Donald Miller Left Me Standing at the Altar, in More Ways Than One

[NOTE: If you’d rather read something less squishy and more concrete, or less Lutheran and more Reformed, my total-BFF-who-I-just-met, Derek Rishmawy, has a great piece over at Christ and Pop Culture.]

In addition to being a blogger, memoirist, and in-demand speaker, Don Miller is known for being hungry like the wolf.

In addition to being a blogger, memoirist, and in-demand speaker, Don Miller is also known for being hungry like the wolf.

Oh, Don Miller. You used to be cool.

I admit it. Like pretty much every Christian my age, I had a torrid love affair with Blue Like Jazz (the book, not the movie, but also kind of the movie). What can I say? Jazz is to us post-evangelicals what Atlas Shrugged is to libertarians, or what The Lord of the Rings is to hippies, or what Martha Stewart Living is to really terrible people.

But now I kind of want to take it all back.

I read the book in a single day, as I flew from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, devouring page after page and only pausing briefly to run between flights or to board a bus in Boston. The story of one man’s search for Jesus was salve to my aching soul, which was experiencing many of the same yearnings he described. I finally closed the book, tears in my eyes, as I stumbled off the bus into the golden winter leaves, praying to someday see Jesus as clearly as Don did.

Could be worse. I could have been into I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Could have been worse. I could have been into I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

But the thing is, when I stumbled into the sea breeze, I stumbled into a church.

I admit I’m collapsing time a bit, but I found myself on the steps of The Church of the Messiah, an Episcopal congregation in Woods Hole, staring at the imposing, red door, and being welcomed in by smiling parishioners. And inside I found a bit of what had been missing from my pseudo-evangelical Presbyterian upbringing: a tradition that had preserved the oldest practices of the Church, ones that were objectively traceable to within a generation or two of the Apostles. The sharing of the peace, the sign of the cross, confession and absolution, and a service that climaxed with the breaking of bread.

I had stumbled out of my doubt and directly into the arms of Christ.

Don Miller, then, was part of my path back toward the heart of the Church — so it broke my heart the other day to see him confess that he almost always skips church, and not even for a particularly good reason.

In brief: he doesn’t like singing. And he’s not an “auditory learner.”

I actually have been to Boston in the the fall.

Church of the Messiah, class of 2006! GO, FIGHTING CHERUBIM!

Singing and a sermon are apparently all a church service is to him, and since he doesn’t like singing, and he doesn’t learn anything from sermons, he stays home Sunday mornings and connects with God “through his work” (because, y’know, he’s a “kinesthetic learner”). Not that he has anything against church — it’s, like, his alma mater, dude. He learned what it has to say, and he’s done with it.

Hoo, boy.

I’d be lying if I said I were super-surprised, but this still feels about like meeting my childhood hero only to have him punch me in the gut and tell me my shoes are ugly. Is this really the same guy who wrote unblinkingly in Jazz about uncomfortably orthodox topics like sin, Satan, and the wrath of God? What happened to that dude? Is this sort of mushy-headed thinking where all postmodern Christians eventually end up?

(Is it where I’ll end up?)

(Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.)

I wrote about this a bit before, back when Rachel Held Evans said something similar, but I’ll say it again. I think the seeds of this sort of thinking are planted deep in the evangelical tradition, because all we ever want to talk about is how we can feel close to God, and never mind how we can actually know, objectively, that we are close to God. Forget where God promised to meet us — where do we feel like meeting him?

Hey God, I know you promised to fly me out to Paris for dinner, but I just want a Big Mac. Let's meet and Mickey-D's and go dutch.

Hey God, I know you promised to fly me out to Paris and buy me dinner at Le Meurice, but I just want a Big Mac. Let’s meet and Mickey-D’s and go Dutch.

Miller says he feels closest to God when he’s working, and I don’t doubt that he does. Heck, it’s possible that he actually is close to God when he’s working. But that kind of thinking gets really thorny, really fast:

  • “I feel closest to God when I’m working!”
  • “I feel closest to God when I’m sleeping!”
  • “I feel closest to God during transcendental meditation!”
  • “I feel closest to God when I’m plunking my life savings into slot machines!”
  • “I feel closest to God when I’m murdering children in cold blood!”

know that I crossed a line somewhere in that sequence, but your guess is as good as mine as to exactly where.

And I think that’s why it’s important to meet God where we know he is — where he promises to be. Not just spiritually, but physically. In the bread and the wine. His body and blood, on the tip of your tongue, melting into your flesh and your bones, becoming one with you so that you can be made eternally holy.

Say what you will, but it's still better than sending their money to some televangelist

Say what you will, but it’s still better than sending their money to some televangelist

You want kinesthetic learning? Come, taste and see that the Lord is good, broham.

Don Miller doesn’t like objective facts. Neither do I, if I’m honest about it. We’re both incurable postmodernists, which means we doubt facts and believe narratives, because stories are truer than facts. That’s why I began this post with a story, because that story is true for me. It is absolutely, 100% true that people who happen to have really bad theology — Don Miller and the American Episcopal Church — pointed me back towards Jesus in a really powerful way. And it’s absolutely true for Don that he feels closest to God when he’s working. I don’t doubt that, because I take Don’s narrative seriously; nor do I have any reason to doubt that Christ is still working through it, even if I don’t know how.


(If you’re not following Catholic Memes, you need to be.)

