Friday, April 30, 2010

Live a better story

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
Over a month ago, I met with with a staffer at EMU Campus Ministries, and they had a stack of Donald Miller's book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, sitting around for check-out so I grabbed one. I've had it on my shelf for a while since then but I finally got around to finishing it now that the semester is over and May term doesn't start for another week. Rather than plainly review it, I'll try to fold its essential message into some personal reflections, because it is a book that gets you thinking about how you're living your life. Read on after the break for my reflections on this great story...

Live a better story
The driving theme of the book is story. And just what, exactly, is a story? Miller offers an answer that he received as a gift from someone else: A story is about "a character that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it." This no-nonsense working definition forms the skeletal framework that the author then moves in and out of with personal reflection and exposition on what makes a good story. But he goes further and insists that the things that make a good story also make a life well-lived because they work at the same level for people.

Take more risks
Another core message in this book is that living a good story inherently involves taking risks. Because a key element of storytelling is the conflict that must be overcome in order to achieve whatever it is that the character is striving for, this translates into - in the author's case - getting off the couch more, watching TV less, and doing a bunch of crazy stuff that he wouldn't have done otherwise. I won't go into the details of the risks that Miller documents in his own life in the book, but they involve risks both big and small and he has excellent insight into the blessing that is always there for those who stick their necks out, even if they fail.

Theological content
Miller talks about God throughout the book, and even about Jesus from time to time. He references the Bible in a casual, good-storyteller way without feeling the need to cite chapters and verses. I love that he does this, since the chapter/verse system in the Bible is just that: a system. And a system that was added centuries after the canonization of the various texts, much less their original authorship. I think a good biblical storyteller (and reader) should be appreciative for this system, but suspicious of its limits at the same time. Miller talks about church from time to time but seems to take it as a given and doesn't really work with it extensively in his theological reflections. His insights into faith and discipleship (which are significant) seem mostly focused on the individual disciple. An Anabaptist reading of this book desires more focus on the community of believers, but the Pietist reading of this book rejoices. So as an Anabaptist+Pietist, I'm happy in the middle. There is one sense in which an Anabaptist reading of this book jives with what is heard from Mennonite scholar, John Rempel, who recently told a friend and I that Anabaptist convictions hold a high view of Scripture, but that "the meaning of the Bible only occurs in discipleship." Miller's reflections on faith through the living of good stories have profound implications for discipleship and outward living. But his inward experience and reflections on God  in a relational way imply the spiritual dimensions to avoid pure works righteousness. I think Don Miller would love Brethren theology! (Plus he has the last name Miller, which is legion in the Church of the Brethren.)

I really appreciate the imagery he uses for his relationship with God, which describes his doctrine of God as the author of the most compelling story you can possibly imagine. I want to be careful here, because that sounds a little too simple, theologically, and I don't think Miller has to set out to fully articulate his notion of what/who God is and how God works. This isn't a book of systematic theology. One of the best illustrations he gives comes while describing how characters for a writer often take on a life of their own, despite the author's original intentions for them. He imagines God in the same situation, staring frustratedly at the proverbial computer screen while his (Miller uses the male pronoun, I use it advisedly) characters run amok, stubbornly choosing their own stories which, heaven help them, aren't nearly as amazing as the ones the Author conceived of. Theologically, this leads me into all sorts of fun territory about free will and all that, but I'll keep that for now.

This book affirms a number of beliefs, attitudes, and choices my wife and I have made with our lives but also brings others into question. I resonate with taking risks and restoring a sense of adventure in a popular culture that insidiously cultivates consumptive, sedentary lifestyles. It does make me look at my roles as husband and father, and ask, "What kind of stories am I living for my family? How am I igniting their imaginations for living their lives?" I am frequently a tremendous bore to be around because of the amount of reading, thinking, and writing I do for school or otherwise (Look at me now, typing this!). The often-stressful demands of my academic and professional lives unfortunately leave my creative, adventurous imagination too tired to function at home. That ain't cool. The stories of others that Miller weaves into his own, how they transformed him, include some tremendously creative families that learned how to live better stories day after day. These are inspiration to me.

This seems like a book that I want many of my friends to read. Friends who may have grown up going to church but never getting the sense that God's story was any more compelling than the cacophonous competing narratives in the world, perhaps eventually losing hope that the church and the God they supposedly believe in was worthwhile at all. This seems like a book that might stir some sleeping imaginations.  It's also a challenge to Christians who seem content with a faith that doesn't transform lives and relationships. There could be some sleeping in the church who might get a nudge from Miller's experiences and what he's learned. So read this book and either discover or re-discover what makes stories not only worth telling, but also worth living!

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