Donald Miller & the Heretics: A Discussion

A friend and I had this debate on Facebook after I declared that I liked Donald Miller’s bestselling book Blue Like Jazz and was excited for the upcoming movie. This is an excerpt of the latter part of the discussion, and I hope it will prove illuminating. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box. I’m MB, by the way and my friend Quaid is QG. 

QG: I read Blue Like Jazz for a few reasons: 1) It was the flavor of the month, and therefore immediately useful for the refutation of current error (the shack has since “replaced” it, as much as these things get replaced. 2) It was given to  me by a pastor who loved it.
This all was before I had learned the book for book deal, and before I knew that the puritans existed (remember, I wasn’t raised in this camp I now dwell in); once I read one puritan work, I found a gold mine of sound, biblical, and abundant material just waiting to be read. [C.S.] Lewis, before I knew him to be an heretic, seemed decent, but comparably shallow.

I more than dispute its worthwhileness, I assert it to be an unbiblical collection of man’s wisdom. For the most part the book sounds really good, until you step back and compare it with the Bible, then you realize the whole tone of the book is contrary to Scripture, not on the face of things, but subtly. The problem with Blue Like Jazz isn’t really much of the content, it is the worldview; it approaches the world in a way that is unbiblical. The danger of Blue Like Jazz is that it seems true, as the more truth you mix with error, the more you dress it up, the more dangerous it becomes; it *sounds* sound, and it *looks* attractive as the Apple of Eve’s eye, but it harbors death in its bosom.

MB: I don’t want to have a full-fledged debate about this. I certainly know that Donald Miller has some questionable beliefs. But this, this is not man’s wisdom. From Blue Like Jazz:

The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me….No drug is as powerful as the drug of self. No rut in the mind is so deep as the one that says I am the world, the world belongs to me, all people are characters in my play. There is no addiction so powerful as self-addiction.

QG: The Bible claims to be the Word of God, just as the law is the word of the monarch, it claims, that if you disbelieve or disobey it, then it is tantamount to making God a liar, and rebelling against him; to dilute it, is to dilute truth, that those who twist it twist to their own destruction. It claims to be the only truth, to be no trite thing, but our very lives, as the blood is the life of our animal vitality, so the word is the blood in the veins of our spirit. It says that we are to avoid those who twist and dilute its truths, that we aren’t to even eat with them, nor wish them god-speed. It says that we are to attend to sound doctrine, to love it.

All that leads me to ask, why do you insist upon deriving truth from heretics? Why do you hire as professors the farmers from the fields around hell, when there are doctors and lawyers of the truth readily at hand? Do you prefer the hounds of hell, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, to the lawfully appointed shepherds, the stewards of the house of God? Do you prefer the barking of dead dogs, to the voice of your Master; the harvest of hell, to the banquet of heaven? If the world-view of the Bible presupposes that you will shun error, even if it be found in a good man, and that you will refute heretics, rather than learning from them, why don’t you? Where in all the Bible have learned to do thus?

As to that quote, I don’t deny that some of the things he said were good. But what godly man has failed to say this? All true divines have proclaimed this truth, so why go to heretics to gain it? Not willing to say he is a heretic? Why go to someone who has questionable beliefs then? If I had a cup before me filled with water, and was told that there might or might not be poison in it, would I drink? Now suppose there were a fountain right behind me, one filled with the purest of waters, what should I do?

MB: First of all, I believe Miller is a Christian. He is wrong on certain issues (I believe he is a ‘soft universalist’) but because his life, as portrayed in his writing and what I know of him appears to be redeemed, I accept the explicit profession of faith in his works and life as genuine. And since he is redeemed, in my view, I do not think it is right to call him a “farmer from the fields near hell” and since he is merely an author and not a pastor or a teacher, I cannot call him a false prophet.

You ask why I would drink water that may be tainted when the fountain of pure life is right behind me. But that question suggests that reading and admiring Blue Like Jazz has the inescapable consequence of making one ignore the fountain of pure life, God’s word. I read Scripture every day, and Miller’s book only once, months ago.

