Blue Like Jazz: The Movie

Blue Like Jazz was a book that came at just the right moment. Donald Miller winsomely captured and voiced the sentiments of many Christians who grew up immersed in Christian culture. They felt disillusioned with hypocrisy, unconvinced by politics, and out of place in their churches. The cultural scorn from progressives and the parodies of evangelical life in movies like Saved and shows like The Simpsons rang all too true, and many young evangelicals (like Christians in generations past) wondered if they were a fish out of water, if perhaps there was an alternative from the enculturated Christianity of their parents in the post-9/11 world.

This, in many ways, was Don’s story, and Blue Like Jazz was a collection of essays and vignettes that reflected upon his journey. The book struck a deep chord and sold like hotcakes. Certainly, Miller’s fresh and humorous voice was an essential ingredient in his success, but his timeliness and cultural progressiveness gave the book momentum. Along with a host of “emergent” writers, he painted a picture of a different way of being a Christian in the world. Writers are commonly told, “Don’t tell me, show me.” This is the power of Miller’s work. Rather than yet another didactic how-to for the Christian life, he showed a way of being that readers found hip, compelling, and fresh.

In just one month, on April 13, the film based on Blue Like Jazz will premier in theaters nationwide. It’s far more inspired-by the book than based-upon it, telling a largely fictionalized version of Miller’s first year at Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. (Miller tells the story of writing the film’s screenplay in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which I actually think is his best work.)

Not everyone in the evangelical world was eager to embrace Miller’s books, and the criticism Blue Like Jazz elicited was often quite heated. In anticipation of the new film, it seems worth reflecting on a few of those surrounding issues.

The Film

Blue Like Jazz is a good little indie film starring Marshall Allman (True Blood) and Claire Holt (The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars), with a strong supporting performance from Tania Raymonde (Lost). It was written by Miller, photographer Ben Pearson, and Steve Taylor, a former CCM artist and record producer who made waves in the late 80s with his sharply satirical song “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” In the late 90s, Taylor wrote and produced hits with Sixpence None the Richer and The Newsboys.

The movie entertains, moving along at an occasionally hurried pace under solid direction, supported by believable dialogue, good acting, and a good soundtrack. It was made with a modest budget of about $1.2 million (for comparison, less than 1 percent of the cost of Hugo). As indies go, it’s a good movie. At times, it’s a bit too cute, occasionally preachy, and a bit too neatly tied up at the end—but most movies are guilty of similar crimes.

The Content

It’s rated PG-13, and it deserves the rating. The movie tells the story of a fictionalized Don who leaves behind his fundamentalist Texan roots for Reed College. Life at Reed is a realistic portrayal of life at many liberal arts colleges—full of drugs, sexual innuendo, binge drinking, and foul language. Don’s closest friends are an atheist who serves as the campus “pope,” and Lauryn, a recently out lesbian. This is not a Kirk Cameron-style Christian film. Debauchery abounds.

But these elements of the story are nothing if not realistic. Don’s story is like that of many young Christians who find themselves immersed in a post-Christian environment. He’s ashamed of his past, when he was an assistant youth minister, and he denies his faith in a class discussion. It’s a particularly poignant scene, cutting to Don lying awake in bed as an alarm sounds with a rooster’s crow. His sense of failure will feel emotionally familiar to many.

The Roots of Rootlessness

Like much of Miller’s writing, the movie brushes on themes of fatherlessness. In another classroom scene, it’s said that calling God “father” is a huge marketing mistake, given the wretched track record of earthly fathers. Don’s father in the story is a womanizing college professor, living in a trailer like a pathetic, past-his-prime slacker. A conversation with a friend reveals that their parents are bitterly divorced, to which Don responds, “Aren’t they all?”

News from home reveals the hypocrisy of both Don’s mother and his youth minister. His sense of rootlessness and despair grows deeper. He drives to a seaside park to reflect, standing in solitary contrast to a young girl throwing Frisbee with her father.

Miller is giving voice to a whole generation whose fathers failed them, whose churches rang hollow, and who found friendship in the liberal world they’d been taught to hate and distrust. The intellectual rigor of progressives and their inclusive sense of community stood in sharp contrast to a past that felt morally and intellectually vacuous. At one moment in the film, the campus pope is rounding up books to burn, purging the campus of unacceptable spiritual reading. In Don’s room, he snatches up Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, a gift from Don’s mother upon graduation from high school. “Would a loving God let that exist?” he asks before tossing it into a burning shopping cart.

Plausibility in a Post-Christian World

Eventually, Don finds his faith redeemed, but not through his own wrestling. Instead, it’s through a friend whose faith makes Christianity plausible for him in a new way. “Sometimes,” he says, “you’ve got to watch somebody love something so you can love it yourself.”

Don’s restored faith comes just as he’s declared the campus pope for the next year, and Don must now decide whether to follow the lead of the previous pope—eliminating any spiritual or moral inhibitions—or to set a different tone. This leads to a scene with Don presiding as the campus pope in a confessional booth, a moment he turns on its head by seizing the opportunity to apologize for all the ways he and other Christians have misrepresented Jesus to the world.

It’s a throwback to the book, where Miller describes setting up a confession booth on a sidewalk, apologizing to all who enter for a myriad of Christians’ sins, from ordinary hypocrisy to the Crusades. It’s his way of acknowledging a different way of being in the world—connected to Christ without having to take responsibility for the sins of our fathers. This, again, is what makes Miller resonate with his readers.

Blue Like Jazz and the Critics

Personally, I’m not much of a culture warrior. With Blue Like Jazz (the book), I never saw the cause for alarm that many others saw. Similarly, I anticipate that as this film releases, there will be many minute-by-minute, point-for-point critiques of the film’s content, theology, and worldview. I’m not entirely interested in engaging it on that level. Instead, I want to talk about the film’s (and Miller’s) place in Christian culture.

When the book released there were several months of chatter and debate surrounding it. Many in my city identified Miller as a reactionary liberal trying to make Christianity cool and marketable. The book was sliced open and picked apart; every questionable glimpse of doctrine, every ethical grey area, every shady interaction with an unbeliever was dissected and deconstructed.

But I think this kind of critique misses the point. In the book and in his subsequent works, Miller has never claimed to be a theologian. He doesn’t labor at making precise theological statements; he labors at telling compelling stories, at being truthful about life. He’s a storyteller whose gift takes us into the uncomfortable world of Christians living in exile. I don’t get the sense that his stories are prescriptive; they describe his life and experience, and the success of the book demonstrates that something about his life resonates with readers.

Hipster Christian?

One persistent critique of Miller is that he, like many emergent writers, is at pains to make Christianity something “hip” and “cool.” In the case of someone like Rob Bell, who has worked particularly hard at reframing doctrine and softening hard truths, that critique is fair. For Miller, though, I’m not sure it is.

If anything, Miller’s stories and this movie both demonstrate that Christianity is irreversibly uncool. When movie Don talks about his rediscovered faith to the campus pope, he apologizes for trying to make people think he was cool and smart. The conversation seems resonant with the apostle Paul, when he tells us that the gospel is foolish in the eyes of the perishing world. Miller’s own self-effacing nature and style reveal a personality who seems to be very comfortable in his own, uncool skin. In a world of blustering megachurch pastors and triumphalist Christian bravado, Miller strikes me as earthy and refreshing.

The Real Issue

The challenge with a movie and book like Blue Like Jazz centers on its singularity in the Christian world. There isn’t really an established market for this kind of Christian literature and storytelling. Yes, Christian fiction exists, but Miller’s work is more free-ranging: essays, vignettes, short stories, all weaved together thematically. It has far more in common with Jack Kerouac than Tim LaHaye or Bodie Thoene.

As a result, his marketers were presented with a challenge. How do you sell someone like this?

Miller ended up on the shelves and the conference tour with pastors and theologians. Miller was presented to the world as an authority on the Christian life as opposed to being a witness to the Christian life. So the pastors and theologians of the world had to respond to him as such, instead of allowing his book to simply be a testimony.

Miller, of course, isn’t innocent here. He’s jumped into the fray on a variety of arguments (like his much-debated blog post on who should run the church), and he has willingly served the marketing machine’s efforts to present him as an expert. This, to me, is unfortunate because it clouds what’s most valuable about Miller’s work. It’s testimonial; or as I said earlier, he’s a witness, not an authority. Miller shows a plausible way of trusting in Jesus in a post-Christian world. For people who are drawn to the gospel and repulsed by Republicanism, Miller shows another way.

