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A Better Storyteller | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

A Better Storyteller | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

A Better Storyteller
Donald Miller helps culturally conflicted evangelicals make peace with their faith.

Donald Miller is in a room of 500 or 600 people, all waiting for him to speak. But as he steps behind the podium and begins, his voice seems more suited to a small group of five or six.

“Okay,” he starts, “what are some of your favorite movies?”

A murmur of response—”Come on!” Miller encourages—and then people start shouting out titles.The MatrixA Beautiful MindThe Straight StoryFinding Nemo! The audience oohs and aahs at each other’s choices. Little WomenNapoleon DynamiteIt’s a Wonderful Life! The shouting goes on for a while; they forget this is a workshop.

“Okay, great,” Miller says, bringing attention front and center. “Now, call out your favorite parts of the Nicene Creed.”

Awkward giggles throughout the room—they know they’ve been had. Then one man pipes up: “It’s a wonderful life!”

Miller laughs along with, maybe louder than, everyone in the room. He’s enjoying that his point was made for him: We know our movies better than we know our creeds. And now self-help banalities—Your life can be wonderful—compete for our attention with the classic truths of the Christian story.

In the next half hour, Miller delivers a variation on a theme ascendant in evangelical Christianity: Truth is rooted in story, not in rational systems. The Christian mission is not well served when we speak in terms of spiritual laws or rational formulas. Propositional truths, when extracted from a narrative context, lack meaning. “The chief role of a Christian,” he says, “is to tell a better story.”

In keeping with the movie theme, Miller quotes at length from Robert McKee, the Hollywood screenwriting guru whose book Story (1997) is at once a detailed guide to the principles of narrative and a primer on the principles of meaning. Miller says that the criteria McKee instructs writers to use in editing their stories—Is there conflict here? Does my protagonist have a purpose?—are the same criteria we can use to edit our understanding of our lives and the Christian faith.

The Donald Miller speaking at this conference workshop—casual, yes, but also focused, deliberate—is perhaps not the Donald Miller people expected to see. Best known for Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, a youthful, angsty collection of personal essays that has sold more than 800,000 copies since its publication in 2003, Miller has refined his craft and his range of interests. At 35, he is a maturing youth—freshly shaven with short hair, plain blue jeans, and a beige sweater over a white button-down shirt. He has no pretense of hipster chic, or much pretense of any kind. When bumping into old conference circuit acquaintances or making new ones, he likes to talk of music and film but also college basketball and Hey, how is your wife feeling these days?

Miller, often described as “irreverent” or “bohemian,” is a frequent speaker at mainstream evangelical events just like this one: a mid-winter conference at the Hines Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay, a gathering of evangelical church and parachurch workers in New England, with the usual buzz of platform speakers and ministry workshops. Miller is comfortable here, which, apart from his book sales within the Christian industry, doesn’t seem quite right, given his countercultural evangelical image. Other recent gigs for Miller include the Women of Faith national conference and a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) convention. He is likely the only speaker at such events who has launched an online literary journal, the Burnside Writers Collective, and whose book site includes links to politically liberal organizations such as MoveOn.org and Greenpeace.

But he manages to fit in just fine. He is not an evangelical interloper. He is an evangelical insider. “They love him,” explains Jim Chaffee, Miller’s booking agent. “He’s progressive but not pissed.”

He is also neither irreverent nor bohemian—at least, not much. But for mainstream evangelicals today, Miller is a bridge to an irreverent, bohemian world. His work is framed with bohemia—a road trip, a pint of beer, an occasional curse word—but filled with explicit longing for Jesus. He never takes on basic Christian tenets or evangelical priorities such as biblical authority and spreading the gospel, but he asks just enough questions, with just enough gravity, to attract readers who have similar reservations about their faith culture. He’s a sotto voce critic of evangelicalism, telling anxious audiences that it’s okay to question the faith, yet keep it.

At the conference in Boston, attendees hear from a lineup of evangelical celebrity teachers: George Barna, Henry Cloud, Bill Hybels, Jack Hayford, Joni Eareckson Tada, Sheila Walsh, and more. Topics range from “Your Role in Jesus’ ‘Dream Church'” to “How to Lead a Person to Christ: The Simple Basics.”

