Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Precious Self or the Heavenly Man?

This is from the article on Blue Like Jazz linked in the previous post. Donald Miller speaks of why he wrote the book:

"When I started writing, I just wanted to end up with something like Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies, because in Traveling Mercies it felt like she was free, free to be herself, to tell her story, to just vent, to rant, to speak as if she were talking to a friend," Miller wrote.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, my wife, pointed out that this orientation is the root of the whole problem. Miller and Lamott want to be free to be themselves, to tell their stories, to just went, to rant... This is not the way of Jesus Christ. He sets us free to follow him, to take up our cross, and deny ourselves for the sake of his glory and his kingdom.

Yes, Miller exposes some of the moralism and superficial confirming of evangelicalism. God knows there is plenty of that. But his own offering is no better: his precious, ranting, venting, story-telling self. "Honesty" (in the sense of the unbridled unburdening of the self on others) does not cover a multitude of sins, postmodern memoirs to the contrary. That kind of "honesty" (as opposed to integrity) is over-rated and under-criticized. It is often better to keep silent until you have something better to say. "By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned," intoned Jesus--who never wasted a word and who only spoke righteous truth, come what may.

If one wants to read a memoir (so to speak), Rebecca and I strongly recommend The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun. This remarkable and inspiring story does not center on the remarkable man who wrote it, but on the glory and power of God, even in suffering. Yun is a Chinese Christian who suffered intense persecution (including severe torture) from the Communists, but who also experienced profound miracles through the Holy Spirit, including a miraculous escapes from prison, healing, visions, and other supernatural signs and wonders.

The man has memorized more Scripture than most Christians read in a year. He writes that the Chinese house-church Christians do not pray for lighter loads, but for stronger backs. His testimony convicts and inspires. It is like reading a modern Book of Acts, but set in China. When some Western Christians came to China to teach, they would teach no more forty-five minutes. But for Brother Yun and his friends, this is just warming up. They are used to hours of teaching. But in American churches, we subsist on a starvation diet of preaching and teaching, since we are so filled with the world (sports, television, video games, shopping, etc.)

His observations on the American church are piercing, but offered humbly. American Christianity depresses him. There is so little seeking after God and so much self-congratulation and hype. I hope to use this as text next time I teach Christian Ethics and Modern Culture at Denver Seminary in order to shake everyone up, myself included.

Please read The Heavenly Man. If needed, it will help expunge the postmodern selfism of Lamott and Miller from your system. You will be challenged to seize upon God, to seek God through prayer and fasting and worship, to not fear suffering for the Lord, and to live by faith and be ready to die for Jesus Christ.

(There are some rumors floating on the Internet that Yun is corrupt and made up these stories. From what I can discern, the source for these attacks is not credible.)


Jeff Burton said...

A refutation of the accusations against Brother Yun is here

Tom said...

At the risk of being on The Wrong Side here, let me say that I think you are presenting a false dilemma when you write: "Miller and Lamott want to be free to be themselves, to tell their stories, to just vent, to rant... This is not the way of Jesus Christ. He sets us free to follow him, to take up our cross, and deny ourselves for the sake of his glory and his kingdom."

I don't understand why following Jesus authentically and expressing one's faith (and struggles therein) honestly--warts and all--are somehow in conflict. The evangelical subculture certainly tends to place serious expectations on those who would write about their faith. Some kinds of doubts/struggles are acceptable, but many aren't. To be a Christian and a writer, and to want to tell your story without paying attention to the expectations of the evangelical subculture seems like an eminently reasonable desire to me. And particularly so if one has found the similar writings of others to be an aid to one's faith. What, precisely, is the problem?

Douglas Groothuis said...


I am not against dealing honestly with doubt and going against the Christian subculture when it is unbiblical or illogical. Those are not the problems.

The problem is endless explorations of the self, when that self is not very interesting or edifying. I'll read Carl Henry's autobiography or St. Augustine's, but what's the point of Ann Lamott or Donald Miller?

Ben Z said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ben Z said...

(My apologies, I was hitting post and not preview)
Professor Groothuis,

The impression that I got from Donald Miller's two books, Blue Like Jazz and Searching For God Knows What, was that Miller is exploring the self to show two things: One, like Padcal also wrote, we cannot stand to be alone, and Miller further notes we were built for relationships, the ultimate one being Jesus. Two, to be more understanding of those who do not believe (i.e. to put their health and well being before their beliefs and to care about their salvation).

Tom said...


(As a brief preamble, I should say that I'm not a huge fan of Donald Miller. I agree with you that his writing is often 'precious' and indulgent. I think better of Lamott, in particular of her first book of this genre, *Traveling Mercies.* Still, I'd never say it is great art or theology.)

You ask what the point is of the quasi-memoir/spiritual autobiography written by the likes of Donald Miller and Anne Lamott. I suspect you won't agree with my answer but I think it is just that it helps some people keep the faith, and others consider it who maybe otherwise wouldn't. I have nothing like data here, but I think there are lots of people in evangelical churches who struggle mightily because they just don't seem to find in themselves the beliefs/attitudes/values/etc., that are presented as the markers of authentic faith. (By the way, I don't mean to be suggesting that lots of those markers aren't important for faith--many are.) And they aren't sure that all these markers are genuine; they are trying to discern which markers might simply be cultural. They believe in Jesus and want to be true disciples but they don't fit in with the believers they know. If they continue to feel so alienated, they are likely to give up on it altogether. This might not be the most rational course of action in these circumstances, but it is surely one that is frequently taken.

I daresay that it is unlikely that reading either Henry's autobiography or *The Confessions* will help them in their situation (and I say this as a big fan of the latter--I've not read the former). But reading Lamott or Miller might. Knowing that there are others who struggle as you do, who aren't sure how to integrate their faith with their lives and lifestyles but who are trying can be very helpful for one feeling alienated. If Lamott and Miller (and their ilk) were less personal in their writing, it wouldn't have this effect.

Douglas Groothuis said...


Those are good points, and probably explain their popularity. I just wish they could write these kinds of things in a less egocentric and precious way. Moreover, many of Miller's idea are just plain stupid and stupifying.

Fletcher said...

I read "The Heavenly Man" and all I can say is that it changed me for good. To find out why, go read it.
I have since reccomended it to many.

Thanks for the reccomendation.

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