Sunday, February 26, 2006

Blue Like Jazz: Deliver Us from Glibness

[Several months ago, I posted an earlier version of the essay that follows. It generated considerable controversy and rancor against me. Given the essay’s excessive vituperation (Miller really exasperated me), I pulled it. Nevertheless, I believe my basic critique was correct, so I now post a somewhat revised version.]

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.


Ed Darrell said...

Don't ever read Faulkner's Sound and the Fury. The first section will send you screaming that Faulkner is in league with some evil form, I fear.

Or is it that you fear you are one of the "smart guys" Miller writes about? Or is it that you fear you are not?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I'm not literate enough to understand the Faulkner reference. The second comment is merely ad hominem.

Susan said...

Why do people "rave about" this book?
One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.Proverbs 27:7

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Erm, Doug--you know I agree with you on most everything--but on this we differ. I read Miller's book because it was given to me by a friend at a time when my faith was highly intellectual. When I read the page in question I didn't see him saying there is no truth or knowledge, but that the same vein of Kierkegaardian protest that "truth is not a matter of knowing this or that but of being in the truth."

I had a friendly e-mail exchange about being a Christian in a secular philosophy class with Gregory A. Boyd. He said that one does not loose faith over intellectual matters as much as resigning to unnoticed presupossitions obout who one is, where one's life and identity come from, and what truly is "wise." He noted that Christians have faced just about every intellectual problem there is and have found a way to continue believing. To sum up I resonated with Miller's counterfactual reasons why he would walk away from the faith.

I will give you that he is too glib for my tastes (as is Rick Warren). I don't think he is much of a writer. But I did like him personally and his story made sense on that level.

BJS said...

First, Adam:
There's a kernel of truth in what you're saying that I want to elaborate on in a moment, but first... a quick refutation.

You wrote that Gregory A. Boyd told you that one does not loose faith over intellectual matters as much as (roughly) self-conception matters.
(Oh, and by the way, if you want to make a point to Doug, you probably ARE NOT helping your cause citing Boyd... but that's a different matter).

JUST TODAY, as in THIS AFTERNOON (Tuesday, Feb 28), at roughly 1:50 PM, Eastern time, here in Connecticut I had a discussion with a man named BoRam (a friend of mine). He is a brilliant grad student at a top philosophy program and he is Chinese. He is going to go on (I predict) to be a very succeful, influential, and important philosopher. And guess what he just told me today: "I used to be a Christian. I was highly commited to my faith. But I just could not overcome all of the arguments I encountered against it." And today BoRam is a committed atheist. Fascinatingly, he's whole family (parents, brother) are Christians, in CHINA! He WENT INTO PHILOSOPHY because he wanted to honor God through work in this feild. And, yet, he lost his faith because of "intellectual matters."

It does happen.

BJS said...


As much I largely sympathize with Dr. G's (and Jedd's) analysis of BLJ, there is SOMETHING that we should take as a lesson from it.

Namely: that people come to faith in Christ, and people assent to the truth claims of Christianity, not ONLY via rational assent, but as WHOLE persons. That is, the impacts that our self-conceptions, community ties and how they affect our identities, and other various features of our lives that do not directly align with our rational reflection and reason, DO, in fact, have a big part in guiding and shaping our choices and who we are. It is something that as Christians we need to be (duh) aware of (and I think we are), and something that we need to incorporate into our understanding of Christian witness (which we don't always do as well): we present to the world a Christian LIFE not JUST propositional truth claims.

THAT BEING SAID, Christianity is always AT LEAST about various truth claims, one's belief or disbelief in regard to those truth claims, and, in the end, what matters is whether or not those truth claims are TRUE!
Miller's hand waving over such things as inconsequential or irrelevant is just a sad display of ignorance and confusion.

It also brings up another point that I see in Miller and BLJ that I also so in the book "The Younger Evangelicals" (by Robert Webber). In that book Webber examines one of his former students (Joseph Clair) who has decided that he has "moved on" past those silly intellectual struggles he had "early on" in his faith. That he's "past that now" that he's "grown up" to a point where now he can see that such triffles just "miss the point." That worrying about those things was just him trying to be or act smart. Etc.
There is, of course, a similiar attitude displayed in much of McClaren's writtings (and most PoMo writtings across the board).

Is anyone else tired of this? It is abhorent to me that Miller thinks that he can have some sort of "moving on" experience and now he knows that those previous (one almost hears "petty") concerns just aren't that big of a deal. It is a ridiculous game of piety prideful one-up-manship: "Oh... yes, I see... you're still just 'there' in your faith... oh yes, I was there once. I, too, like you now, used to be so concerned by those things...I used to think those things were so important... but I've moved on from that now."

