Thursday, May 17, 2012

Books Like Whoa: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller (Jesus Corner)

Ye old spiritual memoir from ye old ubiquitous Christian memoirist...

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
by Donald Miller

Procured from a certain ginormous online retailer

Procured in October 1, 2011

Finished on April 6, 2012

Challenge?: For the "A to Z Challenge"

Format: A tactile delight of a paperback with great cover design

Why I gave it a try: Miller's biggest memoir, Blue Like Jazz, was a big book when I was in high school, one that made us all insufferable with our "yeah, man"-ing along with his reflections. Upon a reread, I don't find it as profound, but I do find it incredibly well constructed and genuinely helpful for people at the beginning of spiritual exploration (or those further along the path that need to remember the importance of a seeking heart)

Summary: Our old memoirin' pal, Donald Miller, finds himself somewhat adrift in his settled routine of being a hip Christian circuit superstar when two rag tag filmmakers come aknockin' and say that they want to make his memoir, Blue Like Jazz, into a movie. Cue grand quest to discover where story and reality intersect...

Thoughts: Let's get the negative part of this out of the way: I really, really didn't like the first part of this book. I probably would have given up, but so many people I knew loved it and I wanted to be able to talk cogently about the whole thing. I am glad I stuck with it, because Miller went to an interesting place with the second half of the work that I enjoyed. That being said...

If you have read Miller's most famous work, Blue Like Jazz, you need not read the first section of Million Miles. Why? Because he's going over the same trodden ground, which he did to much better affect in Jazz. Not only that, he has added two elements that made the prose nearly insufferable to me: 1) a gestural, "hey-I'm-not-even-going-to-fully-commit-to-my-tried-and-true-parlor-trick-but-you-are-going-to-keep-reading-because-I'm-Donald-Miller" element that was dangerously close to arrogant, and 2) a level of uninteresting navel gazing that would surely curl the toes of even the most dedicated philosophy undergrad. In discussing the relationship of screenwriting to actual life, there are so many scenes of intended-to-be-profound grunting that it bordered on paraodic. "Dude." "Dude." "Duuuuuddee." I do believe some of the inertia at the beginning of this tale is intentional, but it is almost more inexcusable that Miller would purposefully subject his readers to such empty philosophizing. I kept waiting for a wise dojo master to turn up at his Portland hiptopia to teach him about the beauty of Toms, loving yourself, and eco-friendly toilet paper (only one sheet, people!).

Okay, those of you who have sharpened your very relevant and hip knives can now sheath them. And I apologize because that last paragraph did smack a bit of snobbery. Mea culpa. Once Miller actually starts deigning to engage his readers with some kind of clear narrative, he explores some genuinely interesting and affecting moments in his life. He is able to rescue the unfocused and feel-goody beginning from falling into a pit of self-indulgent introspection. Rather, he's able to construct something of an adventure story premised on the idea that a life without story is a life without purpose. He is drawing on the same sentiment that made women around the world sigh when Kate Winslet declared, "You're supposed to be the leading lady of your own life!" Color me convinced. There seems to be a universal (or at least uniquely Western) predicament of being lost in the minutia of life- adrift without a sense of direction or reason for keeping on the path you're on.

It's important to remember that what Miller does isn't theology. This is one of the biggest mistakes I see people making with Miller's work- acting like he's promoting a version of the gospel. That is not what he's doing (or if he is, we have bigger problems). Rather, what I think he does document very well is what Peter calls "working out your faith with fear and trembling." He documents his own journey to reconciling truth with his own life and what that looks like. His work resonates with people so strongly because there is a lot of disingenuous "I'm fine"-ing that happens in the church. People don't want to get real with the fact that you aren't always sure where you're going or how in the world to reconcile some verse with your day to day reality; this makes people feel unholy or weird when they experience doubts. Miller has created a way for people to acknowledge this very natural and necessary part of the faith life.

He also provides interesting and often helpful constructs for dealing with these uncertainties. The ideas about story and living into the kind of story you want to be a part of is not new by any stretch of the imagination (see The Sacred Romance for one of many previous contemporary books that examine this idea, along with the writings of Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, etc.). He brings a fresh take to this idea, however, and uses his own life convincingly to get his point across. In short, you finish this book and want to go figure out what kind of adventure you want to have and how to live into that adventure. I don't think that's a bad thing to walk away from a book with.

In the end, this is a fairly uneven offering that is ultimately not without it's pleasures. Reaction I have heard has been overly generous, in my opinion, but I definitely think that Miller presents some interesting ideas in an engaging way that is well worth whatever parts are a bit of a slog.


4 - I enjoyed it... a solid offering 

What do you think of multiple memoirists? Do they have a responsibility to branch out or do you want what you expect from their books?

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