Sunday, December 27, 2009

Guest Post From Sarah Geis on Donald Miller

Here is an example of the decay of Christian literature: "[I asked myself] what if I tried to live a movie? So I experimented with it and that is what this book is about." -Donald Miller on his recent book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

We must carefully guard our minds against the dulling effects of such inane triviality by steeping ourselves in truly great works like those of Charles Spurgeon, John Flavel, Jonathan Edwards, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. The ultimate antidote to contemporary superficiality is, of course, the Bible itself. Authors like Miller, who foolishly approach life as though it were simply one large egocentric playground in which truth doesn't really exist in any consequential manner, often tragically enjoy the position of the only author with which an individual has interacted for quite some time. Why? Because despite the vacuousness and even erroneousness of their books, these authors are entertaining. In a culture where the barrage of cheap entertainment is so constant that it presents a corrosive threat to the intellect, we must take extra care to keep our minds sharp.

9 comments:

Jordan said...

I must strongly disagree. I just finished reading Donald Miller’s book and certainly did not think it was “vacuous,” nor is it deserving, in my opinion, of any of the other names it was called. And lest you think I read trash, please know that Chesterton is my favourite author, I read Spurgeon on a daily basis, and I am currently a philosophy minor in college. After reading 4 of Miller’s books over the past several years I can say that, along with several great philosophical, apologetic and theological works, books like Miller’s have also taught me valuable things and helped me figure things out and overcome problems. Reading a broad range of authors can keep the mind sharp just as reading deeply in a particular discipline can.

Despite the quotation from the author himself, the book was not actually about “trying to live life like a movie.” It is about story, a much more broad, basic, and therefore worthy object of study which is a fundamental part of human existence. Remember, for example, that the Bible often teaches its doctrines in narrative form, and this is done for a reason. Story helps to communicate truth and clarify meaning, as any Jewish or Christian theologian will tell you. It’s why philosophers use analogies to help get their arguments across. So we should be careful to not misunderstand what the book is about. Entertainment is not Miller’s primary motive; that much is clear from his writing.

Given the title of this blog and the many fine posts which have been written on it, I find this attack on Miller to be unwarranted, rude, and certainly not “constructive.” I have no problem with someone disagreeing with my opinion of Miller, but if things like this are going to be written about his books, please include specific references to pages or passages to support your harsh claims, and please tone down the rhetoric.

My intention is not to provoke, but to help stimulate more informed and constructive dialogue on this and other topics. Thank you for your time.

P.S. I recently wrote about some of the things I learned from Miller's book. If you are interested in reading this, you can do so on my blog here:

http://jordantheredherring.wordpress.com/2009/12/22/muddy-poems/

Sarah Geis said...

Jordan,

First of all, I am very glad that you read Chesterton and Spurgeon, and that you are interested in philosophy. Let me assure you that you are a rarity among young people in that respect, and therefore this post is not about you. The key is this: "Authors like Miller...often tragically enjoy the position of the *only author* with which an individual has interacted for quite some time." People frequently get their theology from Miller alone, Bell alone, or McLaren alone, to name a few examples. While these authors have varying degrees of problems in their works, worldviews are unfortunately shaped (and even silently eroded) by such lopsided reading.

Moreover, I was not giving a review of Miller's latest book, but was rather responding to what the author himself said about it. If the book managed to rise above Miller's trivial description in theological and spiritual substance, then I am glad. But in a culture already obsessed with the self, any book that neglects the Biblical call to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow Christ is not theologically sound. The "names" (adjectives) called were not directed at the book, but at the trend towards triviality and theological emptiness in much contemporary Christian writing, which the past works that I have read from Miller have indeed been.

Furthermore, to say that the Bible teaches its doctrine in narrative form is a rather large oversimplification. The Bible contains narrative, but is not reducible to narrative. The Epistles do not fall under the genre of narrative. Genealogies are not narrative. And even though Jesus' parables were narrative (which were not all of his teaching), I might add that they were not meandering accounts of the irresistibly interesting lives of the cute characters. The genre of narrative has a very important place, but that place has limits.

In short, egocentricity prevents the truly Christocentric life, and books that promote the former rather than the latter should not be held up as exemplary Christian literature.

Daniel said...

I like what Jordan has to offer here; fine retort sir. Particularly your thoughts on reading a broad range of authors and thought, to formulate our own thought -- to agree or disagree. To find truth.

I'm a more or less fan of the Groothuis (and subsequently, Geiss) school of thought when it comes to cultural critique. But perhaps less boastful and colorful adjectives in one's criticism would be helpful and more, as Jordan says, "specific references to pages or passages to support your harsh claims." Such as the cards-on-table page 108, for example.

Miller can be unpersuasive at times, particularly the underhanded if not outright postmodern ecclesiology but Jordan is correct about the value in "story". After all, the metanarrative (story) of Scripture is indeed a beautiful and true thing.

Jordan said...

Sarah,

Thank you for clarifying your position. I agree that there is a trend in Christian popular literature towards triviality (though I do still disagree with you on whether Miller is part of this trend).

