All That Jazz – Reflections on Blue Like Jazz in Three Acts

Act 1: There has recently been a fair amount of concern amongst Christians about Don Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality . One of our supporters sent me a copy of the book because they were concerned about friends that were reading it. After the flood of phone calls and emails I received on the subject, I knew I needed to read it in order to be able to intelligently respond to the queries. As I read it, the 1979 film All That Jazz kept coming to mind. The main character, Joe Gideon (played by Roy Scheider) is no phony – he is plainly his “real self” for all the world to see. There is no pretense. He is a womanizer and has to pop pills just to get him up and going and through every day. Joe is a very creative and famous choreographer (the character was based on the life of the director of the film, Bob Fosse, who was himself a famous director and choreographer). While in his drug-induced states, he carried on conversations with a female god-type character who is completely loving, non-judgmental and only trying to help him see that he might have lived his life a little differently, perhaps remaining true to at least one of the women in his life, for example, or “being there” for his young daughter. All in all, Joe Gideon seems like a Don Miller kind of guy, someone Miller could be most comfortable with and accepting of. But, we mustn’t move too quickly or reveal too much at this point.

Act 2:

Before going further, it should be said there are many things in Miller’s book that the church needs to hear. Miller portrays Christians as viewing non-Christians as the enemy rather than people for whom Christ died. Many Christians seem to easily fall into a black hat/white hat mentality, us vs them. Often this distancing oneself from non-believers just happens naturally over time – statistically, most who become believers do not have non-Christian friends within 2 years. Human beings seem to just be naturally more comfortable with people who believe as they we do, but in some churches this black hat/white hat separation is encouraged and enforced. I grew us as an atheist and after coming to the faith, Joy and I, along with several others who had come to the Lord at about the same time, started attending a very fundamentalist church. Every so often they would read updated statistics on how many Christians there were in the world at that time. Of course, the only ones who counted as true Christians were from their particular denominational affiliation. And even concerning many of their own denominational brethren, they had their doubts. You could say their focus was very narrow, indeed – There’s only you and me brother, and I’m not that sure about you! And association with non-believers was expected to be curtailed, since they were undoubtedly a bad influence and doomed anyway. We didn’t last long in that church because we had friends who were not Christians that we cared strongly about and refused to abandon. Many of these friends have since become Christians as well. One thing we learned early on was that the Scriptures superseded man’s traditions and ideas of virtue. Another was that blind obedience to church authority could actually prevent you from knowing God’s heart and doing His will. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, He responded that it was to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul and with all of our MIND (Matthew 22:37). It seems fairly obvious that we have to possess a mind to love God with, not give our minds over to the dictates of others.

Miller believes non-Christians to be unconditionally accepting of others, but Christians to be the opposite, judgmental and lacking in love. This is a point worthy of consideration, and as Christians we should ask ourselves if this is true of us. We have known some Christians who are like this, but I have also known non-believers who are narrow minded, judgmental, intolerant and mean spirited. I also know many loving and very caring Christians. I would suggest these character flaws are aspects of fallen human nature and cannot be fairly be ascribed to any one people group. We can rightly say that Christians should be more loving than non-Christians, but Christians are sinners, just like anyone else. It does seem more difficult for Christians to own up to their flaws and be transparent in their lives, because somehow quite a few of us have wrongly bought into the idea that after salvation, we can be, indeed have to be, perfect. I have often said that the Church is this sort of weird club where we have to admit we are sinners to join and then spend the rest of our lives pretending we are not! It says more about us as individuals than it does about the church. We erect a list of what we think others expect of us and then work at conforming to that list. When we inevitably fail, we try to hide and cover up our imperfections. But here is a problem – in order to hide our flaws, we must have only very shallow relationships with others. Otherwise, they are going to find us out! And if we do succeed in covering our sins, where does that leave others who are struggling? It leaves them trying more desperately to cover their flaws! So, out of fear of rejection and/or judgment, we are dishonest and superficial, making ourselves miserable and very lonely in the process. This seems to have been Miller’s experience, which has led him to conservative evangelicalism as one of the greatest evils in the world. Which brings us to:

Act 3

We get a glimpse of Miller as someone who has had a relationship with a list of do’s and don’ts, rather than a living vibrant personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You can find this sad depiction throughout the book, but it is especially pronounced in chapter 7:

I hit my self righteous apex while working at a fundamentalist Christian camp in Colorado. I was living in a cabin in the Rockies with about seven other guys, and the whole lot of us fell into the militant Christianity that says you should live like a Navy SEAL for Jesus.

He then goes on to describe what they were doing; fasting, praying and reading Scripture. They became proud:

…because we had read a great deal of Scripture and hadn’t gotten anybody pregnant.

