Young Adults and the Church: Book Reviews of Blue Like Jazz and Velvet Elvis

Blue like Jazz: Non Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Don Miller (Copyright 2003 by the author, Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, TN)

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell.  (Copyright 2005 by the author, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI)

Lately, like so many of you, I have been giving a lot of thought to young adults and how to do ministry with them. I have sought to understand the post-modern era and post-Christian spirituality and where young adults fit in this new mix of alternative spiritualities and a lack of “absolute truth.” Without absolute truth, each one of us is free to believe what we want; we can even make up our beliefs from a vast menu of available spiritual ideology. Today, everybody is spiritual, but few are truly religious or committed to a specific creed or doctrine. Talk to young adults today and, if they are true to the stereotype, they will likely tell you that they believe in god (intentional small “g”) and they are glad to hear that you do, too. Yet, they will not likely engage in any kind of dialogue about god/religion/faith lest they offend.

Into this world come guys like Don Miller and Rob Bell with two works that appeal to the post-Christian Church, Blue Like Jazz: Non Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality and Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. In a sense, they are prophetic voices to the Church and her young adults. The books are not theological tomes. They are not books of doctrine. They are not systematic theologies, although each man probably does have a “system” to what he believes. Instead, Miller and Bell have authored books that young adults seeking a spiritual direction are reading. These are “story books,” collections of thoughts and ideas presented in the context of real life. The books talk about the author’s understanding God, Jesus, faith, sin, doubt and the Church. Miller and Bell are not looking to intentionally offend anybody (they wouldn’t want to risk losing the soul of a less-than-believer); but they unapologetically set forth what they believe.

Blue like Jazz: Non Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

Don Miller truly is a story teller. His book is his story and that of his friends. He uses a reader friendly style to engage the reader with stories of real life struggle and how God has met him in his life. Miller would categorize a lot of Christians as “sleepwalking.” He says, “I could walk around inside religion and never, on any sort of emotional level, understand that God was a person, an actual Being with thoughts and feelings and that sort of thing. To me, God was more of an idea.” (pg. 8) Or how about this one, “I believe that the greatest trick of the devil is not to get us into some sort of evil but rather have us wasting time. This is why the devil tries so hard to get Christians to be religious. If he can sink a man’s mind into habit, he will prevent his heart from engaging God.” (pg. 13) Later on, he says, “I am learning not to be passionate about empty things, but to cultivate passion for justice, grace, truth and communicate the idea that Jesus likes people and even loves them.” (pg. 112)

His prose is memorable and clean; the book is full of what we might term “Millerisms”:

“If loving other people is a bit of heaven then certainly isolation is a bit of hell, and to that degree, here on earth, we decide in which state we would like to live.” (pg. 173)

“All the wonder of God happens right above our arithmetic and formula. The more I climb outside my pat answers, the more invigorating the view, the more my heart enters into worship.” (pg. 203)

There’s a lot to like in this read. There’s a lot that will challenge you. There’s a lot that a Lutheran might see as unnecessary and Miller’s theology certainly differs from our doctrine. However, there’s a lot that is beautiful. I read it to be uplifted; not necessarily informed.

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith

Rob Bell founded Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI in 1999. After two years, Mars Hill had 10,000 in worship on Sundays. The congregation was the picture of “success” and Bell was the 30-year-old miracle worker. His intent was to preach the Gospel clearly, without beating around the bush. His preaching style can be described as straightforward, no nonsense, and matter-of-fact. Bell says, “The more honest, the more raw, the more stripped down we made it, the more people loved it. . . We had no vision statement. We had no goals. We had no ‘demographic.’ All we cared about was trying to teach and live the way of Jesus” (101).

Rob Bell believes in Jesus and he believes in discipling. He believes the church has a mission and role–to share the love of Jesus and the grace of God with people. Christians are called to be a blessing to the world, whether the world is Christian or not. Consider

Bell’s own thoughts on the matter: “God chooses people to be used to bless other people;” “God has no boundaries. God blesses everybody;” “The church doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to serve the world” (165). That’s

Bell’s interpretation of God’s promise to Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed.

Bell’s book articulates his view of the Church and how the Church works in the contemporary age.

I have been trying to understand what makes these two books so popular. It seems to me that it comes down to relationships; that is, people caring about other people without necessarily worrying about what they believe or if they believe. Both Miller and Bell love people and meeting them where they are, doubts and all. It isn’t important to Bell or Miller whether someone believes anything.

To these voices in the contemporary Church landscape, the Gospel is intended to bless everyone, believer or not. Bell says, “The challenge for Christians then is to live with great passion and conviction, remaining open and flexible, aware that this life is not the last painting” (11).

Both men would invite you into their community and not worry about whether you got it, at first. For them, the important thing is that you are there among God’s people; that you are experiencing His love through the embrace of the community of faith. They wouldn’t worry about whether you ever believed the Gospel at all; it wouldn’t be important to them that you knew that Catechism. About faith, Bell says, “An atheist is a person of tremendous faith. In our discussions about the things that matter most, then, we aren’t talking about faith or no faith. Belief or no belief. We are talking about faith in what? Belief in what? The real question isn’t whether we have it or not but what we have put it in.” (19).

If you read these books you won’t find the words justification or sanctification but you read a lot about grace and how to live it. Good words for young adults and any Christian for that matter, and useful books to help those of us in the Church, even in the Lutheran Church, understand where a significant movement is going in American Christianity.

Published May 29, 2007

About the author

As the Director of LCMS Youth Ministry, Terry Dittmer seeks to advocate for young people and to empower young people to be God’s people in the world and to empower people to “confess” their faith in celebratory and expressive ways. Terry and his wife, Cherie, have five adult children.
View more from Terry

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