Donald Miller: Spirituality, Volkswagens and Jazz

Interview of Donald Miller by Dick Staub (Originally Broadcast July 28, 2003)

Well, good afternoon everybody. This is your friendly guide, Dick Staub. You know, every generation finds people who give voice to their journey. And our next guest is one of those people. He’s a writer, campus ministry leader, a speaker. He is the author of Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, a book I remember picking up a few years ago. It was a road trip narrative about a spiritual quest. He is active in a small but resilient and growing campus ministry at a college not unfamiliar to many of you, Reed College in Portland, which has the distinction as being ranked as one of the most intellectual and also least religious colleges in the country.

Q. Our guest’s name is Donald Miller. And his book is titled Blue Like Jazz. It’s published by Thomas Nelson, and subtitled Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Don, great to have you with us this afternoon.
A. Good to be here.

Q. Let’s start with the title, jazz music. I love the quote that’s an inset at the start of the book, “In America¢â‚¬¦” Well, you go ahead and tell them why.
A. Well, the reason I called the book Blue Like Jazz, I was¢â‚¬¦ There’s a theater here in Portland ¢€œ some people are probably familiar with it if you’ve visited ¢€œ called the Bagdad Theater, where you just go and you, you know, pay a fews bucks, see a movie, and you can get a pint of beer, a pizza, or whatever, and you sit there and watch the film. Well, I was coming out of the Bagdad Theater one night and I saw a man playing the saxophone. And I watched him for a good 10 or 15 minutes. And he never opened his eyes. And I’ll tell you, before I saw him, I didn’t like jazz music, and I didn’t like it because it doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t seem to go somewhere, have a conclusion. But I watched this guy playing the saxophone. And he loved it so much that I found myself the next day, or a couple days later, that I liked jazz music, which is not uncommon to a lot of people to see somebody else love something and it helps them love it themselves. And so I liked that metaphor, the more I thought about it, because it summed up my spiritual journey. It summed up my journey with God. And I used to not like God because he didn’t resolve, couldn’t figure him out, and seemed to be a lot of paradoxes that I didn’t want to hurt my brain thinking about.

Q. What was it that made you think the spiritual journey was going to be about resolution? Where do we get that idea?
A. I-I have no idea where-where we come up with that. I think-I think I can guess that we’re taught that-that Christianity is sort of the solution to all of our problems, both intellectual and emotional, when it really isn’t. It’s more of a somebody coming to rescue us out of the prison that is this earth, the prison that is our own bodies.

Q. Yeah.
A. And that’s it. And there’s still a journey to be taken once that happens. But I think America is looking for a quick fix and¢â‚¬¦ In everything we see on television¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah. We’re still fallen people living in the midst of fallen people.
A. Exactly.

Q. And so that’s¢â‚¬¦
A. The deal.

Q. That’s the deal. I love the quote at the beginning of the book which I think you saw something on BET, and-and it was a guy talking about jazz. And he said, “In America, the first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a free-form expression. It comes from the soul, and it is true.” But it’s interesting because that-that image of jazz gets at the-the personal and-and very intimate connectivity of truth versus the propositional aspect of truth.
A. Absolutely. There’s something about¢â‚¬¦ You know, when an athlete¢â‚¬¦ You know, when Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France the other day, or when an athlete wins a¢â‚¬¦ You know, there’s sort of a barbaric yalp, as Walt Whitman would say. There’s just sort of a scream. And we would say, Well, he’s not saying anything. But he’s saying a lot. He’s saying stuff you can’t say with words.

Q. Yeah.
A. And jazz music is just a language of the soul that you can’t say with words, and that’s very much like Christian spirituality, at least the way I experience it.

Q. Now, how did you come to a vision of writing nonreligiously about Christian spirituality? What’s the importance of nonreligiosity?
A. Well, my own personal journey with that is, I released a book a few years ago that you mentioned, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance. And in the book I was writing for an evangelical publishing company. And-and I wasn’t¢â‚¬¦ I didn’t tell everything. I wasn’t completely true with how I felt in terms of frustrations and even anger and fury at God, mixed with joy and the pleasure of knowing him.

