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Blue Like Jazz mirrors debate about direction of Christianity September 15, 2006

Posted by peterong in Emergent.
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An interesting article talking about Blue Like Jazz…from the American Baptist News.

Blue Like Jazz mirrors debate about direction of Christianity

DALLAS (ABP) — Reactions among evangelical Christians to Donald Miller’s best-selling book Blue Like Jazz are about as diverse as reactions to the idea of postmodern Christianity itself.

Although the book debuted three years ago, its steadily growing popularity has made it a bona fide phenomenon in evangelical circles and spurred debates about the direction of Christianity as a whole.

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Miller’s second book, uses the medium of a spiritual memoir to deconstruct and analyze much of what many evangelicals take for granted about the Christian lifestyle. A 30-something ex-Texan who grew up Southern Baptist, Miller uses the book to chart his own spiritual journey alongside Texas Baptists, Oregon hippies, atheists, folk singers, liberal college students and even penguins.

According to Scott Wenig, a Denver pastor, author and seminary professor, it’s Miller’s honesty about his sometimes-awkward growth toward spiritual maturity that attracts readers. The “experiential” approach Miller uses resonates with people who need exposure to faith not defined by analytical study or obscure points of theology, he said.

“Academics have the tendency to live out of their heads,” Wenig told Associated Baptist Press. “The average person, we live out of our hearts. That doesn’t mean we’re not using our heads, [but when we] happen to experience someone writing [from the heart], what happens is they’re touching something in people that most academics don’t touch.”

For instance, Miller recounts in the book how he often felt he couldn’t interact with God — or God’s people — in a free way. Then he read Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, and his perspective changed.

“When I started writing, I just wanted to end up with something like Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, because in Traveling Mercies it felt like she was free, free to be herself, to tell her story, to just vent, to rant, to speak as if she were talking to a friend,” Miller wrote.

That honesty is what has endeared Blue Like Jazz to its fans — an antidote to the syrupy facade many people associate with the Christian subculture.

Since the book’s release in 2003, it has sold more than 550,000 copies worldwide. Christian groups have tried to tap into that appeal, using the book in outreach efforts like Campus Crusade kits for college students. Wenig often reads from it during his sermons at Aspen Grove Community Church, located in suburban Denver. And seminary students nationwide are devouring Miller’s writing.

Some critics, however, wonder whether this literary marriage between a memoir and theology is ideal. Douglas Groothuis, a well-known Christian blogger and professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, wrote in a Feb. 26 blog post that Miller’s habit of addressing “titanic issues” with little more than “a smirk and a shrug and a pose” belies the need for solid intellectual analysis when it comes to practicing Christianity.

“He finds no need to be serious intellectually or to pursue subtleties,” Groothuis wrote on theconstructivecurmudgeon.blogspot.com, adding that Miller’s desire to tell his personal story trumped all else in the book.

“Miller is cavalier and glib about the rational foundations for Christian faith,” Groothuis told ABP. “This is ironic, given the tremendous renewal of Christian philosophy and apologetics in our day. True spirituality is a rational and biblical faith that tenaciously defends the objective, absolute, and universal truths of Christianity.”

In fact, Groothuis said, it’s important to analyze books like Blue Like Jazz not because of what they say, but because of what they indicate about the world. Unfortunately, he said, pop culture is dominated by image, style and glamour rather than character and truth.

“We must ‘attune’ our communication of Christian truth to diverse people but never compromise the truth and virtue of the faith by dumbing it down or making it flippant, as does Miller, to my mind,” he said. “People can handle far more biblical meat than they are given credit for.”

Nonetheless, conservative leaders have publicly deplored Miller�s social activism, occasional use of profanity and alternative style. Miller, who worked in campus ministry at liberal Reed College in Portland, posts links to groups like Greenpeace and the American Civil Liberties Union on the website http://www.bluelikejazz.com.

