Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. By Donald Miller. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003. 256 pages. Softcover, $14.99.
THE EMERGING WITNESS
Many Southern Baptist pastors have labored hard to bring their churches into the "contemporary" age. As some of these pastors rounded the final bend of outfitting their sanctuaries with theatre seats, plasma screens, and drums, they were greeted only by news that the relevant church had left the contemporary building. The relevant church is now "emerging," they have been told—it is post-modern, post-contemporary, post-traditional, post-denominational, post-liberal/conservative, and a host of other post-s.
The "emerging church" is concerned (among other things) with relating Christianity to the outside world. They are disturbed with a certain "showiness" and "institutionalism" in contemporary churches that panders, they believe, to a consumerist, individualistic culture. They see a place for quietness, reverence, art, liturgy, and tradition in worship. They believe that Christians have made a grave mistake in withdrawing from their culture to live in religious ghettos. They thus want to re-infiltrate the arts, the bars, and the movie and music studios. At the same time, they deplore consumer-based Christian culture, "cheesy" Christian art and music, and any form of what they perceive to be legalism or politicized Christianity. The marks of a vibrant church are not doctrinal orthodoxy or aggressive evangelism, they say, but authenticity and community. The recovery of authenticity and community will make the gospel relevant to the disenfranchised, postmodern culture.
Perhaps no book better encapsulates the emerging church's presentation of Christianity to unbelievers than Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Miller believes that the "Americanization" of the gospel, rather than making it more palatable to the next generation of Americans, is actually turning them away. Expressing the gospel in "non-religious" terms, Miller believes, is the only way to attract unbelievers to the true gospel. Christianity is not a program, lifestyle, or creed, he says. It is not a linear formula that can be used to prove truth or provide simple answers to your needs. Christianity is like jazz music in that it doesn't neatly "resolve." In order to "get it," you have to experience it.
I loved reading Miller's book and would recommend it to almost anyone—Miller's wit, sincerity, and candor make its pages a delight. I giggled all the way through it. My copy is ruthlessly underlined and earmarked, and I have carried the book about town reading delightful paragraphs to my wife, friends, and complete strangers. I was moved, challenged, and encouraged. Miller's book encapsulates the best of what the emerging church has to add to our gospel witness. But Miller's book also demonstrates its weaknesses, about which I would like to briefly comment.
The Irrationality of Faith
Miller's defense of Christianity to unbelieving friends conspicuously avoids any evidential or logical foundation. An unbelieving friend (p. 52) tells Miller that she doesn't understand why he believes in God or why he insists she must also. He responds by saying, "I don't know why, either . . . but I believe in God, Laura. There is something inside me that causes me to believe" (p. 53). He then compares it to belief in Peter Pan or the Tooth Fairy (p. 55), or the feeling of love, or the experience of beauty (p. 54). It is "feeling"—a supra-logical sensation of beauty—that is the basis of his belief. He further explains that this is not a belief that you can choose, but one that seems to choose you. Furthermore, claiming logical or evidential surety comes across as arrogant, Miller believes, and a turn-off to those outside the faith. (Miller recently concluded an otherwise compelling presentation of the gospel he gave at UNC-Chapel Hill with the deflating statement, "Well, that's what I believe . . . for now.")
It is true that faith is a blind-eye-opening experience, comparable to waking up from a dream (Ephesians 5:14), and one indeed hard to explain. Yet, the Bible is replete with reasons and "proofs" of the veracity of the gospel (Acts 1:3; Hebrews 2:3-4). Paul and the Apostles did not base their faith on goose bumps or an unexplained surge of "feeling" like love or hope or indigestion. Instead, they pointed to the evidence of fulfilled prophecy and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Acts 4:13; 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Some people chose to believe the "many infallible proofs," others did not.
It was Kant and the other fathers of modernistic philosophy who first banished Christianity from the objective realm of reason to the subjective realm of feeling and aesthetics. Postmodernism, the stepchild of modernism, accepted this distinction, as does Miller in his defense of Christianity. But it is simply not consistent with the New Testament presentation of truth.
The Banishment of Religion from the Public Square
Miller next chastises conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who have turned Christianity, he believes, into a political platform, self-righteously pontificating about the evils of abortion, homosexuality, and other selected societal ills. He charges the modern church with Pharisaism, caring more about the Law than they do about people.
Certainly, Miller's observation has a measure of truth. But does it apply to all working for justice in the public square? In a day when so many religious worldviews are trying to set the standards for public morality, why should the gospel be excluded? Can we say that we are truly loving our fellow man if we allow the destructiveness of sin to go unchecked in our societal institutions? God has not compartmentalized His world so that His truth applies only within the church. If we love this society, we cannot simply ignore what is happening in its institutions, for "righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people."
Legalistic About Not Being Legalistic
Miller further criticizes Christians who, he believes, have turned Christianity into a set of rules, such as abstention from alcohol, various movies and TV, a certain type of dating, etc. Such legalism is a betrayal of the gospel and a stumbling block to those outside the faith.