I’m not saying that he should get a free pass on the issues. I’m curious why the film isn’t explicit about the gospel (unlike the book, which talks very directly about the cross). I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t a bit of a compromise. But on the whole, I think we should address the issues at an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story and the stories around him. Descriptive, not prescriptive. Witness, not authority. I tend to believe that Miller would agree with those categories, and I’d be interested to hear him speak about it.

Without such a distinction, the evangelical world is going to freak out when they see this movie. How else would we expect them to respond to a “Christian” film featuring lesbians, atheists, adulterous youth ministers, vandalizing Christian activists, and a sexy carrot?

If it’s prescriptive, then Miller has advocated homosexuality, drug abuse, and more. If it’s descriptive, then it’s actually an encouraging message that even here, in the heart of progressive, post-Christian America, God is at work, and hope for the transformative effects of the gospel isn’t lost.

  • Carole

    I though Blue like Jazz (the book) was a great jumping off point for discussions with people unfamiliar with the church personally, but very familiar with the church culturally. I think it gave a certain freedom in discussions to those people that they didn’t feel they could have a religious discussion with “A Christian.” I thought MIller’s experiences were very ‘everyday’ for most people. That can never be a bad place to start. Looking forward to seeing the movie, but I doubt it will have the impact on me that the book did.

  • David Drake

    I have always though Don’s greatest value was as a story teller…and as one who recognized the power of Story. Every pastor should read “A Millions Miles…” and think of the power of story as he prepares his sermon.

  • Wendy Alsup

    Helpful review. Thanks!

  • Steve Cooper

    Let’s suppose the reason for making the movie relates to entertainment, not evangelism. Does it qualify? I’ll make that judgement when I see it, as you will. But then, you may be going to see it to reinforce your own culture-view. If so, you’ll like it or not, the way many relate to the book. Let Miller be Miller, not what you want him to be. And, if you have a competing voice, go write your own book and make it a movie.

  • Frank Turk

    When Mike here says that maybe Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, he betrays the essential problem here: one has to write about something. This is why somehow reconciling work with faith (which us theology wonks call the “theology of vocation”) has to, at the end, do more than make adolescent apologies for things one has never personally done.

    This is actually what is radically insidious about Miller’s work: he is actually far more polemical than he will admit, and his arguments are always against people who believe something specific. The last time I checked on where he was personally, he had given up in the local church, couldn’t name anything a sin except the identification of sin, and thought any response to criticism was a waste of time. How a writer for the Gospel Coalition lets that state of affairs fail to flavor the review of this movie is not clear to me. Maybe tracking Miller’s trajectory from when the book was written to today doesn’t matter to TGC, but it ought to matter to its readers.

    • Collin Hansen

      Thanks for commenting, Frank. Last I heard Miller was involved in the Imago Dei church in Portland. Is that no longer the case?

      • Frank Turk

        The last time I was fact-checking (about a year ago, when I wrote an open letter to him, so thing change) he had given up on sunday worship because he couldn’t get anything out of it. In his own words from 2009:

        There’s no information on-line as to whether he is a member (someone e-mailed me to say he’s a “memeber in good standing at a conservative church”; that’s funny when there’s no mention of that anywhere, certainly not by him) anywhere at this time, but his personal narrative on this subject is, frankly, undeniable: the local church is a thorn in his side which, he says, he would rather avoid. I can admit that I don’t keep closer tabs on him than that.

        If you fellows at TGC have first-hand accounts of him and his close association with a local church, I’d be wide open for correction on the matter.

        • Collin Hansen

          Mike and I discussed this issue of Miller and the local church before publishing, but we reached a different conclusion. I hope he’s involved at Imago Dei, but I can’t say I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. Thanks, Frank.

      • Frank Turk

        I’d also put this out there — here’s what I expect to happen:

        Someone at TGC is going to call or e-mail Miller, and ask the question, “Do you belong to a local church?” His answer: “Of course I do!” And I will issue the appropriate retraction as qualified above.

        But here’s something to think about: I think there’s probably a better way to ask that question so that we’re not just self-justifying this review and dismissing long-term criticisms of a guy like Miller. It seems to me that TGC’s general approach to marginal figures like this is to assume they are OK until they are beyond the pale. There’s nothing more-harsh in my comments here than in (for example) Miller’s video which I previously linked — yet comments like mine are sort of worried over as too pejorative and unhelpful, and Miller is received, let’s face it, with a very generous endorsement in spite of his biases.

        Is he a member in good standing at a conservative evangelical church? Super: I am willing to offer correction for a factual mistake when that’s clarified. But let’s make sure we understand that the criticism here is not about whether the paperwork has been processed: it’s about what we are endorsing and why.

        • Collin Hansen

          Thanks for the suggestions and feedback, Frank. I’ll keep it in mind.

  • Jack Brooks

    I found the book to be suffocatingly narcissistic, as if I was trapped in a movie theater inside Donald Miller’s head, watching a movie titled “The Donald Miller Movie.” Its views of conservative Christians and progressives were 2-D and simple-minded to the extreme. The newest generation needs a lifeline thrown to it from a Real World outside its own head, not to groove to the muffled bongos it can hear coming from inside somebody else’s head.

    • Carrie

      Um… Look up the definition of a memoir. Talking about one’s personal experiences is kinda… uh… the point.

  • Matthew Anderson

    For whatever it’s worth, there are more options than simply letting Miller be Miller or hysterically picking apart the movie scene by scene. In fact, I think it’s very clear that Miler’s storytelling is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. But therein lies the problem: stories aren’t exactly a neutral medium, as I would bet good money Mike already knows. How we describe things renders certain approaches to the world more plausible than others. The Book of Judges is some pretty hot narrative–and an apologia, it seems, for a monarchy. Even if Miller isn’t self-conscious in this, it still matters.

    That isn’t to say that Miller’s work is bad, dangerous, etc. etc. It may be, but that is not my point. My point here is that Cosper has given us a pretty thin way of understanding what it means for a movie to be “descriptive.” And that’s going to leave readers ill equipped to respond to the whole thing properly.


    • CG

      This is a fantastic comment.

    • Frank Turk

      Ditto what CG said. We’ll see how many people agree with us, Matthew.

    • Collin Hansen

      As you say, Matthew, I expect Mike will respond to your concern, as I’m sure he’s considered this relationship between descriptive and prescriptive teaching. Here’s what I’m wondering: I’m not sure any of my favorite contemporary writers of novels or memoirs could sign a good evangelical statement of faith. Many of them, such as Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry, write about matters of faith and the church. Sure, they’re teaching through their storytelling. But I learn what I can, disagree where I must, and enjoy their gift. I know they’re not pastors or theologians, and they’re not trying to be, so that tempers and colors my expectations. I used contemporary examples, but the same would be true of classic writers like Dostoevsky.

      Maybe we shouldn’t categorize Miller with these novelists, if as Mike notes, he puts himself forward to travel the evangelical conference circuit with pastors. I certainly think his work could be used for ill purposes. Overall I’m just wondering why we treat his reflections as such a grave threat to the church when we mostly brush off Robinson’s liberal Protestantism, Dostoevsky’s national Orthodoxy, and Berry’s anti-clerical localism.

      • Frank Turk

        I can offer you an answer, Collin: it’s because Miller is actively hostile to conservative expressions of theology. We can throw him a bone and say that anyone who has half a brain and half a heart would repudiate all manner of so-called conservatism (KJV-onlyism, fundamentalism, the TBN wing of charismatic post-millenialism, LaHayite dispensationalism, etc.), but when he says (as he does in /Searching for God Knows What/) that standard-issue baptistic conservative churches are on-par with Jihadists, we should at least raise an eyebrow as to whether or not that’s helpful.

        I realize that the blogosphere often gives people the wrong hard time for being less-reformed than we are ourselves. It’s a fair criticism to react against that. But Miller isn’t just less-reformed than the average reformed baptist: he’s positioned himself as a crack-pot polemicist for uncertainty for the sake of creating an audience.

        • Collin Hansen

          That may be true about Miller, but it would also be true of many other writers, I’m afraid. Seriously, I don’t have any intent of becoming a Miller defender. I don’t know his work well enough to be qualified, in any event. I’m more interested to use his work as a window into a huge swath of evangelicals who have too little regard for theology and the church. I don’t agree with what I can discern as Miller’s recommendations, but I need to understand the problem and why so many endorse his solution.

          • Frank Turk

            Let’s roll this back a second, Collin:

            What’s at stake in this post from TGC, which incited my comments this morning, is that TGC has posted what I would call an endorsement of this movie which, at its root, pivots on this statement from Mike: “But on the whole, I think we should address the issues at an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story and the stories around him. Descriptive, not prescriptive. Witness, not authority. I tend to believe that Miller would agree with those categories, and I’d be interested to hear him speak about it.”

