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Blue Like Plan B

posted by xscot mcknight

That’s an attempt at a clever title for a short post on Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and Anne Lamott’s Plan B. I’ve read both recently and discovered that many of my students were either reading or had read Blue Like Jazz.
Anne Lamott came to our school not long ago (before her new book Plan B), read some of the stuff in Plan B, Kris and I sat right up front, and we really enjoyed her. She charged a hefty fee, which didn’t surprise, but what did surprise was when one of my postmodern colleagues said she thought “Anne Lamott spoke too much about herself.” Duh! I said to myself, “What do you expect from a memoirist?” Her fame comes not so much from her novels or her book on writing, Bird by Bird (which is good, not great), but from her simultaneously hilarious and penetrating self-revelations in Traveling Mercies. (I’m on a Safari browser this morning, and can’t find any “edit” buttons to turn things into italics.)
It is hard to summarize an Anne Lamott book, for the genius is the smooth prose. Her section on Mary is enjoyable.
Two comments about Plan B, other than it is “totally Lamott.” First, I don’t think the best way to convince either Republicans or Christians who are Republicans (need we continue remind ourselves that they are not one and the same?) that war is wrong is not by whining about it or taking shots at Bush. While I’m not convinced these sorts of things can be argued out in a way that convinces the other side all that often, I do think the only way to make a case and actually do some good by changing minds is to offer a patient and reasonable assessment in light of Christian theology. Her comments about Bush are sometimes funny, but they wear thin for me.
Second, her self-revelations sometimes make me wonder if she is describing herself or her persona. I think what I like the most about Lamott is her hilarious stories about herself, but sometimes I wonder if the issue of genuineness or authenticity or authentic voice is at issue. Can she really be this self-deprecating without making us wonder if it is the real self? After all, she’s out and about this nation writing and lecturing and talking and she makes lots of sense lots of the time. Having said this, I’ll still read her, and I like her a lot. But these are my two hesitations. I’m wondering what others thought of her Plan B? (I could go on and talk about what I liked — and I liked a lot — but the only thing I’ll mention is her graduation address — it was good and wish I had heard this at some of my graduations.)
I’m also interested in your comments about Blue Like Jazz.
Donald Miller, for my take, is about as authentic a voice as I’ve read in a long, long time. I don’t think he quite has the skill Lamott has at writing (he’s considerably younger, after all), but his prose is about as transparent as it gets. I don’t have Blue Like Jazz in front of me, but here’s what I’m thinking now.
First, I like his voice for the emerging church for it is one that says what it thinks, and does so from a Christian point of view, but it does not say what one is expected to say and is not overlaid with jargon. I liked his many stories, found his own development useful to others, and the chapter on living alone too much is a real eye-opener (my wife, ever the psychologist, thought that chapter was special). His sections on his relationships and attempts at dating are both funny and revealing — and probably helpful to all those who are struggling. I’ve been married some 30+ years and still like this sort of topic.
Second, for me the highlight chapter may have been the chapter on grace. His episode with radical fundamentalism and unrealistic spirituality is insightful. I loved his story about learning to be more forgiving with his roommate who cranked up his motorcycle every morning and woke him up and how when he learned to love the roommate he couldn’t hear the motorcycle anymore. Early he discusses “original sin” and does so with story — and tells us just about everything Plantinga tells us in his profoundly theological Not All We’re Supposed to Be.
I see now that I have mostly positive and mostly negative about Miller and Lamott. Sorry, Anne, but I liked Blue Like Jazz more.



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dan

posted October 28, 2005 at 8:53 am


Having read both books myself I find that I swing the other way. I thought Plan B was a decent book but was never very comfortable with Blue Like Jazz — I feel like Miller adopts a humble tone (his constructivist view of truth contributes to this) while continually inserting little remarks that let the reader know just how cutting-edge and hip he is. Reading Miller’s book was actually one of the things that made me shy away from the emerging church (non)movement. Although it could be that Miller’s book actually forces me to confront my own arrogance…
I did write a reflection on two stories from Plan B in relation to my experience journeying with homeless inner-city kids. If you click on my name it should take you to that reflection (although I will warn you that the language in that post is rather graphic). As always, I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.



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Rich Wagner

posted October 28, 2005 at 9:03 am


I just finished Blue Like Jazz a week ago. I am currently trying to go through, chapter by chapter, at my blog and give some thoughts. I too loved the transparency. As one who has just in the last couple of years realized there was a different way to live out and express my faith than the one I grew up with, I have devoured books like these. This may be my favorite of all those books. Being in my early 30′s and Donald being close in age made relating very easy. The stories were wonderful and the sure does hang around some characters.
It’s funny. If I let many of the people in my life read this they’d think I have lost my mind (or maybe my faith, you know, the TRUE one) to be reading such a book.



