Featured Reviews, Midweek Edition

[Midweek Edition] FEATURED: A MILLION MILES by Donald Miller

“The Stories That Shape Our Lives”

A Review of
A Million Miles In A Thousand Years:
What I Learned While Editing My Life.
by Donald Miller.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

A Million Miles In A Thousand Years:
What I Learned While Editing My Life.
Donald Miller.
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

Donald Miller - A MILLION MILES

Several years after the success of his New York Times bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller was given the opportunity to assist in turning that book into a movie.  The process of editing his life into the screenplay for a movie has now become the impetus for his newest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (available today in bookstores).

Miller’s purpose here is twofold:  on one hand to help us see that the stories we find ourselves (particularly ones related to consumerism) are not very good stories; on the other hand, he encourages us to live lives that are indeed good and meaningful stories.  His writing is the same sharp, witty, self-effacing style that many came to love in Blue Like Jazz.  A Million Miles is particularly useful in helping us to see that our lives are stories and that the stories of our lives give us meaning.

Although it is a relatively small portion of the book, Miller is at his best in critiquing the cultural stories in which we find meaning for our lives.  He writes:

Most Americans aren’t living very good stories.  It’s not our fault, I don’t think.  We are suckered into it.  We are brainwashed, I think. …We watch a commercial advertising a new Volvo, and suddenly we feel our life isn’t as content as it once was.  Our life doesn’t have the new Volvo in it.  And the commercial convinces us we will only be content if we have a car with forty-seven airbags.  And so we begin our story of buying a Volvo, only to repeat the story with a new weed eater and then a new home stereo.  And this can go on for a lifetime.  When the credits roll, we wonder what we did with our lives, and what was the meaning (122-123).

While Miller is right, I think, in illuminating these poor stories in which we seek meaning for our lives, I found his case for living a good story less compelling.  Miller undoubtedly knows what makes for a good story – having an end in mind, submitting ourselves to risk in pursuit of that end, etc. – but it was the “how” of narrating the story that left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  Miller focuses on us narrating our own stories, and while I appreciate the recognition therein that we are free to make choices that direct the stories of our lives, I am inclined to believe that in our age of increasing narcissism the individualism that fuels such self-narration is itself a bad story in which we westerners too often find ourselves ensnared.  I am also concerned that the sort of adventurism to which Miller turns in order to find meaning for his own life (hiking the Andes in Peru, biking across America), while making for a good story, is a facet of his privileged life that is unavailable to people of lower economic classes.  While I don’t believe that Miller is saying that one must pursue such adventures in order to pen a good life story, I worry that readers will get caught up in Miller’s story and miss the fact that there are many great stories that do not involve traveling the globe, etc.

Although there is a sense in Miler’s writing of God as the author of our lives, the function of God as author is limited to the role of a personal conscience:

So as I was writing my novel, and as my characters did what he wanted, I became more and more aware that somebody was writing me.  So I started listening to the Voice, or rather, I started calling it the Voice and admitting there was a Writer.  I admitted something other than me was showing a better way.  And when I did this, I realized the Voice, the Writer who was not me, was trying to make a better story, a more meaningful series of experience I could live through (p. 87).

Here’s another story, a great story, that has all the elements of a good story that Miler introduces.  God created the world and humanity, and gave humanity freedom, which we promptly abused, rebelling against God.  From that point, God set about the work of healing and restoring creation.  He chose to do so through the calling of a people, who would embody the redemption for which God longed.  God sent Jesus to live among the people of God, to show them God’s sacrificial and redemptive love.  The people eventually killed Jesus, the Son of God, but God brought Him back to life – demonstrating that even the power of death could not deter the redemptive work that God is doing.  The death and resurrection of the Son opened the doors so that all people (regardless of ethnicity) could enter into this redemptive community.  Following in the way of Jesus, we are called to deny ourselves (that is, to recognize that the primary story is not that of our own personal lives), and to commit ourselves to a redemptive community of God’s people in a particular place and to embody daily this grand story of God’s love and redemption.

Don’t get me wrong, A Million Miles is an excellent book – one of the best in the Christian market this year – and Miller is a masterful writer and does a fine work in calling us to reflect deeply on the stories that shape our lives.  However, I wish he would be able to see that the individualism that drives his reflection is ultimately just as bad a story as that of consumerism.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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  1. I read A Million Miles and am aware of Miller’s own struggle against who he is and who he want’s to be, as he reflects on it in his writings. What I do know from his story is that he missed an opportunity in that book to tell of some of the outcomes of the life change wrought by the editing of his own life experience. Many of those results we not yet realized.

    There may need to be another edition of this book written. Since that time he’s been named by the Obama administration as the liason for addressing the fatherless children travesty and has started a mentoring program as a joint effort with World Vision that is worldwide in its reach. I think a trip across the United States on a bike was only the beggining of a life lived for a bigger purpose.

    As in good writing he has shown with his life (the character of the book) that this editing your life works and has indeed listened to the voice of God in a more than cursory way.

  2. Hi, great point. Posts like this one are why I read your blog. Have a great 2010!