Donald Miller frustrates me.
He is an incredibly gifted writer. His self-effacing style is charming and engaging; truly, he turns self-deprecation into an art form. It’s rare when you find someone who is not afraid to portray themselves as a bit of a doofus. He understands how to make jokes that are actually funny in print, as well or better than in spoken word.
Yet, I find myself wanting to like his books more than I do. And this is no less true with Miller’s latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
Donald Miller wants a better story. While co-writing the script for Blue Like Jazz: The Movie, Miller realizes that he’s led a purposeless existence. He’s single, he’s lazy, he’s just kind of… there. So, he sets out on the journey to live a life of purpose… mostly because he wants a good story to tell when he meets God. He worries that after he tells God his story, because he doesn’t have much to show for it, “God will probably sit there looking at me, wondering what to talk about next” (p. 4).
There is much to enjoy in this book. Miller’s response to cousin Carol’s questions about her father’s death is a highlight. He responds initially with an attempt at comfort that goes nowhere. Later that night, he pictured his uncle in heaven, “sitting at a table and there was a celebration. There was dancing and bottles of wine, and there was music. I could see him at a wedding, and I realized that’s what I should have told Carol, that her dad was at a wedding” (p. 38). This is a great image of what heaven will be like, drawing on the imagery of Revelation, and, legitimately, a great response to the question.
Additionally, chapter 29 is a solid response to Utopianists, those who believe that the world will progressively get better and that we can remake Eden on this earth. (Ironically, two of these folks endorse this book.) “We all get worked into a frenzy over things that will not happen until Jesus returns… [W]hen all things are made right, it won’t be because of some preacher or snake-oil salesman or politician or writer making promises in his book. I think, instead, it will be done by Jesus.” (p. 206).
Thirdly, to live a life of purpose is one that, I’m sure all of us would agree, is an important part of what it means to be a Christian. And truly, what greater purpose is there than to be a witness to Jesus in every aspect of our lives?
Now these great things aside, there is also much that is troubling. While the desire to have a better story is great, and one that I think we should all strive for, Miller’s motivation seems to come from a place of trying to impress God with his accomplishments. As quoted previously, Miller wonders if God will be wondering what to say to him because his life has been so purposeless. And that’s a big miss; there’s nothing we can do to impress God, and I somehow doubt that God’s going to be at a loss for words (what Him being all-knowing and all-powerful). There’s also a bizarre fatalism, alternating with a sense that everything is happening randomly, particularly in the early chapters of the book, that (at least based on my reading of Scripture) is incongruous with the Christian faith.
And perhaps it’s just how I’m reading it, and I could be completely off-base. What breaks my heart is to read a book that gives the impression that the writer’s faith doesn’t really make that much of an impact in his life. More than anything else, this book really makes me want to do is take Miller out for a drink and just ask him, “So, how are you and Jesus?”
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is entertaining, thought-provoking, inspiring and concerning. While I’m not sure if the strengths of the book outweigh its weaknesses, it’s a pleasant way to pass a couple hours.