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Head-to-Head: Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and Lamott’s Traveling Mercies

Donald Miller has been described by Christianity Today as “Anne Lamott with testosterone.” Indeed, Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and Lamott’s Traveling Mercies have strong parallels.

Both tell the stories of the authors’ road to faith in God. Both address, topic by topic, big questions about life and spirituality they feel their readers should ask. Both gently guide their readers through profound lessons by illustrations both humorous and poignant.

But there are some fundamental differences.

As a politically conservative Pentecostal, I feel much more comfortable reading Miller than Lamott. Miller is not the most conservative of Christians, but he does believe in sin nature, a literal heaven and hell and that getting drunk is bad. Lamott is very liberal, both in her lifestyle and her politics. She supports abortion, she uses words of a questionable nature right in the book, and she has had a hard time accepting fundamentalist Christians.

Both Miller and Lamott write in voices that reflect their personalities. Reading their books is like having conversations with two very different people.

Miller’s tone is informal, and Blue feels like having a one-on-one conversation with him. His sentence structures are poetic and short. He uses humor to draw his audience in and then gently pries into a heavy issue. Each chapter brings another big question, another way Miller has grown in his faith. He illustrates with stories of his childhood and his friends, told with rich details and poetic analogies.

In Traveling Mercies, Lamott uses more formal tones and sentence structures. Reading Mercies is like sitting in an auditorium and watching her act out scenes from her life. Although some of her stories are humorous, much of the book is serious. Lamott has traveled some dark paths on her journey, and her readers have to be willing to handle some heavy paragraphs.

Lamott’s formal structure is a bit of a relief when compared to Miller’s more disorganized style. When moving from topic to topic, Miller jumps around chronologically, which can be frustrating. For example, in a discussion on sin, he moves from ten-year-old sins to kindergarten sins to twelve-year-old sins.

Also frustrating are the unnecessary clarifications that give readers the sense that they are spending their time reading a book by a guy who might not be too bright, and that they might not be too bright themselves.

Although these frustrations can alienate a reader in part, the rest of the book is designed to draw the reader back in. Miller truly cares that his readers learn the lessons that have helped his faith grow.

That is the biggest commonality between Miller and Lamott. They have both found something precious and are eager to help others discover it. They seem to be wishing their readers traveling mercies as Lamott defines them: “Love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.”

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