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Review of Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003) and Searching for God Knows What (Nelson Books, 2004)

I don't know about anyone else, but as I try to read a book by someone about whom I know nothing, I constantly ask, "Who is this person?” and, "What does s/he REALLY do?"
As I approach cynical dotage, ever fewer writers of "religion/spirituality" books make it past those barrier questions. That label has mercifully kept certain books closed to me as a would-be gabby plane seatmate once cut off further conversation by introducing herself as an evangelist. I preferred a four-hour nap.
Then Donald Miller roars out of the Blue Like Jazz. He breaks down my suspicious walls and keeps me gobbling through Blue like a shrimp cocktail before the crab-stuffed sole of Searching for God Knows What. This second course demands more thoughtful chewing time, but by the time I finish it, Miller gets me kicking myself with a third question: "What cave have I been in that I never heard of him before?!"
Blue, a romping spiritual memoir, introduces readers to Miller, a sharp-penned spiritual pilgrim from Texas to Oregon's Reed College and points between. A free-lance chaplain on that secular campus and a speaker on other campi, he's always meeting all sorts of pot- and tobacco-smoking, beer-drinking, bed-hopping students, both straight and gay, whom most Evangelicals have learned from infant- or believer-baptism to shun likeBwell, like pot, tobacco, beer and gays.
Yet Miller loves them. Turns out they ask serious questions about Jesus, even if long ago they quit giving organized Christianity the time of day. Miller tells them stories about being friends with Jesus anyway, about learning to respect and love themselves because God loves them more. Of all things, a few of those people actually meet Jesus and start going to church. Didn't Jesus hang out with such low-life too, but catch it in the neck from organized religionists like me? Miller grinds axes and puts rough edges to our necks.
Searching continues where Blue stops, but with different pacing and method. Here Miller hones his rough edges, writing himself out of the trap of a one-book-wonder smart-aleck. Also written in the first person, Searching is a patient piece of lively applied systematic theology. Starting at a how-to-write-Christian-books conference he regrets attending, Miller takes well-deserved jabs at formulaic information-stuffed educational and evangelistic methods that fill the heads and kill the hearts of most victims. Yet it dawned on me four chapters into Searching that Miller largely framed this book with classical theological themes, using new metaphors and stories. 

Thus "Fine Wine" and "Impostors" form a classic "Prolegomena/Introduction to Theology" to most of the book's traditionally conceived, but imaginatively delivered chapters. "Feet of Trees," a chapter that elsewhere might have been called "Theology Proper," engagingly presents God as relationship-Maker and Seeker. Miller covers "Anthropology" in "Naked," a splendid rendering of God's loving work of creation and humans' place in it. "Children of Chernobyl" follows, in which Miller seasons his theological main course with perceptive references to pop culture and political history. When Miller juxtaposes U-2's Unforgettable Fire as a commentary on nuclear war and power politics to a description of repentant Robert McNamara in the Oscar-winning Fog of War, he creates a theodicy of rare power, reach and credibility.

Though later chapters do not bend to such traditional labels, the writing remains fresh and provocative. Miller pillories what he calls Evangelicalism's "Lifeboat Theory" of Christianity. That exclusivist and idolatrous model presents beautiful, over-achieving elites who supposedly please God enough to give them seats in his eternal lifeboat; meanwhile the world's suffering and outcasts fall overboard. Such elitism actually panders Christianity to the worldliest superficial beauty and transitory celebrity. Isaiah 53's lamb who was slain gets lost in the upscale society Evangelicals supposedly want to save while also buying into, as do most of those whom the slain lamb died to save. Without quoting 2 Peter 3:9, Miller reminds us that God really does not want anyone to perish. 

The most daring, albeit disconnected, part of Searching is the final chapter. Here Miller presents Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a commentary of God's search for humans searching for him. Is Juliet really a Christ-figure? Is Romeo a love-sick, Everyman God-searcher, ruined by human family feuds? I'm not so sure, but I want to keep reading and hope that Miller soons serve up a dessert as nourishing and cholesterol-free as the first two courses.

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