Q. Yeah.
A. I just-I just kind of released a really honest press release. And the book did okay. It-it was cancelled, out of print, I didn’t have any money to my name and didn’t want to get a real job, and so I decided to write another book, and more or less go for it and just say¢â‚¬¦

Q. Now, what does go for it mean? I mean, why¢â‚¬¦ I’m very interested in this writing for a Christian publisher, not being able to really say the whole package. That kind of goes back to our perception of what the Christian journey is about, which is an incorrect one, but one that we keep pushing on people through the stuff that we write.
A. Well, I’m me.

Q. What-what I mean is, it sounds like this book you decided to just write what you’re really thinking and not try to take into consideration the nuances that might be acceptable within the broader Christian audience.
A. That’s exactly it. That’s the stuff that I love to read. I love to read books that are true, more than just intellectually true. True. True from-the-heart true.

Q. Yes, yes.
A. And I wanted to write a book that was like that. I don’t know¢â‚¬¦ I think there’s just something in the Christian reader, and I have felt this.

Q. Yeah.
A. I know a lot of people have felt this, who want to understand the responsibility of leading people, and don’t want to lead them astray. And so they don’t want to talk about their faults, you know, because people need a role model.

Q. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
A. But then my generation simply did not respond to that. As soon as you-as soon as you stop talking about your faults, we turn you off. This is not true. This isn’t a true person. And it’s not a criticism against any other generation, it’s just a matter of we just don’t respond to it.

Q. But you know what’s interesting about that is it’s very clear to me in this book that you want to write a book that is honest and true and glorifies God. You make reference to Nick Hornsby’s book about a boy, and the fact that the key character had to come to the realization that it’s not about him. But you are in a generation that responds best to story, and-and kind of biography, so it almost inevitably ends up trying to glorify God by being about you. Do you hear what I’m saying? Stylistically and the whole journalistically, it’s the same thing when you read Thomas Merton. I mean, Thomas Merton writes this incredible, honest stuff in his journals. And they are, you know, his hope is that you’re going to find God in the middle of it, but it’s a lot of Thomas Merton in there.
A. Well, here’s how¢â‚¬¦ I saw this great interview, Dick, I wish you could have seen this. It was on CNN. They were interviewing Tom Arnold, you know, the comedian?

Q. Oh sure, yeah.
A. And he had a book out, and it’s still out. The title is something like How I Lost Six Pounds in Five Years and Kept it Off.

Q. Yes.
A. Which is a great title. And the interviewer asked him, Why did you write this book? And Tom Arnold said ¢€œ and my respect for him just went through the roof when I heard him say this ¢€œ he said, The reason I wrote this book is because I’m a broken person and I do things to get people to love me.

Q. Wow.
A. And I thought, that’s the reason I wrote my book.

Q. Yeah.
A. You know, I have this addiction. It’s called ¢€œ a lot of authors have it ¢€œ it’s called the Amazon addiction ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ where I go online and check Amazon every day and see what my ranking is on my book.

Q. Yeah.
A. And there’s just this feeling of, Do I matter today? Do I care? And of course, that stuff is supposed to come from Christ, but in my life it doesn’t. And I wanted to talk about the tension in living in that place. So I would love to say that I wrote this book to glorify God. I think that may be the fifth or sixth reason down the list that I really ¢€œ if I’m honest with myself ¢€œ the reason I wrote this book.

Q. Yeah.
A. The reason I wrote this book is because I wanted people to know who I am, and I wanted them to read it, and I wanted them to tell me they liked me anyway.

