Don Miller’s breakthrough confessional Blue Like Jazz doesn’t seem to sit comfortably next to gold-plated Jesus-fish keychains or "Twelve Steps to Hosanna" workbooks, even after having sold more than 150,000 copies. Not, to be sure, a book of Christian platitudes or catchy slogans, Blue Like Jazz is a rarity among Christian best sellers: a brutally honest account of one man’s struggle with faith, shot through with humor and sadness.
By all accounts, Blue Like Jazz was a hit precisely because Miller was open and honest about his doubts, his faith and his flagging love life. That kind of authenticity deeply appealed to a generation of jaded, media-savvy twenty- and thirtysomethings who had managed to hold on to their Christian faith through Bio 101 and The Real World: Las Vegas. Emerging? Postmodern? Who cares? Whatever pigeonhole du jour may currently describe the children of the mid-’70s to mid-’80s, Miller struck a nerve with them.
Miller’s latest tome, Through Painted Deserts, is a prequel to Blue Like Jazz and a spiritual travelogue of sorts. It tells the story of Miller and his friend Paul as they travel across the American Southwest in a Volkswagen van, and it details Miller’s journey from soul-crushing religion into life-affirming faith. Recently, RELEVANT was able to catch up with Miller and discuss his new book, the pressure of religious conformity and the value of writing reality.
RELEVANTmagazine.com: Did you feel that the experience that you describe in your book Through Painted Deserts was an important experience for you, that it formed you in a certain way?
Don Miller: Yeah, definitely, it’s what every kid goes through when he leaves home. But leaving home for me was much more than leaving home. I’d been basically sort of teaching a college class at a megachurch down in Texas, and the class was doing really well. But I was in this relationship with this girl, and we weren’t being on our best behavior, and I was just feeling like I was burning out in terms of ministry stuff, and I felt like a fake. I was a complete hypocrite, liar, fake.
RM: So true love wasn’t waiting … you weren’t doing what Jesus would do?
DM: Yeah, all that stuff. I remember at that time I thought I was kind of going nuts. It was really a pretty dark time. I wanted to get away, I wanted to leave home, I wanted to leave that church, I wanted out of that relationship … so that’s what took me on that journey, what pushed me out of town. By the end of it, you know, I was pretty sane and well-adjusted and had begun to redefine what my faith looked like, who I was … like we all kind of do in our early 20s. While we were taking the trip, I knew it would be the story of my first book.
RM: So it got you pointed in the right direction …
DM: Well, it was leaving what I had become … which was a product of getting religious people to clap for you.
RM: Sometimes religion can turn into such a business …
DM: Yeah, it can be like a business, and you can become kind of a product in a sense that people either do or don’t like you. We live in a really consumer society so we treat each other like products anyway, and so I had just fallen into that, and it just wasn’t working for me.
RM: When I read your book, the first thing that struck me was that you found faith against the backdrop of hanging out with these party guys in Oregon, and you found your faith more full outside the church property. Do you think that this is something you carry with you?
DM: Definitely. Let me preface all this by saying that I love church, I love my church, that it’s a wonderful community, and I’m very faithful to it. I think the idea of church or the Church around the globe is certainly imparting God’s presence in the world. That said, I have not grown personally in terms of faith with the kind of consumer-oriented Christianity that is prevalent in America. That has never helped me; it’s only stunted my growth. What I mean by that is the self-help, formulaic kind of stuff; the moralist/political angles on our faith tradition. None of that helped me. I didn’t grow. And really what happened was there was a switch that turned where I got interested in the more relational dynamic of faith, the whole notion of God fathering us rather than focusing on the rules or whatever.
See, the pressure to be a certain kind of person in the context of the church culture I was living in was intense. When the pressure was taken off and I was surrounded by people who would describe themselves as pagans, there was suddenly no pressure for me to perform or be like anything. They didn’t care, and that allowed my faith to grow for real.
RM: Your book is really American … You can’t ever imagine a European writing it. Obviously it’s set in America, but further than that, the story itself has got a real American heritage. It’s knocking on the door of earlier American literature like Huck and Jim traveling down the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn or Dean and Sal in On the Road. Was this at all a conscious thing or did it just happen?
