A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Chris Brauns Articles

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
By Donald Miller
288 p.
Thomas Nelson (September 2009)

Donald Miller has a fascinating ability to engage readers as he reflects on the journey of his life.  I first noticed this in Blue Like Jazz, later when I watched an interview , and, again last week when I read his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (AMM).  AMM was easy to read and entertaining.  While I haven't read the entire Donald Miller collection, it's hard not to like him in his books.  He has made me laugh more than once.

Not only is Miller likable and engaging, he writes vividly.  There is a section in AMM where he describes something that happened while he was kayaking at night:      

Then one of the guides pointed out bio-luminescence was happening.  He dropped his paddle into the water, and what looked like sparks splashed, and some of them floated like embers on top of the water.  We all looked at our paddles and stirred them around in the water, and there in the darkness the ocean glowed.  The farther we paddled into the opening, the darker the water got and the brighter the bio-luminescence became.  We could see each other now, because there were comet trails behind our boats, and there were sparks flying off our bows and onto our spray skirts, so bright you thought you needed to wipe them for fear they would burn the fabric (181).

I have never witnessed bio-luminescence, but I want to see it after reading this.  It certainly makes me think of Psalm 19:1-6: "The heavens declare your glory . . ."   

Along with Miller's winsome personality and the strength of his writing, the subject of this book is a potentially great one.  In AMM Miller focused on the idea of story and I learned from him.  He told a story to teach about story and it really worked.  He interacted with the thinking of Robert McKee, whom I didn't know about previously, thereby showing how uniformed I am in this area.

Yet, it is in this area of our stories that I have pastoral concerns about AMM.  Many will read AMM and I am troubled about how it will influence readers, especially young people.  Indeed, I might even agree with Rob Bell's choice of descriptions.  Bell said that AMM is "disturbing."  But, whereas Rob chose this word as an endorsement, I do so to express reservations.  

As I understood it, Miller's thesis is that all of us should choose to be part of a meaningful story.  Indeed:

. . . Once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don't have a choice.  Not living a better story would be like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die, and it's not natural to want to die.  (66)   

Near the end of the book,
I looked across the deck at Steve sitting and talking to Jim, and as they laughed and drank their wine, I wondered about the story we were writing and wanted even more to write a better story for myself, something that leaves a beautiful feeling even as the credits roll (228)."

I agree with Miller's emphasis on narrative.  All of us do need to be part of a larger story.  Indeed, if we don't know the meta-narrative of the Bible, then the individual episodes won't make any sense.   

Miller, however, stays altogether with the "small" stories.  He never makes it to the meta-narrative of salvation history - - that God created a good creation, that his vice-regents rebelled against him, that because of their rebellion, we are all born into sin and subject to the wrath of God.  However, God, who is rich in mercy, is rescuing his Creation and his people through Christ and his redemptive work centered in his death, burial, and resurrection and culminating in Christ's return when he will rule over a New / Renewed Earth.

Instead, AMM is self-absorbed.  There is so much of Donald Miller and so little of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It seemed as though the book could have been more accurately titled, "a million mirrors pointed back at us."

Don't get me wrong.  Much about Miller's life that is beautiful.  In the book, he shares how he processed not seeing his father for decades.  He makes new friends.  He dreams about how he can write beautiful stories in helping children and then takes steps to make it happen  (See www.thementoringproject.org).   

Further, the self-absorption is palatable because Miller is so effectively self-deprecating.  Never the less, Miller never effectively points readers to the story.  And, a book giving us more of ourselves, apart from relating our stories back to the Gospel, is the last thing our narcissistic culture needs.