Q. Now, why do you think your generation responds to that kind of honest, straightforward, you know, my glorifying God was fifth down the list, I know it should be number one but it’s not, versus the guy that writes the book and says, Here’s five ways to glorify God? What-what is it about your generation that-that has to have the-the first and not the second?
A. I have no idea, Dick. I can only affirm that it’s true. I don’t know why we’re that way, there’s just this sense ¢€œ even if somebody isn’t judging me, and I wouldn’t accuse any Christian authors of judging me ¢€œ but there’s a sense when I’m reading it that this guy, perhaps he thinks he’s better than I am. I need somebody to-I need somebody to be vulnerable and tell me all their crap so that I feel safe with them. There’s just a lot of authors that I don’t feel safe with.

Q. Interesting. We’re going to pick up there when we come back, and we’ll actually get into the book, Blue Like Jazz, published by Nelson. Our guest is Donald Miller. The subtitle of the book is Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. We’re going to be back with more right after this. Don’t go away.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Don Miller. His book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Thomas Nelson, subtitled Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

Q. Let’s learn a little about your own journey. It’s interesting because you were raised in the church, but without your father.
A. Right.

Q. Talk about that whole dynamic.
A. Well, my dad left when I was a kid, when I was just an infant, so I never knew him. We made a couple of visits, my sister and I, to him. So I have very, very ghost-like memories of my dad. And my family was sort of a family that didn’t talk very much about faults. And so ¢€œ I’m 31 now ¢€œ literally, literally two months ago, when my mother read this book, is the first time that she and I had ever had a conversation about my father.

Q. Really.
A. Yeah. And so, we’re just a family that doesn’t open up. It’s funny because I’ll open up in a book to the world and not to, you know, people in my own family because there’s just this sense that’s there’s just things you don’t talk about, especially weaknesses.

Q. Yeah.
A. And¢â‚¬¦ But it affected my thoughts about God, you know. My church pastor growing up would call, refer to God as Father. And of course, I didn’t know-I didn’t know what that meant. I mean, a father to me meant nothing, there’s just nothing there. And so it even fried me for a while because I imagined God wanting to move into the house and share a bed with my mom, is what I say in the book. And I didn’t like that idea.

Q. Yeah.
A. And then later, the idea of God developed out of-out of from being a Father to the idea of him being like a slot machine, in terms of it, just prayers, pulling a lever and you’re hoping that your cherries line up ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and maybe you get some good fortune or something like that. And so I had these really skewed ideas about God growing up, all the way really into my late 20’s.

Q. Interesting.
A. And¢â‚¬¦

Q. But you-you regularly refer to, “raised in the church,” so I’m taking it church was an important thing to your mother, and-and you were kind of a Sunday school kid, a VBS kind of kid, all that stuff.
A. Yeah. There was no question I was raised within the religion of Christianity.

Q. Did you perceive yourself to be a Christian or¢â‚¬¦
A. Absolutely. I would have referred to myself as a Christian, there’s no question.

Q. Okay. You talk about at the age of 10 you begin your life of sin, as so many young boys do. And you talk about the guilt that came out of that. And then you tell a real interesting story about good old mom, and you basically spending all the money you had allocated for Christmas presents on yourself instead of your mom. It was interesting, though, that that thing of guilt, you understood that concept at a fairly young age, 10 years old.
A. There’s no¢â‚¬¦ Well, yeah. Guilt is just something that happened to me, and it’s beyond the I-did-something-wrong kind of guilt. It was more into the¢â‚¬¦ What happened was, my mother gave me $10, or something like that, to spend on the family for Christmas presents. Of course, I’m only, I think, 12 years old at this time. So I went to the local Walmart and bought a bunch of fishing lures for myself. And I had about a buck left. And there was this Christian bookstore, and I got something off the bargain shelf for my mother.

Q. Yeah.
A. Well, Christmas Eve night, I had been thinking about myself for the past month and it hit me what I had done. And it-it got me. And I just remember feeling a feeling I’ve never felt since, a sense of guilt, a sense that whatever was the problem in the world, anywhere in the world, was my fault.