Keeping rules leads not to God’s righteousness but to SELF righteousness and overweening pride. He and the others had become pretty good at keeping their rules and meeting their own criteria for being, what he calls, “Navy SEALS” for Christ. However, that led to a fear of what would happen when they had to be apart from one another. So what do you think? They created another list of do’s and don’ts and made a compact with each other to remain committed to these rules when they returned home. Miller, however, found he couldn’t keep them. He failed. And that failure led him to a complete rejection of fundamental Christianity – as he had envisioned it. He came to believe that conservative believers with their view of objective truth are the new evil (or perhaps they have always been evil but are now exposed as such). After all, conservatives are the ones who “…generated the crusades, funded the Republicans or fathered religious television.” (p. 46). He also laughably asserts that Republicans think George Bush is Jesus Christ, yet he seems to have great admiration for Bill Clinton because he feels our pain. Now, we suppose it is possible that Miller has met someone who does think that George Bush is Jesus Christ. We haven’t met any Christian who is that deluded. Nor do I know any conservative believers who believe politics will save the world. In short, Miller still has a black hat/white hat mentality – all he has done is put the white hats on the liberals and the black hats on the conservatives! How is that any less judgmental?

While living with hippies, Miller discovered the pleasures of stealing from evil capitalists. He explains:

The resort we were working at was Black Butte Ranch in Central Oregon, and we were living about a mile off a ridge, beyond the cattle fence, down in a gully where stood stately pines and remarkable aspen. There was also a family of deer and a porcupine. The boys from New York worked at Honkers Café, named for the ducks, and Paul and I would merely have to sit ourselves on the deck off the lake and within minutes we would have a burger or shake or a slice of pie, always delivered with a smile, always for free. They were stealing from the rich to feed the poor. We were eating food from the wealthy table of the white man. This is how I thought about it, even though I was white. (p. 208)

He also seems quite certain we can know nothing (p. 103) and that faith isn’t rational and needs no evidence (p54). If we can know nothing, how does he know that? His answer to our logical objection is that we can only know things experientially (a theme that runs throughout the book). Like Joe Gideon in “All That Jazz,” God appears to some while they are drunk and high to communicate audibly and experientially what supposedly cannot be shown evidentially and biblically:

“Well, later that month, it was in December, there was a raging party going on downstairs in the dorm, and I was pretty drunk and high, you know, and I wasn’t feeling too well, so I started up the stairs to see if my friend Naomi was in her room, and she wasn’t, so I went down to my room and sort of crashed on the floor. I just sort of lay there for a little while and then it happened. Now you have to promise to believe me.”
”Promise what?”
Penny stopped walking and put her hands in her coat pockets.
”Okay, but I’m not crazy.” She took a deep breath. “I heard God speak to me.”
”Speak to you?” I asked.
“Yes.”
”What did He say?”
”He said, ‘Penny, I have a better life for you, not only now but forever.’” When Penny said this she put her hand over her mouth, as if that would stop her from crying.
“Really,” I said. “God said that to you.”
”Yes.” Penny talked through her hand. “Do you believe me?”
”I guess.”
”It doesn’t matter whether you believe me or not.” Penny started walking again. “That is what happened, Don. It was crazy. God said it. I got really freaked out about it, you know. I thought maybe it was the drugs, but I knew at the same time it wasn’t the drugs.” (p. 48-49)

This would seem more reminiscent of Timothy Leary than Jesus, Peter or Paul. Miller attends Reed College and talks quite a bit about that in the book. He is quite taken with their culture:

I was speaking at a pastors conference in San Francisco, and I was telling them about my friends from Reed and what it looks like to talk about Jesus in that place. Somebody asked me what it was like to deal with all the immorality at Reed, and that question really struck me because I have never thought of Reed as an immoral place, and I suppose I never thought of it as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there and talk like Elmer Fudd, [earlier Miller introduced Nathan and the fact that his natural speaking is the same as Elmer Fudd and they have to try hard not to laugh at him] and nobody will ever make fun of him. And if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love and would give my life for, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. Nobody would bother to find out that he is a genius. Nobody would know that he is completely comfortable talking the way he talks and not knowing his left from his right because he spent four years in a place where what you are on the surface does not define you, it does not label you. And that is what I love about Reed College because even though there are so many students having sex and tripping on drugs and whatever, there is also this foundational understanding that other people exist and they are important, and to me Reed is like heaven in that sense. I wish everybody could spend four years in a place like that, being taught the truth, that they matter regardless of their faults, regardless of their insecurities. (pp. 224-225)

There is a great deal I could say about the problems, bad definitions, false dichotomies and misrepresentations in the book but I am not sure how helpful that would be in short form. It would take a much longer article or perhaps a book. However, if all Miller was trying to say is we need to see non-believers through Christ’s eyes and love them in spite of their sin, we could agree with him on that. That is something we have always advocated and which we have emphasized at MCOI since its inception. But he goes far beyond that, embracing subjectivism and mysticism in his search for a god who is completely loving and non-judgmental. A god who winks at womanizing and recreational sex and tripping on drugs but holds in contempt any who are of the mistaken idea that we can know any truth objectively or that the Bible actually teaches moral absolutes. Of course, those ideas are a bit old fashioned having first been introduced in the Garden of Eden when God said “You may not…”


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