Meet the New God

Donald Miller is igniting a firestorm with his new brand of

| November / December 2005

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 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.

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