Q. And it’s interesting because you talk, in a chapter, “What I Learned on TV,” you’re talking about watching, I think it was Nightline, and seeing some, you know, massive world problem. And you talk to your friend, Tony, the beat poet, who-who you essentially get in a conversation about the sin nature. And then you make reference to, it’s kind of like the fundamentalist Christians believe, but really, you know, I’m not one. And then-and then you talk to him about realizing about whether it’s a big, massive world problem, or whatever it is, that at certain levels we are part of the problem. What’s interesting to me about this connection that kind of recurs through the book, is that there is this doctrine of sin in classic Christian theology and in the way you converse about it with somebody like Tony, the beat poet, it makes sense to him. As a matter of fact, he volunteers that kind of theological proposition to you.
A. Yes.

Q. I think that’s important to understand about-about this generation.
A. Yeah, it absolutely is. When somebody says to me, sin, or sin nature ¢€œ

Q. Yes.
A. ¢€œ I usually step back because to me it means it’s just drawing a line in the sand. And to me somebody is saying, these people are better than these people, and I don’t like it. I don’t like when somebody brings up that idea. But at the same time, on the flip side of that coin, there’s this idea that there’s something broken inside of me.

Q. Yeah, yes.
A. That there’s a penalty for that brokenness, and I’m looking for something outside of myself to fix me.

Q. Yeah.
A. That is true in my experience.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so it’s just the same word and it means-it means two different things. When I go to church and somebody talks about sin or sin nature, they’re usually talking about somebody other than themselves.

Q. Yes.
A. I can’t identify with that, nor do I want to, Dick.

Q. But is that the problem with the way they’re applying sin to the other person, or that Christians don’t apply it properly to ourselves?
A. I don’t think a human being applies it properly to himself. I don’t want to draw a line and say Christians and non-Christians. It’s a realization that I got watching-watching Ted Koppel go through the Congo one week ¢€œ

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. ¢€œ on Nightline, when I saw that something like 75 percent of the men in this certain village had raped multiple women ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and there are, of course, two-and-a-half million people killed there in the last three years in the Congo.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so I asked myself if I had been raised in one of these tribes in the Congo by the same family under the same circumstances ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ would I be killing people and raping women?

Q. Great question.
A. And it’s a tough question, because if I say no, then I say, Well, I’m higher evolved than those guys and that, of course, is where Hitler began.

Q. Yeah.
A. If I say yes, then I’m capable of all sorts of atrocities.

Q. Yeah.
A. That’s the question, literally watching Nightline, that just sunk me for a week.

Q. Now, when we get back to your journey, you did have a fundamentalist Christian summer. You refer to them as like the SEALS, kind of high-performance Christian fundamentalists.
A. Yeah.

Q. And you did lead a ministry of college students in Houston in which you said, “The more attention you got, the stranger you became.” So you kind of did find yourself vulnerable to the religiosity that is the counterfoil of a lot of which you’re interacting with once you get to Reed. How did-how did those things happen? How did you end up in those situations? The fundamentalist camp? The Houston ministry? And what was it that drove you out of them?
A. I think the disgust with-with myself after having met some of the people who were the quote/unquote enemy. I’m talking about gays, I’m talking about pagans, political liberals. I met those guys and they liked me. And I liked them. And so now I’m-now I’m dealing with these people that I really like, that I think are good people, that want to do something about the problems on the planet, and yet I’m not supposed to like them because they’re-they’re supposed pagans. And again, I was a part of a very conservative Christian movement. I mean, a very, very conservative Christian movement, perhaps more conservative than any of your listeners are familiar with. So we were literally taught that it was us against them, that there was an enemy, and the enemy had skin on. And I met the enemy and I really liked them. And that-that, of course, threw me for a loop and I had to¢â‚¬¦

Q. Did you, anywhere along the line, have any perception of Jesus as the person that hung around with those people?
A. No. Not until I got there did I realize that Jesus was relevant in this place. And of course, we’re talking about Reed College, which Princeton Review called “one of the most Godless campuses in the country,” at least a few years ago.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I’ve found people there who aren’t Christians that I loved more than any-any people I’d ever met in my life.

