09 January 2012

Book Review: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Last August, Rachel Held Evans took issue with some things Donald Miller wrote on his blog about living a better love story. I managed to read the offending posts before he deleted them and found nothing particularly amiss. I suppose it's because I'm an ethnocentric white male bigot or some such, but I asked some friends to read the posts too and they didn't see the problem either. That was the beginning of Mr. Miller getting back on my radar.

"Blue Like Jazz" is a book you've probably heard of if you do much reading in the contemporary evangelical genre. I tried to read it a few years ago when people were buzzing about it but just couldn't get into it. The book seemed to be deeply introspective and it meandered a bit too much for my taste. Turns out, Donald Miller was the author. He only really got my attention with the following quote someone shared on Facebook a few weeks ago:

"But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life."

Strong stuff! Doing a little research, I learned that this quote is from Mr. Miller's most recent title, "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years." The entire book is full of such powerful ideas packaged in brief lines.

Donald begins his tale by explaining that some people approached him about making "Blue Like Jazz" into a movie. When he agreed and they began work on the story, he was unsettled to find out how much "editing" and creative license would have to be taken with his story. It was explained to him in fairly direct but seemingly gentle terms that though his book was good, as it was it would be boring in movie format. It was then that he began to learn about what makes a great story (sort of late for a published writer, I'd think), and almost immediately starts applying it to life.

Here's the essence:

"A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it is the basic structure of a good story."

For anyone familiar with the myth of redemptive violence, a story pattern far older than Babylon, the above is hardly news. Everything from the Die Hard movies to Tom & Jerry episodes is based around the theme of conflict resolution through violence with a protagonist overcoming overwhelming odds to claim success. The Scriptural narrative, on the other hand, favors victory through weakness and life found in death. The vindication of Jesus' mission came on the cross, and his ultimate achievement only after a forgiveness-bearing death by torture. It's the inversion of the ancient mythic tale, the lie we tell ourselves that might makes right.

Still, there's a remarkable lot of good in "Thousand Miles." Take this as an example:

If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation.

There's definitely something to that thought. I'd say the real point of life is to serve the one who created and redeemed us, but given that we're fallen creatures, it makes sense that transformation would be key to us being able to live out that purpose.

"For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." - Ephesians 2:10 NLT

There's quite a bit of biting realism in this book. When we talk about life as a story and even theology as narrative, it all sounds so artistic and nice. In practice, it the hardest path possible.
Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life. It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it. It’s like that with writing books, and it’s like that with life. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain.
"A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" reads as a soul-searching re-evaluation of life, and that's how I take it. I believe Mr. Miller is spot-on in his observations regarding the meaningless lives many seem uncomfortably content to live. Since I was a teenager I've noticed that many people go through live with not only no strategy, but as though they were waiting for something to happen. In a manner oddly reminiscent of Spiderman swinging from building to building, people live from one disconnected event to the other, with no real pattern to their lives.

This is a course I rejected for myself years ago. Believing in a God who resurrects the dead and creates ex nihilo (Romans 4:17), I set out on a journey of discipleship, following Christ at all costs. Through leaving first one and then another denomination, being Scripturally baptized and heeding the call to mission, I found my purpose and the story of my life took on real meaning. It was only when I departed from that narrative that my life became noticeably meaningless and disoriented. The task before me now is not only to dream new dreams, but do the work needed to fulfill them.
Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn’t all that comfortable. And even if they secretly want for something better.
This, of course, is the greatest challenge of any new venture. It isn't the conflict to be overcome (though that's a close second), but rather the willingness to stick with it through the drudgery. Facing countless Monday mornings with a vision may be better than doing it all just to get by, but an extra hour of sleep and some stolen TV time here and there feels nice either way.

I read "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" on the Kindle, and recommend it in this format. It's good, memorable, easy reading for the commute or any downtime you might have. Heck, the paperback is probably just as good!

See Also:

Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence (Ekklesia)