A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: Blue Like Jazz, All Grown Up
I had never heard of Donald Miller that day in 2003 when at a Christian book fair I found Blue Like Jazz for 4 dollars. A quick survey of the book and I knew I held a true find. With book open in hand I navigated around the room hardly looking up at all. Thirty pages in, having confirmed its greatness I returned and retrieved the other few copies knowing I’d give them away.
I liked the book because Miller was authentic in a way that I had not yet found in a Christian writer, that it seemed Christians were generally incapable of. Critics dismissed the book on account of its meandering prose and because they felt that was indicative of a namby pamby epistemology. On the contrary, he never called into question the basic truth claims of the Bible. In fact, he challenged readers to respond to those claims, to seek understanding regarding them, and to redirect their lives accordingly.
For a while I harbored the ambition to write something akin to Blue Like Jazz. This was indeed the aspiration of many writers. Store bookshelves since that time illustrate this point. Certainly, Miller was eager to repeat his success but disappointingly his next two books did not do very well. He was bummed about things until while scripting the movie version of his bestselling memoir he began to reflect upon what made a story good. These reflections took him in a new, more exciting direction. His latest book, A Million Miles in A Thousand Years tells that story.
because Million Miles cover art so closely resembles Blue Like Jazz, I take it that all parties involved believe that this book is the fitting follow-up to that book. The similarities are obvious, but the differences are more apparent. The most noticeable difference? The author himself. Before he offered a lot of commentary, now he is compelled to be an active participant in his story. The reader is privy to a discussion between Miller and Steve Taylor about the film which reveals the change in progress.
Steve: We just want to take the basic events of your life and shape them around a structure that makes sense.
Don: I don’t think life works like a formula
Steve: We aren’t talking about a formula. We’re talking about a few basic principles.
Steve was talking about movie making. Don was talking about his life. Steve pointed out that Don’s story did not transfer naturally to film. Don wondered why. Steve clued Don in that his story was kind of boring. Don took offense. Realizing Don had taken it personally, Steve tried to make him feel better by saying everyone’s lives are boring. Don wasn’t pleased with that. He started to consider how the principles of great storytelling could apply to life.
What began as a thought experiment resulted in Miller facing some hard truths about himself. One was that he avoided challenges. This had only made him more miserable. He determined that people are hardwired to desire great story and that he had artificially fulfilled this need with TV and needless purchases such as a robotic floor vac. In pursuit of story he hiked the Inca trail, tracked down his father whom he had not seen in 30 years, and biked across the country to raise money for water wells in Africa. He entered these endeavors apprehensively but knew that great characters defy their fear. Then, he got serious about an idea that he had been sitting on.
“I started an organization called The Mentoring Project and within the year we were mentoring 80 kids in Portland. I’d started an epic story of my own. And life no longer felt meaningless. It felt stressful and terrifying, but it definitely didn’t feel meaningless.”
And with that, Donald Miller has come full circle. Once wary of formulas, he better understands the value of a few helpful principles. Previously, he discussed story as more of an abstract concept. No longer content just to “type words into a screen” he now aspires to live a story worth telling. That story is the gospel of Jesus.
I’m glad you got something out of it and I’m glad to hear that you feel Miller’s grown up a bit. But I will not be re-visiting MillerLand (unless perhaps paid to do so).
I read all but the final four pages of Blue Like Jazz (I didn’t have the strength to continue) and found authenticity to be just as lacking in his book as sensibility. Sure, it had moments. But the whole thing smelled of artifice. As I wrote in the way back when:
If Miller has dropped his I’m-Too-Cool-For-School (and for your father’s Christianity) air and has developed some solutions for the problems with the church that he and every other young Christian this side of 1950 have been pointing out since before either of us have been born, then I’m glad he found himself on a more useful vector. But hearing that he’s come full circle doesn’t give me much hope for him as either an author or a voice worth paying heed.
That’s a good observation Dane. Every church critic thinks he’s the first to stumble upon the problems and he’s the only one calling for reevaluation and adjustment. It is the height of arrogance and ignorance. I know Miller has often seemed, as you said, to be “too-cool-for-school” and I think this is just so popular among critics, but then they offer no actual alterantives or helps to the church. So in the end I am kind of like, “What usefulness are you, or your books?”
Yeah, I think it’s one thing for a random blogger or friend or man-in-the-pew to complain about the problems of the church or of American expressions of evagelo-fundamentalism (Miller’s target in Blue Like Jazz). But that’s mostly because they 1) don’t have a voice to sway masses, and 2) have space limitations on how much can be said. I would have been much more comfortable with Miller’s work had he lopped off about half his cute stories and instead devoted that bookspace to developing cures (or even pointing to the cure we have already been given) to the symptoms he points out. Even if I disagreed with the band-aids he’d come up with, at least he’d be trying. Blue Like Jazz was him not trying.
Agreed…it felt an awful lot like just whining, to which I say “take a number and get in line…” you’re not the first nor the last.