Q. But even before you got to Reed you left the Houston thing because it wasn’t feeling right. What wasn’t feeling right about it?
A. I felt like-I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like I was¢â‚¬¦

Q. How so?
A. I felt like I was speaking for God and teaching for God ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ but not connecting with God.

Q. So you were giving the right answers to people that wanted to hear answers ¢€œ
A. Exactly.

Q. ¢€œ but they weren’t actually connecting at any personal level in your life. In other words, you were kind of like ¢€œ well, I think you even refer to it as you’re kind of like “the salesperson.”
A. That’s exactly how I felt. I felt like an infomercial for God. And I, in no way, felt like I was connected.

Q. When you told the pastor that that was going on, or your supervisor, what kind of reaction did you get?
A. Well, I got to take a vacation, take a couple weeks, and I explained to him that I needed more than that.

Q. Yeah. Oh man. Humpty Dumpty’s men couldn’t put this guy back together again.

We’re going to be back with Donald Miller. The book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Thomas Nelson, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Donald Miller. His book is Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

Q. So you’re kind of burned out on the-the conservative fundamentalism in which you were raised, you’ve got a kind of a-a¢â‚¬¦ You get the kind of the backdrop of the guilt and the sin and that part of the equation, haven’t been really able to sort through how it fits with the rest of life. Just out of curiosity, how did you choose Portland and Reed College? Because, as you’ve already said, it’s pretty much the antithesis of the environs in which you had placed yourself hitherto?
A. I chose Portland because a friend of mine and I had done a road trip across the country and we ran out of money here.

Q. Yeah.
A. And lived in the woods for awhile outside of, in central Oregon.

Q. Yeah, absolutely.
A. And-and got a job here, and I’ve been here for 10 years. Now, since I’ve moved here, I’ve befriended a man named Ross. He was a seminary professor for a good time, taught the Old Testament here at Western, and I really liked the guy. We would meet once a week to just go over the Old Testament. And the guy is just a phenomenal guy. He has four sons, they’re all brilliant, like, literally incredibly brilliant. And one of them was at Reed College. And so I would get updates on his son, every once in awhile, how he was doing.

Q. Yeah.
A. And he was never doing well. Reed is a tough place to hold your faith.

Q. Yeah.
A. And he-he pretty much lost his faith and was searching, and got into some drugs, got a girl pregnant. The girl didn’t want him to see the baby anymore, and so fell into a mild depression, or a deep depression, and went out to the Oregon Coast and jumped off a cliff and killed himself.

Q. Oh, it’s a terrible story.
A. Really.

Q. And this is in the book. But what happens at Reed is you begin rebuilding your theology from the world into the gospel. And I think what you’re describing before is a vision that takes gospel out to the world, but never actually is in the world. It’s kind of the fundamentalist model. And now you’re in the world, you’re liking these people which, of course, has a lot in common with Jesus.
A. Yeah.

Q. Because he liked them, too. But-but now you’re beginning to re-understand your faith. And so a lot of the stuff that you write about, and I think what makes it seem like non-religious writing about Christian spirituality is that you’re ending up with-with some fairly orthodox answers, but in very unorthodox settings and ways that end up really being exciting because you actually get the sense that this stuff that you believe in and are talking about really does matter and connect to people. And, in particular, you have a couple of stories, Penny in France, and then Laura at Reed College, their just amazing conversations and journeys towards seeing how gospel can, in fact, connect with people in these kind of “godless” places.
A. Yeah. I was just reading John, chapter 3 or 4, yesterday about Jesus talking to the woman at the well. And a couple great things about that passage of scripture is that, first of all, the woman is a Samaritan woman. So she’s a part of a cult, the liberal sort of sect of Judaism that embraced pluralistic ideas. This is a woman who was poor, that’s why she’s at the well. And she’s also a woman who has a bad reputation. And Jesus goes to the well, as a male, as somebody who’s seen as a rabbi, and he is not supposed to be talking to this woman. And a friend of mine, my friend Ivan, who is a student at Reed, said that Jesus going to the well and talking to this woman is the equivalent of Jesus walking into a gay bar and asking a man to buy him a drink.