What makes me so sad (and angry) is that so many believers buy into this pure arrogance as some kind of spiritual insight. Basically, one of the big stumps of all these guys (McClaren, Miller, Webber, Sweet), is just to say to anything anyone has to say to them: "Oh, I was where you are once too, but I've moved on from that now" -- and they use this move over and over, as if it is some kind of argument or defense!!

And, finally, Miller's claim that he doesn't "do that any more" in regards to not wrestling with Christianity on an intellectual level is a sad declaration of a believer simply not following his Lord's commands. Christ called us to worship the Lord with our minds. But I guess Miller just doesn't "do that anymore." Christianity is a collection of propisitional truth claims. Yes, it is certainly MORE than that, but it is always AT LEAST that.

That's perhaps, in the end, what is so shockingly ironic about Miller and BLJ: he seems to want to call us to an "authentic" or "holistic" view of Christian living, yet he wants to leave behind something critical to any truly authentic living under the lordship of Christ: thinking.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Thanks to the Tornado and Jedd (whom I love in the truth) for such thoughtful posts.

Yes, the Chritian life is far more than a set of truth claims believed. It is a life lived. Jonathon Edwards wrote at length (and John Piper continues the legacy) on the cruciality of "religious affections"--a sensorium properly attuned to the magnificant and majesty of a holy and gracious God revealed supremely in Jesus Christ, who is "all-together lovely."

But Edwards was a towering, a titanic, intellect as well. Miller is less than a worm in comparison--as am I.

Ed Darrell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Adam Omelianchuk said...

To be fair to Boyd here is what he said:

1) Your reasoning is affected by your spirit [he was alluding to Prv. 4:23], so as the Bible says guard your heart and stay committed to a an ever growing relationship with Christ

2) Remember that for every intellecutal problem you face, Christians have faced it before and found ways to believe.

3) For every non-Christian author you read-read a Christian one.

4) Stay active in church w/Christian friends.

5) Its not particular objections that erode faith as much as the unspoken presuppositions in the secular environment that slowly affects the way you look at things.

I may not have represented him right by emphasizing "self-conception" but that is EXACTLY how my faith has eroded in the past. I was raised in a home that had excellent "worldview training" and was pretty good at apologetic argument... but ever so slowly I lost my faith.

It was not until one day I heard the gospel clearly and was cut to the heart much like those in Acts 2 who heard Peter's sermon. I remember distinctly thinking, "I have no rational basis for believing this, but I know it is true." And slowly, with finding good authors like Doug, his wife, Phillip E. Johnson and yes Greg Boyd (for awhile) did I find my way back to a more rational faith.

However, as a "new convert" back to my old faith Kierkegaard never made more sense to me when he taught that battling doubt with rational argument only made doubt stronger. I appologize if I haven't articulated this well, but its my story... and it isn't ment to be glib.

BJS said...

Just a quick note back to Adam:

What you just laid out regarding what Boyd said I completely agree with. It is right on target.

The only change I would make is to point 5. Certainly for some (maybe even most) that is true. For others, like my friend BoRam, it is particular objections that DO in fact erode faith as much or more than "the unspoken presuppositions in the secular environment".

Michael Russell said...

Disclaimer: I am neither a philospher nor a member of the literati, but wanted to offer a couple of observations nonetheless. I suppose, however, that my lack of qualifications makes me an expert in Miller's eyes - but I don't know: it's all so ethereal and pomo to me.

ed darrell -

You wrote, "Ad hominem is not an invalid argument when it's accurate."

Actually it's not a matter of whether it is a valid argument or not; ad hominem is an informal fallacy. For example, I could say, "Anything E.D. says in defense of Miller's book is disqualified because E.D. is a member of an emergent church. Just because E.D. is a member of an emergent church does not disallow or invalidate his statements. The truth of his comments have nothing to do with the ad hominem fact - that he is a member of an emergent church. E.D.'s statements are separate from the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of an ad hominem comment.

Doug -

Like most matters of theology, choices too often are more psychologically determined than exegetically, theologically, or logically decided. Of course, I speak as a psychologist and semi-professional theologian, so I am disqualified as a credible observer. My dog, however, feels the same way and in that he qualifies as an expert (because he couldn't be more ignorant of the whole matter) we can trust my observations.

BTW, I will not tolerate any ad caninem attacks on my dog.

Michael Russell said...


So if, as you say, 'it is possible to ''prove'' both "A" and "not A,"' then you must agree that "it is impossible to prove both A and not A."

Is that not obvious in light of your own statement? It is to me and I don't see how you can deny me that.

Michael Russell said...


Thank you for condescending to respond to me.

My point, in both the post addressing you and the preceding one, is the impossibility of even having meaningful conversations over such issues. And I do believe that decisions of this nature are made more for psychological reasons - I am sure you are familiar with the work of LeDoux, Damasio, and others - than philosophical or even conscious convictions.

