Like Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, Miller’s world portrayed in Blue Like Jazz is filled with quirky characters all drawn with deft minimalist strokes: Tony the Beat Poet and Tony the Trendy Writer, Mark the Cussing Pastor, Andrew the Protestor, Penny, Laura, all wind in and out of Miller’s thoughts about God, about Christian faith, about life.
Charming. That’s the effect Blue Like Jazz had on me. Given that Miller has sold well over three-quarters of a million of this title alone, I’m not the only one charmed.
What makes Miller so appealing? As he relates, Miller was always an evangelical, and too comfortably so. He became disenchanted with the faith, only to become re-enchanted. Blue Like Jazz is the story of his re-enchantment.
Apparently many evangelicals have experienced the same disenchantment but not the re-enchantment…until they read Miller. In Blue Like Jazz, he describes the self-pitying angst of every writer. “Writers don’t make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible….I hate not having money.” That complaint’s gone. All of his books sell very, very, very well. Not that I am envious, mind you. At least, not overly much, given that, as a writer, I make about a dollar. Miller makes about a million.
Laying envy aside for the moment, I do have a complaint, something that’s arisen after some of the charm has worn off. Miller’s stories are personal, and that is all to the good, but his faith is all too personal. Stepping back from Blue Like Jazz, one is not really sure where Miller is headed after the last page.
“For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system to be experienced but not explained. Christianity, unlike Christian spirituality, was not a term that excited me.”
I will not repeat the old canard, that mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism. Well, perhaps I will, but not without first taking what Miller says very seriously.
Miller believes that formulaic faith is dead. “Too much of our time is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe. By reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder….I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.”
Our problem, Miller contends, is that we want God “to make sense. He doesn’t. He will make no more sense to me than I will make sense to an ant.” Instead of holding on to a formula, we need to experience the wonder of a God who reaches down from above what we can understand, and loves us as his own.
That is the real drama of faith, and for Miller, apologetics means drama, replaying for others what God has done for us in our lives.
But I have two serious misgivings. First, as the inimitable Dorothy Sayers said, “the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comfortable sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
It is of course wrong to start worshipping the Creed rather than the living Christ, but that having been said, the Creed is the drama of Christ in condensed form, the fundamental story that must be told. In fact, the Creed was forged over the first Christian centuries precisely because all too many people calling themselves Christians were telling all too many different stories about redemption. The Creed is a formula, to be sure, but it is a formula for Holy Fire, the drama of redemption that continually sears away the world’s dross. If it has become formulaic, it is because we no longer see Christ through its lens but only the lens itself.
Secondly, apologetics always means both a confession of faith, and a defense of the faith. Accepting the merits of Miller’s story-telling approach, we can also wonder what defense they could possibly offer against the heavy-hitters of atheism, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christoper Hitchens, who are selling far more books than even Miller.
Miller doesn’t seem to care. “My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”
Well, I do. I really doubt that I’d ever convert Christopher Hitchens, but I do believe that I can do some good for others who have fallen under his spell, Christian and non-Christian alike. If his arguments are faulty or disingenuous, and I can point that out, then at least some might not reject Christianity because they’ve been hoodwinked by atheist apologetics. Miller must understand that if the theist walks away from such arguments, then the atheist will make his case loud and clear all by himself.