It isn't simply that Miller doesn't mention redemption.  At points, he almost seems to avoid it.
If you think about it, an enormous amount of damage is created by the myth of utopia.  The truth is, the apostles never really promise Jesus is going to make everything better here on earth (203)

It would be nit picky to point out that the Apostles do promise that things will get better on earth (2 Peter 3, Revelation 21:1-5).  Miller believes in heaven.  And, in a world where there is so much of the prosperity gospel, warnings are needed that everything will not get better until Christ returns.  Still, it seems like this would be perfect place to point out that when the King returns, there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth.  Why not write about the great story which is how the Messiah will rescue his people and his creation and about how things will get better here on earth?  (See Mike Wittmer's, Heaven is a Place on Earth).  "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Neither does Miller acknowledge the reality of hell.  This is surely relevant.  How the story ends for Satan and many others needs to be included.  I know that warnings about hell don't necessarily sell.  They certainly aren't funny.  But, a Christian book about "story," needs to share what is at stake and how the central conflict will find resolution.   
Instead, the implication seems to be that if you're a good person, then things will work out okay. Hence,in a chapter with one of the most non-gospel titles ever, "All You Have to Do is Try," Miller writes,  

It wasn't necessary to win for the story to be great, it was only necessary to sacrifice everything (231).

But, it is necessary to win.  Life is a great cosmic bar fight.  Losing can not be an option.  And, there are many who will sacrifice everything and their story will not be great and this must be said.  Using Luther's words about the Great Story, "Were not the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing," then there will be no great stories.  "Still our ancient foe, does seek to work us woe."   

Miller's humanity-centered orientation is not limited to the absence of references to Christ and the Cross.  It would appear that Miller does not accept the doctrine of original sin (the idea that all are born into sin).  I could be wrong in this impression.   But, that is my sense.  Near the end of AMM, he concludes:

If a story sets our moral compass, my compass had changed from cynicism to hope.  I didn't believe the television pundits anymore.  I didn't believe people were by nature bad or my neighbor was my enemy (241).  

In keeping with his views about the inherent goodness of humanity, Miller tells about a man named Bob whose children invited world leaders over for a slumber party.  The point is that most people are just people, even if they are world leaders (165).   And, if we could all get together, then we will be on our way to peace.  This seems incredibly naive.  First, there has never been a lack of "slumber parties."  One was recently held with the G-20 in Pittsburgh.  But, these often fail to produce peaceful results and it isn't because there aren't many people there who are considered good by the standards of humanity.  Biblically, the reason is straight-forward enough.  Without Christ, people are disobedient, deceived, and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.  They live in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another (Titus 3:3-4).  Granted, the image of God is not totally eradicated in unbelievers.  Many unregenerate people do noble things.  However, given original sin, we cannot assume that getting together will solve things whether it is in Pittsburgh, PA or Stillman Valley, IL.
Reading the strength with which I have expressed my concerns, you may question if I was sincere with the initial positive things I said about AMM.  Was I only taking a preliminary swipe at being charitable before I unloaded?  My response is that I truly do affirm those things about AMM.  But, that is why this book is a dangerous combination.  Many will read this book.  It will resonate.  But, I fear that it plays to the weakness of our day.  We spend too much time looking at ourselves.  We don't need a million more mirrors all pointed back at  our small stories.  Rather, we need to see how our individual episodes relate in a Christ-centered way to the story of creation, fall, and redemption.

There may be chapters in people's small stories that they can make it through thinking mostly of their own small story.  But, soon enough there are episodes that make no sense apart from the grand story of Christ and redemption.  Yesterday, I called on a lady in a nursing home.  She misses her home and is concerned about her son.  She knows that she will spend her remaining days in a place that smells like urine and death.  She wants to die.  It was no time for her pastor to focus exclusively on small stories.  Instead, we talked about the Gospel.  I read her the last words of Romans in which Paul talks about how God will strengthen us according to the Gospel (Romans 16:25-27), according to the revelation of the mystery of Christ.  I quoted John 3:16 and Romans 8:31, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" We prayed that the King will return soon and together we thought about the greatest story ever told.

Dr. Chris Brauns is the author of Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds.  He is the pastor of the Congregational Christian Church of Stillman Valley.  You can read his blog at www.chrisbrauns.com.  He earned his MBA from the University of Northern Iowa, MDiv from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and his DMin from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where his doctoral thesis considered how pastoral search committees evaluate preaching.  He has studied and spoken extensively on the topic of forgiveness. 

Chris Brauns, "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" (October 2009)

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