When critiquing the emergent church movement, one popular opinion is to state that in many cases, it’s often as much about style as substance. Candles are lit; liturgies are recalled; new arrangements of classic hymns are played—but the core substance is not too different from the modern church. Or if anything, watered down.
Andy Crouch used this critique as the not-so-subtle subtext to his article “The Emergent Mystique”
which appeared in Christianity Today
. Cool hair simply can’t be all there is to this conversation, or it’s just not a debate worth having.
My guess is that that there are people who don’t like Blue Like Jazz
very much. Spiritual memoirs are a difficult thing—essentially you’re battling against yourself. How can you write with passion about the change in your life without sounding like a bragging blowhard. Start chattering too much about how your faith is “authentic” because of this, this, and this and the implication is that my faith ISN’T authentic. Also the sheer fact that one is writing about the need to look beyond your own small life—in a memoir form that promotes solipsism…. Well, it could’ve been a train wreck.
What I think saves the book is that Don Miller writes this mostly as memoir. This isn’t a Christian living book. Not a lot of “Six steps to authentic faith” or “The four P’s of personal growth in Christ.” Frankly, this book feels fresh to me because it, mostly, avoids just those pitfalls.
It was about a year ago that I realized that 98% of books published in CBA, INCLUDING FICTION, have a self-help component. There’s a lesson—spelled out—to be learned. There’s a message that will bring us closer to God. There’s a new path of faith that we’re looking to try.
Few are the books that simply offer us an uneditorialized life and allow us to draw our own conclusions. Check out the writings of John McPhee if you want an example of the kind of book I describing, where we are given insight into the human condition through an in-depth exploration of a subject (Shad for instance in Founding Fish
. Or orange growing in Oranges
.) and those passionate about that subject. Or check out the documentaries Brother’s Keeper
and Hell House
. These works have impacted me much more than agenda books—even those with a benign message of “expanding my territory” or “living my best life now” or “being driven by purpose.”
The “problem” comes in that Miller has thus left out the sign posts to help us “interpret” his book. And so we’re left to decide on our own. Why does Don Miller mention some of the things that he mentions? Like the pipe smoking. Or his pastor friend who swears. Or even brief descriptions that his neighborhood has lesbians in it.
As I see it, our choices are:
1. Don Miller is writing about his life. These things are in his life so they make the book.
2. Don Miller specifically mentions these things to make a point about his life as a Christian. That pipe smoking doesn’t mean you can’t have faith. That it’s possible to be a pastor and swear. That he’s willing to live in a neighborhood with lesbians rather than sequester himself from them.
3. Don Miller is mentioning them because they sound hip, dangerous, cool, etc.
If you think #3 is the reason, you probably won’t like the book. If you think #2 is the reason, you may not like the book, depending on how you feel about those issues. If you think it’s #1, you’re annoyed by this whole paragraph.
My take (and this just MY reading and my NOT knowing Donald Miller) is that all three decisions come into play. But for me, most of the book seemed #1 or #2. Only a few details seemed like they were mentioned merely for the “it/hip” factor.
And so it is with our own writing. Yes, we can throw a gay character into our novel. Yes, we can have a chaplain who sings bawdy drinking songs. Yes, we can have a character who knows a Sex on the Beach from a Slippery Nipple. But why? And if, too often, our answer is #3, our book is not worth the time we spend on it.
And thus we are done with Donald Miller. Go read the book.