Other leaders simply can�t agree with his theology, especially the individualist approach iconoclastic authors like Miller and Lamott take to Christianity. For Groothuis, that doesn’t add up to biblical theology.

“It is all too easy to lob criticisms of the church when you are not part of it, not part of making the church better,” he said. “One must be a critic from within the church if one is to be a Christian.”

But Wenig countered that such fears are what cause “a lot of academics to really struggle” with authors like Miller and Lamott — because academics are paid to deal with the question of truth. Some Christians think that if people begin to “go off the road doctrinally,” they’ll become heretical and “go to hell,” he said.

“Sometimes we’re driven by fear because we’re afraid that certain things will send people off the deep end,” he said. Fortunately, though, Christianity has a “built-in self-correction mechanism” through the dual roles of the Bible and God’s grace, Wenig added.

“Eventually, I think most groups in Christianity self-correct,” he said. In fact, although Wenig himself disagrees with some parts of Blue Like Jazz, he said Miller is orthodox in much of his theology and would put him “clearly within the historic Christian camp.”

Miller, for his part, said in a Relevant magazine interview that he has not flourished in churches with “consumer-oriented Christianity” and “self-help, formulaic kind of stuff — the moralist and political angles on our faith tradition.” Yet he said he loves his Portland, Ore., church, Imago Dei, and believes the worldwide church reflects God’s presence.

That dichotomy — between the church universal and local churches — is how Miller differentiates between Christianity and spirituality. According to Wenig, Miller uses the word “Christianity” to mean the combination of Christian thinking with the practice of the church, culture and subculture over the centuries. When Miller talks about spirituality, Wenig said, he means the way of life that Jesus came to teach.

“See, the pressure to be a certain kind of person in the context of the church culture I was living in was intense,” Miller said in Relevant. “When the pressure was taken off, and I was surrounded by people who would describe themselves as pagans, there was suddenly no pressure for me to perform or be like anything. They didn’t care, and that allowed my faith to grow for real.”

That attitude is reflected in Miller’s book, which says institutionalized religion can inhibit true spirituality.

Wenig agrees, for the most part. “I wouldn’t say it’s primarily that, but sometimes [religion] � does get in the way of experiencing what we might call genuine spirituality,” he said. “Sometimes structures or institutional aspects � get in the way of really connecting with Jesus. Sometimes even Christian religion is the enemy of the gospel.”

Like him nor not, Miller’s work continues to attract many evangelical readers — even if they disagree with some of his doctrinal or political stances.

Michael Spencer, the campus minister at Oneida Baptist Institute in Oneida, Ky., wrote on his blog, internetmonk.com, that Miller’s honesty about “depravity, evangelical nonsense, Christian excuse-making and the truth of the words of Jesus” challenges him.

“I don’t know what I was doing reading these books,” he wrote. “There were moments in Blue Like Jazz that � I would feel like anyone who knew I was reading such a book would laugh at me, like finding out that your pastor reads middle-school romance novels. And then I would come across one of those ‘wow’ paragraphs. Whatever the price to get to those paragraphs, they are worth the trouble.”

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Comments»

1. David Park - September 16, 2006

Great article. I think Miller’s work and the postmodern take on Christianity is a necessary “evil” (not my thoughts, but what I infer from others), because of the fact that the church has long not had much internal “self-correction” in terms of looking at themselves from the point of view of the world. Christians who have been disenchanted simply just leave. And Christians in the church who are so busy in service or in choir or running Sunday School, don’t have the time or the wherewithal to find out why. People simply drop out and instead of asking ourselves why people are leaving the church, we assume that they are joining the world, when it could be that they are leaving because that is what the bible really asks of us, not to build buildings and programs, but to live the Gospel “out there”. Of course, not all of them do that, but I think that by and large, the church has had very little to cause them to question if anything is wrong. We are too busy swallowing them up into our culture rather than engaging them in their own to let them know that Christ is King inside the walls of the church and outside the walls.

