A Million Miles…To Where?Art & Literature, Book Reviews, Culture, Evangelicals — By Hayden Butler on March 23, 2010 at 11:10 am
If Donald Miller does something well, it is the provocative marketing of storytelling. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years displays Miller’s roundabout style of making insights by emphasizing the power of personal narratives. Both punchy and meandering, the book demonstrates that which it demands of the reader: the cultivation of a life that tells a story. Using basic narrative theory as an organizational structure, Miller recounts his own journey from a near-fatalism/nihilism to a place of understanding life’s meaning; he establishes a foundation of meaning in the human capacity to make stories, to bring forth, in some small way, something where there was previously nothing.
There is nothing new in Miller’s opinions about story-telling, nor in his application of storytelling techniques to make sense of life. What makes A Million Miles so popular is Miller’s sexy use of language. His brilliance is in his ability to talk about an idea in a way that makes us say, “Huh, why had I never thought of it like that before?” When we really sit and think about it, Miller’s ideas are rudimentary. Anyone who has allowed an adventure, a romance, or a story to actively change their lives has practiced Miller’s program. A Million Miles is successful because it employs a personal story, essentially an extended anecdote, to prescribe what we are already practicing on some level. Far from undermining the merits of the book, the ability speak plainly is a difficult task, and Miller’s capacity for straight-talk is a credit to him as a writer. His straitght-forward prose provokes us, in an accessible manner, to focus on parts of our own life-story that sometimes get relegated to our peripheral vision.
Yet not all is well in Miller-Land. Despite the auspices of being a personal narrative, Miller’s observations take on wider implications as they indict the everyday Christian’s lifestyle by diagnosing boredom as a prime cause of unhappiness. Given the wild popularity of Miller’s book, I suppose there is some truth to his claims. The danger, however, is in the romance of extremism that seeps from the pages. Miller appeals to a benevolent escapism, a type of leaving behind your boring, typical life. Some things should be left behind, but in Miller’s narrative we find a character who bounces back and forth between extremes in attempts to find himself. The actual finding of himself (which comes very late into the book) is surprisingly peripheral; rather, it is in the process of finding himself that Miller locates meaning. Miller even makes a point of saying that the beginning and the end of a story are not nearly as important as the middle, the phase of transformation. This is the root of his romance of extremism: Miller employs disproportional fluctuation to escape unfulfillment. In narrative, resolution is about synthesizing extremes, so it is unclear how a person in such a state of flux can avoid merely jumping back and forth between them.
Herein lays the danger of A Million Miles: It is an incomplete version of Catcher in the Rye with a Christian veneer on it, wielding narrative tools to get people to change their lives. Miller exhorts us to move from boredom to excitement, but the lack of a comprehensive idea of what either of these terms means opens the door for even more dissatisfaction, as people bounce back and forth between abstractions. Let’s be very clear: the process of transformation described in Miller’s book is not a bad thing. Story depends on it. Our growth as human beings depends in part on the changes that occur in our lives. Miller’s book becomes dangerous where it favors flux over resolution. It borders on being change for its own sake, which is an open door to the destabilization of personal identity. In short, Miller’s prescription risks a side-effect that may be worse than the original condition: one may go from being unfulfilled to being personally unrecognizable.
Miller’s book functions in its ability to reveal a latent beauty in our lives. Even so, everyday Christians should take caution against readily adding Miller’s method to their own life stories. Although there is a sort of sexiness to those ideas which are edgy, forthcoming, or in the common parlance, authentic, there is a perilous instability to these ideas. This does not mean that Miller’s book should not be read, only that it must be read with a careful eye for subtle messages and the maturity to entertain these ideas without immediately applying them.
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years exhorts us to a life of simple beauty, and a quiet peril. ‘