Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years - Review

Back in January 2008 I came across an MP3 of Donald Miller speaking at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids from November 2007. The title of his talk was Story, in which he discussed some of the lessons he learned about life and faith as he had been working with two friends on coming up with a screenplay for his book Blue Like Jazz which they were trying to adapt to a movie. I have to say that his talk was very insightful and that I have revisited it many times since. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life is a much more in-depth fleshing out of the premise he set forth on that talk.

A Million Miles begins with Don being approached by a filmmaker named Steve who wants to turn his now famous memoir Blue Like Jazz into a feature length film. Miller takes him up on the offer and then the work of getting the story right begins in earnest as Don, Steve, and a cinematographer named Ben spend many days and nights in front of white boards in Miller’s living room struggling to adapt ideas from the book into a story that will work on screen. Miller doesn’t initially realize what he is getting into and just how painful this process will be as it begins to reveal his own insecurities about himself and more fundamentally the story he has settled for in his own life.

For all intents and purposes Donald Miller was living a good life. He had seen great success as a writer with Blue Like Jazz and several other books he had written since and yet as he started studying about the elements of great stories and characters he came to the conclusion that he wasn’t living a very good story. This epiphany began to eat at him as he realized that he had settled into a life that lacked any kind of ambition for anything larger than his own comfort.

A Million Miles is the story about how he began to find his heart again, of how he began moving towards living in a bigger story that is not simply about comfort and security but of connecting with others and doing something good with his life. The book chronicles various “practice stories” as he calls them from hiking the Incan Trail in Peru to connecting with the father he hadn’t seen in over thirty years to a bike trip across the country. Miller calls these mini-adventures practice stories because he realizes that there is still a greater story that he is being called to live in, but with each practice story and all of the accompanying physical and emotional pain that it brings something happens within Don to make him into a better character within the story.

While I don’t want to spoil the book by revealing many of the parts in detail, I will say that this book was a truly inspirational read. I almost hate using the word inspirational because it reminds me of Hallmark cards and Christian book stores and this book was certainly not inspirational in that kind of way. It was inspiring for other reasons though. Miller’s struggles, of which he is very open, without slipping into self-absorbed narcissism, are the kinds of things we all struggle with- love, work, being authentic, and wanting to do something good with one’s life. He doesn’t deal with these struggles as someone who is trying to fix himself, or others for that matter but as someone who is simply trying to head in a better direction. His writing is very accessible with an ability to connect with folks in a number of different situations. Miller writes as one who has come to terms with his own smallness and yet who has seen a vision of a better place in which the journey is not contingent on talent, or money, or fame but a simple willingness to put the remote control down and get off the couch and start living. It is this simply accessible idea that makes the reader want to join him because the on-ramps are right in front of each of us.

As one who loves to write and create myself, I found that reading this book made me not only want to live in a better story myself but to start writing more. Reading this book had the same affect on me that I’ve noticed when I’ve been to concerts by a select few bands over the years. While there are plenty of great bands to catch live there are very few that make me want to quit everything I’m doing for a bit to start playing music and writing songs. Miller’s book had this effect on me concerning writing. Reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years was the type of read that makes me want to write.

How our world needs more books like this that hit on faith and life from a different angle than that typical of theologians and Bible teachers. Donald Miller doesn’t seem to be trying to teach anybody anything or even make any grand theological statements. He is just sharing a bit of his story of trying to live a better story with us, but as he points out in this book—a story, a good story, is a very powerful thing indeed.

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