Posted by: Alex | July 31, 2011

Beliefs and Actions in Blue Like Jazz

Continuing our discussion of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  We are now turning to another contrast that Miller draws between “beliefs” and “actions.”  This is a very common distinction in contemporary evangelicalism as far as I understand and have experienced it.  Many “younger” evangelicals are fond of accusing more traditional evangelicals of being too hung up on beliefs or doctrine and not focused enough on action.

Miller, despite his very progressive and non-traditional tendencies, actually turns this move around.  For Miller beliefs are the most important, and having the right beliefs is everything.  But that doesn’t necessarily point to “doctrinal” beliefs in the sense that more traditional evangelicals might argue for:

The thing I have to work on in myself is this issue of belief. Gandhi believed Jesus when He said to turn the other cheek. Gandhi brought down the British Empire, deeply injured the caste system, and changed the world. Mother Teresa believed Jesus when He said everybody was priceless, even the ugly ones, the smelly ones, and Mother Teresa changed the world by showing them that a human being can be selfless. Peter finally believed the gospel after he got yelled at by Paul. Peter and Paul changed the world by starting small churches in godless towns.

Miller sees correct belief as the catalyst for action and thus extremely important.  Failing to believe is a great hinderance to action:

Satan, who I believe exists as much as I believe Jesus exists, wants us to believe meaningless things for meaningless reasons. Can you imagine if Christians actually believed that God was trying to rescue us from the pit of our own self-addiction? Can you imagine? Can you imagine what Americans would do if they understood over half the world was living in poverty? Do you think they would change the way they live, the products they purchase, and the politicians they elect? If we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn’t be very many problems on earth.

I think the distinction that Miller is pushing for, which has perhaps been lost in the semantics of debates between the “right” and the “left” in Evangelicalism, is a distinction between beliefs about who we are and how we should live versus beliefs about “what we should believe” in a confessional, but perhaps not as practical, sense.

Miller is characteristically critical of “pop culture” (particularly pop Christian culture) on this point:

It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool. I mean it’s cool in a Reality Bites, Welcome to Sarajevo, Amnesty International sense, but that is only as good as dreadlocks. Chicks dig it to a point, but you can’t be all about it; you also have to want a big house and expensive clothes because in the end, our beliefs are about as enduring as seasonal fashion. In the end, we like Ethan Hawke even though we don’t know what he believes. Even our beliefs have become trend statements. We don’t even believe things because we believe them anymore. We only believe things because they are cool things to believe.

Miller also wants to critique the notion that passion is enough, that the content of beliefs is not as significant as the passion with which they are held:

Passion is tricky, though, because it can point to nothing as easily as it points to something. If a rapper is passionately rapping about how great his rap is, his passion is pointing to nothing. He isn’t helping anything. His beliefs are self-serving and shallow. If a rapper, however, is rapping about his community, about oppression and injustice, then he is passionate about a message, something outside himself. What people believe is important. What people believe is more important than how they look, what their skills are, or their degree of passion.

Content of belief is more significant to Miller than the expression of that belief.  Yet, this is not a one sided scale, Miller does believe in a balancing act here that acknowledges that our actions reveal our beliefs perhaps more truly than our words, that “what I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do.”  When I first read this I thought it was a change in tune, a reversal of what he had been saying up till then.  I’m not as sure of that now, I wonder if there is a way of working these two ideas together.

What do you think? How should beliefs and actions be related?  Which is more important, what we believe or what we do?  What is the measure of our beliefs- our “professions”/”confessions” or our actions?

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