Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Nothing Blue Under the Sun

After reading Donald Miller's best-selling book on spirituality Blue Like Jazz, Dr. Mark T. Coppenger agrees with King Solomon, "There is nothing new under the sun." In a lecture sponsored by the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Feb. 22 Coppenger gave his thoughts on the dangers of Blue Jazz Spirituality.

Miller's book has held its place as's #1 best-seller in religion and spirituality, and has sold over 150,000 copies. It's chief attribute of praise is the style of writing. Most of those who have take the time to read this work exalt Miller as an accessible and delightful writer. The reason being, as Coppenger points out, it is "stream of conciousness writing." There is no easy form of writing than Blue Like Jazz, it requires very little of its writer and even less of its readers. So to say that Miller's book is a good read is to say very little about its worth at all, for anyone can write like this. Looking beyond the mere stylistic issues, however, Dr. Coppenger examines what exactly Blue Like Jazz is blue like, he lists 10 comparisons.

1) It's Blue like Blue States- After proudly defining his spirituality as void of politics Miller writes very politically. He not only ridicules and derides every form of republican he can think of, but his own personal website is nothing but a democratic party endoresment (contianing links to and the ACLU among other groups).

2) It's Blue like Blue Light Special- Miller is, esentially, a marketing guy. His desire is to avoid dialogue or talk that will shut people out. So in this vein he suggests that instead of being critical of others we should be more self-effacing. Certainly this is the way to get people to listen to you, but it's not really deep authenticity. It's the same sort of gospel light that Church Growth gurus have been spewing for years. This is a marked contrast with the apostle Peter, who at Pentecost called out sinners to repent- in other words he was critical.

3) It's Blue like Blue Blood- Blue blood refers to those individuals who were so wealthy that they never had need to work outside, they had slaves and servants to do the work for them. By staying inside all day, however, these people gained no tan and their blue veins shown through more fully than others. What Coppenger means by comparing Miller's work with blue blood is to say that for all his talk of anti-elitism, he is merely a different kind of elitist. If you're a West Coast character who just wants to hang out and be mellow he's "cool with you," but if you've got the field tan from working door to door with the gospel and preaching sin and doctrine then you're looked down upon.

4) It's Blue like Berry Blue Jello- The content of this book is like "nailing jellow to the wall," Coppenger says. "He's so all over the place. It's stream of conciousness theology." Whatever one feels is good, wherever you want to go with it is fine. It's everywhere and nowhere all at once.

5) It's Blue like Blue Oyster Cult- The book has the feel of the 60s. Listing all the favorite ideas and fads of the 60s Coppenger comes to conclude that while some good may have come out of the 60s to repeat it now is silly. And furthermore, he adds, "Appreciation of the 60s was not universal." There is a bit too much being assumed by Miller in this book, for one thing he supposes that everyone has this same sort of sentiment about a free, rebellious type of youth. It's just not true.

6) It's Blue like Black and Blue- The focus of the book seems to be Miller's scars and bruises. His 13 Paradigm shifts indicate very plainly that he's been hurt. The church has left him scarred and wounded. But "we've all been shot," Coppenger states as he goes on to give a rather humorous list of his own battles within fundamentalism. We could all lift our shirts and bear our scars, but what about the good that the church has done? By completely ignoring and almost flatly denying the good within the church Miller should bee seen as obsessive and hung up on these wounds.

7) It's Blue like Working Blue- "Working blue" is a phrase found often in comedic entertainment. It refers to those who throw in "dirty-talk" and obscenities for cheap laughs. Which is exactly what Miller does on several occassions, even mocking those who oppose swearing.

8) It's Blue like Paps Blue Ribbon- "I know far to many people who have been destroyed by alcohol to think it's funny," said Coppenger. Miller's familiarity with beer was an offense.

9) It's Blue like Blue Ice- Blue ice is the material from restrooms dumped, sometimes on peoples homes, from airplanes in flight. In this comparison Coppenger notes that Miller's book often dumps his own brand of blue ice on much that is beautiful about Christianity. He dumps on all theology, on the five solas, on pro-life, on doctrinal statements, essentially saying that all those who agree with these things should simply "lighten up". Russ Moore said Miller is like Schliermacher with a soul patch and Coppenger agrees. Schliermacher sold out the faith for a sort of romanticism, saying that spirituality is all about vague emotion an "feeling", it appears that Miller is echoing thos sentiments. To the author reason puts a straight jacket on spirituality, which of course is not the truth of Scripture or history. "It's existentialism," says Coppenger. Reminiscing about the battle for innearancy that took place both within the SBC and within Evangelicalism at large, Coppenger stated that if you put Miller and his crew in charge of seminaries we'd have the theologically liberal invasion all over again. "It's frightening," he concluded.

10) Finally it's Blue like a Blue Screen- You all know about the blue screens and green screens that weathermen use to do their reports. It looks like one thing but it is really all "smoke and mirrors". Miller's conclusions about "reaching people" may look like their are time tested and reasearched methods but, Coppenger states, they are merely "just doing whatever you want." Miller hates the church, and so his method of evangelism isn't antying sacrificial, it's not for the sake of the generation, bashing the church and being "honest about it's failures" is what he likes to do. The author speaks of the events at Reed College, where he went to school, and the sort of moral depravity that went on there. The school sponsores a love festival in which students run naked and get drunk and do all sorts of depraved things, and then they have a confessional booth in which Christians don't merely listen to the students confessions but in fact confess their own sins, things like "We're sorry for the Crusades." This is just the sort of method of evangelism that appeals to Miller, but it is not a method tested and researched for effectiveness. In developing his methodology in this way as well, Coppenger adds, Miller has typified the entire generation. What about those for whom "love festivals" don't appeal? To typify the generation in this way is to miss a large portion of it.

In conclusion Dr. Bruce Ware asked of Dr. Coppenger an explanation as to why this book is so loved even within conservatism. Coppenger wisely noted that Miller does indeed speak openly about the faults of the church.Today people want the truth beyond the politics and many think that Donald Miller is giving them that by peeling away this layer of trivial dogma. But, he noted, "Paul, Augustine, and Luther did it too, and yet they kept their theology. When Paul hit town there was a riot, when Don Miller hits town people just get mellow." And certainly many will appeal to the few good things in the book as a defense of its value. But Miller dables in heresy, saddles up next to known heretics and pagans, and beats down historical theology. And if all you've got to gain by reading this book is some "good writing," then it should be sufficent reason to leave it alone to say "anyone can write this way."

No there is nothing new under the sun, and while Miller mis-understands completely Jazz, he certainly seems to have a lot in common with other blues, but nothing with substance, and even less with Biblical support. So, Coppenger concludes, Blue Like Jazz is the same old soft-sell gospel light that has been re-packaged, and the church shouldn't buy.


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