I hope I am accepting Miller’s work for what it is, and not what I would have it to be. I see it as a book written by a flawed man to flawed men, about a hopefully sincere path to faith, well-written and influential, grounded enough in Biblical truth and sanctified life to be worthwhile, albeit with reservations. If Miller was a CRC pastor and I was in charge of the denomination, I would have him thoroughly examined. But Miller is a writer; a man who came to faith in an incredibly secular environment. I posit that his faith is not as developed as it would be if he had held to the teaching of the true church from an earlier age, but it is there nonetheless.

Books like Miller’s must be properly categorized. They are only worthwhile when it is understood that they are flawed. They must never serve as devotionals or doctrinal proofs, but as encouragement and testimony. If a Portland pagan reads Blue Like Jazz, he’ll have questions, questions that can only be answered in scripture and in church. Not every book written by a Christian must be scrupulously vetted by the ruling elders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for complete accordance with the Westminster Larger Confession before it can be published.

I wager that if Paul was around today, he would write Don Miller a letter, possibly a stiff one. But I don’t think it would be fire and brimstone like 1st Corinthians (Expel the immoral brother!) or Galatians (You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?), but it certainly might be. But it’s important to point out that neither the Corinthians nor the Galatians were labeled heretics: Paul told them in no uncertain language that they were dead wrong, but he did not say that they had broken faith or were deserving of expulsion from Christ’s body, as a heretic would have been.

Paul became all things to all men, and saved many. Miller might have become too ‘Portland’ and not enough ‘Paul,’ but his works have saved some.

I say that people like Miller have a place in Christendom. Clement, Origen, Augustine and many of the other Fathers had doctrinal flaws to greater or lesser extents, but we do not term them “farmers skirting the edges of hell.” We acknowledge their wrongs, but we do not shun the men themselves. I’m not saying that Miller is another Augustine or anything remotely close, but rather asking that if Christians have not shunned church fathers for doctrinal flaws throughout the centuries, how much less should we shun a self-confessed layman, young in the faith, for doctrinal problems in this age?

I think that you, Quaid, have picked up from the OPC the tendency to throw around the word “heretic” more than perhaps you ought.

The church is diverse, and I think it was called to be. We are all members of one body, but as different people fulfill different roles in a congregational body, so denominations, flawed and petty as they are, fulfill different roles within Christ’s Body. There is a place in the Body, then, for the OPC, perhaps one more honored, perhaps less. But there is certainly a place for humble men like Miller, who has come a long, long way towards joy and towards God from his origins in a post-Christian secular college.

It is therefore right for you and I to glean what we can of value from Miller (and for me it was not a lean harvest) and remonstrance with him where weeds have overtaken the crop. But it is not just for Miller that we must do this–it is for ourselves and for the Church itself. It is not for us in this life to be given perfection in doctrine. You and I are flawed in that area like everyone else. But we can always move onwards and upwards to God and His purest doctrine.

But our minds cannot begin to wrap around the width of this gift of life that we have received from God, so we must accept that there are holy mysteries, that God moves in mysterious ways, and that it is humility, married to knowledge and the fear of God, that comprise wisdom. No man may place himself on the pedestal of utter rightness of doctrine unless He and all the Spirit-led among us see Christ in his capstone.

In all other situations in this world of unknowns, when there is no complete surety of doctrine, we should discern, not judge, and love what we find lacking until it becomes lovely, humble in case our minds fail us so our faith can lead us, and in all things holding the revealed Word as the final authority.

“Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9) That is the most important thing Christians can do as consumers of culture. Uphold the good because nothing is good without God, and reject evil as the antithesis of God. The question here, however, is what to do when there is found right and wrong doctrine in the same man, when, in a sense, there is a spiritual battle going on between the forces of the world, who seek to capture Miller, and the Spirit who lives in him. It all boils down to the Biblical truth that the ‘already, not yet’ battle against error has been won, and yet will be won. Don Miller, Quaid, and I are all battlefields. We know the outcome, but until the time when it is fulfilled, when the treader of grapes overtakes him who sows the seed (Amos 9:13), we must shun error and hold on to good even when they are found in the same man. I believe Miller is redeemed, and so I read his work and enjoy it and reject the errors in it. I hope that I do the same for everything.


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