Green Like Envy:
An Ex-pagan Looks at Blue Like Jazz
By Richard Nathan with Linda Nathan
Donald Miller, who wrote Blue Like Jazz, gave Monday's benediction at the Democratic Convention
Index to articles by Richard and Linda Nathan
“Donald Miller writes like a good improve solo—smooth, sweet, surprising, uplifting, and full of soul and fury and joy. When I finished the last page, I felt warmed, full of hope, and confident that this great book will echo with beauty in many, many lives just as it is doing in mine.” Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian
“These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error.” 2 Peter 2:17
phenomenon in evangelical circles, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller has sold over a million copies and made the New York Times bestseller list since its publication by Thomas Nelson Publishers in 2003, and its popularity continues to grow. An icon in the burgeoning Emergent Church movement, it attracts countless youth in contemporary Christian culture. Seminarians nationwide are reading it avidly, and some Christian ministries and pastors are even using it to evangelize.
Why? And what does that popularity reveal about evangelicalism today?
I first read Blue Like Jazz because Christians I knew were whispering about what a wonderful book it is. I had no idea what it was about, but I figured with a name like that it could be about anything. Now, after reading it, a better title has occurred to me: Green Like Envy. I chose this title because it refers to my overwhelming impression that Don Miller envies the non-Christian or pagan life but feels confined by Christian roots. Instead, he hangs around the outskirts of paganism, hoping that something will rub off on him that he thinks Christians don’t have and pagans do.
A big focus of Miller’s book is his attraction to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where, although he doesn’t attend, he spends a lot of time. He reports getting involved with the few Christians on campus and mingling with the students. The book’s high point is his description of an annual festival he thinks is cool.
“Each year at Reed they have a festival called Ren Fayre. They shut down the campus so students can party. Security keeps the authorities away, and everybody gets pretty drunk and high, and some people get naked. Friday night is mostly about getting drunk, and Saturday night is about getting high. The school brings in White Bird, a medical unit that specializes in treating bad drug trips. The students create special lounges with black lights and television screens to enhance kids’ mushroom trips.” [Author’s note: Hallucinogenic mushrooms are also called “magic” mushrooms.]
“Saturday evening at Ren Fayre is alive and fun. The sun goes down over the campus, and shortly after dark they shoot fireworks over the tennis courts. Students lay out on a hill and laugh and point in blurry-eyed fascination. The highlight of the evening is a glow opera that packs the amphitheater with students and friends. The opera is designed to enhance mushroom trips.”
Now why would a “Christian” call an immoral festival where people run around nude high on drugs “alive and fun”? Why does he think of this as hip and cool?
What is Miller’s idea of love? Is it the sacrificial love of 1 Corinthians 13? Of God’s sacrifice of His only Son? Is it the willingness to die to self? No, it’s none of these. Miller’s “hip love” is self-love. Here’s another situation he describes as cool.
“When my friend Paul and I lived in the woods, we lived with hippies. Well, sort of hippies. They certainly smoked a lot of pot. They drank beer a lot. And man did they love each other, sometimes too much perhaps, too physically, you know, but nevertheless they loved; they accepted and cherished everybody, even the ones who judged them because they were hippies. It was odd living with hippies at first, but I enjoyed it after a while.”
“We would sit around and talk about literature and each other, and I couldn’t tell the difference between the books they were talking about and their lives, they were just that cool. I liked them very much because they were interested in me. When I was with hippies, I did not feel judged, I felt loved. To them I was an endless well of stories and perspectives and grand literary views. It felt so wonderful to be in their presence, like I was special.”
P. 208 continues the story:
“I have never experienced a group of people who loved each other more than my hippies in the woods. All of them are tucked so neatly into my memory now, and I recall our evenings at camp or in the meadow or in the caves in my mind like a favorite film. I pull them out when I need to be reminded about goodness, about purity and kindness.”
Purity and goodness? So Miller calls people indulging in sin as his best examples of goodness and purity. They aren’t Christians—God’s people despite their flaws—but pot-smoking, probably fornicating people.
It reminds me of my own experience as a kind of hippie.
I was raised in a Marxist-atheist family and lived as one of those pagans during the Sixties. I smoked pot, took LSD, and engaged in immoral sex and the occult. If I had read a book like Blue Like Jazz then, it would have confirmed my poor image of Christians as uptight neurotics and my belief in the superiority of my pagan life.
Reed College. I was also familiar with Reed College in Portland, Oregon—the focus of Miller’s adulation. It was already a leftist bastion in the Sixties when we had friends from there. When I read Miller extolling Reed College, it appalled me that anyone calling himself a Christian could think Reed is a wonderful example of intellectual and moral freedom.
