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Author takes faith, but not himself, seriously
Nancy Haught, Religion News Service
February 17, 2010
6 MIN READ TIME

Author takes faith, but not himself, seriously

Author takes faith, but not himself, seriously
Nancy Haught, Religion News Service
February 17, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore. — Author

Donald Miller’s best-selling 2003 memoir, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts

on Christian Spirituality, is being made into a movie and he’s on the phone

with his director.

“That explosion and the sex

scene?” he says into his cell phone. “I still want those in there.”

He’s kidding. Blue Like Jazz

won’t be that kind of movie. It is Miller’s account of growing up fatherless,

struggling with relationships and finding a Christian faith that wrestles with

Jesus, the church and cultural stereotypes.

There are no sex scenes, but

Miller, 38, has lived through an explosion of sorts.

Before Blue Like Jazz,

Miller was a freelance writer sharing a house in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.

His first book hadn’t sold well and his tiny publishing business wasn’t making

much money.

“I reached a point where I

had to get a job or write another book,” he says. “I wrote another book.”

Cue the explosion.

Blue Like Jazz was a giant

hit. It made The New York Times best-seller list and has sold 1 million copies.

At Portland’s legendary Powell’s City of Books, where it’s shelved in the Red

Room with other religious, travel, foreign language and health-related titles,

Blue Like Jazz sold more copies in 2006 than any other book in the room.

Part of Miller’s appeal —

and what has made the book so successful — is his “brokenness,” says Paul Louis

Metzger, a theology professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in northeast

Portland, a writer himself and a friend of Miller’s.

“Don understands at a core

level what it’s like to feel pain, suffering, abandonment. There’s a sense of

rawness and pain and earthiness to his writing.”

And a slightly warped sense

of humor. “That humor is bound up with shared humanity,” Metzger says.

Blue Like Jazz caught the

eye of documentary filmmakers Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson, who contacted

Miller about turning the book into a movie.

Miller’s new book, A Million

Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, is the story

of that story and everything he’s learned so far about living and telling

stories.

RNS photo courtesy Jeremy Coward Photography

Author Donald Miller, who wrote the hugely popular Blue Like Jazz, finished a national tour for his new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, in December.

“The reward you get from a

story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than

you imagined,” Miller writes in his new book. “The point of a story is never

about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the

hard work of the middle.”

After a year writing the

screenplay and learning about character development and narrative arcs, Miller

realized that his actions convey his character. He’s just finished a 70-day,

65-city book tour. He’s a sought-after speaker and a member of President Obama’s

task force on fatherhood.

He’s organized The Mentoring

Project, a nonprofit that works with churches to recruit mentors and match them

with fatherless kids. He has dreams of creating a corps of good fathers in the

next 20 years, of closing down the prisons that today house so many fatherless

sons.

He lends himself — not just

his name — to what he calls “noble causes,” including a cross-country bike ride

to call attention to the global need for clean water.

He spends time alone,

daydreaming and recharging his spirit with his cast of friends who show up

often in his writing. When he can, he worships at Imago Dei Community, an

independent, art-supporting, thriving church, whose founder, Rick McKinley, is

one of Miller’s closest friends.

“We were nobodies in the

beginning,” says McKinley, who first met Miller 10 years ago. “I wanted to

start a church and he was becoming an author.”

These days, Imago Dei draws

2,000 people every Sunday.

McKinley says his friend’s

success is making a difference in people’s lives.

“There’s a whole generation

of people trying to make sense of church, of faith, of God. I think he created

a following that continues to respond to Don.”

Miller grew up in Pearland,

Texas, near Houston. His mother, Mary, still lives in the same tiny house where

he would shut himself up in his room and daydream.

“He was very easy to raise,”

she says, which was a good thing because being a single mother with two

children wasn’t easy. “He didn’t get into trouble, but he had his own ideas

about things.”

When his high school band

teacher, who would urge students to “visualize yourself marching as you play,”

complained that Donald was skipping rehearsals, his mom confronted him. “Tell

him to just visualize me,” Donald said.

Miller’s flippant streak

helped him deal with his parents’ divorce and the handful of times he

reconnected with his father.

“He left when I was 2,”

Miller says. “I remember being 11 or 12” — the last time he saw him — “old

enough to be scared of him, old enough to think, ‘Who are you?’”

The prospect of seeing his

father again figures in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

It’s an idea

Miller says he wouldn’t have considered except that the filmmakers wanted to

inject some conflict into the screenplay.

“If I learned anything from

thinking about my father, it’s that there is a force in the world that doesn’t

want us to live good stories,” he writes in the new book. “It doesn’t want us

to face our issues, to face our fear and bring something beautiful into the

world.

“I guess what I’m saying is,

I believe God wants us to create beautiful stories, and whatever it is that isn’t

God wants us to create meaningless stories, teaching the people around us that

life just isn’t worth living.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Haught

writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)