            That is: we let Miller off the hook for the flaws in his writing (and in this movie in particular) because he’s just a story-teller. He’s just being honest, man. He’s really just the guys with an “as-told’to” credit for these stories. And somehow we have to get over that he speaks with authority, and cultivates that.

            As they say on the internets, “Really?” Doesn’t the so-called “honesty” of Miller actually tell a much more complex story in which the real remedy for things falling apart is looked at from his perspective with fear and loathing because someone actually believes those things?

            What I have objected to here is not that Miller gets to write, or that we will get to read it, or see it on the big screen: it is that in reviewing his work, TGC has frankly taken a path of discernmentlessness toward his approach to the things at-hand. That’s not viable engagement: that’s capitulation.

            • Collin Hansen

              Let’s make a deal, Frank: You can write a review of the movie and send it to me. I’ll consider it for publishing on TGC’s site. Or maybe you could interview Donald Miller for us. Just make sure you don’t let him off the hook.

            • Frank Turk

              If you can engineer it, I’ll be pleased engage.

            • nhe


              I tend to think of Miller’s “issues” with modern evangelicalism to be similar to Michael Horton’s. Horton of course WOULD be considered a theologian, unlike Miller.

              I really do think that much of what Miller is reacting against in BLJ is the “moral, therapeutic, deism” that Horton speaks so often about. Horton of course goes as far as to say that we need a modern reformation in order to completely overhaul the church.

              I see Miller’s works as pointing to that same need for reformation. His writing style and examples may be far more juvenile than Horton’s, but I think they’re both voices in our Christian culture that are pointing us to something important. Both are prophetic voices. Do all the theological “i’s” need to be dotted and “t’s” need to be crossed for a voice to be prophetic? Does that voice need to be a member of a church? Are prophets not (almost to a man in the OT) a hot mess in general?

          • Timmy-D

            Colin, come to Portland, Oregon. As a pastor in a Portland suburb, Miller’s book has been a great way to understand the people of this city and has often been a tool for discussion. While we may not agree with everything in the book, the subtitle says, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.” Notice that it’s full of Miller’s thoughts, not necessarily facts. I’ve found his thoughts to completely echo common questions and concerns of this area. I know that others in different parts of the country will be asking the same things, but to me Miller is very much a Portlander and his culture rings throughout the book.

      • Matthew Anderson


        Again, I didn’t want to necessarily get into the substantive discussion (at least not in the comment boxes!) about what we should make of Miller’s body of work. And I don’t think that someone has to be an evangelical for their work to have merit and be received as a gift, and a precious one at that. We ought to find the good and praise it, wherever it lies, while sifting out the rest. And I say this as one who has rabidly promoted a television series with profligate teenage sex and alcohol use (Friday Night Lights) because it also portrays a marriage that’s so good it outweighs the rest of it.

        But I’m also not a fan of letting those other folks off the hook, if by “the hook” we mean thoughtfully trying to understand what’s going on in them. I haven’t suggested that Miller’s reflections are a “grave threat” to the church, and in fact I only think I’ve written publicly about Miller’s work twice in my life–a ratio I’m not in a hurry to increase if I can help it. At some point, we should think long and hard about the relationship between intellectual systems and the stories they produce. Of course, the danger is that we’d decrease our enjoyment of writers we currently like: but that is the danger of growth. Would Brothers K be a better story without the nationalized Orthodoxy? It’s a fantastic question, and I won’t hazard an answer. But it’s precisely the sort of question we ought to kick around every now and then.

        That to say, I’m simply convinced that the way through hysterical overreaction is by patient, confident, and appreciative critique. I don’t know Mike but given his writings I’d bet a dollar he doesn’t disagree with me on this. But it doesn’t come through in the article, and if anything, the easy dichotomy between prescriptive and descriptive makes such critique more difficult.

        I am sure the movie is a ton of fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing it. My point was more clarificatory than anything, as I think it’s important to ensure that our methodology of receiving doesn’t cut us off from the responsibility of genuine criticism (rather than hysterical overreaction).



        • Collin Hansen

          Good thoughts, Matthew. I haven’t see the movie, but I’m sure there will be much to criticize, and many willing to volunteer the criticism. I continue to wonder from a pastoral perspective why Miller’s work resonates so deeply with so many. That’s one area where I think Mike’s analysis helped me learn. I’m confident evangelicals can do a better job applying the gospel of Jesus Christ to the frustration, fear, and disappointment of younger Christians. Thank you for your good work in this area.

          • Frank Turk

            From a pastoral perspective, Joel Osteen resonates with more people than Donald Miller does.

            • Collin Hansen

              True. He deserves critique as well, especially since he postures as a pastor.

            • Frank Turk

              That misses my point, Collin: your curiosity about Miller does not extend to Osteen, who has a much more influential roll as (it is said) his work resonates so deeply with so many. Are you really just not available to the idea that what has happened here is a lapse in good judgment regarding how to view what’s happening as Miller works out his view of things for us in the arts? And if not: why not?

              It seems to me you’d never let someone publish a review of an Osteen work this chummy and encouraging — yet here we are with this review, which you want to defend. Why the inconsistency?

              I think that’s a lot more informative than fanning off criticism of this review.

            • Collin Hansen

              Sure, Mike could be wrong. And I could be wrong for publishing the review. I have appreciated the pushback from Matthew Anderson and Owen Strachan. Their responses have added texture to the discussion as we examine the various ways writers and teachers communicate their messages.

            • Frank Turk

              That’s awesome. “texture”. I didn’t realize that was the objective of writing a review — a fashion statement.

              I’ll keep that under advisement for future reference.

      • Lisa

        Don’t kid yourself…EVERYONE is a theologian, whether they know it or not, whether they admit it or not. What we believe about God has an effect on every decision we make, colors every experience we have, determines our response and tells a story all on its own. Miller doesn’t get a pass simply because he is “telling a few stories.”

    • Mike Cosper

      Matthew – thanks for commenting. For what it’s worth, I’m a Matthew Anderson fan myself.

      I completely agree that stories aren’t a neutral medium. I only want to illustrate that the way we engage stories is fundamentally different from the way we engage prescriptive and didactic works. A storyteller may illustrate something (like a young Christian comforting a broken hearted lesbian friend) without necessarily prescribing it (Christians should do relationship counseling for homosexuals). Discerning what’s being prescribed in stories takes an extra step of discernment, and many story tellers (like Wendell Berry) furiously refuse to explain and hate the concept of their work having a message. They only want to tell a story. Miller isn’t necessarily among them, but I simply wanted to raise the point.

      As Collin said, there seems to be a different standard for Miller than Berry and Robinson. I would add Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard to that list as well: writers that Evangelicals seem to love and who don’t receive ½ the flack and theological criticism that Miller gets, though they make just as many and just as aggressive critiques.

      This, as I said in the article, is because of the complexity of his place in Christian culture, and since he seems to be a participant in posturing himself in that way, the critiques are to some extent fair game. I think that’s unfortunate.

      I’m certainly not saying critique is unnecessary or out of bounds. I’m primarily arguing that his critics start from a different place, and I think it misunderstands several aspects of the book.

      • Mike Cosper

        Regarding this comment: “That to say, I’m simply convinced that the way through hysterical overreaction is by patient, confident, and appreciative critique. I don’t know Mike but given his writings I’d bet a dollar he doesn’t disagree with me on this. But it doesn’t come through in the article, and if anything, the easy dichotomy between prescriptive and descriptive makes such critique more difficult.”

        I don’t disagree with you, but the reason for my emphasis is because the film in particular is going to stir a lot of controversy over the wrong things – his friends, movie-Don’s sins, etcetera. I think that distinction is really important as a framework for understanding the film, and it’s one that many critiques of Miller’s work seem to miss.

        • Matthew Anderson

          Thanks, Mike. I appreciate the reply, and I think it’s quite helpful.

          I’d hazard my own thought on why Miller gets singled out: he’s been vastly more influential and successful on a popular scale within evangelicalism than the other writers. We evangelicals have a tough time shaking our populist tendencies, even in our critiques. So some of the folks that you and Collin mentioned deserve stronger pushback (Lamott), but are also more narrowly influential among younger evangelicals (namely, really popular among the writer class, but not as much beyond–that I’ve seen, anyway).

          At any rate, appreciate your work. There’s a lot more we could both say about the meaning of Donald Miller, but for me it will have to wait until another time.