We too lived with hippies for several years in a cooperative house in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District during the Sixties—the very vortex of the era’s rebellion. During that time, thousands of hippies held enormous gatherings in Golden Gate Park, right across the street from us, and held protest marches under our windows. I found them to be like me—very self-centered, very selfish, very corrupt, and the total opposite of pure or loving. Either Miller’s hippies were really angels in disguise (pot-smoking angels?) or else worldly thinking has corrupted his perceptions.
But paganism isn’t just another interesting lifestyle among many alternatives; it leads to death. The Bible says there is a way that seems right but that leads to death. Paganism is that way.
That brings up a very urgent question:
Does Miller Know the Gospel?
Miller calls himself a Christian and uses the term Gospel, but what he describes doesn’t sound like the biblical Gospel. For instance, on p. 124 he describes his conversation with Jake, a pagan at a Ren Fayre festival. The Christians there had a booth where they confessed their sins to the pagans as an apology for the Church. Jake starts out:
“’You said earlier there was a central message of Christ. I don’t really want to become a Christian, you know, but what is that message?’
‘The message is that man sinned against God and God gave the world over to man, and that if somebody wanted to be rescued out of that, if somebody for instance finds it’s all very empty, that Christ will rescue them if they want; that if they ask forgiveness for being a part of that rebellion then God will forgive them.’
‘What’s the deal with the cross?’ Jake asked.
‘God says the wages of sin is death,’ I told him. ‘And Jesus died so none of us would have to. If we have faith in that then we are Christians.’”
Actually, Miller’s “gospel” is a clear example of an old theological distortion known as Pelagianism. This ancient heresy basically says that original sin did not taint human nature and that we have the ability to choose to walk with God instead of being utterly depraved and lost sinners whom God needs to rescue (Romans 3). The most recent well-known advocate of this doctrine was Charles Finney.
Pelagianism—and Miller—leave out some very basic points: Wrath—judgment—propitiation—and the substitutionary atonement. Jesus didn’t die generically; He died very specifically, taking on Himself the righteous punishment due to sinners—death. (See Romans 1:18, 2:5, 5:9; Ephesians 2:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9; and Hebrews 2:17.)
Romans 3:22–25 clearly portrays the real Gospel:
“There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
And 1 John sets out a clear standard for determining true Christians:
“We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:3–6) [bold by author]
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9–10)
The Gospel of the “Hip Christian”
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Galatians 1:8–9
Resurrecting the Beatniks. Blue Like Jazz reminds me very much of the style of the Beatnik era, especially books by Jack Kerouac who wrote in a stream of consciousness centered in himself. And though Donald Miller never says in his book that he’s a pot smoker, it’s amazing how many of his friends are pot smokers and how much his style and thinking strongly resemble those of many pot smokers. He does talk about smoking pot in his youth group though, and one section of his book extols those who take LSD. Being “hip” and “cool” are important to Miller, who frequently uses the terms as measuring rods.
The Hip Gospel never mentions the cross or God’s wrath on sinners and Christ’s atonement for sin. It distorts the Bible, if it refers to it at all, and it never talks about being born again or the desperate need for becoming a new creation.
There is no sorrow for a fallen world—only envy of it.
Miller also claims he never feels as good with Christians as with pagans.
“I never felt so alive as I did in the company of my liberal friends. It isn’t that the Christians I had been with had bad community; they didn’t, I just like the community of the hippies because it was more forgiving, more, I don’t know, healthy.”
Healthy? Is he saying it’s healthier to go into the woods and smoke pot and have immoral sex than to belong to Jesus Christ? That we can find more love in the drug scene than in a church? And this represents wonderful freedom for Christians? This is walking as Jesus walks? The Bible calls this the world. And it warns about its terrible dangers:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15–17)
Miller’s basic message is that pagans are better than Christians but that liberal Christians are much better than conservative Christians. And, finally, that liberals and even Unitarians are far more loving—and healthier—than conservative Christians.
Jesus went among sinners and brought salvation; he didn’t smoke pot with them. Miller goes among sinners and has a grand old time with them. His book doesn’t reveal the love of Christ; it reveals a love of paganism that isn’t a saving love but a desire to emulate sin. It reveals pagan envy.
The Spirituality of the “Hip Christian”
“For me the beginning of sharing my faith with people began with throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained. Christianity, unlike Christian spirituality, was not a term that excited me. And I could not in good conscience tell a friend about a faith that didn’t excite me. I couldn’t share something I wasn’t experiencing.”
“I told him that I thought mystical power came through faith in Jesus.”
