Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Blue Like Jazz
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
© 2003 Donald Miller
In addition to my comparative religion and philosophy studies, I'm also trying to get a handle on why one religion in specific -- Christianity -- matters so much to people. I can appreciate Christianity just fine when people approach Jesus as a moral teacher, but when they start gushing about his dying for them, I'm lost. I don't see the appeal. Christian theology on this point seems to me to be utterly arbitrary: "Okay, there was this one time when this guy named Adam disobeyed God, and got all of his relatives utterly cursed with this thing called sin. It separates us from God. But then, thousands of years later, God made a little love-child with a human and this guy let himself be killed so that you can live free of sin." And I blink. If you tell me that the guys who died in Vietnam died for my right to vote, I'll disagree but know where you're coming from. But this sin thing? It's arbitrary. You have to force belief onto a series of statements: one, that everyone is doomed to be a bad guy: two, that this is because of some taint called sin: three, that this sin can be dealt with by killing innocent beings: and that four, that Jesus was utterly innocent and was thus the ultimate sacrifice and his willing death ended sin's power over people. I cannot force belief. I cannot make myself believe in arbitrary things even if I want to -- and in this case, I certainly don't want to. Now, if Christianity actually freed people from sin, this might give some credence to what they're saying -- but as far as I can tell, in all the lives I've observed first-hand and read about, in all the various approaches and interpretations, people who believe in Christ's power over sin and who believe they are personally filled with his spirit still do bad things. Where's the power? In the religion I was raised in, getting the "holy ghost" meant that you had this source of living sin-free inside you, that if you worked at it you could live a perfect life -- but only through work. None of the forced beliefs made sense to me, and I was really concerned about the whole "most everyone is going to be tortured in a fiery pit forever" thing, so I said screw it and left organized religion. That's when I realized I could change my life myself -- so I became a self-empowered humanist and I've flourished ever since. But -- in the past year I've found myself being able to get inside the minds of religious people and see what we have in common, and why we're different, and I'm curious to see if I can get inside the head of a Saviour-Christ-believing Christian to understand. That's what brings me to Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.
Its title is a prelude to the things that come: it's confusing. Author Donald Miller isn't actually nonreligious. He's nondenominational, which means that he has his own fundamentalist but fluid grasp on Christianity. The book is the story of his life, arranged topically and written in a manner that seems freeform. Although I've read "stream of consciousness"-type literature before and disliked it, I liked this: his writing style seemed to be quirky, fun, and lively. It's like you're listening to this guy talk to you, and he's just leaning back against the wall in a cafe or restaurant and chatting about whatever comes to his mind -- with some topical restrictions. He has spent his entire life grappling with what Christianity means to him, and the book is at times frustrating, insightful, muddled, mystical, uplifting, and funny. I suppose it's like people: there are few people who you or I can say we like everything about. This book is that way, because it's a look inside his head -- and sometimes I liked what I saw there, and sometimes I didn't. I despaired for him when he inflicted dogma on himself -- fretting about having sex or drinking beer or not reading the Bible -- and I was utterly confused when he started gushing about Jesus fixing his "Sin nature" -- but there were times when I'd laugh or sit back with a smile because he'd made me laugh. I can't understand the idea of having a personal relationship with a metaphysical being, but I do get thinking about values, and I do understand his thoughts about dealing with difficult people, because that's something I think a lot about. Do I recommend the book to you? I don't know, because I can't get a firm handle on how I feel about the book. I know I like reading what other people have to say about it: I know this is the kind of book I'd like to hear people discuss and argue over, because it is a book about life and dealing with the meaning of it. What Miller says, you might not like -- but then again you may. Both conservative Christians and former-Christians-turned-skeptic who I've read from dislike the book, and they both despair over its popularity among young Christian evangelicals. One of their particular beefs is that Miller doesn't take Christianity seriously enough, but I disagree. His youth group doesn't get together to have pizza -- they go serve soup at homeless shelters. They try to live their lives with love, which I think is admirable, because it's easy to talk about but hard to do. In this line of thought they criticize him for hand-waving away logical arguments against Christian dogma: as he says, the intellectual arguments about Christianity ceased to be about God a long time ago, so he doesn't bother. While I understand why someone would think that wrong, I also suspect that religions are to the spiritual more about inspiration -- not truth. Miller's book is very much open to interpretation, I think.
Click here for a google search including the skeptical and conservative Christian viewpoints I mentioned earlier. I read the first, third, and fourth entries.