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FIRST-PERSON: Blue Like Jazz & Berri Blue Jell-O

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Donald Miller’s book, “Blue Like Jazz,” is generating a lot of excitement among young Christians and those who want to connect with them and their lost counterparts in the culture. It’s the autobiographical musings of a young man who found his way from the “fever swamps” of “fundamentalism” to the “high country” of non-judgmental relationism. It disarms with a tone of candor and self-deprecation. There are nuggets of insight and gratifying quotes here and there, and your heart goes out to a fellow in his struggles. Up to a point, that is. In the end, I found the book to be a dreadful (though canny) mess.

Miller is intrigued with jazz, its “freedom” and “lack of resolution.” Actually, the improvisational freedom of jazz operates within boundaries and gives way to clear resolution. Besides, I think “Blue Like Jazz” is more nearly blue-like in the following ways:

— Blue like Blue States.

Most are familiar with the map of America showing the breakdown between Bush and Kerry voters, the former in red, the latter in blue. Though he asserts that Jesus didn’t mix spirituality with politics, Miller repeatedly hammers the Republicans, calling them “wackos” and such. If there is any doubt about his politics, visit his website, which provides approving links to moveon.org and aclu.org.

— Blue like Blue-Light Special.

Used to be, when K-Mart wanted to stir some purchasing excitement, they turned on a rotating blue light to draw shoppers to a hot item. Miller is a marketing specialist, too. During liberal Reed College’s annual debauchery week, he set up a confessional booth, where he astonished and disarmed students by confessing Christianity’s sins, such as the Crusades. In an interview found on the Internet, he says you mustn’t find fault with others, just with yourself; otherwise, they won’t listen. (Note to the Apostle Peter: “Go easy on ‘Repent ye, therefore, and be converted that your sins may be blotted out.” It may have worked at Pentecost, but today you’ll only turn the lost off.)

— Blue like Blue Blood.

The expression “blue blood” comes from the days when rich people had very white skin, through which their veins appeared blue. This was in contrast with the skin of the peasants, which was tanned because they worked in the fields. Miller is proud that he has distanced himself from unsophisticated people such as would hand out tracts at the country fair, picket an abortion clinic, knock on doors with the two evangelistic questions (“Have you come to the place in your life …?”), man the flip charts in backyard Bible clubs, and sing “There’s Power in the Blood” at the top of their lungs at a city-wide crusade.

— Blue like Berri Blue Jell-O.

He demeans politics and then pickets President Bush. He is impatient with war metaphors in the Bible, and then he wars against political and biblical conservatives. He condemns judgmentalism, but then praises John the Baptist for calling the Pharisees “snakes.” He’s bigger on feelings than reason, and it’s anybody’s guess where those will take him. He’s indifferent to the homosexual agenda and abortion but zealous for tithing. Go figure. He’s everywhere. He’s nowhere. Like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

— Blue like Black and Blue.

Unfortunately, Miller had a disappearing, beer-swigging lout for a dad. He, in “Wild at Heart” context, has found and displays his “father wound.” A little bit of this can go a long way, but there’s no denying its popularity. Still, I think we do much better when we pick up on the perspective of Peggy Noonan, commenting on the movie, “Blackhawk Down:” She recalled the wounded soldier who, when asked to drive out of an ambush, exclaimed, “I’ve been shot!” His leader responded, “We’ve all been shot! Get in and drive.” Yes, we’ve all been shot. Let’s not dwell on it and use it to validate whatever we’re up to.

— Blue like Working Blue. Comedians know that the cheap way to a laugh is to say something raw. Miller is proud to announce that he and his buddies yell profanities at each other when they play NFL Blitz. Elsewhere, he finds those who put down cussing quaint. This sort of thing is fetching to some.

— Blue like Pabst Blue Ribbon. At book’s end, he thanks establishments for their good coffee and beer. That’s not helpful for impressionable young Christians seeking to find their way.

— Blue like Blue Ice. Now and then airplanes from the Coast will accidentally dump a slug of frozen, waste, blue ice on flyover country. As Miller flies over the work of theologians and ethicists who have struggled to defend the faith (whether the inerrancy of Scripture or the sanctity of life in the womb), he dumps dismissal on them, calling their formulations “math” or “reason,” while the true faith is gloriously “absurd.” “Heads up,” James Dobson (whom he vilifies by name elsewhere), Carl Henry, etc.

— Blue like Blue Screen.

Weathermen work in front of a blue screen, gesturing in the general direction of something without its really being there. I get that impression when he talks about slamming Christianity for the sake of outreach. I think he’s just basically enjoying himself. It would be more impressive if, after discovering that wearing white patent leather shoes and playing the accordion at the Rotary Club won many to the Lord, Miller tried it. Or maybe he could set up a confessional booth at the Republican National Convention and confess his sin of cooperation with political cohorts who favor partial-birth abortion. Now that would be impressive evangelism.

Our generation has struggled to defend inerrancy against the incursions of academic “higher criticism,” “demythologizing,” “neo-orthodoxy,” and the like. We’ve also fought (yes, “fought,” as in “fight the good fight,” wearing the “armor of God”) to restore biblical perspectives on sexuality and the family in a culture which has lost its bearings on these matters. Alas, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not inherited, but must be embraced, exemplified, and defended in each generation.

I’ve wondered from where the next dangerous attack on inerrancy would come. The best I can tell, it won’t be from Rudolph Bultmann, Harry Emerson Fosdick and John Cobb this time, but from some “emerging church” guru saying, “lighten up.”

A British politician once observed that if you weren’t liberal before you were 30, you had no heart, but if you were liberal after age 30, you had no brains. Donald Miller is now in his thirties. It’s time.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

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  • Mark Coppenger