The overhead lights dim, and the talking quiets until only the crunching of popcorn and the rustlings of candy bags are heard. The projector revs up and displays the beginning of a tale on the oversized screen. Slowly, the entire audience is drawn into another world; another time and place, another story.
For many this entrance into another narrative is very welcome. Some describe the experience as escapism. Most would rather dwell in the stories on the screen than live in the drabness and weariness of their own; many of the watchers desire nothing more than to exit their own story and enter one with a better plot.
It is to this desire that Don Miller–with a little help from me*–has written his most recent book, “A Million Miles In A Thousand Years” (Thomas Nelson, hardcover, 288 pages, $19.99), which is set to be released September 29. If you don’t know too much about Don, he wrote a best-selling spiritual memoir–“Blue Like Jazz”–back in 2003, which figures prominently in his latest book.
This book is written in a disjointed way, similar to “Blue Like Jazz”. It’s essentially a collection of essays that chronicle Don’s thoughts and experiences over a period of a couple of years.
Some people aren’t fans of Don’s loose, stream-of-consciousness writing style. Like most popular authors he tends to attract some criticism along with the gobs of praise. Overall, you either like his style or you don’t; there isn’t much middle ground. Most people that like his style tend to love it.
I’m definitely in that group.
I believe Don communicates the mystery and beauty of God better than most writers today, particularly to the twenty- and thirty-somethings of the world.
In the opening sections of “A Million Miles”, two film producers contacted Don about making a movie based on his memoir. Talking with the producers, Don saw something that was somewhat distressing: while discussing how the potential movie would look, it became clear that the producers planned to significantly change details of Don’s life in order to make the movie more engaging and enjoyable.
They wanted to edit Don’s life.
This was disheartening, to say the least. The producers told him that his life, as it truly was, yielded an unremarkable story.
Being a writer himself, Don decided to step back and view his life from the cushy seats of a movie theater. He wondered how the quality of his life’s story would look to a stranger watching from the audience, a stranger who couldn’t see Don’s thoughts or hear his inner thinking. He wondered if what the producers were saying was true, if the life he was living wasn’t a good story.
This led to him to question what actually makes a good story. After being encouraged by one of the producers to attend a seminar on the concepts of “story” given by world-renown story expert Robert McKee, Don began to see that “the same principles that make a good story also make a good life.”
Through McKee, Don learned that the basic structure of a good story is one in which, “a character wants something and overcomes conflict to get it” and that the essential core is character transformation.
He then became intrigued by the idea that the elements that make a good story also make a good life. Don decides he needs to live a better story. And he uses the principles he learned to begin living one.
The rest of “A Million Miles” describes Don’s own attempts to live that better story, while also dipping into the lives of people Don encounters who are already living pretty good tales.
As soon as I finished the book, I began telling anyone I could that “A Million Miles” was probably the most life-changing book I’d read in a long time, maybe ever. Now, I understand that the phrase “life-changing” is tossed around quite often, and that it often describes a book with a quaint idea or story that is forgotten a year later when the next “life-changing” book comes around. I’m not using the phrase here as it’s commonly tossed around today.
By “life-changing” I mean that this book has and will affect the course of my life more than any other, if only because of the haunting questions it suggests:
Is what I’m doing right now contributing to the goodness of my life’s story?
Where I focus my energy, where I spend my time and money, what I dream my future to be—how much of these things are conducive to the story of richness I desire?
This book doesn’t offer a novel truism that makes you sigh, smile, and agree, but instead suggests a radical shift in the way you live your life.
It offers a dangerous way to live–dangerous because it threatens to destroy your comfortability and alter your future plans once you give your life over to an unpredictable tale.
So I use the phrase “life-changing” almost terrifyingly, not as a beautiful way to describe and recommend Don’s book but as a reluctant warning. It ‘wrecked’ my life in the best sense of the word.
I can think of few books that would be better for a college student or young adult who is wrestling with the major questions of life: What shall I major in? Where should I work? Where should I live? What should I do with my life?
Don answers without formulaic solutions to these questions, but with principles to help guide you; the principles of “story”.