    • Sara

      Wow – your statement about “leaving readers ill-equipped to respond properly” – don’t you think that reeks of something a wee bit off, shall I say? I hope you are not suggesting that Spirit-filled Christians have to first read a blog before viewing a movie and having a Spirit-led response to it!!!

      This is one of the major, egregious presuppositions of blogs anyway. It is as if, before the 21st century blogosphere existed, we were unable to think as thoroughly, articulately or biblically. C’mon! Blogs are fun and useful, but they are not the end all, be all.

      • Ray

        I was gonna make the same comment when I finished reading them all. It just popped into my wee noggin that we might be missing the influence of the Word and care of the Spirit in our fears.

        Non-the-less critiques are useful and even needful. Pastors (shepherds) are given to lead and protect the flock (same principle).

        I had your thought though.

  • AStev

    I enjoyed the book as an angsty college student with postmodern sympathies. When I outgrew those things, it had much less appeal.

    I do think the reviewer here may be drawing too firm a distinction between prescriptive and descriptive, since all descriptive stories have an element of prescription to them. When we describe something or someone, we nearly always do so in a way that emphasizes our own values and minimizes conflicting ones. Even though I quite enjoyed the book back in college, I would have readily admitted that a lot of the elements in the story were somewhat superficial caricatures, intended to elicit a certain response.

  • HenningSam

    There are so many “great” Christian authors out there. Why waste your time on Donald Miller’s confusing take on Christianity. I agree with Frank Turk…some of what I’ve been reading on the Gospel Coalition recently has me concerned.

  • Paul Butterworth

    Mike: I love you as a pastor and a brother. As one who lived through the Miller Inquisition, much of which took place on Lexington Road, I remember such labels as “He’s Schleiermacher with a soul patch,” and so forth. Thank you for disengaging from the culture war and reminding us of the power of story.

    As to comments about the medium of story telling: Of course it’s not neutral, and of course, memoirs are by nature narcissistic. I know that many (if not most) of TGC’s usual suspects would disagree with Miller’s politics and so forth. The question is: Can brothers disagree on open-handed issues and still be brothers? I sure hope so.

  • Spiritual Klutz
  • Owen

    Provocative piece, Mike. You always make me think. I agree that we can slice and dice cultural works in such a way that we almost lose sight of the whole. We want to be careful about bringing sub-atomic, thermonuclear theological force to bear on a child’s drawing of heaven, for example. (For the record, I have actually seen that happen.)

    You’re clear about not giving Miller a “free pass” on all this, so that’s noted. Having said that–Jerry Seinfeld voice–I do wonder about the prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy you reference, which of course was debated at length a few years back. Isn’t even description prescription? I know you read Wolfe as I do (the most recent Wolfe, that is). Aren’t his descriptions ultimately forming in us a conception of things–his careful construction of Sherman Mccoy’s blue-bloodedness, Charlie Coker’s needless consumerism, Charlotte Simmons’s gradual and devastating loss of innocence? With none of these characters does he moralize or, to coin a word, theologize. But he is very much forming our thoughts about the world through his descriptions, I think.

    The same is true of Miller and any talented writer. It is of course right that his style is not didactic; he’s not writing technical footnotes on the extracalvinisticum. But style isn’t really the issue, right? You can write in a primeval, neo-apocalyptic manner ala McCarthy, an elegaic, deeply personal style ala Didion, and a rambunctious, loquacious style ala Wolfe and very much communicate ideas. Any good writer does. In literature, description is prescription. Postmodernism is right: in all but the most shadowy work, we can’t help but communicate our perspective, our worldview, to others.

    Again, this is not to say that a writer works as a theologian in formal terms. But it is to say that writers deal in ideas just as theologians do. And if they deal in ideas, and theological and spiritual ideas as Miller does, are they not worth engaging? Perhaps one might say “Yes, but that engagement should be appropriate to the medium.” That’s fair, I think (see the comment about sub-atomic force being brought to bear on cultural works).

    But I do wonder if Miller has his toe more in the theological water than one might initially think from his laconic, humorous writing style. I think he actually has a pretty developed understanding of Christianity that he’s put forth in his material. He’s a clever dude. I think his understanding of the faith actually DESERVES engagement, because it actually does amount to a pretty strong challenge of the “paleoconservative/ultra-reformed” perspective.

    I’m interested in your thoughts, genuinely so, and I am writing these comments without bluster or anger. I enjoy your writing and would pay it the strong compliment of being consistently stimulating. In answer to Paul’s good question, yes, we may in the end disagree on Miller, and yes, we can very much be brothers.

    • Matthew Anderson

      Great thoughts, Owen.

      And just to clarify, you’ve nailed the tone I was going for (and clearly missed on!). Count me among the many fans of Cosper!

      That said, you wrote:

      “The same is true of Miller and any talented writer. It is of course right that his style is not didactic; he’s not writing technical footnotes on the extracalvinisticum. But style isn’t really the issue, right? You can write in a primeval, neo-apocalyptic manner ala McCarthy, an elegaic, deeply personal style ala Didion, and a rambunctious, loquacious style ala Wolfe and very much communicate ideas.”

      The McLuhanite in me wants to say that it is, in fact, that if you take on a particular style you are in fact communicating something regardless of what ideas you wrap in it. For Miller, the style of storytelling is itself the message–and I’m pretty sure he says as much in A Million Miles, where he talks about great stories being about journeys rather than destinations. That may or may not be true, but it is simply to say that Miller’s own stylistic efforts seem to be part of what he’s up to in the world.


      • Owen

        Thank you for your kind words, Matt.

        I appreciate your thoughts. It’s certainly true that Miller is trying to “do something” through his style; I tried to say that by making reference to his “laconic” manner. I’ve read A Million Miles and liked some of it (I liked To Own a Dragon best of DM’s books, personally). I’m not entirely sure of your point, but yes, we communicate both through our style–the medium–and through our content. In fact, both are worth engaging on their own terms.

        There’s much to comment on in Mike’s piece, and much more to talk about in Miller’s corpus. I was working simply off of the descriptive/prescriptive quandary, and trying to say that I think it’s valid for theologians to engage a work of literature and analyze it. In point of fact I find BLJ a pretty unhelpful book and would not commend it to others. I do think that Mike is right when he essentially says that as a work of sociology, of understanding a certain cast of evangelicals, it captures how many think.

    • Mike Cosper

      Hey Owen. You said,

      “Perhaps one might say “Yes, but that engagement should be appropriate to the medium.””

      That’s what I’m saying. I think the complexity with Miller comes from his place in the Evangelical subculture. This is due to his own participation in the Christian conference/blog scene, the marketing hype that annointed him as the voice of a generation, and the hostility between the world of progressives and conservatives.

      • Owen

        I hear you, brother. As you likely saw, I see something of your point. Let me take a stab at articulating how I think we evaluate artists as theologians or theologically minded Christians.

        From what I can tell, artists often make statements without meaning to get into abstract discussions. They have a certain idea they want to get across, and they use a canvas or a recording studio or a book page to do so. Sometimes this vision is detailed and intricate, and many times, I think, it is more visceral and direct. In other words, the artist hasn’t even thought to cross every t and dot every i. They have a burden on their soul, and they have to discharge it, and the only way to do so is to create.

        Which is why, it seems to me, artists and theologians sometimes talk past one another. The artist is thinking with their heart, the theologian with their mind. The artist might not think about the consequences of their work; the theologian might not think about the fundamental burden of the artist, the cry of their heart. Both sides can work to understand the other in this way (as I see it) and know that the artist isn’t thinking they’re offering a systematic theology in their art, even as the theologian is called of God to take truth seriously, defend it, and ensure the full health and flourishing of God’s people.

        Perhaps this kind of perspective relates to what you’re saying, Mike. If so, I think you’re right (and said much the same). My little detour here, though, does not mean that artists get off the hook for crying “art!” when they publicly show their work. Their work traffics in ideas, and it deserves and even demands evaluation on that point. This is where Miller comes in. I don’t think he’s writing as a systematician, but he is definitely offering ideas, and like the painter, the musician, and the ballerina, his ideas merit engagement.

        Ideally, theologians would engage art and literature by first recognizing that they may be misunderstood if their 15000 megatons of doctrinal evaluation come crashing down on what was essentially a cry of the heart (and not technical theology). But once that’s made clear, I think that Miller and others deserve and even call for engagement as writers, artists, thinkers. That’s part of what I appreciate about Schaeffer–he’s respectful (deeply so) to art and writing, but he doesn’t hold back in his evaluation. I learned to engage art and culture from him.

