Posted by: Alex | July 18, 2011

Christianity vs. Christian Spirituality in Blue Like Jazz

First up in our discussion of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is a dichotomy Miller makes between “Christianity” or the “Christian religion” on the one hand and “Christian Spirituality.”  Miller associates the former with institutionalized, traditional Christianity and the latter with a style of living which is informed by faith and the gospel.  Miller ties this in partially with his own story and experience, which has given him a somewhat negative view of institutional Christianity.  So, for instance, take this part of his story:

It also confused me that some people would look at parts of the Bible but not the whole thing. They ignored a lot of obvious questions. I felt as if Christianity, as a religious system, was a product that kept falling apart, and whoever was selling it would hold the broken parts behind his back trying to divert everybody’s attention… I couldn’t give myself to Christianity because it was a religion for the intellectually naive. In order to believe Christianity, you either had to reduce enormous theological absurdities into children’s stories or ignore them. The entire thing seemed very difficult for my intellect to embrace. Now none of this was quite defined; it was mostly taking place in my subconscious.

In another place Miller writes about how, as we grow older, we become less and less inclined to believe fantasies (despite our incredible draw to the Harry Potter stories), and frequently Christianity is seen as simply that: a fantasy which we outgrow.  In contrast to this, Miller says that he found that

Christian spirituality was not a children’s story. It wasn’t cute or neat. It was mystical and odd and clean, and it was reaching into dirty. There was wonder in it and enchantment. Perhaps, I thought, Christian spirituality really was the difference between illusion and magic.

Something about this story struck Miller deeply and convinced him that belief was not as naive as he might have originally thought and led him to embrace it openly:

For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained.

Now this may seem all well and good for Miller, but we should ask two questions: First, is the distinction he is making between “Christianity” and “Christian Spirituality” a real distinction or a word game?  Second, is there any substance besides his own experience or feeling behind Miller’s rejection of institutionalized Christianity?

Relevant to our second question is this passage:

My dislike for institutions is mostly a feeling, though, not something that can be explained. There are upsides to institutions, of course. Tradition, for example. The corridors at Harvard, rich with history, thick with thought, the availability of good, hot Starbucks coffee at roughly thirty locations within five miles of my home. And what about all those jobs? Without the corporate machine, where would people work? I suppose we need them. The institutions. The corporations. But mostly I don’t like them. I don’t have to like them either. It’s my right. I don’t like church, either, for the same reason.

Miller writes in other places about Christian Spirituality as something individual (as opposed to a corporate institution).  Take for instance, this metaphor, from the end of the book and from which the book takes its title:

The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a music birthed out of freedom. And that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality. A music birthed out of freedom. Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands.

Whether or not we agree with Miller’s individualism here, we can at least grant him the virtue of consistency.  He doesn’t take his rejection of institutions to be universal but to be his individual answer.  He doesn’t like institutions, but he recognizes their place and purpose for others (and for himself).  Similarly, he recognizes the role of institutional Christianity, and as his story progresses his rejection of it is tapered off a bit by his experience with his own church, Imago Dei.  So this is not a call for everyone to do what Miller is doing, but an argument that for those who feel as Miller does there is an alternative to more traditional/conservative forms of Christianity.  One potential issue that I see here is that there is, it would seem, an assumption in more traditional/conservative forms of Christianity that such alternatives are necessarily wrong or invalid because said traditional/conservative form of Christianity is the “universal”/only acceptable form.  Miller’s presentation of such an alternative as an “individualized” mode of embracing Christianity seems to be an explicit rejection of such universal claims, and in so far as that goes it may be subtly asserting that Miller’s individualized view of Christianity is itself “universal.”  As someone who has often seen individualism in religious thought as problematic, this is perhaps a bit troubling.

So three questions to leave you with:

  1. Is Miller making a distinction that is real?  Or is he playing a word game by separating Christianity and Christian Spirituality?
  2. Does Miller have good reasons for rejecting institutional Christianity as he does?
  3. Is Miller’s individualism problematic?  Is Miller asserting that how we express the Christian faith, whether in a traditional mode or in a non-traditional one, is really up to us with all such expressions being valid?

What do you think?

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