Miller’s talks—a morning keynote address to about 4,000 people, plus the afternoon workshop—are short on how-to’s and long on critique. During the keynote session, he takes the crowd through a history of paradigms for church ministry. He objects to overconfidence among evangelicals. “If your mind is not constantly being changed,” he says, “you’re not following Christ.” Miller believes sharing the gospel should be like setting someone up on a blind date, not like explaining propositions. He takes aim at the corporatization of evangelicalism, detectable through such evangelicalisms as, “Be profitable for the kingdom of God.” He lampoons teaching series with titles like “Three Keys to a Biblical Marriage.”

“It seems to me there are a million keys to marriage,” Miller teases, “and they change depending on what kind of mood she’s in.” The joke kills. All his jokes kill. Miller is embraced every bit as enthusiastically as his celebrity speaker elders. Or more so. “Yours is the only talk so far where people stood around and talked afterward,” one woman tells him. “So refreshing. So real.”

At the book-signing table after his keynote address, Miller is handed copy after copy of each of his four titles: Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What (2004), Through Painted Deserts (2005; a reissue of his first book, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance), and To Own a Dragon(2006). But mostly, he is handed copy after copy of Blue Like Jazz and offered testimonials about the book’s effect:

“I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years, and I’ve never been so excited about a book.”

“Your book was the only thing that got my daughter through college.”

“I love Blue Like Jazz because it’s, like, a Christian book, but it doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself.”

A 40-something woman approaches Miller with two plastic grocery bags filled with copies of his books. “I’ve already bought Blue Like Jazz 13 times,” she gushes. “But I gotta have all these to give to people. I’m a Jesus girl, but I also like to go out and do tequila shots with my friends. This is a book I can give to those friends.”

At the end of the day, Miller and I walk through the February chill to a pub and grill in Boston’s South End. He tells me that comments like the ones at the signing table are par for the course when he speaks at events like these. He feels he must be meeting some great need that exists for evangelicals today. “You feel confident because you know that this is actually a refreshing message for people,” he says. “They don’t feel accused. They don’t feel hurt or offended by what you’re saying. There’s a sense of, ‘Hey, we have lost meaning, haven’t we?’ “

He compares his experience to Paul speaking to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Paul understood Greek culture, he was winsome, and he could make an appeal for truth in a way that Greeks would receive. I point out that in that scenario, Don Miller is Paul, and evangelicals are the Greeks.

Miller nods. “I actually believe that I’m setting people free from something that is frustrating them.”

The Greater Trouble

It’s easy to see why Miller believes he is setting people free: His fans sound like the liberated. And if he critiques evangelical culture, it’s always with care for evangelicals. Many evangelicals are critics of evangelical culture because they are concerned with what is being communicated to non-Christians. Miller, on the other hand, is critical of evangelical culture because he worries about what evangelicals are communicating to themselves.

In Searching for God Knows What, Miller writes about the “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to witnessing:

Millions, perhaps, have come to know Jesus through these efficient presentations of the gospel. But I did begin to wonder if there were better ways of explaining it than these pamphlets. After all, the pamphlets have been around for only the last fifty years or so (along with our formulaic presentation of the gospel), and the church has shrunk, not grown, in Western countries in which these tools have been used. But the greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the gospel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree.

“The greater trouble” with these approaches, Miller takes pains to say, is the trouble causedevangelicals. Throughout Searching and Blue Like Jazz, especially, Miller is pastoral in his concern that evangelicals shed whatever cultural baggage might be causing confusion in their lives of faith and return to a relational understanding of God.

In one of his talks in Boston, Miller offers a parable about evangelical witness: A husband decides to woo his wife, so he takes her out to dinner and gives her a list of the things he loves about her. “All those things are true. Do you see that?” The wife nods. “Well, then, you know I love you.” The wife doesn’t swoon. “But everything on this list is true! If you believe the items on this list, then you should be able to accept that I love you!”

The Parable of the Foolish Husband prompts mmms and claps and knowing headshakes. Miller does not make anyone feel bad about harboring formulaic versions of God or of the gospel. He relates to feeling bad about those versions and asks, “Why don’t we try another way?”

It’s a truism of sales that products do well when they meet felt needs. Blue Like Jazz sold just over 20,000 copies in its first year, but word of mouth (and a seeding effort through Campus Crusade for Christ, which placed the book in packets passed out to college freshmen) moved the title slowly but surely onto the bestseller list. Greg Stielstra, vice president of marketing for Thomas Nelson Publishers, says the book is now—four years later—seeing an increase in units sold per week.

