seek to preach or convert, though it does play to a certain audience; people within or without the church who have reservations about their faith and are looking somewhere other than religious officials for advice fall into this category. Through his ever-present and well-written voice, Miller makes reading the book more like having a casual conversation with a friend than a lofty discussion of Christianity.
Miller, like many Christians, attests that we are naturally broken. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with what is known as “the Fall” of man when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden and begat original sin. Miller talks about how humans are inherently flawed and how to reconcile that fact with ourselves. One way to do this is to recognize our own innate selfishness; we should be aware of this and realize that if we want to change, we have to begin with ourselves (I couldn’t help but think there was an opportunity for a “Man in the Mirror” reference in the book, but that song probably has an expensive copyright).
Miller primarily makes his points with anecdotes about himself and his friends, many of whom are forced into caricatures. Some of these include Tony the Beat Poet, called as such because the way he dresses conforms to Miller’s mental stereotype of a beat poet, and Andrew the Protestor. There isn’t anything terribly clever about Andrew’s designation; he is simply Miller’s friend who protests. Many of these characters are introduced when Miller discusses living in a community and about how being in one is a necessity for a healthy human being; loneliness is unnatural and people need one another to flourish.
One aspect of the book that I found most appealing was that Miller explores his own misconceptions about faith, Christianity, and stereotypes of Christians from within and without. Rather than trying to deny the fact that he is guilty of the same generalizations, Miller acknowledges the stereotypes he bought into himself. He is very aware of his shortcomings and maintains that he continues to work on them as any good Christian should.
Miller has a fantastic grip of descriptive language and Blue Like Jazz is written very well. His tone is casual, but his voice is on every page which is both a strength and a weakness. One of the most difficult things for a writer to do is find their own voice, and when they do it is often an exhilarating and emancipating moment. Unfortunately, Miller’s voice is almost childlike in its execution which leads some of his jokes and comments to be a bit off-color and come off as a bit desperate. He sometimes rambles on from his original point, but typically circles back around by the end of the chapter.
A personal qualm I did have with the book was with the dialogue and its execution. Dialogue in memoirs and nonfiction are always an issue for me; good dialogue reads the way that people talk. It is rarely grammatically correct, sometimes words are omitted, thoughts are cut off and interrupted by other speakers, and most people don’t monologue for half a page at a time. The dialogue in Blue Like Jazz is mostly believable, but when there are long monologues by characters, it draws me out and makes me question how many of those words are his own that are being worked through a sort of written ventriloquism. Naturally, one won’t be able to remember every single word of a conversation, but some of the passages were rather long winded and this caused me to draw back a bit as a reader and question the fidelity of the words.
I originally read this book when I was in high school (I know, I know; two re-read reviews in a row. How’s that for some alliteration!?) and loaned it to my sister after finishing it. She gave it the ol’ college try and I recently found the book collecting dust on a bookshelf during a visit to her house; whereupon I took possession of it again. It was interesting to see what I walked away with and remembered after this reading compared to when I read it almost ten years ago. Blue Like Jazz is thought provoking without being esoteric, convincing in its sincerity, and demonstrates Miller’s conviction without being condescending. If you are having a crisis of faith, feel like you are falling away from your beliefs, or simply want to learn more about modern Christian spirituality from one man’s point of view, I think this would be a good book to pick up.
Verdict: 3 nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality out of 5
Recommended for: Those interested in reading one man’s thoughts about Christian spirituality, the open minded, Christians in early adulthood who may feel lost in their faith or in general, people looking for insight into how they may be feeling, non-Christians, and anyone who feels they need reassurance of the good present in world or reminding that generalizations don’t give the full picture of humanity’s many nuances.
Not recommended for: The closed-minded, those who easily dismiss ideas they may not agree with, people who like generalizations based on stereotypes, or those who want to willfully remain in ignorance.