If there is no agreement on truth - or whether or not it is knowable or even exists - then conversations between two individuals are no more meaningful than a conversation with a fungo bat. We are not conversing but merely talking past one another, are we not?

Now, I apologize for the sarcastic tone of my comment to you but I was trying to make my own point - obviously failing by being too subtle. That point is that talking to or reading books by men like Miller, McLaren, or other likeminded authors strikes me as utterly pointless: why should I read them? Their voice is no better or worse than mine and they cannot tell me anything that is true or useful. Their thoughts are suitable for them because of their own life and subcultural experiences, but since mine of necessity are different, what's the point?

If language doesn't mean anything, i.e., if it is only subjective and personal, then . . .

then you and I are wasting our time. As are Miller,, and anyone that seeks to make any declarative statement.

Note my disclaimer at my first post: I am not a philosopher but a psychologist. Perhaps my comments are pedestrian and beneath you - but who is to say? On what basis can such an assessment be made?

Am I missing something, or is missing everything the point?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I deleted Ed Darrell because he is lapsing into personal attacks again, which is inappropriate to this forum.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

"Don't ever read Faulkner's Sound and the Fury. The first section will send you screaming ... "

When I first read Faulkner the first book I picked up was "The Sound and the Fury" and I went screaming to my boss John Browne who was the son of a southern gentleman literature professor. Browne told me you don't start reading Faulkner with "The Sound and the Fury" just like you don't start reading latin with Virgil's Aeneid (another mistake I made). He gave me a list of books to read first, including the Snopes trilogy, several others.

When someone pointed out to me decades later that the opening scene in the "The Sound and the Fury" was describing a golf game I was shocked, went back and read it again and sure enough.

Faulkner isn't for people who have grown up with TV and cannot focus their attention for more than fifteen seconds.

cheers for Faulkner, Clay

Jeremy said...

I can't really add to what Doug, Jed, or B.Jay offer. I do have one question though: Why did you pull this essay in the first place? Unfortunately, BLJ is more like Kenny G than Coletrane. His incoherent ravings need to be addressed regardless of the swarm of criticism it may bring.

I say this just to encourage all of us to be more concerned about truth than offense--that is when offense may be needed (read Amos)

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Jeremy: There is no substantial change in the revised essay; I simply moderated the tone a bit. It's still pretty hard-hitting, I wager.

Ed Darrell said...

I apologized for appearing to attack you, Dr. Groothuis. I regret that you take such an apology as a personal attack.

Adam said...

Patrick Hare has it right when he talks about proving A and non-A based on different presuppositions. I think this perspective may have been the one behind Miller's paragraph on page 103.

I understand his perspective too regarding "moving on" from these arguments. I consider intellectual arguments important, yet I am not the one to argue them. In today's culture, experts are well-educated in a highly narrowed field of knowledge that the typical Joe can't be an expert in any two places. We rely on experts regularly, those who have done extensive thinking and research, to help us form our opinions on everything. It's not that we're unthinking or lazy, only that we don't have the time or resources to read the source material, do the critical analysis, or consider the opposing arguments in every "important area." It's not that the intellectual aspect of Christianity isn't important (to me); it's simply that I only have so much time and energy to expend on various thoughts about my faith.

I think Miller is coming from the view that others, more intelligent than he (like Dr. Groothuis), have done a stellar job at thinking through Christian foundational ideas--and that he can rely on them (the experts) for these propositional truth arguments.

Beyond that, the commenters on this blog are likely not Miller's intended audience. He's likely speaking to individuals more like himself: average Joes who aren't logically-astute thinkers.

And I think there's a place for that too.

Clark said...

Most of you, for all of your intelligence, are completely missing the point of the book, i.e. Christians need to show love more and quit arguing and being self-absorbed. Jesus said the world would know us by our love. Note: He did not say they would know us by our arguments, philosophy, or theology.

galion said...

The funny thing is, as a non-Christian, Donald Miller's writing has inspired me to take another look at my spirituality, and to actually begin to contemplate a change. I was under the impression that Christians were supposed to inspire and lead others to Christ. Your brand of rightist elite intellectualism only makes me shut down and hear nothing of your message. I would love to sit at a campfire with Jesus and see Him in His role as Father and Counselor, rather than the stern Judge that requires crawling and groveling because of my unworthiness. It is not your place, nor any others' to speak to me of my unworthiness to approach the Divine. Jesus' sacrifice was so that I could approach the throne of Grace as His Child rather than suffer death or misery for my sins. Consider that your message reaches non-Christians as well as those that are questioning before you slam the door upon our budding faith.

mu_sick_man said...