But the thing is, if you prize narratives, that means you have to take seriously what people say about themselves. And that includes what Jesus says about himself. So here’s what he says:

This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.

This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

And if you’re reading this, Don, please think and pray about that last one.

Kyrie eleison.

[Follow-up post HERE.]


Yo dawg, I heard you like blog posts, so I linked to some blog posts at the end of this blog post, so now you can read some blog posts after you finish reading this blog post:

Hey Guys, I’m a Young Person and I Have Opinions (Rachel Held Evans, Millennials, Etc.)

Blue Like Jazz: Too Subtle for Its Own Good

Rashomon, and Why Jesus is a Postmodernist

10 thoughts on “Donald Miller Left Me Standing at the Altar, in More Ways Than One

  1. Pingback: Majestic Protests from a Magisterial Protestant; or, someone needs to harass Don Miller some more, so it might as well be me | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  2. Interesting thoughts here. I never finished reading Blue Like Jazz, I didn’t feel like I really got it, and after the girl who gave it to me dumped me, I really didn’t want to look at it any more. I should probably pick it back up again soon, but as usual, I find your thoughts intriguing.

    I used to skip church all the time and make all the usual lame-ass excuses. “No one at my church talks to me,” “I’m always too tired to pay attention through the sermon,” “I don’t think the people here are living out the Christian lifestyle.” Ugh… I can’t believe I actually just wrote those things, let alone thought them. Not to mention honestly believed they were reasonable.

    But one thing God finally convicted me of on a (at the time) rare occasion that I picked up my Bible was that there’s not really any gray area in what He says about church. He says “Go.” Not “Go if you like it” or “Go if you love and respect the other members of your church” (although He does tell us to love them, too, regardless of whether we find them respectable) or even “Go to church if you think it’s worth your time or you don’t think there’s something more valuable you could do.” You can justify it any of millions of ways you want, but at the end of the day there’ll still be God telling you “Go.”

    I’d be lying to say I’m consistently in church now. But I now have a firm desire to be there. I try to wake up on time, if I’m a few minutes late, I try to swallow my pride and go anyway to at least be there part of the time. Lord willing, this desire will one day lead to a more consistent action on my part.

    • Also, another thought that’s less related to this, but nobody is strictly a kinesthetic learner. That is one way to learn, and a good way, but to say “Well, I’m a kinesthetic learner, so I’m never going to learn anything visually or auditorily” is amazingly inaccurate. Learning, like everything, is a skill and one that needs to be developed. Even if you accept the premise that it’s okay to skip church if you don’t learn anything, the “I’m not an auditory learner” argument still falls short because you can learn to learn that way and develop that part of your brain. A person who refuses to try to learn auditorily (or visually or kinesthetically, for that matter) is like, say, a mixed martial artist who says “Well, I can only box, so I’m never going to study martial arts or any form of grappling.” You may win some matches, I guess, but you’re crippling yourself for no good reason.

      • I can’t remember where I heard the line, but I like it, even if it’s a little corny: “Avoiding church because of all the hypocrites is like avoiding the hospital because of all the sick people.”

  3. Pingback: A Break-up Letter to Matt Walsh | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  4. I read Blue Like Jazz in my third year of college and my opinion of it really hasn’t changed over the years. I liked a couple of the chapters (mainly the Confession one which I still recommend to everyone I cross who I think would benefit from it, which means everyone), but the book, as a whole, didn’t do much for me. And I really couldn’t explain why then and really can’t explain why now.

    Warning: sacrilege ahead.

    I may have actually enjoyed the movie significantly more than I ever did the book. Maybe that’s just because I am a visual learner–still can’t do audiobooks!

    Great post. I would be interested to hear more about your Lutheran leanings. I consider myself a pretty solid Calvinist and Presbyterian, but I also write for Mockingbird which, I won’t lie, has challenged me on some of my beliefs and probably turned me Lutheran in a few areas, plus I have always had an affinity for the Anglican/Episcopalian Church as well. So your blog and persona definitely intrigue me. I’ll be checking back often.

    • Glad to have you aboard. Yeah, I’m not sure what it is about Blue Like Jazz, but it seems like one of those books you either love or just don’t get. I think you must have to have experienced some of the same doubts Miller writes about to get it? Either that, or you have to have a high tolerance for his refusal to use contractions. 🙂

      I actually loved the movie as well. I think Steve Taylor shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, so I hope he keeps directing.

      Thanks for the tip on Mockingbird. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I’ll definitely be reading it in the future.

      Did you see my follow-up post to this one? I get a little bit more into my Lutheran views there. 🙂

      • Yeah. Sometimes its hard to put thoughts into a cohesive language that makes sense…since my reasons were subjective–and extremely tied to–where I was at as a believer at the time. If I read it again now, I might have a much different understanding. I have always had doubts, but I have different doubts now than I did then…

        I, too, am excited about Steve Taylor’s career. I think he may bring some much needed class and skill to “Christian” directors.

        Definitely check out Mockingbird. They are tied to an Episcopalian church in Charlottesville, VA, but much of their theology and focus is very Lutheran in origin. Great writing and wonderful group of people!

        I will check out your follow-up to get a better grasp of your Lutheran predispositions! Haha. Thanks, man! Have a wonderful Saturday evening!

  5. Pingback: T&A (Titles and Answers) | The Total Depravity of Mannings

  6. Pingback: “Tiny Deaths” (not all Truth is true) | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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