        • William Laing

          Owen, would you agree, at least by now, that Miller is in fact completely aware of the doctrinal evaluation on his art? It has been years since the book, and it’s becoming clear that the movie will be just like the book. At this point, shouldn’t it be clear that Miller is using the arts to communicate theology?

        • Mike Cosper

          I’m with you, Owen. I think all of life is inherently theological – everything we do communicates something about what we most love, most deeply believe, and most desire.

          I definitely believe that Miller’s work merits engagement. I knew, long before seeing the movie, that other gifted pastors will write thoughtful critiques of the film. My goal was to make a few points about the film’s place within the Christian subculture:

          First – Why is Miller’s work successful? I believe it’s because his critiques of fundamentalist and evangelical culture are resonant with many Christians.He articulates them in a way that is funny and winsome, while holding out another cultural expression of Christianity… One that eats granola, rides hipster bicycles, and recycles. Because that culture is often inherently hostile to conservatives, he receives a fair share of vitriol.

          Second – Why is Miller’s work so criticized? I said:

          “I think we should address the issues at an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story and the stories around him. Descriptive, not prescriptive. Witness, not authority.”

          But… I also said, “Miller, of course, isn’t innocent here. He’s jumped into the fray on a variety of arguments (like his much-debated blog post on who should run the church), and he has willingly served the marketing machine’s efforts to present him as an expert. This, to me, is unfortunate because it clouds what’s most valuable about Miller’s work.”

          And… “I’m not saying that he should get a free pass on the issues. I’m curious why the film isn’t explicit about the gospel (unlike the book, which talks very directly about the cross). I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t a bit of a compromise.”

          So I intended to say, “Here’s a bit of a different way of thinking about Miller’s work.” I didn’t say “He gets a get out of jail free card.”

          Here’s what I’m certain of: There are scenes in this movie where movie Don does some really stupid things. He gets drunk. He takes pills. He vandalizes a church in a really offensive way. I am certain that these elements of the story will be the center of a whole lot of debate and discussion – treated as though Miller were advocating such things. And that whole conversation misses the point; these story elements go to illustrate the lostness and disillusionment of movie Don, and they’re in no way prescriptive.

          One more comment: Fundamentally, narrative is prescriptive in a much more complex way than work that is direct and prescriptive. Paul’s letters, for instance, or a book on ecclesiology are direct in a way that “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is not. I don’t pick up a work by Hemmingway, Kerouac, Lammott or many others expecting universal principles for all people in all places. I think it’s unfortunate that Miller gets treated that way – which is to some degree his own fault, to another degree the nature of the subculture he inhabits and to yet another, the fault of his fans and critics.

  • Jack Brooks

    I want to comment on story-telling, writers claiming “not to be” something, and how author credibility affects how we respond to their work.

    First, all story-telling is didactic to various degrees, because meaning is declarative. If there isn’t a point to character(s) moving through the plot in particular ways, then arriving at a terminus, then the story is meaningless. Wwe might prefer a subtle communcation of the meaning vs. a heavy-handed one, but there still needs to be meaning. Our family attended Sojourn last summer, and in the art gallery out on the lobby was a (mannequin) body laid on the ground and draped in a white burial shroud. There were no accompanying hints why it was there, or what it meant, and so I still think of it as meaningless. Without meaning, it was just an object draped by another object. The essence of reality is objective, since God exists outside of us, and prior to us. So I don’t cut a writer much slack on the ground that he/she is a story-teller as opposed to being an essay-writer. A wicked story can lead to the damnation of the soul.

    Along that line, saying that someone “isn’t claiming to be a” (fill in the blank) doesn’t make things better, either. We’re all responsible to God for the truthfulnmess of what we write. I can truthfully say that I’m not a physician, but if I write to someone that cinnamon capsules will cure their leukemia, I’m still an irresponsible idjit. Donald Miller is free to tell us his story, but once he steps outside the boundary of autobiography into prescription, what credibility does he have? Why should I heed the ideas of an emotionally-fractured agnostic? The same question is fair of any writer, and is commonly asked to test the quality of a writer’s work. Lewis did this in his essay on higher criticism, when he pointed out that European liberal theologians were claiming expertise in areas where they had none (literary myth genre), and he did.

    Ths leads into why I don’t think we can separate the writer from the written. If it’s true that Miller has openly apostasized from the Christian faith, then that makes my view of BLJ even more grim. When Gordon MacDonald, former president of IVCF, admitted to an affair, it cast a deep shadow over his very-popular book on marriage. Even if it was the case that he deviated from his own good counsel, which was probably the best way to summarize it, the book became undermined. Suppose we found a manuscript of Calvin’s titled, “On The Humble & Loving Treatment of Dissidants”, how much credence would we grant it?

  • Former Fundamentalist

    As a former fundamentalist who read Blue Like Jazz, I can only say that the book comes across as a smug, immature evaluation of the Christian life. Are there things that troubled me about fundamentalism? Are there things that are troubling about evangelicalism? Sure, but cleverness aside, there are better spirited cultural, historical, and theological evaluations out there.

    I’d identify myself as a reformed evangelical, now, by the way.

  • Heather E. Carrillo

    Ok, first off, I’ve been in an OPC church all my life, so you bet I was skeptical of Miller the expert/theologian. But I found myself reading it thinking…huh, this isn’t half bad.
    I loved this article, because I can now put into words WHY I did actually like Blue Like Jazz. Up till now I’ve just said, “Well, he’s a little bit ‘Portland’ (I’m allowed to say this I live in Oregon), but he certainly has some good things to say.” But you are right! He’s a witness and not an expert. And it is a shame that he’s perhaps slipped into thinking he might be an expert.
    I think most books like this often come off as attacking “religion” or “traditions” and I don’t think Blue Like Jazz did. I think this is the voice of someone genuinely fed up and trying to give voice to his experience. As long as it is clear that it is his experience, I think it’s great! There ARE people who need to hear it. It hasn’t been my experience, but we are all in different stages of the Christian life, and some recognition of this is refreshing.

  • Sam Y

    Blue Like Jazz seems to do more harm than good in my opinion. An understanding and application of the “total depravity” of man and the sovereign grace of God is what the modern church needs (including Reformed churches), not post modern mumbo jumbo. In my experience, Blue Like Jazz is really big in groups that lack a coherent, grace-based systematic theology. Does Mr. Miller have an agenda? Absolutely. The man gave a prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He makes the same error that many fundamentalist churches make—except he does so on the other side of the aisle! We need to focus on the Gospel, that Jesus came to save us from ourselves. We need to study the full implications of that in sacred Scripture under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and the learned men that came before us in the church. We do not need to “rail against the establishment” and not seek to obtain a systematic understanding Scripture.

    • Heather E. Carrillo

      I’m not trying to be all “Rob Bell supporter on you” but I am honestly curious if you have read the book. I honestly can’t remember a part where he “rails against the establishment.” I feel like as a staunch member of a reformed church, I’d be extra sensitive if he did. Maybe I should just re-read it…I guess I agree with the author of this post in that I don’t think it was theological. It seemed more memoir less “this is how it’s done!”

      If he has started getting preachy and doing things like praying at political conventions (that was the first I’d heard about it) or suggesting others leave the church, then yes, it’s a problem. But the book itself didn’t seem to be like that.

      • Sam Y

        I think we are coming at this from different perspectives: I am viewing Blue Like Jazz in light of Donald Miller’s total body of work. I think you are viewing Blue Like Jazz on its own for the purpose of this discussion (which may be more appropriate). Donald Miller not only gave the benediction at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, he is also a frequent “key note” speaker at various ministry conferences, especially within the restoration movement. It is his total body of work that I take issue with, not necessarily Blue Like Jazz on its own merits. I feel like he can and does lead people very far from a solid theological understanding of the Gospel, beginning with the book. That is why I am so opposed to it gaining any traction within Reformed and evangelical circles.

        • Heather E. Carrillo

          This could very well be. I am definitely taking Blue Like Jazz just by itself. I have read one other books by Don Miller and it was lovely, but I would almost put it more on a shelf of travel memoir than anything else.
          I’m by no means a supporter/defender. I did like the book, but I would never give it to a new believer, and I don’t recommend it to anyone unless I know them particularly well and give them lots and lots of caveats.
          I would definitely be more comfortable if he stuck to memoir and made it very clear that this is how he (and some people in our generation) have experienced Christianity. If he made orthodox Christianity his personal axe to grind, than yes, there is a problem. I agree.
          His story doesn’t at all resonate with me, but I’m sure someone who came from a background like that would be interested in reading it. Not remotely for the theology, just to read an interesting memoir from another Christian.

  • Dai Li

    This article is Soooooooo Brilliant!