I found this comment about "Blue Like Jazz" by an athiest. Thought I'd toss it to you. Just hit the following link:

he's_a_fighter said...

You don't know me...and I don't know you.

But I have mixed reponses in regards to your blog.

Donald Miller isn't right about everything, nor is anyone.
But one point that I think he wished to hammer, though haphazardly at times, is the truth that God is not a system...rather, He's a person. And according to Romans 9, it is not we who railed at God for salvation, but it is Him who is the one who has endeavored and of His own motivation, not because we have coaxed Him into regarding our need for redemption.
While God expects certain things of us, it is interesting to note that the main thing He expects of us is not elaborate knowledge or religious/philosophical/intellectual accomplishments. According to 1 Cor 13 it is faith, hope and love, things which scripture makes clear do generate from us but are rather authored and sustained by the spirit of God. In other words, these workings of the spirit in us are God and not us, thus they can't be formulated to be more effective, they can't be systematized in such a way that we can get a grip on them. God is doing His work in us the way He has chosen and it is by grace that we can even have grace.

There is a place for intellectualism and rationalism. But they do not bring us any closer to the heart of God. I can take a 30 day study course on my wife, but that would in no way have been the same as marrying her.

he's_a_fighter said...

*One more thing*

About the whole "study course on my wife" thing...

...another thing that is noteworthy is that by marrying her, over time I gain the full knowledge of her.
Mere intellectual study would give me intellectual knowledge...which is by no means wrong...but it isn't the same as actually being one with her.

Study = Some knowledge...not full knowledge.

Intimate Oneness = Everything.

Unknown said...

Truth is the highest ethic. Higher even than love. Unless it is love in truth it is not love.

Several posts here seem to miss this point. Without truth there cannot even be communication. Christ is the Logos and the Truth and the life. Kuhn's work is not in tune with any Truth, it is purely relativistic. He clearly expresses that there exists no meta-paradigm by which any freely choosen paradigm can be judged. Which is to say that there is no objective truth and that good and evil are but one's preferences. To one Mother Terisa to another Joseph Stalin.

As a Christian I find nothing of greater importance than using all that God has given me to try to understand the truths of God's Word and to truthfully apply them to my life for His glory. Can any Christian here have a complaint with that? Any book that would have the affect of diminishing or distorting the import of Truth and the inerrancy of God's Word is doing no service to their Creator.

Unknown said...

The simple rawness & realness of Don's book is exactly what today's church needs.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

There is little "realness" in Miller, except pertaining to his precious subjectivity.

We need an objective and true Word from God, and less biography; more of God, less of self; more of the Kingdom, less of the psyche; more theology, less narcissism; more Bible, less drivel.

Toast said...

I think what Donald Miller is saying in this comment is that there has to be something more than intellect. I somewhat agree with him on the "ego contest" thing because you think after a while even the smartest people would realize that God can neither be proven nor dis proven, that is why faith is so valuable. I think even that sometime trying to prove these things tears the body of christ apart more than it even helps and alienates us from the non-christian world. I find evidence of this in numerous church splits over simple things like weather or not to have communion every week. The beauty of the post-modern world is that emotion is not dead, true it can be taken out of proportion. And this is why I love this book. Every life is a story and a lesson. Frankly I can't read books on intellectual design, because when it comes down to it from an unbiased point of view, nothing can be proven. If you have faith then you believe in truth, and i believe in the truths of Christianity. But I think if we learned to empathize a little with people like Nietzsche and why he saw life as futile we could understand a little bit more why our faith is so beautiful. We need people like Donald Miller around to keep us grounded. To keep our heads from going so high into the clouds that we forget the simplicity of love. And from a 23 year olds point of view who has spent his time on the unintellectual street, I would much rather have somebody relate to me and to show me love instead of regal me with one more scientific reason why God exists. What you guys do and what you talk about is incredible and mind-blowing and baffles me with the complexity that God decided to create when he made this place. And I think that He has put little nuggets around this universe and earth for us to find, "evidence of intellectual design" or whatever you would like to call it. But if we lose sight of one person, or see somebody as too naive or glib to be taken seriously, then we lose sight of what God is trying to do on this earth. He is trying to woo us into love with Him. And we need the people in this world to help us fall into love with Jesus. That is why this book is so popular, it meets people where they are at. Its a simple testimony to life as God had designed for Donald. It challenges us to love others by the simple stories that he is saying come Relationship, worship, faith, money or any of the other subjects that he hits on. It shows us how a persons life is so unbelievably intricate and challenges us to love them, and more over, to love others. Yes this book is mostly based on emotionally made decisions. But is not every bodies life. Somethings we choose to believe because to us it is intellectually sound. But long ago when you decided to choose faith over anything else, was it not a choice that you made with your heart just as much as your mind. I'm tired or writing now. Bye.