I've heard a lot of noise over the last year or so about Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz, and I've seen quite a diverse range of opinions. Some have hailed it as one of the best books they've ever read. Others have praised Miller's ability to raise important questions that Christians might often fail to address. On the flipside, many critics have vilified the book's lack of theological precision, often by employing that catch-all smear (in certain circles, at least) "Emergent." The author's frequent criticism of Republican politics have certainly not endeared him to ultra-conservative Christians, either. Now, I've learned the hard way not to accept a critique of an author without actually reading primary sources. And, I had actually read and enjoyed Miller's Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance a few years back. So, I decided to pick up a copy of Blue Like Jazz to see what was really going on.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. Miller writes well, his prose being both engaging and conversational. I also enjoyed his sometimes-sarcastic and usually-bizarre sense of humor (that probably says a lot about me). As other reviews have noted, by the end of the book I felt like Don is someone with whom I'd like to sit and talk about various and sundry topics. Not that we'd agree on everything, but we'd probably have a good time. The book is hard to categorize, but it's basically a memoir of Miller's developing understanding of his Christian faith. At times the flow of the book is disjointed, but then again, this keeps with the tone of the book: I doubt Don would give his life story in a single narrative if we were talking at the pub/coffeehouse/IHOP. If there is a single underlying theme of the book, it is probably the realization that Christianity is an active and multi-faceted relationship with God, not to be confused with a mere external legalism.
Miller brings out many good things throughout the book, including a strong emphasis on God's grace. The book begins with his understanding that life is often hard and full of bad stuff, and Don quickly realizes that he is part of the problem. This affirmation of the world's fallen state leads into explorations of how Christians can mistakenly identify the Christian subculture as God's solution to creation's problems, and here Miller offers his own experiences growing up in a quasi-legalistic church environment. Ultimately, he struggles under the weight of his convictions (many of them self-imposed) and awakens to the reality of God's grace in spite of man's imperfection. Miller is very candid about his shortcomings, and this makes grace shine all the more. Of course, his spiritual journey doesn't end here, and the book relates a great number of other good observations on Christian faith, such as the need for a sense of wonder in our worship of God, as well as the absolute necessity for believers to live in community with each other.
I did have a few quibbles, though. As mentioned, the book tends to ramble at times. Also, Miller can sometimes overplay his criticisms of the Christian subculture. There is certainly a need for critical examination at times. But on occasion, Miller's slams (especially his political ones) seem incongruous with the immediate context of the story. In a few places, he focuses on instances where his non-Christian friends have treated him in a much more "loving" manner than those within the church, and he makes some good points about how God's common grace is manifested in believers and non-believers alike. Granted, these anecdotes should definitely serve as an exhortation for Christians to examine whether we are really loving others, especially our brothers and sisters in the faith (and there's always room for improvement). But I think Miller downplays (he does acknowledge it, though) the serious repercussions of unbelief, even among those who show love better than believers do. There are probably some other gripes, but overall, they would not prevent me from recommending the book to others. My friend's pastor often gives this book to college students to read, if only to "stir the pot" and get them thinking about the issues Miller raises. I think that's probably the book's greatest strength: Miller may not have the best answers (I'm sure he wouldn't claim to), but the questions he raises along his journey are ones worth discussing.
After finishing Blue Like Jazz, I felt compelled to re-read Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance as a refresher. As I had remembered, this is a pretty good book, and overall, I like it a bit more than BLJ. PATAOVM details Don's roadtrip with his friend Paul as they journey from Texas to Oregon. The narrative of the book is much more structured than BLJ, as it gives a linear re-telling of their trip interspersed with Don's philosophical musings on the people and places they encounter along the way. I think Don has some really good insights on the importance of truly knowing God and seeing Him at work in all circumstances. Plus, a major part of their trip is a visit to the Grand Canyon, and that's always pretty cool. Miller has released a re-edited version of the book under the title Through Painted Deserts, which I have not read. My understanding is that the revision contains some additional reflections on the trip, as well as some prose and anecdotes that are less "sanitized" than the original. Maybe I'll have time to read the new one. Some day.