I’ve just finished Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. After the long two-month slog through a half dozen Henry James novels, this was a two-day sail through refreshing waters. It’s an easy read, but no less provocative or worthwhile for that.
Many of you are probably already familiar with this book. In many ways, it could very well be the Official Gen X&Y Handbook on Everything That Sucks About Christianity But Is Cool About Jesus. And I’m sympathetic, even though I’m stuck back in Gen W. There is a lot to criticize about an evangelical culture that has somehow spewed forth Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson, not to mention WWJD fashion accessories and Witness Wear t-shirts and Dieting for Jesus books, and that often seems more characterized by what it hates than what it loves.
So Miller comes with an axe to grind, but he does so in such a winsome, funny, and self-deprecating way that it’s hard not to like him. I greatly appreciated his honesty and authenticity. In true postmodern fashion, the book is not so much a structured narrative as it is an extended series of blog entries. Miller offers chapters on various theological topics (Faith, Grace, Belief, Church) and chapters on theological topics disguised as non-theological topics (Work, Magic, Romance). And he simply tells his story. In that sense, Blue Like Jazz is very similar to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies or any of Frederick Buechner’s Theological Lexicons (Whistling in the Dark, Wishful Thinking) – snapshots of a life, taken at various points in time, that add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. And although Miller isn’t the writer that Lamott or Buechner is, he’s much more in tune with the Nouveau Deadheads and Slackers who are totally turned off by dry orthodoxy, pomp, and expository teaching. It’s all about telling your story, dudes. And hey, I’m down with that. :-) There’s a reason I have a blog, too.
I tend to be surrounded by Nouveau Deadheads for Jesus these days, so it’s interesting and instructive for me to see how Miller’s ideas have played out in the life of my church. One of Miller’s consistent themes is that the evangelical church, as a whole, has not done a very good job of loving people. There is a lot of lip service given to the concept, but when it comes down to it, there is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure within evangelical Christendom to ensure that church members conform to certain rules, expectations, and overarching beliefs, many of which have nothing to do with Jesus at all. Republicans are good; Democrats are Satanic, or, on particularly benevolent days, at least not as good. The most important social issues of the day are abortion and homosexuality. The world and its culture is evil, so you must avoid it, and live in the parallel universe of Christian books, films, and music, which read and look and sound almost but not quite like what you’d encounter in the world, but with wholesome, sanitized messages. Those who hew the party line are loved. Those who do not are tolerated, prayed for, smiled at in that condescending “one day God will illumine your mind and you will see the light” way. They are anything but loved. They are, in fact, judged.
Miller hits this topic hard in his book, and I have to say that he is on target. I have never felt comfortable with this way of thinking, ever, probably because I’ve often been the recipient of the condescension. I eventually figured out that “Fuck you, brother” probably wasn’t the best response, and that it betrayed the kind of person I wanted God to make me. But I did get weary of being the token “liberal’ (if you know me, you know how absurd such a label really is), worldly, politically-deluded rock ‘n roll libertine. So, quite possibly in order to survive and remain a Christian who isn’t totally given over to cynicism, I hang out with a bunch of escapees from evangelical groupthink. For the record, I don’t think the Democrats are the answer. I know for a certainty that George W. Bush is not the answer to anything except the “President Who Hoodwinked the Nation” clue in Jeopardy. I think Jesus is the answer.
And I think I’m a part of an imperfect, messy church where the default response is to love. It doesn’t happen all the time. It certainly doesn’t happen all the time in my own heart, either. There’s a lot of inner reconstructive surgery that still needs to happen. But, by and large, I see a lot of very different people being welcomed and loved, regardless of the baggage that they tote into the proceedings. And make no mistake. When you operate that way you’re likely to collect a lot of baggage, and you don’t have to dig very far under the surface to find all sorts of brokenness and dysfunction. But I’d still rather operate that way, or at least have it as the goal of operating that way, than to set up the unspoken Evangelical Litmus Test and politely do the Shun for Christ routine that I see in many churches.
So Miller’s book brought all that to the surface. It made me laugh. It made me uncomfortable when I thought about the many ways I don’t love. And it made me very thankful for a funky, messy church that wants to love people. Really. For those of you up for a good, stimulating read, I can’t recommend it highly enough.