(originally published in Christian Courier, January 24, 2011)
Initially I was disappointed in Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. His first successful book, Blue Like Jazz (2003), a New York Times bestseller, was delightfully honest and funny. His follow-up book, Searching For God Knows What (2004) was similarly honest, humorous and literate. In comparison, A Million Miles in A Thousand Years struck me as dumbed-down. Simpler prose, fewer literary references, a quieter wit.
It’s a good thing I read the book twice, because my first impression wasn’t really fair. In his characteristic no-holds-barred way, Miller applies the elements of story as a rubric to test the credibility of his faith. A film producer has made him an offer. He wants to make a movie about Donald’s life. Says Miller, “I was going to tell him I needed a couple of weeks to consider the idea, but then he said how much he’d pay me, so I told him I’d do it.” In working with the filmmakers, Donald discovers that his life is boring. He learns that character transformation is the point of a story, but also the point of life itself. He concludes that his own life’s story has stalled along the way. Despite renown as an author, he is forced to confront “the absent glory of a life that could have been.”
Donald attends the funeral of his uncle and begins to unravel what’s missing. His uncle, who had devoted his life to helping young men in trouble, had lived a life beyond himself: “his life was like the roots of a tree that went miles around its trunk and came up in my cousins, in their faces and their voices and their character. I didn’t think you could kill a tree that big.”
Spurred by the movie project, Donald undertakes some “inciting incidents” in his own life to notch up his own story. Conquering his deep-seated reluctance and dread, he re-connects with the father who abandoned him. He hikes the physically-challenging pilgrimage route up Maachu Pichu in Peru and reflects on how pain develops character. The many Incas who gave their lives to build the city infused it with an even greater grandeur than it would have had without such tremendous sacrifice: “The pain made the city more beautiful. The story made us different characters than if we’d showed up at the ending a different way. It made me think about the hard lives so many people have had, the sacrifices they’d endured, and how those people will see heaven differently from those of us who have had easier lives.”
Eventually, with fifteen other individuals, Donald takes on a 3000 mile cross-country bike marathon in support of fresh water wells for Africa. This, too, becomes another chapter in plotting a more intentional and better story for himself. He falls in love and experiences a heart-wrenching breakup. He walks beside a friend who loses his wife to cancer. At the conclusion of his “story,” Donald inaugurates an ambitious urban outreach program for fatherless children called The Mentoring Project.
Miller’s candour won me over once again. Targeting his postmodern peers, Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years embeds a solid Christian perspective ever-so-casually into a non-doctrinaire conversation. But his conclusions speak to me, too, the not-so-modern baby boomer. “If I have a hope,” he writes, “it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as if to say, Enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you. That doesn’t sound so different, after all, from one of my favourite T.S.Eliot quotes: “The Lord who created must wish us to create / And employ our creation again in His service / Which is already his service in creating.” (Choruses from ‘the Rock’).