Blue Like Jazz takes its title from the notion that jazz music does not resolve, which Miller sees as a metaphor for the ambiguities of the life of faith in God. But if anything, Blue resolves its beefs with evangelicalism succinctly and consistently, with chapters that are more like the 3-minute condensations of pop rock than the lingering improvisations of jazz. The book is a tour through sites of frustration for evangelicals, especially young evangelicals. Chapter titles include “Belief,” “Church,” “Romance,” “Community,” “Money,” “Worship,” and “Love.” On each subject, Miller begins by describing a well-known problem with slight insolence, but ends by offering, well, a resolution. In “Church,” he writes, “I don’t like institutionalized anything,” listing beefs with churches he’s attended. But within a few pages, he tells the story of his current church in Portland, Oregon, and writes, “So one of the things I had to do after God provided a church for me was to let go of any bad attitude I had against other churches I’d gone to. In the end, I was just different, you know. It wasn’t that they were bad; they just didn’t do it for me.”

Miller says fans of Blue are “people who don’t want to be in evangelical culture but don’t want to reject it either.” He gives voice to their cultural hang-ups and agrees there is a problem—Yeah, Christianity can be lame that way—but quickly suggests they move on.

Like Reading My Own Diary

Miller pledges that his writing style will change significantly with his next book, A Map of Eden, which debuts in 2008. He says he learned the most about himself from writing his most recent book,To Own a Dragon, which chronicles Miller’s experience of growing up without a father and offers lessons he gleaned from a mentoring relationship with photographer John MacMurray. It is also his most focused, consistently well-written book. But Miller says that as he wrote Dragon, he found his heavily personalized writing style was not challenging anymore—it lacked the thrill of creative discovery. (He’s rediscovered the thrill with a screenplay version of Blue Like Jazz, co-written with Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson. And he has plans to create a television show, set in the famed Powell’s bookstore in Portland.)

To date, Miller’s writing style has been casual, even lackadaisical. Most chapters in his books take the form of mini-essays, but they’re more like long e-mails written to a friend than prose intended for mass consumption. Like most authors, Miller writes in a style he admires: “The books I like are the ones that get you feeling like you are with a person, hanging out with a person who is being quite vulnerable, telling you all sorts of stuff that is personal,” he writes in Searching. He says he got that feeling from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies and credits that book with giving shape to his voice.

But Miller represents a new kind of casual. Published writing is generally a step removed from everyday speech, but Miller’s style quotes the quotidian. Consider a sample from Blue Like Jazz, chosen at random:

My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove he doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove he does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.

Read it aloud, and it sounds like speech. Which is precisely what Miller’s fans like about him. “You write like you talk; you talk like you write,” a young woman in Boston said to Miller, and her comment was both an observation and a compliment.

Miller’s fans like his writing not just because it sounds like his speech, but because it sounds like speech, period. His thoughts on paper “sound” like thoughts—anyone’s thoughts. Miller’s essays on faith are exciting for fans because reading him is like having themselves explained to themselves. “It was like reading my own diary,” said another fan in Boston.

On the first page of Blue Like Jazz, we learn that Miller was raised without a father, that his family was poor, and that an undersized bladder caused him to wet the bed until he was ten. Such details, frankly delivered, litter his writing. Later in Blue, we see Miller yelling at a roommate whose motorcycle wakes him each morning and slowly waking to the realization that he is not giving money to his local church. He tells his version of a multitude of problems most every evangelical has experienced and offers lessons learned. His writing feels like a friend constantly calling to say, “Man, I realized something bad about myself today, but I think I’ve got it figured out now.”

The Language of Spirituality

Miller’s words are a mirror for his fans, and they love what they see—so could his popularity be read as (yet another) indication of our culture’s deep narcissism? It’s a fair critique in an age when people document the minutiae of their lives in written and visual media—blogs, YouTube, cell-phone pictures sent at every passing moment. Such self-expression is not testimony; it’s not a profession of anything but self. It is public without being communal.

The danger for Miller is that fans would see themselves in his writing, be comforted that those selves are as they should be, and believe that there is no conflict between loving Jesus and, say, doing tequila shots with your friends.