Q. Yeah.
A. It would-it would-it would beg that sort of rumor. And Jesus is right there doing it, having a conversation with this woman about her soul, essentially saying, I can give you something for your soul that will fulfill you so you don’t have to keep jumping around from man to man. And I love that picture, when I think about going to Reed College, not that the students at Reed College are of ill repute. They’re some of the brightest kids in the country. But there are a lot of people here in Portland, a lot of my Christian friends, who said I shouldn’t be there.

Q. Yeah.
A. And they would more or less say things¢â‚¬¦ They just had the kind of angst about the students at Reed because they are anti-they are anti-Jesus and they’re anti-Christians.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so there’s sort of a war metaphor being embraced by many of my Christian friends. But I went there and I found community. I found some of the greatest community I’ve ever experienced. You mentioned my friend, Penny, who-who became a believer in France a couple years before I met her, was there at Reed, is an amazing example of somebody who just comes out of a crazy lifestyle and embraces Jesus, and becomes somebody of great influence to a lot of other people. I think the church understands the importance of purity, and teaches the importance of purity. And some people are afraid to go into a place like that and get themselves dirty. That’s exactly where Jesus went. And if-if we’re afraid to get ourselves dirty, there’s something seriously wrong with our theology.

Q. Now, Laura was an interesting case because she ended up at Reed College, even though she’d been raised in a Christian background, as I recall.
A. Yeah.

Q. But she reached this place where she says, “If God is real, he needs to happen to me.”
A. Yeah, that’s it. Laura’s parents ¢€œ her father’s a Methodist pastor ¢€œ she was an atheist coming into Reed, had been for a couple of years, pretty much decided that was going to be her life. And one of the main reasons that she didn’t embrace Christianity is because it was always-it was always told to her that she needed to follow Jesus. And she didn’t believe in Jesus. She didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God.

Q. Yeah.
A. She had never experienced Him. And so she had basically come to the decision that, If I’m going to do this, He needs to happen to me.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so through a series of events that happened in Laura’s life her freshman year at Reed, Jesus did happen to her.

Q. Yeah.
A. And it was-it was a fairly amazing thing. But that really blew my mind in terms of understanding evangelism, rather than me going and presenting a series of ideas to a person and saying, I want you to agree with these ideas that I believe.

Q. Yeah.
A. We’re actually going and setting somebody up on a blind date and just saying, Here’s Jesus, here’s who he is, here’s what he believed, here’s where you find him in scripture. Try him out, spend some time with him, see if you fall in love.

Q. Yeah. The e-mail, “I read through the book of Matthew this evening. I was up all night. I couldn’t stop reading, so I read through Mark. This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God. Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realize he’s the Son of God. I suppose this makes me a Christian. I feel much better now. Come to campus tonight. Let’s get coffee.”
A. That was Laura’s e-mail. She sent it in the middle of the night, and I just sat there at my desk and shed a few tears, because it was a beautiful thing.

Q. Well, it’s very powerful. It is actually very much like C.S. Lewis, you know, “Jesus: Liar, lunatic, or who he says he is, the Son of God.” You have a chapter about “Penguin Sex.” And you say, “The goofy thing about Christianity is you believe it and don’t believe it at the same time.” What’s that have to do with penguin sex?
A. Well, that’s a good story. I was watching OPB one night, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and there was a documentary about penguins and the way penguins reproduce. And they-they are some of the most insane animals you can possibly imagine. They swim north until they hit ice, and then they, about 500 of them at a time, climb up on the ice, they-they slide along their bellies, for days, as far north as they can get, and then they stop. They gather around in circles. They kind of have this disco/find-the-mate kind of thing that happens, and they have penguin sex. And then the women lay an egg. This takes about a week. The women lay an egg. The men take the eggs and they sit on the eggs, and the women leave. And they leave for a solid month while the men stand there, hundreds of them, and sit on these eggs without food or water or anything. They just-they just take care of these eggs. And then the women come back, a month later, the female penguins, they come back, to the day, that the eggs are hatched. And when the eggs are hatched, the women stay and take care of the baby penguins until they’re strong enough to make the journey back to the ocean. Meanwhile, the men leave and go fishing to replenish themselves. And I sat there thinking, this is the most insane thing I have ever seen. It’s almost like magic, that these penguins have this radar in their brains that tells them where to go, not just how to reproduce, but exactly when the eggs are going to hatch. They show up on the beach on the day. And I hear people all the time say, you know, it’s absurd the things you believe. Christianity is absurd that you have this thing inside you that’s¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah, you’re right.
A. And I say, yeah, it’s absurd, but here are 500 other things that are just as absurd that are scientific. And that really helped me in terms of embracing my faith, to see it happening in other parts of the world, and in other creatures.

