Donald Miller is active in a small but effective youth ministry program at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Miller has written two books on spirituality from a uniquely Generation X perspective. His latest book is Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Thomas Nelson.)
Why did you call your book Blue Like Jazz?
I was coming out of the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night, and I saw a man playing the saxophone. He kept his eyes closed the whole time. You could tell he just loved playing that music.
Before I saw him, I didn't like jazz music because I thought it didn't resolve. It didn't seem to go somewhere or have a conclusion. But I watched this guy playing the saxophone. He loved it so much that I found that I liked jazz music. It is not uncommon for people to see somebody else love something and it helps them love it themselves.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked this as a metaphor for my spiritual journey. I used to not like God because I felt he didn't have resolve. I couldn't figure him out. Faith seemed to contain a lot of paradoxes that I didn't want to hurt my brain thinking about.
Also, jazz music is just a language of the soul that you can't say with words. That's very much like Christian spirituality.
When Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France the other day, or when an athlete wins any big game, there's sort of a barbaric yelp, as Walt Whitman would say. We might think, "Well, he's not saying anything." But he's saying a lot. He's saying stuff you can't say with words.
Why did you write this book?
I saw this great interview on CNN with Tom Arnold, the comedian. He just wrote a book called, How I Lost 5 Pounds in 6 Years: An Autobiography. The interviewer asked him, "Why did you write this book?"
Arnold said—and my respect for him just went through the roof when I heard him say this—"The reason I wrote this book is because I am a broken person, and I do things to get people to love me."
And I thought, That's the reason I wrote my book.
I have this addiction. A lot of authors have it. It's called the Amazon addiction. I go online and check Amazon every day and see what my ranking is on my book. There's just this feeling of, Do I matter today? Do I care? And of course, that stuff is supposed to come from Christ, but in my life it doesn't. I wanted to talk about the tension in living in that place.
I would love to say that I wrote this book to glorify God. That may be the fifth or sixth reason down the list of reasons why I wrote this book. I wanted people to know who I am, and I wanted them to read it, and I wanted them to tell me they liked me anyway.
Why did you choose to write "nonreligious thoughts" about Christian spirituality?
I released a book a few years ago called Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance for an evangelical publishing company. In it, I wasn't completely honest. I wasn't true with the frustrations and fury that were mixed with my joy and the pleasure of knowing God. I just kind of released a really honest press release. When I decided to write another book, and more or less go for it and just say the complete truth.
I love to read books that are true—more than just intellectually true. I wanted to write a book that didn't hide faults. I think there's just something about writing for the Christian reader where you don't want to lead anyone astray. A lot of writers have felt this way. You don't want to talk about your own faults because you feel people need a role model.
My generation simply does not respond to that. As soon as you stop talking about your faults, we turn you off. We think, "This is not true. This isn't a true person." It's not a criticism against any other generation. It's just a matter of we just don't respond to it.
Are you this honest and telling in your personal relationships?
My dad left when I was a kid. I was just an infant so I never knew him. I'm 31 now and two months ago, when my mother read this book, was the first time that she and I had ever had a conversation about my father.
We're just a family that doesn't open up. It's funny because I'll open up in a book to the world and not to people in my own family because there's just this sense that's there's just things you don't talk about—especially weaknesses.
How did your childhood affect your views of God?
My church pastor growing up would refer to God as Father. I didn't know what that meant. A father to me meant nothing. It even fried me for a while because I imagined God wanting to move into the house and share a bed with my mom. I didn't like that idea.
Later the idea of God developed from being a Father to being like a slot machine. Praying was like pulling a lever and hoping that your cherries line up. I had really skewed ideas about God growing up, all the way into my late 20s.
One theme of the book and your own faith journey is learning to love a God that doesn't make sense. How did you get over that?
I was watching Oregon Public Broadcasting one night and there was a documentary about how penguins reproduce. They swim north until they hit ice. Then about 500 of them at a time climb up on the ice and slide along their bellies as far north as they can get. After several days they stop and gather around in circles.
They have this disco/find-the-mate thing and have penguin sex. The women lay an egg and the men take the eggs and they sit on them. The women leave for a solid month. The men stay there, hundreds of them, and sit on these eggs without food or water. The women come back on the day the eggs are hatched.
Then the women stay and take care of the baby penguins until they're strong enough to make the journey back to the ocean. Meanwhile, the men leave and go fishing to replenish themselves. I sat there thinking, "This is the most insane thing I have ever seen."
It's almost like magic that these penguins have this radar in their brains that tells them where to go and not just how to reproduce, but exactly when the eggs are going to hatch. The women come back on the day. I hear people all the time say, "You know, it's absurd the things you believe. Christianity is absurd."
Sure it's absurd, but there are 500 other very real things that are just as absurd. That kind of thinking really helped me in terms of embracing my faith.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life."
Also appearing on our site today:
Soul Language on Paper | Blue Like Jazz resonates with readers who grapple with the paradoxes of faith.
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