Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have…
On Thursday I got my bonus from Charles River, which surprised me because I didn’?t expect anything. CRL doesn’?t seem like a bonus-giving company. Before handing me the check, my boss spent five minutes explaining how we hadn’?t reached our financial goals for the year, and that was why the bonus was smaller than it should be. I opened it up and found a check for $80. When I got home that evening, I received a letter from the Nature Conservancy, reminding me that my membership was about to expire, and would I please continue to support them with a $75 donation to renew my membership? –which seemed too good of timing to be coincidence, so I gave them the whole $80.
A while ago Mom sent me Blue Like Jazz, one of those books that, like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the Purpose Driven Life, or The Prayer of Jabez, reached almost unimaginable (often unwarranted) popularity among many Christians and which, as a result, I avoided diligently. Most popular Christian books rank in the bottom 10% of writing quality, and content quality leads writing quality only by a small fraction. Often much of it sounds smarmy and ridiculous, like Who Moved My Cheese? with Jesus thrown in as a sop to the religious crowd. Such consistently poor writing makes me wonder if something about the genre of Christianity itself tends to lend itself to dumbed-down messages and trite cliches.
So when Mom sent me Blue Like Jazz with the comment that she had found it interesting and worth reading, I admit I shuddered a bit. It’?s pretty rude not to read a book sent you by your mother, so I let it sit around for a while and, after steeling myself, started reading it.
As I expected, the writing quality itself grated on my nerves and interfered with my receiving the message. The author, Donald Miller, uses short phrases and repetitive sentences to make a point — a valid style, sure. But he never deviates from this style, consistently employing simplistic structure, phrasing, and word choice in such a way that a six-year-old could read and understand this book. It felt, as I had feared, that he wrote for the stupid masses, people who read newspapers written at a fifth-grade level and expected all writing to come served mushy and easy to swallow, like baby food. Still, I persisted, because Mom loaned me the book and I knew she would want to talk about it some time.
This is what I found, once I adjusted to the writing style: Donald Miller has thought through Christianity a great deal, and he discusses many of the major struggling-points in faith in a refreshingly honest way. The following passages I found particularly telling (in the order they appear in the book; some are fragmentary because they come from larger sentences. Deal with it):
I do buy the idea that we are flawed, that there is something in us that is broken. I think it is easier to do bad things than good things. (17)
It is hard for us to admit we have a sin nature because we live in this system of checks and balances. If we get caught, we will get punished. But that doesn’?t make us good people; it only makes us subdued. …The genius of the American system is not freedom; the genius of the American system is checks and balances. Nobody gets all the power. Everybody is watching everybody else. It is as if the founding fathers knew, intrinsically, that the soul of man, unwatched, is perverse. (18)
The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest. …More than my questions about the efficacy of social actions were my questions about my own motives. Do I want social justice for the oppressed, or do I just want to be known as a socially active person? (20)
The problem in the universe lies within me. (21)
If there was a guy who liked being himself and didn’?t want to be anybody else, that guy would be the most different guy in the world and everybody would want to be him. (29)
And that’?s when I realized that believing in God is as much like falling in love as it is like making a decision. Love is both something that happens to you and something you decide upon. …I have come to think that belief is something that happens to us too. Sure, there is some data involved, but mostly it is this deep, deep conviction… this idea about this thing, and it really isn’?t an option for it to be about something else. (104)
…if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. (107)
Even our beliefs have become trend statements. We don’?t believe things because we believe them anymore. We only believe things because they are cool things to believe. (107)
What I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do. (110)
Jesus did not mix his spirituality with politics. (123)
Yet another thing about the churches I went to: They seemed to be parrots for the Republican Party. Do we have to tow the party line on every single issue? Are the Republicans that perfect? I felt like, in order to be part of the family, I had to thing George W. Bush was Jesus. And I didn’?t. I didn’?t think that Jesus really agreed with a lot of the policies of the Republican Party or for that matter the Democratic Party. I felt that Jesus was a religious figure, not a political figure. (131)
This is one of the main reasons I walked away. I felt like, by going to this particular church, I was a pawn for the Republicans. Meanwhile, the Republicans did not give a crap about the causes of Christ. (132)
I think our society puts too much pressure on romantic love, and that is why so many romances fail. Romance can’?t possibly carry all that we want it to. (152)
Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body. (152)
I think money might own me if I had too much of it. (193)
[Donald Miller:] “But I need money for rent.”
[His pastor:] “You also need to trust God.”
“I know. I just think it would be easier to trust God if I had extra money to trust Him with.”
“That would not be faith, then, would it?”
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 a formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder. (205)
When I lost my self-consciousness I gai
ned so much more. I gained an interest in people outside my own skin. (209)
The real issue in the Christian community was that it was conditional. You were loved, but if you had questions, questions about whether the Bible was true or whether America was a good country or whether last week’s sermon was good, you were not so loved. (214)
The problem with Christian culture is that we think of love as a commodity. We use it like money. (218)
Nobody will listen to you unless they sense that you like them. (220)
That sums up most of what I got out of the book. I left out vast swaths on grace, God, etc. because I forgot a pencil when I read that part. I don’t know if I’d recommend you read Blue Like Jazz; that would depend on how easily you could ignore the writing style (clearly, I had trouble with that requirement) to actually get to the interesting meat of the book. It did leave me with some ideas to think about, and you can’t ask more from a book than that.
2 thoughts on “Bonus and Book Discussion”
I read this a few years ago and after reading your favorite passages I want to read it again. I think you’re pretty hard on writers. Being a writer yourself, I guess that makes sense. I’d probably see more wrong with someone’s quilting than a non-quilter would. For most of us, if the writing touches us, we don’t analyze it any further than that.
i like that book because it just sounds like someone talking. i have a friend who is a classically trained violinist and i was discussing with him once how classical music seems to fussy, too over my head, to really ever get any kind of appreciation out of me. but i think the same thing is true of all areas. the form speaks to the level of education. my mother gets really excited when she’s done a simple division problem correctly, but she lacks the ability to see why anyone might find satisfaction in calculus.