  • Vicki

    To me, Donald Miller is like another short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Flannery O’Connor wrote short stories that exposed the hypocricy of southern ultra conservative baptists culture but stayed true to the Gospel. And like Flannery O’Connor, a lot of those same people who were the subjects in her stories are the same people who got pretty angry at Flannery O’Connor about her short stories. I wondered if they got angry because they just didn’t like reading about themselves or if they had an issue with how she was writing about God? If you fast foward 50 years, after her death, there has been many people who have been greatly influenced to seek Jesus after reading her stories. And the people who got really angry at her work are all dead right now. SO… what should I think about Miller? Well.. in 50 years, I think you might hear people saying reading or watching this movie was a start to inspire them on a spiritual journey, and all the people who had issues with his book will most likely be dead.

  • paul cummings

    BLJ as a story of an individual’s faith journey is painful for a Christian to hear simply because it hits pretty close to home. If the movie is successful I wouldn’t be surprised to see a movie version of “The Unlikely Disciple” by Kevin Roose. Part of what Miller and Roose (albeit in different way) are trying to do is say to the Church “whether you realize it, or like it, this is how you come across and how the world often sees you.” Seems like story telling works best for that type of message.

  • Jeff

    Here is a charitable review of Blue Like Jazz. Gilley puts the light in the right spot.

  • Frank Turk

    nhe wrote:

    I see Miller’s works as pointing to that same need for reformation. His writing style and examples may be far more juvenile than Horton’s, but I think they’re both voices in our Christian culture that are pointing us to something important. Both are prophetic voices. Do all the theological “i’s” need to be dotted and “t’s” need to be crossed for a voice to be prophetic? Does that voice need to be a member of a church? Are prophets not (almost to a man in the OT) a hot mess in general?

    I’d be greatly interested to read Dr. Horton’s assessment of your thoughts on the similarities you perceive.

    That said, I have said plainly in this comment thread that someone doesn’t have to be any kind of “reformed” to have a sound christian faith or talk about it in a sound way. I’m also generally on-record as being against poking people in the eye over the jots and tittles, and the gross shortcomings of discernment blogging in general.

    That said, my point to Collin here, and to Mike who wrote the original post/review, is that allowing the notion that Miller is just a nice writer with no agenda to get floated as a way to forgive the many places where, frankly, he is not a credit to his faith is simply negligent. TGC is supposed to be a place which “features a community of voices who promote gospel-centered ministry for the next generation.” How giving Miller a pass for being what he is is somehow inside those bounds has yet to be explained.

    • Ronald McDonald

      I think we get the point that you are not a Donald Miller fan. Noted. Let the horse have some dignity is his death.

      Meanwhile, believe it or not, some of us find this post helpful in engaging this movie. Yes. real people. Christians even. If you want to combat something you disagree with …perhaps a method might be to create something yourself rather than just denounce what others create. Write a book. Direct a movie. Deal with the critics. See how that suits.

      • l3gi0nnair3

        “If you want to combat something you disagree with …perhaps a method might be to create something yourself rather than just denounce what others create.”

        Wow–hear that, Frank? You’re not allowed to disagree with an author until you’re a published author yourself. Just so you’re clear on that.

        • Ronald McDonald

          Simply stating it’s easy for a lot of people to sit back and vomit all over blog posts all day long without ever contributing anything of usefulness themselves. Of course he’s allowed to disagree. It doesn’t mean it’s not super annoying.

          Blog post comment sections to me are sort of the underbelly of modern Christian culture. It’s not so much the “disagreeing” as it is the manner in which it is done.

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  • david carlson

    frank frank frank

    what is it with you and tgc? Is your diatribe because your website got dropped from some of the contributors blog rolls? You expect tgc to get you an interview with DM? Since you don’t actually know anything about DM personally, he is an apostate until proven innocent? you get offered the opportunity to contribute to tgc with a movie review, but refuse?

  • student

    After reading the comment thread I realized that Frank Turk is the type of person that persuades those outside the church that the gospel is ineffectual. Minimal humility, patience, and kindness.

    One of my professor-friends (philosophy of science) is not a believer for the very reason that he has met a significant number of such persons.

    • Heather E. Carrillo

      @student, I would advise against judging a brother-in-Christ by a comment thread.

      • Jonathan

        After reading through Frank Turk’s comments on numerous blogs and his own Pyro site I think student may have nailed it pretty good.

        • Heather E. Carrillo

          @Jonathan: I follow his Pyro site too and I’ve heard him speak on this podcast I used to listen to. I disagree with him here, personally, but neither you, nor I, nor @student actually KNOW the man. And you are judging another Christian. I just think it’s wrong.

          • Jonathan

            OK, let me rephrase … the way he acts online shows minimal humility, patience, and kindness. He may in fact be the most humble, kind and patient person … he just is not great at showing that online and so rather than judge the person I will judge the actions.

            • Heather E. Carrillo

              Heh…fair enough. I don’t really see that, but ok. It is rather hard to show your heart in blogs/online forums.

    • Robert Sakovich

      Frank Turk actually calls people to be accountable for the implications of what they say and do. Do you not think that there are many people in this country who have a false belief that they are saved? And how do you think that happens? It is precisely because we don’t draw the lines well enough, and in fact, tend to blur them in many cases by not asking the questions that Frank does here. This is actually something that the Church has done since it started. Just go read some of the NT epistles…and it isn’t just Paul who does this.

      • paul cummings

        I wonder however how many are driven away from the church by comments such as his though…It’s probably fairly equal to the ones who are confident in their unrepentance. Smug Christians and lukewarm Christians are equally at fault.

        • Heather E. Carrillo

          Not many, Paul. In fact, I’d go ahead and say none. People who employ Mr. Turk’s sort of approach (again, we can only judge from online commenting which is a dreadful summation of the person) may be the initial EXCUSE people who were “driven from the church” will give, but Jesus calls everyone personally. When Jesus calls, it is irresistible. That’s the good news. No matter how much we Christians screw up (and we will), we can’t stop God from saving people.

          • paul cummings

            Oh, I don’t disagree about God’s power…but there are plenty who adore God, but can’t stand His followers…which is basically the gist of “BLJ” anyways…

            • Heather E. Carrillo

              I know. I’ve read it. And I liked it, despite my experience being VERY different from Mr. Miller’s.
              But I do think that in time as you move towards God you start to appreciate all of His followers. From the hard nosed logical cantankerous to the squishiest evanjellybean (am I allowed to use that?) around. As long as fellow Christians aren’t compromising the gospel, you find ways to love them because God loves them. I feel like if you are a new Christian, I would understand being rubbed the wrong way by more cantankerous conservative Christians. But hopefully you will be gracious enough to see the work of Christ in their lives too.

            • paul cummings

              Hahaha! Sorry I’ve been in the ministry for 20 years ;-)

            • Heather E. Carrillo

              Your last comment for some reason won’t allow a reply…but my reply would be: And?

            • paul cummings

              Ok, I weary of getting into these “things” with you… but here goes-
              1. You called me out as a young Christian…whether you know it or not, that’s insulting. You judged me over 2 posts…thanks.
              2. You pose that people who love God develop a love for his followers…in your world this may be true…in mine however it is farther from the truth. Here in the Bible belt, people don’t just “know who Jesus is”, they grew up in church and a lot of them never want to go back there again…not God’s fault…but peoples.
              3. It is “both-and” being Lukewarm is equally as dangerous as being overly zealous for “debatable matters”.
              4. When you’re in the ministry and you care about Evangelism, you spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning up after the “pharisees”…that’s where I live…what I deal with everyday.

              I can’t tell you how many conversations I have on a weekly basis about this very subject.

            • Heather E. Carrillo

              Uh…how many of these “things” have you and I got into? I don’t know you so…how can you be weary? If you have so many conversations about this have you ever given a thought to the fact that you might possibly…just maybe…be…wrong?
              1. When I said “you,” I meant “one.” You was used in a universal sense. Which is why I was so confused when you brought in how long you’d been in the ministry. Where else, aside from this misapplication of the word “you” did I judge you?
              2. That’s dreadful. I’m sorry people where you are from can’t get over themselves and love those who God loves. Yes, it is “people’s” fault that those people don’t want to go back to church. It is the fault of the people who have left the church. They should find a loving church (you are clearly in one, right?) and move on with their lives, and let go of their hatred and judgmental attitudes.
              3. Honestly, I didn’t understand this.
              4. And you clean it up by saying: “Oh yeah…you are totally justified in hating those people. Stupid conservatives!” Sorry, I just don’t think this is the best way to go about things. A house divided against itself you know…

            • Heather E. Carrillo

              Addendum: I lived four years in the bible belt. I met a lot of really really sweet people with a genuine love for the Lord. Seems a shame to drag them through the dirt for being more traditional/conservative whatever you want to call it, than you.

            • paul Cummings

              You couldn’t have missed my point anymore than if you’d purposely tried to… It’s almost like you didn’t read the thread and had something “pre-loaded”. Seriously if you’re going to “debate” these things, be charitable, leave the sarcasm out, don’t assume you know where the other person is coming from, don’t assume you’ve got them figured out.
              I will try and practice what I preach as well.

            • Heather E. Carrillo

              I’m glad you said “try and practice what you preach” because in that last comment you certainly fell far from the mark.
              You addressed nothing of what I said, assumed a lot, judged me and publicly lambasted me. I read exactly what you said and responded to everything. YOU were the one who ignored it and published a generic “you’re so stupid try again” comment. So, yes, TRY indeed before you start the mud-slinging.
              Now…back to my actual points…or did you just have nothing to say so you went all ad hominem? That’s usually the case when the other person in the debate starts insulting the other, they usually just realized that they are probably wrong.

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  • Josh Hostetler

    Thank you Mike for your review. I got to see the world premiere at sxsw last night, and your review resonates with me the most.

  • Joshua

    I loved the book, haven’t seen the movie. Some of these comments are pretty funny thought :)

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  • Carson

    It would be interesting to see, perhaps in another post at another time, the standards to which storytellers should be held vs, say, professional theologians. I don’t see a distinction. I teach at a PAC 10 university and there are multiple courses here that include storytelling. This isn’t in lit courses; storytelling is seen as a key component for roles that include management consultants who use quantitative or economic models. McKinsey stresses storytelling skills; the consulting firm I used to work for stressed it. The reasons are similar to those produced by sources as varied as N.T. Wright or C.S.Lewis or George Orwell. As Wright argues, “story authority” invites a person into a world view — it teaches by making all things cohere based on a point of view. The Bible isn’t a powerpoint presentation of bullet points, it is a story. Schaeffer argued long ago that the chairs of philosophy for the broader culture sit in the arts. For modeling (of the quantitative sort) we say that there are no “objective facts,” even if they look like numbers and are in a database in a computer: some person decided that info was relevant, how it was relevant, how to measure it, how to aggregate it, when to start and stop measuring, and its relationship to decision making.

    The storytelling emphasis in these courses is part of decision making: we make decisions based on our perceptions and while individual data influence our choice-making, storytelling presents a scenario in which we see ourselves acting and within which our choices make sense. George Lucas explicitly said that an important objective of the Star Wars stories was to present a Buddhist point of view — he acknowledged his intention to influence the way people see themselves, the world and the choices they make.

    Miller said the same: by telling his story he wonders if it might influence the way others make choices (how they spend their money, how they help the poor, and more). This is a profound objective, a mode of conveying truth about who we are, how we perceive, what our values should be and how we should make choices. To lift a line from the past, how we should then live.

    The gifted storyteller (as many believe Miller to be) has a greater sphere of influence than the maladroit one, but both have the same responsibility. Any culture that holds its storytellers to a less standard than its theologians and philosophers and economists and strategy consultants makes itself vulnerable to deception, especially of its young who are the most easily persuaded by compelling stories.

  • On The Mark

    I had never heard of Donald Miller, and I know about him only what your article presents. You are clearly defending his work, if not all of his ideas. Yet, I must conclude from your article that his work is born of anger at Christians rather than love for God or for the lost.

    This dichotomy you’ve created of ‘prescription’ versus ‘description’ is nonsense. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, no story describes events without ascribing value, whether good or bad, to those events or the decisions that led to them, thereby prescribing decisions or outcomes represented as good and proscribing those represented as bad.

    According to your description, Miller’s prescription for Christians is, at least in part, to ask forgiveness from the lost for our failures. But David said that his sin, so severe and destructive to others, was only against God. If we are concerned, as we should be, about our failures, then our interest should primarily be in forgiveness from God, who is, by the way, the very one from whom the lost also should be seeking forgiveness.

    Seeking forgiveness from the lost wholesale (apologizing for the Crusades, for example) is an idolatrous, people-pleasing effort, and reveals, I think, Donald Miller’s true motives in spite of your efforts to defend him and cast his work in a favorable light. In addition, such a prescription also exposes a naive, culturally regressive tendency to embrace identity politics rather than to accept individuals as the unique creations we are.

    Speaking of politics, you mention ‘Republicanism’ but your only explanation for the term comes in the form of a promise that Miller offers ‘another way’ to those repulsed by it. Doesn’t he offer anything to Republicans?

    It seems to me, entirely from your favorable article, that Miller’s prescription for Christians is for us to stop being Christians (seek ‘redemption’ from man rather than from God), and perhaps as well for Republicans to stop being Republicans.

    But such is the message of atheists, communists, homosexuals, and other idolators. May I recommend you reconsider your advocacy?

    “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

    • Ronald McDonald

      i would recommend a re-read of the article. i think you missed it completely. Thus being off the mark.

  • H. H. Bill

    Mike I just want to clarify that after reading your review I didn’t conclude from it that you, Donald Miller, or the movie were in any way advocating atheists, communists, homosexuals, and other idolators.

    Also I’ve always understood that when Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth and he referred to the same and said, “such were some of you” he wasn’t advocating it either.

  • Jason Wiedel

    I look forward to the release of Blue Like Jazz, and even to the criticism that it is bound to stir. Things that rattle us are things that make us think. My hope is that the movie stirs thoughtful discussion about the Christian’s journey and a Christian’s place in culture. I also hope the the movie kick starts some new creativity in the world of religious film-making.

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  • Sam Y

    I would like to draw every one’s attention to this blog post by Mr. Miller: .

    He may be doing some good by telling his narrative, but he is doing some harm in his theology.

    • Sam Y

      Also, would like to add that I am not implying that he is not a Christian, or anything of the sort. I am implying that he is misguided in his theology and that it is hurtful to promote his “expertise,” which is what we are doing here.

  • John B.

    I read Blue Like Jazz, and understand its appeal. It certainly touches a chord for those who have been disappointed or frustrated by hypocrisy in the so-called Christian culture.

    However, in the end, I would agree with those who found it narcissistic, and maintain that it provides little in the way of constructive direction. If you want to attack hypocrisy in the church culture, have at it – it’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel – not hard to do. What is hard to do is build faithful, enduring ministries that honor God and are true to his Word.

    While they were not uttered in a Christian context, I am put in mind of these words of Theodore Roosevelt:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    Donald Miller, sadly, fits the mold of the critic. He has nothing of substance to offer, affirms people in a man-centered perspective of the Gospel, and reaffirms people in their prejudices against Christianity without providing any real Biblical alternative. Somehow, people think that helps. I think it only helps him make a living.

  • Kim Clutter

    great movie great book!! HIGHLY recommend for all those who are comfortable in church, this will give you a brand new fresh perspective!!

  • Jen

    Descriptive is the perfect way to describe this film. It requires the watcher to ask questions and dig within themselves as we face the realistic challenges of living in the world and not of it while we seek to love our neighbors who are of it.

  • Megs

    I read my first Don Miller book years ago, when I was experiencing a tipping point in my faith. The Christians in my life were so excruciatingly judgemental, intolerant, and un-gracefilled – that I was ready to walk away from the church for good. The only problem was, my complete and abiding love for God. Blue Like Jazz, the book, came along and gave me something to hold onto. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Yes, Don Miller told his story. Yes, there are some theological implications. But truly, when I share my faith journey with a believer – or unbeliever – aren’t I sharing my theology, too? That clearly doesn’t make me an expert.
    My faith walk was given a whole new life when I realized I wasn’t alone. Many years later, I now work in a church – and love every minute. I get to teach people how to share their stories – and yes, sometimes I apologize to those who have been hurt by the church in the past. Because I know what that feels like.
    There’s a very poignant scene in the movie where Don realizes he’s no longer embarrassed by his love of Jesus… If this movie does nothing else, I hope those who believe and those who don’t know what to believe, will find that they’re not alone in the questioning… And that there is nothing to be ashamed of in the finding of Jesus.
    Regardless of where you are in your faith – no matter your place on the theological spectrum, politics, etc – if you’re able to just look at the big picture, you might see the redeeming quality of everybody having a place in God’s big story.

  • don renollet

    I haven’t seen the film, but I have read Miller book. And this particular “blog/article” is one of the most thoughtful articles on something relating to modern culture and the church that I’ve seen in a long time. It can be really tough to be a Christian and communicate to non-Christians, and Cosper does it with great sensitivity.