I do think I should point out that authenticity kind of goes out the window when one consciously tries to shoehorn in a lifestyle that will make good story-telling. That’s not authentic, that’s contrived.
If you’re in the Nashville (11/20), Chattanooga (11/21), or Atlanta (11/22) area and want to hear Donald Miller talk about his new book then check out http://www.givmusic.com for tickets. There you can also download a free audio chapter (chapter 28) from the new book.
Evidently, you weren’t paying attention Maggs. Nobody here (except possibly me) wants to see that wham-bulance drivin’ wannabe hipster ramble on about story when any one of us could have as beneficial a conversation with one of our dirty gym socks.
And I mean that with all due respect, Maggs. :0
Well, obviously we disagree on this one guys. I appreciate your feedback so far and simply want to insert a few clarifying statements.
Sure, I liked that book because I identified with Miller but I didn’t hail him as some po-mo messiah. I didn’t agree with every position he took but I wouldn’t turn to a book dubbed “non-religious thoughts on christian spirituality” for serious theological inquiry anyway. The book was less a treatise and more a testimony. Over the span of the book, Don explains the issues he has and by book’s end his understanding has become clearer. Personally, I benefit from reading and reflecting upon someone else’s story. I didn’t think I smelled artifice but there may be some on my shoe.
I think that his attempts to live a better story are akin to intentional living. I don’t think that is contrived.
Hey Chase, my problem with Miller’s book was never his lack of theological rigour. Within a paragraph, it was clear that the book wasn’t about that—so I didn’t look for it or hold it against the book. My problem was mainly that his book was a waste of paper in that a) his insights into the problems facing the church were either not that insightful or mistaken and b) he offered no solutions to the problems he “discovered.”
As far as the book’s style went, it was overly precious and I never felt any of this quote-unquote authenticity that people seemed to find in him. Unless Miller is authentically overly precious.
By the way, when did authenticity and intentionality become Christian buzzwords? I just want to know so that when we invent a time machine, I can go back in time and rectify that error in superfluousness.
As for whether his new epic life is really authentic or not, I don’t know. But the way you related his experience, it sounded like he just wanted to do a bunch of interesting stuff so he’d have an interesting life story to tell people. Still, he should have listened to Steve Taylor closer. Life stories don’t make good stories. Episodic events from interesting lives tailored in particular ways make interesting stories. There may be an interesting indie film to be told from Donald Miller’s life, but it would certainly be restructured in ways he’s uncomfortable with.
I am happy to read that others are not as awe-inspired as the rest of the best-selling market seems to be with Miller.
I was a bit bored, and could not finish it, either. However, if it encourages people to see Jesus in a different way, or see him as not the same entity/identity as the foibled church who claims him, I suppose I will bear that cross.
My issues with Blue Like Jazz are a little different. Simply put, the title is one of the best titles ever (not that Star Wars Jesus isn’t close behind), yet the book is not about blue and not about jazz. I would be enthralled with a book that showed Jesus in the blues, in jazz, in the melancholy dirt and lust that is humanity. The blues are not typically seen as having Jesus around, but why not? Is he not besides in the tough times, when we see that girl and oh my those thoughts are so wrong? Course he is. And what about the jazz? We Christians (as a western cultured whole) tend to be either very rigid and all about the systematic theology logic – head oriented side of things, or the flowy Spirit-filled heart oriented side of things. If music were the Christian’s life we are either Bach or Enya. So a book about the difficulty of balancing head and heart in Jazz, or the down-low honesty of Blues, or both, was what I wanted in a book of that title.
i beg to differ!
don miller has changed my life.
and i’m a lot older than him.
open your hearts, and your minds, please. try try to listen.
but, even if you don’t think you need his message, there are people who do. just because you didn’t get something out of it doesn’t mean that he is not being used greatly by God.
after 30 years of church life and ministry, amidst the increasingly political “christian” America, spouting off memorized answers to other’s questions and leading programs to bait sinners to become seekers…. i finally had the heartbreak of realizing how shallow and contrived so much of this was.
God used Miller to resurrect my faith!
He is showing me that Christ is still alive in this world, beyond my imagination and mind.
i don’t want to write the list of all the things i’m walking away from… though tempted. i don’t want to be another “complainer”.
but i do want to say that i had burnt out on Christianity and was even contemplating giving up on God… but i kept seeking. somehow i ended up with the very two books you mention here. and they have given me a new life. a new chance to be a Christian, with no compromise, to truly sell out, but now for all the right reasons.
perhaps you don’t think he gave answers to the dilemmas you see.
but his example SO! gave me answers to the dilemmas that i faced and continue to face. one of the answers is to just allow the dilemmas, i admit. and coming from the rigid background i ‘ve had, that in and of itself is wonderful freedom.
i wish i were a better writer just so i could more aptly express the new hope and joy i have again in the Lord as a direct result of reading Miller’s stories.
PS chase i agree with you and thank you! great blog!
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