A while back, I read Blue Like Jazz. It was a good book, easy to read and interesting. It compelled you to finish it like any good book should. It wasn’t well-written in the sense that it was a mastery of the English language (like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, for example), but well-written in that it was easily read. Very conversational. But also disjointed. And choppy.
He’s also right about a few things and some of his criticisms of modern Christianity are good to listen to, though more often than not they’re targeted at the extremes. While I found myself agreeing with him sometimes, other times I began to wonder why he didn’t take the discussion further (i.e., Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins and the need of all people to repent). Alas, the book was mainly about “non-religious thoughts” on Christian spirituality. But is there such a thing?
Not at all. Your thoughts about Christ and his church are inherently just as religious as they are theological. When you say that Jesus was both man and God, that’s a theological claim but it’s also a religious claim, the same way proclaiming Christ not to be God would be decidedly theological and religious (although in a very different direction). So what are Donald Miller’s religious and theological thoughts on Christian spirituality?
That’s where my beef is found: Donald Miller’s Jesus is awfully similar to Donald Miller. Let me explain. Earlier this Fall, I was listening to a sermon by Dr. Mohler and he used the Jesus Seminar as an illustration that resonated with how I felt about Blue Blue Jazz. A little reminder: Back in the 80s, a group of ‘scholars’ got together to “rediscover” the historical Jesus (this has been attempted many times—done every time with the assumption that the Jesus of the Bible couldn’t possibly be the ‘real Jesus’). This group called themselves the Jesus Seminar (a group which still exists to this day, lamentably). What they did is they sat around a table and read passages of the Bible where Jesus spoke or did something and then they voted on whether or not these sayings or acts were really done by the “historical Jesus.” They voted using colored marbles, as follows:
- Red marbles – Jesus actually said or did it.
- Pink marbles – Jesus probably said or did something similar.
- Grey marbles – Jesus didn’t do or say it, but the saying or action lines up with his ideas.
- Black marbles – Jesus did not do or say it – the passage was added by translators years after Jesus’ death.
Eventually, these fellows published a Bible with the sayings and deeds of Jesus highlighted according to their findings. If you follow along with their Bible, reading what they determined were the sayings and deeds of Jesus, something interesting happens. Jesus ends up looking awfully similar to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. They end up asserting that he’s just a mortal man (not the Son of God), that he was a social liberal, and an activist (for tangential causes like the environment, no less). So Jesus was a mortal liberal with a Ph.D.?
The Jesus Seminar essentially pulled out a mirror and said, “Look, there’s Jesus!” This is nothing new; all across history people have tried to project themselves onto the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So whenever I see someone painting a picture of Jesus that’s reminiscent of themselves, I get really suspicious. This is partly why I had to pass on Donald-Miller-mania.
What he’s essentially done is employed enough hip sub-culture knowledge and self-deprecation to convince us that he’s a guy that would make for good conversation. He’s got a really interesting story and he’s eager to know the stories of other people. He’s someone who cares and who is interesting enough to get to know. For Donald Miller, this is Jesus. Again, the mirror.
He’s a really good author and knows the conventions of writing well. However, he’s left out a significant portion of the person of Christ that I cannot reconcile. Jesus isn’t a campfire story-telling dude who really digs Wilco and Patty Griffin. He’s not our close friend. He’s much, much more than that. He’s our brother (Heb. 2:11), He’s also our King (John 18:36), our Mediator with God the Father (1 Tim. 2:5), our Shepherd who guides us along so that we persevere in our faith to the end (John 10). He’s also a righteous judge who crushes his enemies. Jesus Christ is violent, whether he slays 185,000 Assyrians in their sleep (Isa. 36:37) or crushes the enemies who wage war against the Lamb (Rev. 17:14). This is the same God working in the New Testament as the Old. But if Hebrews tell us anything, it’s that we can have confidence now when talking to God because our brother Jesus is interceding on our behalf. He is a personal savior who loves us and cares about us, but he’s not the useless Jesus of the Jesus Seminar. Nor is He some socially moderate, story-telling buddy of ours. Nor is he a seminary student with a blog.
Donald Miller may not have intended to write a theological tract, but he did. And when you tell half the story, you come up short. Especially when it comes to the Son of God. The tendency to see ourselves in Christ is nothing short of pride, the “condemnation of the devil” Paul warns Timothy about (1 Tim. 3:6). It’s the same lie that Satan fed Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:5). It’s a sin that shows itself in some of the strangest and often hard to see ways. It’s also very dangerous and something we do well to fight against.
When you hear the phrase “non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality,” you’re not strange if you scratch your head. It’s not an “interesting” postmodern paradox. It’s rubbish. Rather than seeing ourselves in Christ, let us pray that Christ is seen within us more and more as we continually strive to conform ourselves to his image (Rom. 8:29). I’ll take Biblical thoughts on Christian spirituality over paradoxes any day of the week.