We’re going to be back with some concluding comments from Donald Miller. Blue Like Jazz, is the title of the book. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Don Miller. His book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Thomas Nelson, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

Q. One of the things that I’ve observed with people who color outside the lines and people who have kind of learned some of the things that I talk about in my book, Too Christian, Too Pagan. If you truly follow Jesus you’re going to be too Christian for your pagan friends and too pagan for your Christian friends, is it’s often very difficult to connect with “church.” And Don, in his book, talks about meeting the Seattle cussing pastor and getting introduced to Rick down in Oregon, and then ends up writing a little chapter called “How to go to Church without Getting Angry.” Don, as you’ve been on this kind of journey to a-a more personally authentic faith expression, what was involved in your connecting with a church? And what are you kind of telling other people that are on that same journey, as you are?
A. My experience with church has been-has been positive and negative all my life. I’ve met wonderful people at church. What I didn’t like, the things that I didn’t like about the churches that I experienced were the embrace of war metaphor, the idea that it’s us against them. I saw a great deal of that going on in churches. I didn’t like the fact that things were presented mathematically rather than artfully. And so church was never something that inspired wonder or awe, it was usually on a diagram. And that didn’t feel-that didn’t¢â‚¬¦ It didn’t feel true to me. I think there’s a lot of things that just can’t be explained, we just need to embrace them. And also I didn’t like the fact that I needed to more or less not like or not understand people who didn’t believe what I believed, people of other political beliefs or people of other religious beliefs. I feel comfortable disagreeing with them, but I don’t feel comfortable not liking them or thinking that they’re less valuable people. And I find that-that everybody is looking for redemption, everybody’s looking for value or a sense of security. And there’s really two ways to do that. One, we compare ourselves to other people and find faults with them so that they are less than us, and that gives us a feeling of worth. And the other is to embrace the forgiveness of Jesus. And so I felt like, the churches that I was attending were talking about embracing the forgiveness of Jesus, and at the same time more or less putting down people who were different than them. And so it’s like with our mouths we’re saying we get our forgiveness, our sense of value from Jesus, but with our actions we’re saying everybody is less important or less valuable than we are. That sounds like a stern statement, but I just heard it so, almost subliminally, in the text of messages and in the sort of marketing packages that the churches I attended would-would embrace. And so I finally just got sick of it. I began praying that God would-would lead me to a group of people where I could fit, because I was convinced I was the only one who felt this way. And I didn’t want to be the bitter guy, didn’t want to be the church-basher guy, because nobody likes that guy. And so, you know, I was conflicted because I didn’t want to talk about it. But that’s more or less how I felt. And so I just began to pray. And the Lord put me in touch with a guy named Mark Driscoll. I hope he doesn’t mind, even though he’s in the area. But Mark more or less befriended me. And he knows a lot of people. And I felt a kindred spirit with him. And he’s, of course, up in Seattle and I’m down in Portland. So I even thought about moving to Seattle just so I could be a part of Mark’s church, because he seemed to be reaching out, he seemed to be reaching people who were hostile toward Christianity, with the gospel. And I think that was a beautiful thing. Mark had a friend whose name is Rick McKinley, who today is one of my best friends, who was moving to Portland. And he-and he told me, you know, you might want to meet Rick and try to get involved in what he’s doing in Portland because he’s going to plant a church there. And so I did. I met with Rick and we had coffee. We instantly became good friends, and today he’s one of my best friends. And he’s planted a church here. We started with about eight people three years ago, and it’s probably 400 or 500 people today. And it’s a wonderful church. And it seems to embrace the things that-that I somehow identify with. And the great thing about that, Dick, that whole-that whole journey, is that once I was surrounded by people who I felt like were like me, who I felt like shared the same values, I was able to forgive and really love the people who I used to not like and be bitter with. And so no hard feelings about the churches that I grew up in anymore. And I don’t even understand those communities really anymore. My current community seems something different than anything I had ever experienced.

