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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

A Spiritual Odyssey

A few years ago, sharp eyes in the Reed admission office began to notice an intriguing trend: prospective students mentioning Blue Like Jazz in their application essays. Admission officers are accustomed to essays based on favorite novels (The Catcher in the Rye is an old standby), but encounter spiritual memoirs less often. By and large, however, these applicants were committed Christians who said Miller’s book turned them on to the idea of going to Reed.

“It’s been a surprising connetion,” says Dean of Admission Paul Marthers, who read about 30 applications last year referencing the book. “We see increasing numbers every year, and it’s significant enough for us to notice.”

Marthers welcomes the fact that Christians are being introduced to Reed, saying the trend adds to the “thought diversity” on campus.

“To me, it’s encouraging,” Marthers says. “This is a demographic that’s growing in this country, and it would be a shame if Reed couldn’t speak to these folks other than to say, ‘We think you’re wrong.’”

That demographic includes Elisabeth Thomas, a high school senior from Sequim, Wash., who will be a first-year student in the fall. An aspiring physicist, she was first attracted to Reed by the nuclear reactor. She is also a Christian, however, and connected with Blue Like Jazz’s portrayal of students as unpretentious and caring.

“Reading [Blue Like Jazz] helped me realize I could be a Christian and go to Reed without sacrificing what I believe,” says Thomas, 19. “A lot of people have looked at me like, ‘I can’t believe you’re even considering Reed.’ But I think it will be challenging for me to go to an environment where I’m not always going to be comfortable. I think going to Reed would help me grow more than going to a place where everyone else thinks the same as me.”


Don Miller was spiritually adrift when he first came to Reed.

Miller’s book has many fans, but it has also come under attack from more conservative evangelicals. One popular Christian blog, The Constructive Curmudgeon, accused Miller of “intellectual recklessness.” Blue Like Jazz is “another outbreak of the epidemic of postmodern glibness. Miller addresses titanic issues with a smirk and a shrug and a pose. He finds no need to be serious intellectually or to pursue subtleties.”

The book has been criticized at Reed, too. A current student, a fan of the book who asked to remain anonymous, recounted how some Christian students attacked the book. “One got visibly angry and offended that I would even bring it up, telling me that many of the stories in the book were made up, that the people described hadn’t wanted to be chronicled in that way, and that Donald Miller, as someone only auditing classes, effectively had no right to write the book in the first place.”

But the Reed students most prominently featured in Blue Like Jazz both vouch for its veracity. Penny Gruener Carothers ’02 and Laura Jean Long Moore ’05 both arrived on campus as agnostics. Penny grew up in a hippie commune and disliked Christians for their narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy. Laura grew up in a Christian family, but had turned away from religion.

Miller befriended both women and recounted their struggles with faith and ultimate conversions to Christianity. Penny became a believer while studying abroad in France. She told Miller that she heard God calling to her some days after a raucous party. “I just prayed and asked God to forgive me. And that is when I became a Christian. It was pretty simple.” Miller wrote that she was proof that God still pursues people. “Even Reedies.”

Miller played a more active role in Laura’s conversion. During a deep conversation in Vollum Lounge, she explained that she couldn’t rationally believe in God. Miller told her that faith wasn’t supposed to be rational; he said that he could sense God was reaching out to her. She came around following a fevered night reading the Gospels, announcing in an email: “This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God. Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realized he was the Son of God. I suppose this makes me a Christian. I feel much better now. Come to campus tonight and let’s get coffee. Much love, Laura.”

Today, Penny is still a committed Christian. She lives in Seattle and says that when she meets other Christians and mentions she went to Reed, they often do a double take. Yes, she tells them, she is that Penny.

“Being at Reed taught me not to be afraid to ask questions,” she says, “and I think in that way it was really good for my faith.”

Laura, on the other hand, repudiated religion altogether not long after the events recounted in Miller’s book. In the end, she couldn’t reconcile rationality and religion. (She and Penny are still friendly with Miller.)

“A Reed education made it impossible for me to believe in things like the devil or heaven and hell,” she says. “I think it is possible to be a Reedie and a Christian. It just wasn’t possible for me.”

reed magazine logoSummer 2009