A hundred yards from the Parthenon, our foreign study group stood atop Mars Hill looking over the city of Athens. It is thought that this was the place where Paul gave the speech found in Acts 17. In that passage, the apostle tries to tell a culture very different from his own about Jesus. He does not try to force a square peg into a round hole. Paul understands he is in a different world. He observes their altars and quotes their poetry. Rather than totally rejecting who they've been and who they are, he finds signposts pointing towards God in their polytheistic religion.
We were scattered all over the hill taking pictures and looking at the ancient city below. Dr. Pitts, our school's chaplain and my faculty advisor at the time, walked over to me and suggested that I read Paul's speech out loud. I am forever grateful for that suggestion. Whenever I read Acts 17, the passage pulses with life. It became one of those pieces of scripture that was grafted onto my soul.
I learned a lot about pilgrimages on that trip. Despite my experience on Mars Hill, much of what I saw stoked my skepticism. We went to church after church in Greece and Italy that purported to have holy relics of the saints: the bones of James, the chains that imprisoned Paul, the nose hair of Bartholomew. I was dubious about these claims but it did not stop people from traveling all over to see these items that touched their heroes of the faith.
I wonder if my Western Protestant mind is predisposed to be skeptical of such things. Despite our best efforts, we make our faith something of the mind and the spirit. We are focused on ideas and beliefs. The men and women on these pilgrimages understood that faith was also about flesh and blood. Whether these artifacts are real or not (and okay, Bartholomew's nose hair wasn't one of them), it made a difference to be in the presence of places where that faith was made reality.
On that same foreign study trip, we spent a mind-numbing amount of time riding buses. As an introvert there is only so much small talk that I can take before I begin to crack. Fortunately there were many books that got passed around amongst our group. The book that probably got passed around the most during that month and a half in the winter of 2004 was Blue Like Jazz. If we were stopping for a meal then there was a good chance that one of tables was talking about Donald Miller's memoir.
I know that a lot of ink, most of it digital, has been spilt dissecting Blue Like Jazz, but I think that is simply because many of us finally found a voice within the Christian faith that we recognized. To borrow from Lena Dunham, Miller's words weren't the voice of our generation, but a voice of a generation. It was refreshing to see someone in the church admit the wrong that we had done and own that crap. It was a relief to know that there were others out there that had questions and doubts and yet were still trying to make a go of this following Jesus thing.
The writing and the ideas are fantastic, but I think what makes Jazz sing is that it was grounded in reality. I'm sure names and the sequence of events were changed--that always happens--but you could tell that Miller was not just thinking these ideas but stumbling his way towards living them out. There was flesh and blood in this thing.
The scene that stands out to me all these years later is when Miller and his small band of Christian friends set up a confession booth at Reed College. During an end of the year explosion of partying and drugs, they sat down and confessed the shortcomings in their life as Christians and the crap the church had done to any curious person that would sit across from them. All this occurred on a campus whose unofficial, albeit tongue-in-cheek, motto is "Atheism, Communism, Free Love."
I remember talking to numerous people about this section and the response was always, "We should totally do something like that!" To my knowledge, it never happened at Furman (though my brother wrote a skit inspired by it later on). After all, we like to traffic a lot more in ideas than flesh and blood. But that passage struck me a lot like Paul on Mars Hill. It was a small group of Christians reaching out to a culture different, though not really that much different, from their own. It was done from a place of naked humility and love.
Whatever its merits are as a book, I think that I sit here and write in large part of Blue Like Jazz. It was a catalyst in my life to be more honest about my doubts and sometimes shake loose from cultural assumptions of what Christianity looks like. Remembering that book is probably one of the things that keep idealism and hope struggling for air when the rest of the world tries to smother it to death (I think many learned the wrong lesson from the book: they tried to make church trendy but neglected the humility and honesty).
Our last morning in Portland, EA and I drove across the river and visited Reed College. This was not a hushed pilgrimage of reverence. More or less, we were interested to see the place.
It is a tiny liberal arts college tucked next to a golf course. We went down to the bookstore in which we debated what would happen if EA bought a hoodie that said "Atheism, Communism, Free Love" and wore it to various public functions in South Carolina (she opted for a zip up featuring the Reed College Griffin). We walked around the campus for a bit. We passed by students that seemed like normal college students, except like most of Portland they dressed a bit more hipster-y.
You could tell it was a place that took its academics seriously and also celebrated non-conformity. We didn't try to figure out where the confession booth would have been. It was a perfectly normal, perfectly pleasant visit. It wasn't life changing but I'm glad we went. Then we drove back over the river to pick up EA's folks and drive to the airport so we could fly back home.
Yet as I reflect on that trip, it was kind of a pilgrimage. I don't consider what Miller and his friends did those years ago to be anything on par with Paul in Acts 17 or the various acts that drive the faithful to travel long distances in the Middle East and Mediterranean. But it was an opportunity to see a place where an event that triggered a change within my faith walk took place. I went to the place. It was not imaginary. It was grass and trees and old buildings. It was fliers for all sorts of odd extra curricular events and weird graffiti on the windows of dorms. It was flesh and blood.
Going there has forced me to reflect on that book and what it meant to an idealistic twenty year old college student. It has caused me to reflect on what it means for those kind of things to be real and not just nice ideas that "could happen."
And I confess that I have not been who I should be. I have stumbled and fallen. I struggle with pride, anger, lust, hatred, selfishness, and fear. On my best days, I still look out for my own interest more than the poor and vulnerable. I forget that Jesus can transform us and asks for us to reach out to the culture around us in humility and love.
Reed was the last place we went before we left Portland and, in a way, it has been a long trip back through time; a trip with souvenirs and memories through which I am still sifting. For that, and many other reasons, I am glad that EA had the opportunity to go out West.