    BTW, Colin, was great to have you at college park church a few weeks ago.

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  • Alexander Gartley

    Read the book and was profoundly affected by it. Made me think about a lot of things in a different way. Thanks for posting such a thoughtful review of the movie, and a helpful way to approach it.

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  • JT

    I AM SUCH A CHRISTIAN. The kind that loves JESUS and his glorious GOSPEL, but HATE REPUBLICANISM.

    • Heather E. Carrillo

      @JT: Well, Christianity was around way before “Republicanism” (assuming that is a thing) so, I guess you’re pretty much in line with the rest of us.

  • Anne

    With so many movies coming out these days with so many bad messages, it makes me sad that we can’t just appreciate this movie for what it is: a movie that tells a good story with Christian themes such as forgiveness, grace, transformation and God’s love.

    I agree that probably many in the evangelical world are “going to freak out when they see this movie. How else would we expect them to respond to a “Christian” film featuring lesbians, atheists, adulterous youth ministers, vandalizing Christian activists, and a sexy carrot?”

    But the thing is, it’s not a “Christian” film. It’s a film made by Christians with real life issues that, unfortunately, many who grow up as evangelicals experience – whether we want to admit it or not.

    Fact is there are nice lesbians out there who could benefit from interacting with Christians who show them God’s love. There are youth pastors – and senior pastors – who are adulterous. There are some people who are passionate about what they believe and they don’t express it in a way that some would tell them is the way it ought to be done. Who’s the Judge, anyways? How should things be done? Jesus was pretty radical.

    Why do we even question if it’s prescriptive? If someone actually suggests that Miller is promoting the things that are shown in the film as Don’s experience at a “liberal, godless college” then that’s just silly. They might be the same people who aren’t just trying to not be of the world, but not be in it as well.

    It is what it is, a good story with a good message. I hope people see it.

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  • Pamela Nees

    I’m NOT wasting my money. Didn’t buy/read the book. Won’t see the movie…

  • Brandon Adams

    My wife and I went to the film Saturday night. Overall, I enjoyed the film. I have plenty of things I can pick on, both theologically and from a film perspective, but in short, I think people should see the film. Do I think people should run to see the film? No. Do I think that if people are going to see a movie next weekend that it should be this one? Yes.

    I left the theater with mixed feelings about the message (and more so after hearing that the book is more explicit than the film with regards to the gospel), but what I love is that I left the theater talking about THE STORY. I didn’t leave the theater thinking “Another waste of $20 on junk that doesn’t understand the artform they’re co-opting” (like a recent film about father cops). BLJ is the type of film I have been waiting a long time to see (and make). It addresses life from a Godward angle and it does so competently. Do I agree with every point it makes? No. Do I wish it said more? Yes. Am I glad the film was made? Absolutely.

    Like the reviewer noted, I’m sure there will be plenty of critiques of the film’s theology, or lack of – and I certainly hope there will be. Pastors need to help Christians discern films like BLJ. But I certainly hope that people don’t protest the actual existence of the film (as it seems Sherwood Pictures has done). This is the first film in a very long time that is able to tell a story largely about faith and stand on its own two feet at the same time. This needs to be encouraged if we ever want to see a theologically biblical and well told story ever reach theaters in the future.

    Spend $10 on BLJ rather than the Hunger Games or whatever else is out right now… then come home and talk about it or write a blog about it.

    I don’t agree with everything in the film, but I appreciate that it was made.

  • Jason Merz

    Ok, I’d like to encourage TGC to find writers for the Arts who write in an intellectually winsome way. No offense to Mike Cosper, but he doesn’t seem to be very educated – rather a product of the evangelical subculture sphere. I appreciate his humbleness about ministry (heard him speak at a conference), but the content is so shallow. There’s so many well-educated people out there talking on the Arts and faith. Why did they settle on Cosper? Again, NO OFFENSE! This sounds so harsh…Would just like to see TGC think deeper on the Arts as they do in so many other areas.

    • Jamie Barnes


      C’mon dude. You can’t just say “i mean no offense” and then say some of the most inflammatory stuff ever. “Not educated”? TGC tapped Cosper to write about culture and arts for a reason – He’s great at it. If you disagree with him or a point of his – fine – form an intelligent response, if it’s deep content you say you desire. But this comment is absurd, unfounded and really insensitive. Are you considering that the writers of these articles might read the comment section? Do you feel like a jerk now? Don’t type nonsense like this – add something to the discussion or take your ball and go home. Good grief, I loathe these comment sections sometimes – thanks for reminding me. Signed, Jamie, a guy who is mentored by an “uneducated, product of the evangelical subcultural” pastor.

      • Jason Merz

        I know that sounds harsh. I have no idea who gets picked to write certain things. My hunch is it’s a network thing rather than the sharpest mind. All I was saying was the Coalition Blog has some very skilled writers writing about various topics, I simply wish they would do the same for the Arts. Why doesn’t the Coalition have guys like Jeremy Begbie, Wil Dyrness, David Taylor, etc writing on the Arts? Instead, they have Arts Pastors, that lack the education and skill most often refined and achieved through not only pastoral ministry, but rigorous academia. That’s all. I certainly don’t think all “evangelicals” are uneducated. My frustration is with regards to such an important subject as the Arts, Evangelicals should be able to do better.

        • Jamie Barnes

          Mike is writing in a comprehensible way for everyone. He’s a pastor in a local church, which means he shepherds doctors, lawyers, bricklayers, teachers, stay-at-home moms, etc. Theology is for everyone..not just people who decide to get their MDiv. I love Begbie…but his writing on the arts is not as accessible. Cosper is a sharp mind, trust me – i know him well, but he’s trying to write to a wider audience here. Please show some more respect and guard your words more carefully – they are a tad insulting. If you look at how many times this (and his other) article has been shared, recommended and commented on – you’ll quickly realize that this has been helpful and appreciated by a lot of Christians who perhaps have difficulty engaging the arts. That’s the goal. TGC doesn’t just serve an elite few, which is to be commended. As an arts pastor – I find your view on them funny…and a tad irritating. Despite what you may think, arts pastors in the local church study a whole lot, work their tails off and have a few things to offer by God’s grace. It’s called the school of hard knocks. I also teach at a seminary and i can tell you there are some great things taught at places of higher education, but nothing helps you grow faster than being present in the mess of actual church ministry. There are some things seminaries and such simply can’t prepare you for. You remember the apostles, right? I’m not sure what you do or perhaps where you serve personally – but i think you’re riding a pretty high horse.

        • Heather E. Carrillo

          It doesn’t just SOUND harsh…it IS harsh. And do you even KNOW the author’s educational background? Also, you just made a sweeping statement about the evangelical subculture’s intellect in general. I agree with Jamie above…I’d watch the insults.

    • Heather E. Carrillo

      Wowa! How is that NOT offensive? You think evangelicals are mainly uneducated? Excuse me?

  • billy mcmahon

    1. I haven’t really seen Miller presented as an “authority.” He’s always seemed like a great story teller with a heart to provide a witness to his experiences. Also, I think it is difficult to establish the exact parameters between “authority” and “witness.”

    2. I don’t think Miller has to be “explicit” (in the way you suggest) about the Gospel in order to present the message of Jesus to viewers. I wouldn’t say this is a compromise as the Gospel can be relatable in a variety of ways.

    3. Yes, this is picky of me, but I wouldn’t pick on Rob Bell so quickly. I’d say “Love Wins” was more akin to “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis than the godless devil of universalism that is destroying America. I challenge you to show me an instance of Bell softening or watering-down doctrine. Personally, I think he’s done an outstanding job at challenging our oftentimes idolatrous and perverted views of orthodoxy.

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  • Paul

    I agree with everything Frank Turk has said. I would also point out that “The Shack” is also descriptive rather than prescriptive, but that doesn’t mean that stories are neutral. Stories are not neutral, they teach ideas, and many of the ideas that Donald Miller espouses are simply poisonous.

  • chris wickens

    I have been a fan of Steve Taylor since the 80’s but am very disappointed with his “new” venture into films like Blue Like Jazz. We just need to hold Jesus up to the world, not try to make Him vague and hidden, in an ashamed attempt to just bring Him partly into view only to take Him away quickly before people get a chance to know Him. I believe this is just a cop out, a cashing in the chips too quickly. I have no desire to see this film. With the world rife with babylonian principles, we need a hero who will really take a stab at christian film making. There are alot of great christian fiction out there–better than this or the Shack.

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