A false dichotomy. Miller’s statements reveal his ignorance and confusion about just what it is to be a Christian in a historical, orthodox sense. Not only does he abandon reason and Scripture, he creates a false dichotomy. He presents the only choices as a hypocritical, commercial Christianity and a hip mystical spirituality. And in the process, he totally misses the true Gospel.
In fact, Miller basically says that truth can be compared to story and that Christianity makes sense because it’s like a story, i.e., like fiction. He not only compares his version of Christian “spirituality” to the elements of fiction, he introduces Pelagianism again. Once more we see Miller’s understanding of “truth” revolves around himself.
“The elements of story began to parallel my understanding of Christian spirituality. Christianity offered a decision, a climax. It also offered a good and bad resolution. In part, our decisions were instrumental to the way our story turned out.”
But he doesn’t stop there.
“Now this was spooky because for thousands of years big-haired preachers have talked about the idea that we need to make a decision to follow or reject Christ. They would offer these ideas as a sort of magical solution to the dilemma of life. I had always hated hearing about it because it seemed so entirely unfashionable a thing to believe, but it did explain things. Maybe these unfashionable ideas were pointing at something mystical and true. And perhaps I was judging the idea not by its merit but by the fashionable or unfashionable delivery of the message.”
It’s hard to tell whether he’s talking about TV preachers with pompadours or is just putting down preachers in general, but in either case, he ridicules preaching. He’s basically saying that he decides something is truth not by Scripture but by the way he feels about it—if it’s “mystical”—i.e., feeling-oriented—it must be true.
This is the thinking of the Emergent Church, which elevates story into revelation and truth. Miller is comparing the truth of the Bible with the elements of a story and determining truth by story.
“The last element of story is resolution. Christian spirituality offered a resolution, the resolution of forgiveness and a home in the afterlife. Again, it all sounded so very witless to me, but by this time I wanted desperately to believe it. I felt as though my soul were designed to live the story Christian spirituality was telling. I felt like my soul wanted to be forgiven. I wanted the resolution God was offering.
That last comment is the closest I see him admitting to sin.
In his search for truth, Miller measures by himself: his reaction, his need, his decision, his entertainment, and whether it’s mystical and magical because he likes things that are mystical and magical. Nowhere does he talk about objective truth: the Bible, sin, God’s wrath and judgment upon sinners, or the reason that Christ had to die.
Unfortunately, Miller only mirrors what’s happening in the Church today: Experience is considered more important than truth. And since the modern view is that basically there is no truth that applies to everyone, then “freedom” becomes license (“anything goes”).
The Freedom of Real Christianity
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’" John 8:31–32
False freedom. Miller is an insecure, self-centered man (as he freely admits in his book) who wants to be a literary success, and he is using a certain worldly technique where you let it all hang out. But he exhibits an incredible ignorance of true Christianity and conveys disappointment with a limited experience with the Christian community. He puts down evangelicals in a very ignorant way as though his warped and stereotyped view of them is all there is to the Church. There’s no awareness of the larger Body of Christ or what it means.
I sympathize with his disappointment in the kind of legalistic perfectionism that has been strong in evangelicalism because it tends to produce bondage and hypocrisy instead of true freedom. But what he offers is far from true freedom. He has turned from legalism to antinomianism. (The term means “against law.” It describes the state of rebellion against God’s laws and standards of life.) He is leading his readers from perfectionism to lawlessness—and the greatest tragedy of all is that he’s missed the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel, which brings true freedom from the bondage of sin and Satan.
A Spokesman for Romanticism (or Imaginative Paganism)
What Miller and many of today’s neo-evangelicals are moving towards is Romanticism.
There’s a pendulum that swings in Church history between the imbalance of legalism and formalism and the opposite imbalance of rebelliousness and paganism. This has become especially apparent since the Renaissance. The Romantic Movement, which was very influential in Europe, England, and the United States in the 1700s and 1800s, focused on rebellion through poetry, art, imagination, magic, mysticism, and intuition. This movement spawned such men as Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche, who greatly influenced Adolph Hitler.
A Rebirth of Romanticism. Today we are experiencing a rebirth of Romanticism in the form of a flood of rebelliousness masquerading as a new wave of Christian freedom and spirituality. It is especially apparent in the Emergent Church Movement and through the writings of such authors as Brian McLaren. But Christian freedom is always deeply tied to Christian truth. And the freedom Miller offers is so disconnected from Christian truth that it cannot truly be Christian—or truly freedom—at all. Its basis is theological, biblical, and historical ignorance. His enormous appeal is to a shift in society and in the Church that is following the culture away from truth to self.
