HOW DID Donald Miller become so important? Better said, how did Blue Like Jazz become such a landmark in faith-based literature? In retrospect, it didn’t break any new ground for confessionals. The story of Miller’s experiences at a “sin-infested secular university,” the conversion of some of his closest friends, and some reflections on his frustrated romances isn’t exactly fresh. Memoirs that also double as Christian devotionals have been done before, by arguably wiser men and women—Anne Lamott, anyone?
His appeal, for many, rests in a self-deprecating wit, a rebellious streak that wears its beer-chugging, tobacco-smoking swagger in the open, and a knack for hitting emotional notes with just the right level of sap. In spite of all the booze and smokes, attempts to paint Miller as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" are hysterically mistaken. He’s a rebel, but he’s no threat to the church. In many ways, playing the outsider has granted him clarity to better understand why we do what we do, even if he’s cut from the same cloth.
Since Jazz made a splash, Miller’s follow-ups have attempted to emulate that precise, apparently accidental marriage of religious schmaltz and postmodern cynicism. He didn’t exactly fail, but the universal appeal of Jazz’s cast of relatable characters, witty observations about dysfunctional families, and that memorable “reverse confessional” scene, were all glaringly absent. He’s still a funny guy, and his penchant for insightful observation hasn’t waned, but it seems as if he had only one classic in him. Hint: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life (Thomas Nelson) isn’t it.
Miller is pretty much the same charming misfit he always was, but he’s also painfully aware of where he gets his bread and butter, and short of a sequel to Blue Like Jazz, his audience will never be completely satisfied. There are a few moments here worth noting. A Million Miles is all about bringing his New York Times-bestselling memoir to the screen, including several obvious changes in the script “to make your life more interesting.” Hearing Miller talk about the importance of story to the human experience, or listening to two married friends reflect on how their partner is “just a person, nothing special,” or a potent moment when he holds a dear friend’s child makes for great reading. But it’s not another chapter in a burgeoning manifesto for “outlaw Christianity.”
And therein lies the key to understanding this author. He’s got vices, sure, but apart from those rough edges and all that talk about visiting Universalist churches, he's pretty much a standard believer—the kind of guy who might talk Luther over a few beers, sure, but Luther nonetheless. His voice is distinctive and charming, even when he’s telling believers things we already know, and making the uninitiated feel welcome.
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