Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller's seminal work: a review

This book is getting old now, but I just read it for the first time. I’m glad I waited, so I could separate it a bit from the hype that surrounded it on its first release. I found it to be a remarkably easy to read, beautifully written collection of essays on what Christianity is all about. Miller has a way of disarming you with his gentleness and wit, and then stabbing you with the cold, hard truth when you recognize yourself in his portraits of those that have missed the real and simple message of Jesus regarding sin, grace, and redemption. I  alternately laughed (like, out loud) and became very serious.

So much of this book is worth reading and re-reading…and I can’t even begin to talk about all of it here. The part that hit me like a freight train was the section on how we talk about love, beginning on page 218 in the paperback edition. Miller notes the economic language with which we discuss our human relationships: we invest in people, our relationships can become bankrupt, and people are priceless. He says,

“The problem with Christian culture is we think of love as a commodity. We use it like money….This was the thing that had smelled so rotten all these years. I used love like money. The church used love like money. With love, we withheld affirmation from the people who did not agree with us, but we lavishly financed the ones who did.”

As he explained how this is played out on both the church and personal level, I felt my heart sink. This was me. For the past 2, 3, 4 years, I’ve withdrawn from many human relationships—with Christians and non-Christians, family members and friends—because I didn’t think it was worth the effort. I didn’t think it worth the effort because I believed no one would really put in the same kind of work in the relationship as I would…and if they’re not going to be equally as “invested” in the relationship, why even have one?

As I pondered this part of the book out loud with my wife after reading, I had to struggle to keep my emotions in check as the full weight of my own selfishness hit me. Even if my grossly unfair assumptions about other people were true, this is no reason to withhold Christ’s love and grace and commitment to them. After all, it’s not my love to withhold. Any love I can give comes by grace through Christ anyway. The more I thought about it, the more I found this mindset of love and commitment as a trade good to be deeply ingrained in my worldview. I am honestly ashamed, because I can look back now and see why many of my relationships have failed, how I could have been a better husband, and the impact it had on all sorts of personal ministry. To make matters worse, all I had to do was take my cue from the clear example of our Savior, who loves us so much—despite anything we have done—that he died for us, so that we would be redeemed and have life.  I believe this is the kind of unconditional love I should be sharing with all people.

I’m uncertain as to the specifics of what this means going forward—all this happened about 9 a.m. this morning. I know I need to stop withholding friendship and commitment based on a perceived level of reciprocity, and I really need to mediate anew on Ephesians 5, which begins this way:

…walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God...”

Thoughts on The New Living Translation of the Bible, 2nd Edition

Based on some things I’ve been reading online, as well some recommendations from friends, I decided to pick up a copy of the 2007 revision of the New Living Translation, 2nd edition. I understand that original Living Bible was a paraphrase (sort of The Message before The Message) and that the first edition of the New Living Translation was not without its problems…but word on the street (er, ‘net) is that the NLT 2nd edition, and especially the 2007 revision, is pretty top-notch—undoubtedly one of the best “dyanimic equivenlce” (thought for thought) translations available.

So far I have yet to convinced that it’s the best of its breed, but I have to say I’ve really enjoyed reading from it. My understanding is that the goal of the NLT was to keep things simple, clear, and very easy to read. So you won’t find lots of big words, and you’ll find it a pleasure to read aloud. Unlike essentially literal” (word-for-word, as much as possible) translations, Paul’s letters are modified to that the sentence structure makes a bit more sense to English speakers…and it makes a world of difference. While reading my ESV and NLT together, I immediately felt like I had a better grasp on what Paul was saying from the NLT. Part of that is because the NLT adds implied words, where as the ESV, being essentially literal, doesn’t. This is especially helpful in certain sections of Romans, where Paul is talking specifically to/about certain people groups. The NLT provides helpful headings and modifies some sentences with things like, “So, for the Israelites…” or “Remember, Gentiles…” This keeps things straight in your head…with an essentially literal translation, it can be easy to get confused by Paul’s giant run-on sentences and think that he is either speaking in a global sense to or to different group of people.

That being said, there are tradeoffs. After years of study with the NASB and ESV, the Pauline epistiles—while easier to understand—don’t sound like Paul to me. Many of his strongly phrased arguments and rhetorical devices get reworded in a way that seems softened. For example, the repeated exclamation “By no means!” (ESV) throughout Romans is translated “Of course not!” in the NLT. In Romans 9:20, the ESV states,

“….who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ “

The NLT renders the same verse like this:

No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ “

While the essence of this verse is certainly intact, we also lose the sense of admonishon from the ESV and  the word-picture of God as potter or “molder” of our lives. I’ve noticed this about a few passages throughout the Old and New Testaments in NLT; the essence of the meaning is there, but some of the symbolism/word meanings are lost. This robs the scripture of some of its original and intended literary richness.

See how the venerable 23rd Psalm loses a bit of its grandeur…. Here’s the NLT rendering of  Psalms 23:1-4:

 The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valleys I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

And the ESV:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The more formal language of the ESV is both more familiar and more meaningful to me. Phrases like “…paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” and “the valley of shadow of death” just seem more like the way Holy Scripture should be. Naturally, I recognize that in this specific case, my thoughts are highly subjective and based mostly on a certain set of aesthetic preferences.

One thing I really appreciate about the NLT is how it makes certain culturally awkward (or even incrompehsible) verses accesible to the English speaking crowd. Take Ps. 147:10 in the ESV, for example:

“His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man…”

Okay, that’s awkward ;). Here it is in the NLT:

“He takes no pleasure in the strength of a horse or in human might.”

That makes a little more sense, doesn’t it?

Obviously, neither the ESV as an essentially literal translation, nor the NLT as a dynamically equivalent translation are  perfect. But, from what I can gather, they are both great translations each in their own right, and accomplish each of their very different goals well. So I’m very glad I picked up my NLT…I anticipate many blessings by using it alongside my trusty ESV, and I’m now more convinced than ever that both essentially literal and dynamically equvialent translations are needed and should be studied by all Christians.

Further reading: