Monday, April 7, 2014

Donald Miller: The Gospel Medium is Also the Message

This is a revised version of an article that was first published at Christian Manifesto.

I first heard of Donald Miller during his cross-country promotional tour for A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. References kept popping up on blogs and on Twitter, so I checked his web site, not sure what I might find.

What I found was the gospel, but presented, talked about and spoken in an entirely new way, or at least entirely new for this mostly conservative transplanted Southerner in the Midwest. I also found Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Miller’s earlier work (2003) that sold more than a million copies. He’s written other books, but it’s Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles that I read together, and it’s those two that fit together as companion pieces of a life.

Miller tells a story in Blue Like Jazz about how he never liked jazz music – until he heard someone who really loved it play it. Then he understood. More than that, he also understood that really loving something was the most direct way of communicating that something. Like the gospel message. “Too much of our time,” he says, “is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe. Bu reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder.”

And it is that wonder that Miller strives to communicate in Blue Like Jazz, and he succeeds. He tells the gospel message through the story of his life: the abandonment of his family by his father; his struggle to find his own way; his experiences at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and unorthodox institution by just about anyone’s standards; even his (lack of) serious relationships. Donald  Miller’s life becomes the medium through which he tells the gospel story.

And it works.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years goes further. Miller is contacted by two filmmakers from Nashville who want to make a movie of Blue Like Jazz, and since he’s going to be deeply involved in the script himself, Miller has to learn how to write one. He takes a seminar from Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting who teaches a legendary screenwriting seminar.

What Miller does is to adapt the principles of screenwriting as a way to tell his life story – and telling his life story is a way to speak, or live, the gospel message. He also discovers that he can deliberately choose to change his life story – rewrite the screenplay, so to speak. And that’s what he does. So we travel with him as his takes a bike ride – across America. And we sit with him when he finally meets the father he hasn’t seen for almost 30 years, because Miller chose to change the story and not consider himself a victim of abandonment.

He’s changed his original blog site; it’s now called Storyline and includes posts by guest writers like Alison Vesterfelt, Darrell Vesterfelt (Alison’s husband and director of marketing for Storyline), Joshua Becker, and Scott McClellan. Miller is still writing posts, and the site still bears his distinctive stamp – the Sunday morning sermon feature is just as likely to be a TedX talk as an actual sermon. But that’s a part of what Miller is up to here – engaging the culture, finding God in the culture (even when the culture might disagree), and aiming at a Millennial to late Gen X audience.

Miller has also developed an extensive speaking program, an online video course for creating a life plan, a small group study guide, and other resources.

Miller is still about telling stories. And he tells good stories because he considers his life to be a good story – and a medium for telling the story of the gospel.

1 comment:

H. Gillham said...

I loved Blue Like Jazz -- I passed it to my nephew who wished to discuss it.

He's a good writer.

Thanks for this post.