Q. Yeah.
A. And it just fits. It feels like family.

Q. Folks, if you’re just joining us, Donald Miller is our guest. The book is Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. And-and we’re just scratching the surface. There’s just chapter after chapter that, through stories, get at issues that-that Don has been learning about, including the whole dynamic of community, more intensely. And we all talk about church as community but, I mean, actually living in community. A wonderful chapter on the starving writer who learns to tithe. There’s a great chapter on worship, “You Cannot Be a Christian Without Being a Mystic.” I love that. And a whole section on loving other people, loving yourself. In light of Bill Bright’s death, I thought it was really interesting that you told the story you did about one of your friends who talked to Bill Bright. And it really is a wonderful story about the intensity of what can happen in loving Jesus.
A. Yeah. My friend, Allen, went to a bunch of church leaders, a bunch of ministry leaders, and asked them a series of questions because he was putting together a research on why some ministries work and some don’t. Of course, one of them that worked was Campus Crusade. So Bill Bright could only give him about five minutes of his time. Allen could only ask him a couple questions. But the question that he ended with for each of the people he interviewed was, What does Jesus mean to you? And Allen sat across from Bill Bright at his very big desk, in his very big chair, and said, What does Jesus mean to you? And Bill Bright just started weeping. He just couldn’t answer the question. And I remember the first time I heard that. I had never connected with Jesus that way. I had never felt in love with him before. And so in the book I talk about the journey from going to kind of an unsentimental understanding of Jesus to a sentimental understanding of Him, the way I have sentimental understandings with my closest friends, the people who I love. And that was a long journey. And it’s made all the difference in my faith. And so, yeah, on the passing of Bill Bright, that’s an incredible loss for us, as believers here. Not just because of the however many hundred-million-dollar industry that he built, but because it was just one man who showed us what it meant to love Jesus.

Q. Well, the thing that amazed me about him ¢€œ and we rebroadcast a little segment of an interview I had done with him in 1997 ¢€œ we had started a feature on the show called “Soul Tending,” where we tried to ask, you know, well-known Christians some more personal questions about what they actually did to tend to their own personal soul. Forget about what they do to speak in public and all that stuff ¢€œ
A. Yeah

Q. ¢€œ and Bright, you know, he was such a giant of a guy, you know, physically, and also just in his reputation. I was really taken back by the degree to which he was this guy that was still learning. And he talked about how he’d just been learning about fasting and the power of it in his life, and in prayer, and everything else. And it was just very down-to-earth and simple and personal. And-and it was encouraging because, unfortunately¢â‚¬¦ Well, you have another section where you talk about being on a radio show and the guy wants you to defend being a Christian. And you talk about how, you know, it’s a hard thing to-to defend the word because so many people have been beaten and hurt. And it’s great to see guys like you and Bill Bright and others who are on journey, talking about it, and kind of-kind of, in your case, talking about it in nonreligious ways. It’s a very, very interesting piece of work. Thanks for being with us today.
A. Dick, thank you very much.

And folks, again, Donald Miller’s been our guest. His book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Nelson, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It’s the kind of book that we highly recommend around here. I think you’re going to enjoy it. We’ll be back. Don’t go away.

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