Blue Like Jazz: Deliver Us from Glibness
One of my students called to my attention a paragraph in the best-selling book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. The first paragraph (page 103) of his chapter called "Belief" is remarkable for its illogic and glibness. In it—a marvel of confusion, contradiction, and distortion—Miller claims that his struggle with Christianity is not intellectual. He doesn't "do that" anymore. "Smart guys" can prove God exits and other "smart guys" can prove God doesn't exist. The arguments aren't about God anymore, but only about who is smarter, and our knowing writer tells us he doesn't care. Moreover, "Who knows anything anyway"? And if our writer ever walks away from God it would not be for intellectual reasons, but "for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything."
Where does one begin to assess (best-selling) glibness? After thirty years of intellectually and existentially engaging the Christian worldview in relation to the truth-claims of other religions and philosophies, I know that the arguments for and against God's existence are not just ego games or "head trips." There are good and sufficient arguments for the existence of God as the creator, designer, and moral lawgiver of the universe—not to mention arguments the rest of Christian apologetics. Further, the notion that person A can "prove that God exists" and person B can "prove God does not exist" is impossible. To prove something means (roughly) to rationally establish a truth claims as far superior to any contrary claim. Therefore, one could not prove that Bill Clinton was the greatest American president while another person proves that he was not. Miller's language is sloppy and unserious. Maybe he meant something else, but we cannot be sure. The writing evinces an autobiographical and unbuttoned casualness that pollutes so many memoirs today.
Perhaps we should bring into question the recent proliferation of memoirs. Unless you are a saint or a genius or an otherwise historically significant person, why should anyone be interested in a book about your personal life? The writer of a memoir should ask himself a probing and potentially embarrassing question, "Is my life worth inflicting on others in book form?"
"Why knows anything anyway?" writes Miller. What are we to make of this? Does it mean that no truth claims are justified? If so, so much for Miller's own statements. He doesn't know they are true, so why should anyone believe him? If he knows nothing, then how does he know that arguments and counter-arguments concerning God's existence are just ego trips in disguise? Further, the claim is absurd on many levels. Think of the counterexamples. Miller knows that torturing the innocent for pleasure is always wrong. He also knows that he wrote the book called Blue Like Jazz. (The way he misrepresents that transcendently lovely art form called jazz cannot be addressed here.) Miller makes some stupendous knowledge claims in the same paragraph in which he rejects the possibility of knowledge. He claims to know that the only reason anyone does anything is rooted in "social reasons, identity reasons [what does that mean?], deep emotional reasons." It is the case that no one does anything on the basis of settled convictions based on rational reflections? On what basis does Miller claim to know this? He gives none. It is simply his life speaking, his feelings being ferreted out. Autobiography trumps rational discourse once again.
In light of Miller’s intellectual recklessness, we should remember that Christianity is a knowledge claim. It claims that God can be known through certain ways. Christian belief should not be a lucky guess or a reaction like an instinct (as Miller claims in his equally indefensible chapter on faith in which he likens belief in Christianity to a penguin's mating instinct...) To know that P is a special kind of belief; it means that there is some reason, warrant, or justification for P. We are called in Scripture to know God in Christ. Further, we are instructed to make the gospel known through proclamation, defense, and godly living.
One could go on, but what Miller’s abysmal paragraph reveals is another outbreak of the epidemic of postmodern glibness. Miller addresses titanic issues with a smirk and a shrug and a pose. He finds no need to be serious intellectually or to pursue subtleties. After all, he has his "story" to tell. This reminds one of Frankfurt's little book on bovine excrement (On Bullshit)—reviewed elsewhere on this web log. People feel obliged to state opinions on matters of which they know nothing. Moreover, they trouble the air and page with words with no concern for accuracy about the facts; they are more concerned to be sincere about themselves. Indeed. But why should anyone listen to them?
I have two suggestions for Donald Miller—and his myriad fans. First, read a good introduction to philosophy text such as Questions That Matter by Ed Miller and Jon Jensen. This may inculcate a better sense of the power of reason and the history of ideas. Second, read a substantial book of Christian apologetics, such as Scaling the Secular City by J.P. Moreland. This may spark a more intellectually respectful treatment of the rationality of Christian faith.