Miller is, of course, correct that Christianity is not a set of rules imposed from without, but a righteousness flowing from the new creation within. But it is not having "standards of righteousness" which makes one legalistic, but the attitude with which those standards are held. I am certain Miller has some standards and principles he lives by. Miller probably doesn't wear a thong in public, nor approve of his pastor's wife doing so. Standards, even if low, inevitably form when one applies his "love for Christ and people" to a specific area. Standards are "authentically Christian" so long as they remain just what they are—applications of faith and not the substance of the faith itself. In fact, Jesus said that loving God causes one to have a righteousness that is superior to even "that of the scribes and Pharisees."
Miller goes so far as to charge that popular Christian books are mostly "self-righteous conservative propaganda" (p. 188). I took a look at the Christian book best-seller list for the past decade, and I found such works on it as Desiring God; Power of a Praying Wife; Not Even a Hint; Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire; Wild at Heart; and Purpose-Driven Life. Which of these would Miller say is the "self-righteous conservative propaganda?" In all this I wonder if Miller isn't being a little self-righteous and judgmental about not being self-righteous and judgmental.
Christianity Without a Prophetic Voice
Miller, like many emerging church leaders, is sensitive to the alienation some in America feel toward the church. This alienation results from the fact that unsaved people are spoken of as "enemies" and proponents of offensive political positions, Miller says. Rather, unbelievers are mostly good people who love and hurt and are trying to make sense of life. "My pastors and leaders were wrong," he says, "liberals are not evil" (p. 215). He admonishes us to not use our ethics to judge people, but rather to heal them. He argues for the effectiveness of this approach by telling a story about an "apology tent" he and a few friends set up on the campus of Reed University. They wanted to apologize to unbelievers for the abuses of Christianity. It is the Christians who have been wrong, they said, and they asked for the unbelievers' forgiveness.
As I read this, I was touched by Miller's humility. But I couldn't help but wonder how Miller would feel about John the Baptist's brazen condemnation of Herod's adultery. I do not recall John setting up an apology tent to apologize for the abuses of Jewish traditionalism. Nor did Stephen dwell on the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira when witnessing to the resurrection before the Sanhedrin. Both spoke out, and their message was so unpopular that it cost them their lives. There are times to apologize, and our witness should embody the humility that characterizes deeply forgiven, fallible people. But is there not also a time that we are to "rebuke the works of darkness?" And must the two be mutually exclusive?
A Culturally-Conformed Christianity?
In the final analysis, I am concerned that in his attempt to relate Christianity to the world, Miller has let the postmodern world define Christianity for him. Blue Like Jazz is, in some ways, Christianity exactly the way our unbelieving society would like it: a belief system which lacks compelling evidence, not one that inflames the believer to tell others that Jesus is the only way of salvation. It is also a Christianity that keeps its nose out of politics, not one that would tell Herod that living with his brother's wife is adultery.
Institutionalized Christianity is not wrong simply because it is unpopular at Reed or any other university. In every age, including that of Jesus and the Apostles, Christians have been despised by the world. The world, under the sway of the wicked one, has always interpreted our convictions as judgmental and self-righteous. The world has always misconstrued our acts of charity and mocked our piety. I don't expect things ever to change.
Furthermore, if the church loses a clear, prophetic voice, will her message of salvation in Jesus have any relevance at all? The church I pastor, whose attendance consists of 25 percent college students, is consistently told that the popularity of our church on the college campus results from the fact that we don't avoid "the hard things," and that students know they will be told what the Word of God really says, regardless of its counter-cultural implications. One unbelieving, homosexual student told me recently that she was tired of being pandered to by people who told her what they thought she wanted to hear. She wanted to come to a place, she said, where she would not be singled out as a homosexual, but where she would still hear the truth spoken straightly to her.
In fact, my main concern with Miller and the emerging church is that what they prescribe as a corrective to evangelism doesn't seem to be working in their own lives and ministries. Miller admits that he is frustrated at his inability to effectively impact those around him. He confesses that he is a "sheep about sharing his faith" and that he only wins someone to Christ about every ten years. A question I must ask is, "Why would I want to learn about relating Christianity to the outside world from someone who, by his own estimation, has been frustratingly ineffective at doing so?"
And yet, Miller and other emerging church leaders have reminded us of the sweetness of grace and the authenticity of faith. He has reminded us that there is an audience not yet being effectively reached in our own country. He has helped us see that we can indeed be legalists, and that we have been wrong to abandon culture to live in Christian ghettos with our Shepherd's Guides, our radio stations, our lingo, and our Christian kitsch. He is right-on in his diagnosis of the problem, and in his insistence that we must take drastic measures to correct it. But his prognosis I do not find compelling. He seems to me to have thrown out the bathwater, the baby, and, in some ways, the institution of bathing altogether.
We will go forward by returning to those unchanging values that have propelled the gospel in every generation—the power of the Word, the priority of prayer, the exclusivity of the gospel, the certainty of the Resurrection, and the need for incarnational ministry. No new "emerging" or "postmodern" values need to be adopted—biblical ones are sufficient. They are, after all, authored by the most effective Fisher of Men of all time.
J. D. Greear
Lead Pastor of The Summit Church, Durham, NC
Originally published in SBC Life, (June 2005).