I have been asked a couple of times recently to share my thoughts on Donald Miller. Taking into account that most of you who read my blog are my age (and, I believe, also Mr. Miller's) or younger, this is as difficult a task as offering thoughts on Billy Graham to a sixty five year old evangelical from Wheaton, Illinois. In both cases I would find it necessary to express my admiration for the abilities of Miller and Graham while pointing out how the contextual milieu in which their ministries exist outside the realm of what is helpful for me, and in the process try to preemptively answer the inevitable accusations that I think I'm better than them. A difficult task, indeed.
But first, I should say this-- Any (perceived) negative comments I say about Donald Miller should be taken with one thing in mind, which is, I'm a little jealous of him. From the things I've heard and read, he and I grew up in very similar circumstances as far as church was concerned. He grew up in Houston. While Houston isn't technically a part of East Texas, it still plays a large part in shaping evangelical youth culture, as many of those who grow up in it's megachurches go on to study ministry at ETBU and linger around to leave their imprint on the churches of the Piney Woods.
Young people growing up in church deal with the same insecurites and need for affirmation as any other kid. Some of us found our niche by embracing the orthodoxy of That Old Time Religion, even if it took on a newer look and claimed to be more "fresh" than the faith of our parents. Regardless of what we called it, we questioned nothing and became poster children for the establishmet, and the establishment loved us for it.
Others couldn't stand existing inside the parameters created for them by others, and struck out on their own to explore the world and it's many complexities. They held on to their faith, but they allowed their faith to shape them. These were the creative types who wrote and painted and lived in a world that was a bit unsafe for my tastes. At ETBU I wondered why these people seemed so angry, and why they just couldn't go along with what was expected of them.
In the early nineties I fell into the first group of people, Donald Miller would have probably identified with the second. And this is why I'm jealous. No one likes to discover a place only to realize someone else arrived there before them.
When Blue Like Jazz mania hit Waco a few years ago, I jumped on the wagon. I enjoyed the quirkiness of Miller's writing style and found his stories to be interesting and unusual. I recommended the book to a friend. He read it and told me he was a little dumbfounded that I liked it. He believed Miller had taken the writings of Ann Lamott and superimposed his personal stories onto her work. Him telling me this was a light-bulb moment for me, similar to the one experienced by Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, who fell in love with a guy because of the twinkle in his eye, only to be told by Jerry that she really was falling in love with a character the guy played in television commercials. Oh yeah, I realized, I didn't really like Blue Like Jazz, I liked Traveling Mercies and found Miller's book to be nothing more than a tamer version of Lamott's.
To his credit, Donald Miller has cited Traveling Mercies as an important influence on his books, even going as far as saying that he wanted to write something like it as he was writing Blue Like Jazz. I suppose my issue isn't so much with him, as with the hordes of young evangelicals who believe they are being edgy by reading his stuff.
I appreciate very much Miller's thoughts on how our faith is lived out in the context of story, and how systematic bullet points can never fully lead us into a greater faith in Jesus. I am, however, still narrow-minded enough to (perhaps unfairly) lean heavily on guilt-by-association, and find it hard to reconcile this apparent postmodern emphasis on narrative with his being linked to Mark Driscoll, a popular Seattle-area pastor who Christianity Today described as being "culturally hip, yet theologically conservative."
I've been trying my best not to disparage intelligent and thoughtful people who come to different conclusions about faith and life than I do. So if Miller leans more toward reformation theology and a complementarian view of women, (again, I am making assumptions based on his association with Driscoll,) I respect that. Some of the people I admire most in the world fit this mold. But it's just not what I believe, so it's hard for me to accept him being made into an "emergent icon" by young people (especially many female seminary students.)*
When people ask me about Donald Miller at work, there's an answer that comes to my mind that I find difficult to articulate without appearing arrogant and elitist. I suppose there's no way to avoid this, so I'll go ahead and say it-- I think he's a wonderful bridge for many people who are seeking to to move out of the confines of stuffy Christianity experienced within the slick, pre-fab walls of modern churches. He's leading a generation of young evangelicals into an exploration of the world, seeking to convey a message of grace to a world who is turned off by Christians. But if you've been outside the walls of American Evangelicalism for a while, you may find his stuff a little innocuous, and also nothing more than a youthful reactionary response to a white suburban upbringing.
* When I finished writing this phrase "emergent icon," I was reminded of the many different strains of the emerging church. A couple of years ago my friend Cory wrote a wonderful thing on his blog describing the distinctions among emergent leaders. I found it very helpful and informative. Cory, would you mind posting that again? I can't find it anywhere.
Another note: If you have never read anything by Donald Miller, I'd suggest this-- Read Ann Lamott's Traveling Mercies first. Then, read Miller's Through Painted Deserts. I found this to be his most enjoyable book. It's much more raw than his other things, but I also seem to hear his voice come through louder in it, without the shades of Lamott.