Posted by: Alex | July 20, 2011

Depravity in Blue Like Jazz

Our next topic of discussion in our reading of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller is the issue of depravity.  This is a very interesting discussion to me, and here was where I began to really identify with Miller’s book.  Though I have struggled with much of Reformed theology, the notion of depravity has always been a Reformed doctrine I have  accepted.  Miller seems to think similarly, and I would argue that in so far as this discussion goes we both fit broadly in the “Reformed” camp, even if we don’t accept many other traditional tenants of Calvinism.

Turning to Miller’s own words, Miller first brings up this notion in relation to his own experience:

I knew, because of my own feelings, there was something wrong with me, and I knew it wasn’t only me. I knew it was everybody. It was like a bacteria or a cancer or a trance. It wasn’t on the skin; it was in the soul. It showed itself in loneliness, lust, anger, jealousy, and depression. It had people screwed up bad everywhere you went-at the store, at home, at church; it was ugly and deep. Lots of singers on the radio were singing about it, and cops had jobs because of it. It was as if we were broken, I thought, as if we were never supposed to feel these sticky emotions. It was as if we were cracked, couldn’t love right.

As we can see from the last post and this one, experience is a major part of Miller’s theological system.  This may be something worth pondering as we move along (in our next post we will delve more deeply into this, but making note of it here).  But Miller does not confine the experience of his own depravity to himself, he thinks it has universal implications.  Is this valid?  Is Miller just a rotten apple making a bad logical step or is he on to something?  Miller addresses this very question by recounting a conversation with a friend about genocide in the Sudan and the stories of mass atrocities committed there.  Miller recalls a question his friend poses to him which gets at exactly the point of this discussion:

“I just want to know what makes those guys over there any different from you and me. They are human. We are human. Why are we any better than them, you know?”

This question is pretty difficult to answer, I think.  What stops us from having a mass genocide happening here in the States?  Actually, if you look at the crime rates in some of our cities, you might wonder if we aren’t having a mass genocide in this country.  But that aside, why do we have the perception that America or the West is safer or more “civilized.”  The Holocaust was only a few generations ago… are we really that much better than other societies?  Are we really sure that couldn’t happen here?

This discussion is Miller at his most conservative.  So in a conservative move, he takes on those who might turn to government as the solution:

The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even a certain politician; the problem is the same that it has always been. I am the problem. I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with.

Next Miller takes on those who are engaged in social action without dealing with the issue of depravity:

Do I want social justice for the oppressed, or do I just want to be known as a socially active person? I spend 95 percent of my time thinking about myself anyway. I don’t have to watch the evening news to see that the world is bad, I only have to look at myself. I am not browbeating myself here; I am only saying that true change, true life-giving, God-honoring change would have to start with the individual. I was the very problem I had been protesting. I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM!”

Miller later writes that addressing the problem of ourselves is perhaps the most progressive notion he knows of.  He goes on to say this:

I think Jesus feels strongly about communicating the idea of our brokenness, and I think it is worth reflection. Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.

Miller’s emphasis on our own personal depravity and need seems very conservative and very counter-cultural in a way that much of his book does not.  And yet, it also seems to me very personal and experiential in a way that much of his book is.  One more passage to illustrate.  Miller has told a story of a road trip he took in which he encountered a woman buying groceries with food stamps.  After recalling the pity he felt for her and his immediate desire to intervene and buy her groceries himself, to try and save her some embarrassment even though such an action would probably be more embarrassing, Miller writes this:

On the drive over the mountain that afternoon, I realized that it was not the woman who should be pitied, it was me. Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away.

I have personally found a good bit of resonance with Miller’s argument here, but I want to hear what other people think:

  1. Is Miller’s notion of human depravity based on his own experience invalid?  Or is Miller onto something when he speaks of all people struggling with themselves?
  2. How does facing our own depravity help someone on the other side of the world?
  3. How deeply does depravity affect humanity?  Can we be above the fray?
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