Since, if I am understanding you correctly, you based your comments on the book off of Miller’s short comment about it, am I correct in assuming that you yourself have not read the book?

Also, it seems to me that although Miller’s books do discuss his own life, it is always done with an eye towards helping others who may be in a similar situation. Moreover, it seems to me that a book can be self-reflective without being egocentric. From my reading of Miller, he is not egocentric. Much of his humour is self-depreciating, for example. From what I can tell, he is concerned with existential puzzles and everyday life problems, and he tackles these with self-reflection and pondering. Yes, his writing style is “meandering” (a word I also used to describe it in my review of the book), but it nevertheless makes its point in a roundabout way. It is not syllogistic or linear, but neither is it pointless or incomprehensible.

So I would caution against grouping books into either “egocentric” or “Christ-centred.” This is perhaps a false dichotomy. Many great Christian philosophers and theologians have excelled in self-reflection (Pascal and Kierkegaard come to mind). Moreover, are we to categorize memoirs and autobiographies as egocentric, for example, simply because they discuss one’s own life? Surely not. Books that are self-reflective or inward-gazing are not all equal and must be judged on a case-by-case basis, it seems to me. Also, although Miller’s books deal with apparently trivial things on the surface, he is using them, I think, to point to larger issues underneath.

Also, though I have no idea in what context Miller’s summary of his book was made (is there a reference for this remark?), I would guess that what he meant by saying his book was about living like a movie character was not that we should live for entertainment or be shallow or unconcerned with deep issues. I think he was talking about movies because they involve story, which as I said is the underlying and primary theme of the book. I wouldn’t be surprised if he meant by his remark that we should live intentionally and with a sense of meaning and purpose, like a character in a movie or book or any other story.

Furthermore, I was not implying that the Bible is only narrative. I said the Bible “often teaches its doctrines in narrative form.” The key word is often. I am fully aware that the Bible is not merely a narrative, though I thank you for clarifying this point. I would mention, however, that even authors like Paul, though they did not write narratively, were still schooled in rabbinical modes of thought which were (and still are) deeply narrative.

And finally, allow me to say that I do agree with you that one should not just read Miller, Bell, McLaren, etc., though their ideas still need to be heard, understood accurately, and analyzed. They have some good things to say, and also some not-so-good things, and the filtering process is both difficult and essential.

Thank you for your comments.

Kamilla said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Gyrovague said...

I really have a hard time reading and agreeing to someone who has not read the book, but cares to opine deeply about it.

This book is by far some excellent reading. Thought provoking, yes ego centric at times (it is auto biographical, are they all not this way?) and challenging.

I appreciate philosopy, I wrote my senior thesis on G.K. Chesterton so I know my way around heavy weight thinkers. Is this book as heavy as say Orthodoxy? No. Is it a thought provoker and does it cause the reader to navel gaze, but in such a way that we reflect on where we are in Christ, and how we can be better followers of Christ? Yes.

Please, read the book. I beg you.

Doug Groothuis said...

Autobiography need not be egocentric. Good night, read Augustine's Confessions or Carl Henry's Confessions of a Theologian. These are serious theological, philosophical reflections through the lense of autobiography. There is no narcissism in either. When you can read things like this, why bother with a self-important, philosophy-bashing trend-follower?

Tony Lombardo said...

Interesting discussion here...
While I am no fan of Donald Miller (though I have only read "Blue Like Jazz"), I do think it is intellectually irresponsible to accuse him of "inane triviality" for the seemingly benign comment about life and movies. The comment alone is ambiguous and as Christians we need to model charity in interpretation, so an appeal to specific passages of the book (yes, one should read a book before criticizing) is in order.
Sarah, your post makes a good point, but it loses force because of the lack of charity toward a, however misguided, Miller.
Also, I increasingly appreciate Jordan's point about the significance of narrative, as story plays a powerful role in forming our imaginations. I would highly recommend James K.A. Smith's book "Desiring the Kingdom" on this score.

David Strunk said...

Like Paul, I think we should crave solid food instead of the spiritual milk for infants. So allow me to sidestep the conversation on narcissistic autobiographies for a second.

In college, I read Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, and another of Miller's book of which the title escapes me. At the time, I found the writing style and approach to Christianity refreshing. But if I was really honest with myself, Miller's works didn't really help me grow in Christ. If they did, it was microscopic growth both spiritually or intellectually. It was and is infantile spiritual milk.

Then I fell in love with C.S. Lewis, and recently G.K. Chesterton. I read some quote recently from Lewis about how deep theological or philosophical reading was often more devotional for him than intended devotional reading. I agree.

We should crave solid spiritual food. Miller, despite his writing style and honest persona (I've read Blue 3 times- I'm familiar with him and his lack of argument for anything, really), is definitely not even close to a heavyweight. If, as Jordan suggests, we ought to shape our minds by dissent and disagreement, then we ought to read Neitzche and Hegel, and not Miller.

As such, Miller is more to be ignored than treated seriously.