Bohemian/Beatnik Culture. Miller’s approach to writing personifies a shift that arose out of the Bohemian leftist culture that developed in San Francisco’s North Beach area in the late 1930s. The Bohemians were into wine, poetry, and leftist politics. The Beatniks, who followed them, got into jazz, pot, and other drugs. In the 1960s the movement flowered with the hippies and their focus upon Eastern religions and such psychedelic drugs as LSD and Mescaline. All of these lifestyles claimed to represent freedom and creativity as opposed to “square” American middleclass life.
I know something about these movements because I grew up in San Francisco during the 1940s and 1950s in a family that was part of the Bohemian/Beatnik culture. We managed jazz nightclubs and ran a bookstore in North Beach. And I can tell you from personal experience: Beatniks were not loving; they were not pure; they were not unselfish at all. And they definitely were not free. These movements were, in fact, the epitome of self-love and blind egotism.
Nor was the emphasis on love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District during the Sixties love for others; it was an extreme form of self-gratification—it was the culture of rebellion. And Miller is just aping it and being an apologist for it. Notice that one of his friends at Reed is called “the Beat poet.” In some sense he’s extolling the “glories” of Neopaganism and trying to fit his narcissistic “Christianity” of mysticism and magic into it.
One Final Urgent Question: Why the Rush to Paganism?
Why are evangelicals rushing to read and praise this book when it attacks them and the very foundations of their faith?
What does it say about today’s evangelical movement, and today’s youth raised in evangelical homes and culture, that they love his message and are even using it to evangelize?
The overarching theme of Miller’s book is the glorification of rebellion by preaching false freedom. That’s exactly what the Haight-Ashbury preached; it’s exactly what drugs promise; and it’s exactly what the Emergent Church movement promotes today.
Miller’s inability to differentiate his subjective feelings from the truth of Scripture is all too common in the Emergent philosophy spreading among contemporary young people. His book is fuel for the fire among those Christianized youth who are struggling with some of the narrowness of legalistic upbringings and are seeking the freedom in Christ the Bible promises, but who end up in the devil’s snare of false freedom.
The answer to narrowness and legalism is not false freedom but real freedom in Christ. Miller’s “evangelistic” stance though is to trash conservative Christians and to extol pagans. And in fact his promotion of paganism is far more effective than his evangelism for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Read Blue Like Jazz only if you want an example of the sorrowful state of evangelical youth and Christian publishing today.
Richard Nathan holds a Master of Arts in Religion in Church History and has been a Bible and church history teacher for over twenty years. He wrote his thesis on the debate over the inerrancy of Scripture in a historical analysis. Since 1992, Linda Nathan has been president of Logos Word Designs, Inc., a Christian writing and editing service at http://www.logosword.com. They have taught numerous seminars and classes to Christians. See Richard's blog at www.gloriousriches.blogspot.com for ongoing discussion about such trends in Christianity as Romantic Christianity and the Emergent Church movement. Visit their Web site at http://fictionplumbline.com for articles evaluating Christian fiction from a biblical perspective.
See also Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz), the Emerging Church, and the Democratic National Convention
 http://donmillerfans.net/2006/10/13/blj-on-nyt-bsl/. Accessed 3/30/08.
 http://peterong.wordpress.com/2006/09/15/blue-like-jazz-mirrors-debate-about-direction-of-christianity/ Accessed 3/31/08.
 Donald Miller. Blue Like Jazz. (Thomas Nelson, 2004), 116.
 Blue Like Jazz, 121.
 Blue Like Jazz, 207.
 Blue Like Jazz, 214.
 Blue Like Jazz, pp. 214–215.
 Blue Like Jazz, 115.
 Blue Like Jazz, 125.
 Blue Like Jazz, 33.
 See "’Christian’ Romanticism, the INKLINGS, and the Elevation of Mythology” by Richard and Linda Nathan at http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/006/nathan/romanticism.htm. Accessed 3/31/08.
 Blue Like Jazz, 35.
 See "’Christian’ Romanticism, the Inklings, and the Elevation of Mythology” at http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/006/nathan/romanticism.htm
 Blue Like Jazz, P. 77.
© 2008 by Richard and Linda Nathan
Richard Nathan holds a Master of Arts in Religion in Church History and has been a Bible and church history teacher for over twenty years. He wrote his thesis on the debate over the inerrancy of Scripture in a historical analysis. Linda Nathan has been president and senior editor of Logos Word Designs, Inc., a Christian writing and editing service at www.logosword.com. The Nathans spent many years studying Jungian psychology and the occult before meeting Jesus Christ. See Richard's blog at www.gloriousriches.blogspot.com for ongoing discussion about such trends in Christianity as Romantic Christianity and the Emergent Church movement. Visit their Web site at www.fictionplumbline.com for articles evaluating Christian fiction from a biblical perspective.
Index to articles by Richard and Linda Nathan