If Some Christians are Blue like Jazz, then I’m Red like Metal

Posted: November 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

It is hard to believe that it has been more than 7 years since Donald Miller’s groundbreaking Blue like Jazz hit bookstores.  It truly captured the zeitgeist of Christianity at the time–legalism sucks, so does most Christian art and we just need to quit arguing about stuff that doesn’t matter and love God and love each other.  Just as Bonfire of the Vanities was to the eighties or Growing Up Absurd was to the sixties, Blue like Jazz was to the heyday of the emerging church movement.

The emerging church movement was birthed out of a concern for the dwindling number of 18-40 year olds attending church in the 1990’s.  The Young Leader’s Network was launched to teach pastors how to reach Generation-X.  The network featured young pastors like Mark Driscoll, Dan Kimball, Chris Seay and Doug Pagitt as well as theologians like Stan Grenz and older pastors like Brian McLaren who were familiar with the philosophical movement post-modernism. 

Eventually a group within the movement shifted from how to reach Gen-X to re-thinking Evangelical theology all together.  This group included McLaren, Pagitt and Princeton doctoral student Tony Jones.  These gents formed the Terra Nova Project, which eventually became Emergent Village.  The group promoted itself as an open conversation among friends about God.  Yet, the direction of a conversation is almost always determined by those framing it and the leaders of the “emergent conversation” tended to belittle orthodox Christianity in favor of “a Christianity worth believing in.” Emergent Village hosted a series of influential “theological conversations” with progressive Christian thinkers like Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf. 

Emergent created its own culture.  A typical “emergent Christian” read a lot of books by thinkers still haunting nearly empty mainline denominational churches, listened to alt. indie rock, drank expensive coffee and voted Democrat if they voted at all.  Confession time–I was part of that movement. 

During the heyday of emergent when Rob Bell’s Nooma DVDs were just hitting stores and Blue Like Jazz and Velvet Elvis were flying off bookshelves, I was pastoring a small church in upstate New York.  I was attending Cornell Law School hoping to positively impact the world.  I defined the Gospel as the coming of the Kingdom and the Kingdom spread through good deeds and I hoped to use my law degree to defend the “least among us.” 

I also attended emerging “cohorts” (i.e., theological discussions among like-minded Christians over coffee or beer) which consisted of debating the pros and cons of issues like the “open view of God” and praying that the Democrats would nominate a pro-life candidate.  I eventually became frustrated with the movement and, after a strange but powerful experience of God’s Spirit, I left it behind and embraced the “old-time religion” of John Stott, Carl Henry, J.I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, etc. I also came to my senses and also proudly joined the Religious Right (although here I am somewhat lonely as many of those who also left the movement have remained politically apathetic even though they preach that the Gospel touches every part of one’s life but more on that later…)

But Emergent is still limping around.  It couldn’t pay Tony Jones a salary anymore and its leaders don’t generate the buzz they once did but, thanks to Christian schools and seminaries, which are always about 10 years behind the times, it lives on in the hearts of young pastors across the globe.

Every once in a while I will sit down over coffee or a Guinness (not everything about Emergent was bad!) with a young pastor and hear him or her rail about soul less mega-churches, Glenn Beck and K-Love.  I see a late-twenties me sitting there and I am sympathetic. But, just as I was back in the day,  they really don’t have strong arguments as much as they seem angry.  They don’t care for the culture of evangelical Christianity.  It seems stuffy, hypocritical and wholly focused on itself.  It also commits the two cardinal sins of Gen-X and Gen-Y–it is boring and not cool.

Again, I am sympathetic but I try to tell these young, passionate followers of Christ that they should never judge a philosophy by its abuses.  Just because churches like to water down theology and downplay social justice doesn’t mean that the theological works collecting dust in these churches’ libraries aren’t worth reading.  I tell them that I have grown more reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ than all of N.T. Wright’s works combined (and I have actually read them all and the dude publishes a book like every other week!).

I tell them that one can be authentic, relevant and engage in social justice while also being theologically conservative and to demonstrate I point them to folks like Matt Chandler, Francis Chan and the pimpest of all modern pastors–Tim Keller.

I point out that being apathetic about politics or being a liberal is not necessary either.  If they really want to help the poor then it is important to consider studies by groups like The Acton Institute who have argued that welfare programs have actually hurt the least among us more than they have helped. 

I understand the siren’s song of progressive Christianity for it allows a believer to think they have made the faith their own as it is distinct from the faith of their parents and/or grandparents and it is relatively inoffensive to the “cultural despisers of religion.” But in the end, better arguments should govern what we believe and there is a reason that so many doctrines, like penal substitutionary atonement, have survived countless cultural changes over the last 2000 years–they simply make sense. 

So, I accept that many disgruntled evangelicals will continue to be “blue like jazz” (blue like blue states and soft & soothing like jazz) but I would rather be red like metal (red like red states and powerful like a double kick drum)…and I am cool!

Grace and peace,

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Comments
  1. ladysown says:

    interesting article. glad I stopped in. 🙂

  2. Diane R says:

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read in six years of studying emergent. You’ve said it all..thanks…:)

  3. Alex says:

    Do you think Blue Like Jazz is more emergent than scriptural? It has been awhile since I read it, but I don’t remember anything heretical being in there. Though I am very much against the Emergent movement I found Blue Like Jazz to be a strong message to me at that time.

    For some background, at the time I was a Religious Republica and didn’t see how you could reconcile Christianity and being a Democrat. I also was pretty ignorant of a lot doctrine (even though I had grown up heavily involved in the church) but I had been told on the radio and television that you can’t love Jesus and vote against George W. Bush.

    In that time I read Blue Like Jazz. And with that book (and a few other resources) my world was shifted. I was force to reconcile the fact that Republican did not equal Godly or Christian and that Democrat didn’t necessarily mean the devil. And for that I am grateful.

    I also find Donald Miller to be extremely good at taking dificult concepts like forgiveness and grace and explaining them to a generation of post-modernists who otherwise wouldn’t listen.

    Maybe I am wrong, but I would really like to hear your thoughts on all of this!

    With that said I’ve enjoyed you rblog and I found this post particularly insightful!

    (PS – I’m a 24-year-old reformed ex-angry christian who loves it when more experienced men of God point out the things like “never judge a philosophy by its abuses. Just because churches like to water down theology and downplay social justice doesn’t mean that the theological works collecting dust in these churches’ libraries aren’t worth reading.” Good stuff!)

    • Revolution says:

      Alex,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      The post really isn’t a shot at Blue like Jazz, which I enjoyed as well. I used it as an example of what it represented more than anything else.

      As for the political question, I frankly think Miller’s politics are simplistic and unhelpful. For example, he defended his support for Barack Obama’s pro-abortion stance by arguing that Obama’s economic program would better support the poor and thereby reduce the need for many to have abortions but when Tony Jones and others were confronted with stats showing that socialistic countries in Europe with free health care, etc. have higher abortion rates than even the U.S. they had no real response. Morevoer, I just don’t think liberalism has truly helped the poor in any way. Thus, I do think that a Christian should not support liberal candidates. Just my two cents but thank so much for the input.

      Blessings,

      • Alex says:

        Oh yeah, I agree with you on his politics. I think they’re pretty far off and quite a poorly justified

        Thanks for answering my questions, though!

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