2. peterong - September 19, 2006

thank you Dave for your comment, I agree and there is a disconnect of our call to “heroes” of faith. In our age, we have made church into “tabloid” Christianity where scandals and dowfalls are our focus not our opportunities for triumph in a world scarred by the violence of the fall. Donald Miller has touched a nerve of Christianity that is seldom engaged or experienced….the indescribable beauty of Jesus Christ. The narrative of the gospel is so vast in its compassion, mercy and hope of a Kingdom that is ushered through Christ. I love the walls of the church because it encases us in the warmth of community that we are like a furnace penetrating through the cold…but I hate the walls fo the Church when it becomes a “members club” that perpetuates elitists sensibilities and worst, persecution. I pray for this bride of Christ to triumph and step towards that altar…unblemished by her old affairs with church culture…but rather into the arms of a adoring groom.

3. AbFab2theMax - September 20, 2006

First, as a personal soapbox, I hesitate when people use the term “postmodern Christianity” because there are quite a few definitions, most of which I think are wrong. Many Christians use “postmodern” when what they really mean is “contemporary”. Second, Miller doesn’t deconstruct anything. I liked the book, but this is just a wrong use of the term. Deconstruction is a way of reading that deals specifically with trying to understand how meaning itself is constructed by writers, texts, and readers. He talks about his relationship to traditional Christianity, but that has nothing to do with deconstruction.

All that is to criticize the intro of the article. The rest of the article is informative in laying out how people are responding to the book. The one thing I find interesting is that people want to examine the book for its theology. I find that odd since this is more of a memoir. Sure, he’s making a case for Christianity (that’s one of the reason I didn’t like the first third of the book as much, because he sounded like he was selling Christianity), but at its core about his life, his experience, his story. It’s a narrative, not a dissertation. I think people are trying to read too much into it. My uninformed guess would be that those threatened by the book are afraid of the changing landscape of contemporary Christianity, and they’re incapable of balancing the core of the faith with adapting to the culture in which we live.

With regards to the book itself, like I said earlier, the first third sounds like he’s selling something. The last two thirds are much more honest and useful, really opening up his life and experiences as to what it’s like to live in a follower of Jesus today. Those who liked it should also read Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner. Though I hate to compare, she’s a better writer, and her story is much more compelling.

4. Jose - October 4, 2006

AbFab2theMax, As a personal note, Donald Miller is part of the Emerging Church Movement. This movement is “post modern” or “contemporary” ideology, if you will. The Emerging Church movement believes that the Bible is a really good book, but you can’t look at it at the “absolute” truth. It’s more of a AAA college text book to consider when convenient. Donald Miller, Brian McLaren and Bono (U2 Rock Group) claim to be Christians, but they are 100% ecumenic, relativists and universalists — all roads lead to God. This does not concurr with the teachings of Jesus.

I find these authors mentioned about in 2 Peter Chapter 2.

I will not argue that Donald has written an interesting book. However, the purpose or the intention is to steer people away from the fundamental truths of God’s Word.

5. peterong - October 7, 2006

hey jose, like all labels, I think we have to be careful defining what it means, I think that the emergent movement is a bit more complex and encompassing than simple tenets  about their sensibilities about the bible. The “movement” is more of a conversation that addressing the significance of the practice of Christianity. I think that we are not to judge any personal and conscious stance a person has with God…I believe that it is for God to judge and I am well pleased to have the prospect of Mclaren, Miller and Bono as my fellow witnesses of Christ. We are all limited in our revelation of God because of our fallenness and we are to understand the premise that the gospel is good news and the emergent conversation is not to steer people away from fundamental truths but rather uncover it and rediscover it in a way that provides a fresh and bold meaning. I don’t believe that the emergents believe “all roads lead to God” but rather “all roads are yearning after God as revealed in Christ.” So there is a more deeper understanding of why element of other faiths bring so much to our understanding of our human spiritual condition. I hope that there is not a confusion of unversalism and emergent which are quite two divergent perspectives and would not make good bedfellows.


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