But to read Miller that way is to miss the upshot of his low style. His adventures in evangelicalism have more to do with classic Christian experience than contemporary narcissism. His style is not an exercise in self-aggrandizement, but in self-exploration. Miller is helping readers address certain frustrations in evangelical culture because his writing is related to a pillar of the evangelical experience: spirituality.

In Blue Like Jazz, Miller makes a point of distinguishing between Christianity, the religion, and Christianity, the spirituality. Some readers (like this one) may have a hard time appreciating the difference at first blush, because spirituality is a catchword and a trend both within Christianity and without it. Evangelicals are drawn to the spirituality of Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and Henri Nouwen, even as they flinch at the spirituality of Joan Borysenko and Deepak Chopra. Spirituality sounds nice, but is it sufficiently theological?

Bruce Hindmarsh, a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver and the author of The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), warns that the imprecision of the termspirituality affords those who employ it the benefit of insight without having to be insightful. But Hindmarsh argues that the word, used biblically, is fecund with theological and practical content. “You could almost capitalize every use of it in the Pauline letters,” he says. Spirituality is “life in the Holy Spirit, or life in Christ in the Holy Spirit.”

Spirituality is dialectical: It denotes that which animates (enlivens the self), but also that which integrates (the self with others). Spirituality is about a closely examined life of faith. It is about the self, but it contains a check against self-absorption by calling the self into relationship with Christ and people.

Evangelicals who emphasize spirituality are recovering the classical roots not just of Christianity in general, but of evangelicalism in particular, a faith movement that is “at its core a spirituality movement,” says Hindmarsh. “The historical roots of evangelicalism are about awakening to interiority.” Hindmarsh’s research has led him to the journals of Christians from the early modern period—both giants of the faith like George Whitefield and John Wesley and laypersons who are forgotten to history but whose journals recount their personal stories of faith. These accounts are “embodied theology,” says Hindmarsh, “theology that is taken up into someone’s life in real time.”

Spirituality combines deep self-examination—;Who am I, and how am I living?—with a call to integrate with the world outside the self. True spirituality is never merely about the self, but about the experience of the self in the world with God.

This true spirituality is what readers respond to in Donald Miller. His essays are personal, yes, but not solipsistic. They may resolve too quickly, but to their credit, they often do so by calling readers to greater sympathy with others, deeper faith in the love of God, and more patience during trials of discipleship. They tell of the self in the interest of community concerns. They are ultra-casual in tone, filled with the clutter of informal conversation. But that very style and tone draws evangelicals who can relate to Miller’s story of faith.

Miller’s books describe the experience of being evangelical in a manner that echoes the feelings and thoughts of thousands of evangelicals today. And because he is careful not to reject the faith, he helps readers—especially culturally conflicted young evangelicals—recover it. His books encourage a certain amount of Christian navel-gazing, but only long enough to get the fuzz out.

Patton Dodd is Protestant editor for Beliefnet and a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University.

Related Elsewhere:

Donald Miller’s sites include DonaldMillerWords.comBlueLikeJazz.comThe Burnside Writers Collective, and DonMillerFans.net (a fan site where Miller answers questions).

More information about Miller and his books, as well as excerpts from Blue Like Jazz (chapter 1,another 11 pages) and Searching for God Knows What are available online.

Miller created the Belmont Foundation, which “seeks to effectively respond to the American crisis of fatherlessness by equipping the faith community.”

Leadership Journal‘s Out of Ur and Relevant Magazine interviewed him.

Christianity Today articles by and about Donald Miller include:

Guys and Dads | Elephants in puberty are like men without fathers, says Donald Miller. (June 13, 2006)

Finding a Family | A man needs a dad. I found mine when I moved in with a friend. (Excerpt from To Own a Dragon, June 13, 2006)

The Campus Confession Booth | What I considered a horrible idea turned into a moment of transformation. (Leadership, July 1, 2005)

Learning to Love Moses | The difference between meaning and truth. (An excerpt fromSearching for God Knows What, by Donald Miller, November 1, 2004)

The Dick Staub Interview: Why God Is Like Jazz | “Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, talks about why Christians need writers who honestly deal with their faults and why penguin sex is an apt metaphor for believing in Christ” (August 1, 2003)

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