The only qualms I had with Don’s writings didn’t materialize until weeks after finishing the book.
First, I felt Don neglected to point out the good stories hidden behind the simplest of appearances. For all the storylines in “A Million Miles” about hiking the Inca trail and building an orphanage overseas, Don didn’t detail the trying narrative of the working single mom, harnessing every ounce of energy she has simply to put her children through school. Or the young man who faced abuse and trials in childhood, who by simply making it to his cubicle each day completes an epic act of endurance.
I think Don missed that since we have warped hearts, the stories we appreciate in the movies may not be the greatest stories of all. Sometimes we glance over outstanding stories and dismiss them as petty when, in reality, the sacrifice and character formation trump even the greatest of silver-screen epics.
It can become very treacherous to believe that in order to live a great story you have to travel somewhere distant, spend a load of money, quit your job, or start an international organization. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus showed that sometimes the simplest people live the best stories of us all. The kid who shared his brownbagged-lunch one random day entered into a narrative that is still being told 2000 years later. Jesus surprisingly proclaimed that an ordinary soldier had more faith than anyone He had ever met.
Throughout history, many of the greatest saints and mystics lived lives that would look terrible on a movie screen. Many of their lives consisted of hours spent silently still in prayer. Most of them, however, lived great stories of the soul—which is the title of one famous saint’s autobiography.
Second, it is fairly easy to read Don’s words as deistic. Deism paints God as an abstract force that created the world, but who is now disinterested and disconnected from our everyday lives. He describes God as an author who has no control of his characters and who watches the story unfold as an interested, curious spectator.
Now, I strongly disbelieve that Don is a deist, but some of the concepts in this book lead to questions like the following:
Am I to create a worthy story on my own, with my own choices and my own plot?
Does God have a role he wants me play or am I making this whole thing up as I go?
I talked to my friend Trevor about this book and he pointed out the potential danger of trying to live a good story as Don suggests. If we try on our own to live a story that is pleasing to others, it becomes very easy to neglect the voice and intimacy of God. He remarked that the only way to truly live a good story is to listen for the voice of God and to be open to wherever his Spirit beckons us to go. That sounds simple and churchy to say, but requires much intentionality and discipline to do. Once I thought about that, I found myself agreeing with him.
Don correctly pointed out the richness and hurdles of intentional living. To radically live a good story you often have to flip your current lifestyle upside-down, or at least reorient its direction. But we need to be careful to live a good story with God instead of for him, and not to make a radical lifestyle change for the sake of itself.
Choosing to give away a ton of money to charity, moving to a distant place, or switching jobs on a whim can be adventurous and admirable. But it means nothing if while living a good story of your own design you reject the original author’s.
God doesn’t want to just watch your story; he wants to be your story.
God isn’t madly in love with the the role you play and the experiences you have; he’s crazy about you.
I would argue that in God’s eyes, the best story is one where the characters—us—are transformed into who they really are, namely sons and daughters of Him. You don’t need to travel halfway across the globe to do that; what you need is a willing heart, one that has tasted the love of God, and gropes for more.
Still, “A Million Miles” is a provocative wake-up call to many of us in America living listless lives. More than striving to live an impressive life on our own, however, we need to hear God’s beckoning voice, one which always leads to stories that are worth living.
Though I sometimes disagreed with Don on how to live a better story, the book’s premise that we can and should live better stories has immediately affected my daily life.
I find myself more liable to step out and do something risky for the sake of the deeper story, whether it be fighting for justice in my community, tracking down and meeting my greatest living heroes, or embracing the simple sacrifices of being a husband and a father. I’ve given up some things that previously took up huge parts of my life–fantasy football, certain activities–that in all honesty weren’t contributing to a worthy narrative.
All of those storylines are part of the one tale God is weaving through my life.
We each have the potential to live a grand story, one that is every bit as epic as the one playing on jumbo screens before popcorn-munching escapists.
The only thing left for us is to choose to live it.
* This is a joke, but a cool one at that.
P.S. Don’s roommate, Jordan, who appears in “A Million Miles” writes his thoughts on the book here.