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted October 28, 2005 at 10:43 am


I never got through Travelling Mercies, not for lack of interest, but the person who lended it to me needed it back. It remains on my over-long list of books to buy. However, I am currently focusing on supporting my missionary habit, so the book will have to wait. However, what I did read was excellent (esp. the cutting remarks about a certain ‘end times’ novelist).
I am currently almost through Blue Like Jazz. I can see Dan’s criticism, but I think that Miller is being authentic here, not manipulative. The book is a must read for so many that we have made it required reading for our discipleship program.
Peace,
Jamie



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jason

posted October 28, 2005 at 10:51 am


i think miller deserves praise for his transparency and accessibility, however to be perfectly honest i was mostly bored with all the narrative. in all fairness to him i don’t particularly enjoy literary narrative, and i’m not really his target audience. i’m sure this will ruffle some feathers, but i really see blue like jazz as being essentially the other side of the same coin as purpose driven life. in my view they both seek to present the appeal of Christ to a religiously uninitiated unbeliever in non-technical language. one speaks the language of conservative modernism, while the other speaks the language of progressive post-modernism. i think they both accomplish this task rather well, but i’m not either of those people.
of course miller’s book has the added dimension of validating all the non-fundy, politically left-leaning, hip young christians in america, which is no small task since this was a growing constituency aching for it’s own spokesperson, which i think largely explains it’s success.
then again, i may just be holding a grudge since his book ruthlessly exposed my own insufferable pretentiousness as a brooding young pseudo-rebellious pipe-smoker!



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Scot McKnight

posted October 28, 2005 at 11:31 am


Jason,
And rebellious lower case swinging writer!



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Aly

posted October 28, 2005 at 12:36 pm


I don’t think Plan B is Lamott’s strongest material (I’m with you, Scot, that Traveling Mercies is the one to beat…and I’ve read most of her books), and I agree that the strident, whiny needling is not the way to convince Christians who are Republicans of anything. But I don’t think that’s what she was up to in this collection. I think the whole book is a long parable of grace: the fact that Lamott just lays out all her uncharitable thoughts about herself and others (most notably President Bush!) and never fears that she will be suddenly rejected by Jesus for being nasty – well, I found it refreshing. Few writers (and few Christians) can divulge how craven they really are and see it as a chance for celebrating God’s love. (And I don’t think she was wallowing in being craven – just being more honest about it than I ever would be!)



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Scot McKnight

posted October 28, 2005 at 12:40 pm


Aly,
I think this is a good approach to her book, and wish as I look back I had said more positive things — but I do so I liked it and all.
Her honesty is clear and I agree that she is not wallowing in it — she is almost helplessly honest about it.



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bob smietana

posted October 28, 2005 at 1:44 pm


Scot,
Lamott’s best nonfiction book might be Operating Instructions, her journal of the first year of parenthood, which coincided with her best friend getting cancer. From my two conversations with her, I don’t think she’s writing about a personna–she’s the real deal, warts and all. Which makes her writing about faith all the more remarkable. She’s a mess and not afraid to admit it. I suppose when you fall apart as she did in her younger days, all pretense of being a good, upright, right-thinking person who deserves God’s love is set aside.
Her best novel, by far, is Hard Laughter, a semiautoiographical story of a young writer whose father dies of cancer.



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bob smietana

posted October 28, 2005 at 3:50 pm


Scot,
Lamott’s fame started with Operating Instructions, and then went to Bird by Bird, and then a Salon.com column, where most of her writing on faith appeared first.



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john alan turner

posted October 28, 2005 at 10:26 pm


Yes, the books the books the books.
Anne Lamott is wonderful — has lived a hard life, surrendered to God with one of the greatest conversion sentences ever and gained a fair amount of wisdom as a result.
Don Miller is engaging and asks questions a lot of 20-somethings wonder if it’s okay to ask. He doesn’t finish his thoughts very often and skips around a lot, but that kind of thing resonates with lots of folks.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting here thinking, “I just switched to Safari, too; and I can’t find any of those buttons either!”
What’s up with that?



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Pat

posted October 30, 2005 at 1:46 am


Don Miller wrote a followup book to Blue Like Jazz that was released this year called “Searching for God Knows What”, and I really liked it. It was a good relational theology in the Miller style. Compared to BLJ, a bit more serious, not quite as funny, but probably the best approachable relational theology around. WAY WAY WAY better than Len Sweet’s “Out of the question… into the mystery” for my tastes.
He does a very nice job with the topic of why we compare ourselves to other people in judgment, using the metaphor of us all being stuck on a lifeboat trying to figure out who we’re stronger than. The image and his stories around it have been very helpful.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 30, 2005 at 7:58 am


Pat,
I’m waiting for Kris to finish it; then I’ll read it.



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Kat

posted October 31, 2005 at 9:26 pm


I think it would be interesting to compare Lamott’s and Miller’s first and second books of essays, because they seem to share similar trajectories, and both second books feel more pedantic with regard to politics. Miller, however, more often articulates a warning against trusting in any particular political party for salvation, while sometimes I find myself wanting to remind Lamott that life would not just automatically be better if Bush went away.
That said, I think the frequent and pointed political comments that seem to show up more often in Searching for God Knows What and Plan B than in Blue Like Jazz and Traveling Mercies add a zing to the reading experience that I appreciate, am challenged by, and remember.



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Julana

posted February 13, 2006 at 3:53 pm


I liked Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird, and Traveling Mercies, although I was a little uneasy with some of her jibes. Then I saw her on C-span, and she was so overtly political and anti-George Bush, that her Christianity was quite overshadowed. I did not read Plan B. Now I see her pro-abortion rant in the LA Times last week, and am extremely disappointed in her.



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