DM: It really just happened that way. The subtitle of the book was originally "Life, God, Beauty on the Open Road in America," and the publisher wanted to take America off. I wanted to leave it on because I felt that’s what it is, and we can’t say that this is a universal experience—this is an American experience. You nailed it, it’s a very American book … but I don’t see that as a bad thing.
RM: Yeah, I didn’t mean it as a bad thing. It’s actually a positive thing in that most Christian writers seem to have an inability to write from where they actually are. They end up writing from where they should be, or think that they are supposed to be. I see it as you being honest. There’s a certain restlessness that comes with being an American; you see it in Samuel Clemens’ life, Jack Kerouac’s life. That ultimate American restlessness, that desire to wander is captured, I think, in your book …
DM: Well, writing the book the first time I was reading Steinbeck and Hemingway and Kerouac, and my natural tendency is to write prose and to be poetic, and there’s a lot of that in Through Painted Deserts, but because I wanted to write it like an American book, it’s toned down much more than it would be in another book.
RM: As a Christian writer, where do you want to go? Do you feel like you’re a part of a certain movement of writers that are helping to change some things in Christian culture?
DM: It’s becoming OK to write reality. But here’s the struggle: there’s a whole boatload of Christian writers who are unable to process reality, and because of that there’s just a few of us who are doing an OK job and are getting famous off it. And you just kind of go, "That would be ridiculous if it was in any other culture besides church culture." There’s this thing in religious culture where you need to be this kind of person, you need to be an example, and you have to be a role model, and that’s no longer true—you can just be a friend and tell the truth.
RM: Right. You can look at Jesus’ disciples in the Gospels and realize they are running around not doing a good job of being role models …
DM: … And they’re so amazing at writing reality. They were just writing what happened. I mean, can you imagine if … you know, pick your favorite Christian author and imagine if they’ve just spent a couple years with Christ, and the publisher says, "I want you to write 70 pages on the essence of who Christ was and what happened." You would not get the Gospels … you just wouldn’t. You would get sap, melodrama … you would get emotional manipulation. You would get points, in terms of, "Let’s boil this down and get five critical ideas that are an acronym." That’s what you would get.
What’s great is that with Lauren Winner, Chris Seay, David Dark and some of these guys, it’s OK to say, "This is what really happened." Unfortunately, there’s a bit of disconnect sometimes with other Christians. I did an interview with a Christian television station, and this very, very sweet lady was doing the interview, and she said, "In this book, the two of you pray that God will send a mechanic to fix the van. God sends a mechanic, he fixes the van, and then you drive off and never mention it again. You never mention that God showed up; you never pray and thank God. Why did you write it like that?" And I said, "Because we didn’t."
DM: (laughing) You can read a bunch of stuff into it. You can read that God blessed us and that we didn’t care, or that we forgot about it … that may be a motive. Or it may be that Paul and I were pretty new friends, so stopping and thanking God may be a little too intimate. You can read a number of things into it, but the real reason I didn’t include us thanking God is because we didn’t. And she really could not understand why I wouldn’t write it into the book in hindsight. And that’s the difference. This was a wonderful woman … a very godly woman … and I liked her a lot, but there was just a disconnect. But for whatever reason, finally Christians can now write reality, and it’s OK. And that’s great.
RM: Hopefully, we’ll see more of it. I think that’s the only way we can really surrender to Christ …
DM: … By being real.
RM: Exactly. What’s the next thing? Where are you going from Through Painted Deserts?
DM: I’m wrapping up a book for guys that grew up without dads …
RM: You grew up without a dad?
DM: Yeah, I was a child, maybe 2 when he left. So I never really knew my dad and pretty much grew up without a father. So this book is about that experience. In my life, I feel like I’ve always been about 10 years behind in terms of figuring things out. Which is fine, God’s definitely provided, but it’s something that I’ve never really written about, and I just felt like that’s what I needed to do.
So I’m writing a book that basically talks about the experience of growing without a father and then it says, "… and here’s what I’ve learned that a dad should have taught me." Then we’re going to use the money from that to start a foundation here in Portland that provides mentoring relationships for young guys who grew up without dads.
So that’s the next step and then I’ve got a two book contract with Nelson that I’m really excited about; we’re going to do some really, really creative books.