Check the nightstand of any adventurous young Christian in America these days and you're likely to find a dog-eared Bible, some daily inspirations, even a copy of the recent sleeper hit The Gospel According to Tony Soprano. On top of the pile, though, bookmarked by yesterday's church bulletin, chances are you'll come across a title by Donald Miller -- a 34-year-old insider who has lately made it his mission to shake the foundations of his fellow evangelicals with a string of witty, provocative memoirs. Judging by the intensity of the Jesus-oriented blog and print buzz about him, Miller is either bent on saving the faithful from their own dead-end faith or he's spilling ink in the service of Satan.
Like many of his readers, Miller grew up a fundamentalist Christian (a Southern Baptist from Texas), then did stints as an ardent Young Republican, a doorknocker for Christ, and a youth minister in a suburban megachurch. But somewhere along the road to old-school salvation, he took a sharp turn to the left. Miller's three books -- Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, and the revised, reissued Through Painted Deserts -- track this trajectory from his conservative beginnings to his current incarnation as, by his own account, a rebel evangelical who votes Green, likes to iron out his theology over beers, and horrifies red-state Bush zealots by championing the likes of MoveOn.org on his Web site.
As it happens, those dissident credentials put Miller in increasingly like-minded company. The rise of such American-style phenomena as marathon prayer rings around abortion clinics, right-wing smear campaigns on the United Nations, and faith-based attacks on science has launched a backlash -- not only among political opponents, but within the ranks of the church itself. Call it a family fight.
The evangelical movement has a long history of schisms, but most splinter sects have pushed the church toward conservatism. In this case, 'seekers' in the twenty- to thirty-something set have grown disillusioned with a formulaic, institutional approach to religion and are in search of a more relevant spirituality. They're finding -- or in some cases, founding -- 'emergent' churches: breakaway congregations that embrace a more wide-minded doctrine, a God who doesn't by nature wave a flag or endorse wars, and a deep skepticism about the political agenda of the radical Christian right. And the kind of anti-establishment spirituality that's spelled out in the gospel according to Donald Miller.
It's a gospel delivered in stylish language; Miller's an avowed fan of Kerouac, Thoreau, and Shakespeare, with a penchant for humorous anecdotes and earnest, meandering riffs on such topics as how to go to church without getting angry and why being a better yuppie won't get you any grace with Jesus.
Miller is no scholar or seminarian -- he did audit some classes at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he lives -- but that doesn't stop him from lacing the light stuff with a heavy dose of intellectually challenging interpretations of Scripture, especially in the middle passages of Searching for God Knows What, his most sophisticated collection. In essence, he appeals to disillusioned Christians (and this is what ticks off the orthodox) to abandon today's highly commercialized, salvation-in-10-easy-steps version of the faith in order to fall passionately, almost primally in love with Jesus.
And make no mistake -- Miller's call to the altar is all about Jesus. His Jesus, like the Jesus of other voice-in-the-wilderness authors such as Anne Lamott (Traveling Mercies), Chris Seay (author of the Soprano hit), and Lauren Winner (who converted from Judaism and now writes Christian chick lit), is about as traditional a version as you could want, though the emphasis here is on Christ's egalitarianism, his patience, his embrace of the pariah and the poor. Still, Miller's theology offers no doubt about what is required in order to live in the light: Since Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden(a story he parses pretty literally), people have been born bad, hard-wired to be sinful, and therefore deserve his wrath. The only way out of this wretched estrangement into become disciples of the crucified Jesus, and, in turn, to spread the good news to the 'lost.'
For the nonevangelical secular progressive, here's where Miller's new brand of Christianity turns from promising to downright repellent. Who are these lost? Well, for starters, Buddhists (with their deity's 'fat guy buddha belly'), Muslims (reading the Koran is like 'cheating on God'), Jews, agnostics -- the usual suspects caught in the sweep of Christian history. Which should come as no surprise; after all, Miller is a Christian writer, one whose purpose is to offer disheartened evangelicals not new beliefs but a new way to practice the old ones. So, yes, in the Miller gospel the Devil is real and roaming the earth; lately, he's up to no good, making people gluttonous, lustful, and gay.
Yup, that's right, though if gay people 'repent about it and want to change, that's great,' Miller said by way of clarification in a recent interview: 'When science says people are born homosexuals, I would say absolutely people are born homosexuals. Satan is an unfair guy, he rules the world.' Miller also writes about other examples of 'depravity' including abortion, drug use, song lyrics on the radio, newspaper headlines, and so on.
While reading these passages in which Miller charts our moral decline, one can't help but conjure images of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, complete with writhing gargoyles, fetid heaps of rap lyrics, and a Planned Parenthood office belching black smoke in the distance.
Still, the author's willingness to take risks when it comes to contemporary politics makes his books a worthwhile read. He's broken ranks with the Republican Party, he condemns trickle-down economics and SUV culture in the face of global poverty, and, paradoxically enough, he urges American evangelicals to stop determining acceptability to God on the two hottest buttons in politics -- abortion and gay marriage, which he says are just trumped-up battle cries 'that have hijacked the church in the most disgusting way.' They may be sins, Miller argues, but heaven knows they're not the only ones.
Donald Miller book titles
- To Own a Dragon (with John MacMurray), forthcoming
- Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road, 2005 (revised version of Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, 2000)
- Searching for God Knows What, 2004
- Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 2003
- Bonus: You can download MP3s of Donald Miller's sermons at Imago Dei church in Portland at www.imagodeicommunity.com. Miller's home page is www.bluelikejazz.com.