Thursday, January 28, 2010

Miller's Million Miles

After reading Jeff’s post yesterday, I thought it was time to finally post a review of Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. After stumbling upon Bob Goff yesterday, I knew it was time.

First, a disclaimer: I have no horse in this race. I never read Miller’s popular Blue Like Jazz, never was disappointed by his subsequent books, never developed an opinion about his writing. I just happened to hear what this book was about and thought it sounded like good, light holiday reading. So around the New Year, I picked it up.

At first, I didn’t like it. I wanted to return it and get my money back, in fact. His writing style was just so…well, he was just trying too hard to be clever, and it bugged me.

But for some reason I kept reading. I liked it a little more, although I didn’t fully relate to the main character. The main character is, in fact, Donald Miller. He is fairly self-depreciating, and basically describes himself as a bum who’s not accomplishing anything. Although I’m often disappointed in myself, I’m not wasting a whole lot of time on movies and TV.

But for some reason, I kept reading. And I ended up liking it quite a bit. Basically, Miller realizes that he’s living a boring life and that he needs to do something challenging. Then, he realizes that challenging isn’t quite enough, you have to overcome some fears. Then, he realizes that you have to still go a step further and do something that is actually meaningful…helpful…sacrificial.

All of this is wrapped in the idea, kind of popular now, of looking at our life through the lens of story. (This is where Jeff’s blog comes in.) What we look for in a dramatic story is really what we want to see happen in our lives, if we’re willing to get out of our comfort zone: “A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” Miller analyzes this in pieces: A character. Who wants something. Who overcomes conflict. To get it.

Here’s the opening of the book:

If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

But we spend years actually living these stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either. Here’s what I mean by that:

And so the story unfolds.

Actually, Miller doesn’t accomplish anything stunning over the year (or so) that he chronicles. But he sets out to do some things that are, for him, steps in the right direction. And I think that’s part of the enjoyment of the book: after the first few aggravating chapters, it’s actually pretty realistic. He doesn’t buy a Volvo, but he doesn’t save the planet either. He loses weight; he hikes; he bikes across the country. He faces some fears concerning his estranged father. He starts mentoring some other kids who don’t have dads.

So, by the way, yesterday a guy was standing in my church named Bob Goff. He was speaking to about 400 law students (and to me, I was in the back row). And I realized part way through his talk why I recognized his name: his family, and his story, is described by Donald Miller in a chapter called “Meeting Bob.” Hmm! So while Bob was talking about doing exciting things with one’s law career, I was thinking, “Time to write that blog.”

So if this sounds interesting at all, you’ll likely enjoy the book. It will make you pause and reflect the way light reading sometimes does. But if this doesn’t sound interesting, well, you probably haven’t even finished reading this post and you’re certainly not going to be tempted to buy the book anyway.


Joel Pearce said...

Don't worry Ken, I didn't think you were trying too hard to be clever, and your writing doesn't bug me!

What turned me off to Miller's previous writings (I was a huge BLJ fan for a while, then I woke from my pomo hipster slumber) is that he focuses on doing almost exclusively, and almost never talks about the gospel informing and inspiring our doing. In the introduction you quoted, it seemed like this book could be more of the same ("The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either."). If gospel transformation can't make life meaningful, what can? Was this book any better in that regard?

Ken said...

Joel, this book suffers from the same problem.

One part I found refreshing however was a creative explanation of (what we Reformed types like to call) idols. He explains why people grow discouraged when their idols (as we like to call them) don't pull through for them, when life doesn't go their way, etc.

Ken said...

I wanted to be fair, so I looked at Miller's book again. In a chapter entitled "The Reason God Hasn't Fixed You Yet," he basically says...

1. People achieve a goal and think it will make them happy. It doesn't. There is always another challenge or problem.
2. People are disappointed because they are trying to create Eden on earth, when it wasn't meant to be here.
3. Jesus doesn't make everything in your life happy, contrary to many religious salesmen. Just look at the life of Jesus or of the apostles, they had it rough.
4. But the true gospel is one of hope. In eternity, things will be made perfect. The Bible ends in a wedding feast.
5. Once you let go of the idea that something in this life, in your life, is the climax of existence, and realize that climax is yet to occur in heaven--then you can let go and actually rightly enjoy things on this earth.
6. "When you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you'd be surprised how much you like spending time with God."

He closes the chapter with this...

7. "Do I still think there will be a day when all our wrongs are made right, when our souls find the completion they're looking for? I do. won't be because of some preacher or snake-oil salesman or politician or writer making promises in his book. I think, instead, it will be done by Jesus. And it will be at a wedding. And there will be a feast."

So... In this book about viewing one's life through the lens of "story" I think he makes an important point about being part of the great, eternal story--our hope is lodged in heaven rather than in our earthly efforts.

I don't know where he is on the emergent/emerging, liberal/orthodox pendulum. He doesn't say enough. But I think he's moving in the right direction with what he says in this chapter.