Donald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What begins with an anecdote that sums up some of what I like best and what I like least in his writing. In this opening story, Miller goes to a Christian writers’ workshop to get some tips on the novel he’s working on. His analysis of the other conference attendees and speakers (whom he describes as “Very small people … mostly women”) is funny, but also annoyingly patronizing and chauvinistic, as in the following passage:
“The lady sitting next to me was writing a wonderful series of Christian devotionals for girls who were taking ballet classes, and the lady on the other side of me was writing a series of devotionals you could read while drinking tea. When she told me this, a lady in front of us turned around and smiled because she was working on a series of devotionals you could read while drinking coffee. I told them their books sounded terrific, because it is true that some people like tea and some people like coffee, and for that matter, some people dance in ballets.”
It’s that dismissive tone that gets my back up, the hip, edgy young male passing judgement on this group of middle-aged Christian women, prioritizing his understanding of God and of the calling of a Christian writer above theirs. But the joke is at least partly on Donald Miller; he reveals that he was not only unaware that this was a seminar for nonfiction writers, but that he wasn’t entirely clear on the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. One of the small Christian “ladies” had to explain that to him.
So there you have my issues with Donald Miller in a nutshell: he can be a little arrogant and dismissive of Christians who aren’t as cool as he is, but he’s also self-deprecating enough to undercut that, which allows me to tolerate him. The central thesis of Searching for God Knows What stems from this experience at the (non-fiction) Christian writers’ seminar: Miller concluded that while many writers of Christian devotionals and self-help books (and, by extention, many pastors and teachers) are interested in packaging Christianity as an easy-to-follow formula for personal success, the Bible doesn’t fit that formula neatly. Rather, he suggests, the Bible is a complicated and messy book that can only be understood relationally, rather than formulaically, and that the relationship into which it leads us is one that is not likely to make us successful by society’s standards.
Miller goes on to explore his own rejection of his childhood faith — a religion of rules and formulae, as he sees it now — and how he replaced it with a relationship with God. He is very comfortable with uncertainty and messiness in his faith, which I find encouraging. However, it seems from the book that that messiness has definite boundaries: he writes about the Bible from what is clearly a conservative evangelical perspective, even if he’s obviously speaking from the more “emergent” end of that spectrum. He introduces without question some very conservative assumptions about the Biblical text, such as the idea that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, without question or debate. If you grilled him on this, Miller might say that whether Moses was literally the author is irrelevant to the point he’s interested in exploring, but his discussion of the Bible does seem rooted in a very traditional evangelical, though not fundamentalist, understanding of how the Scriptural texts were written and compiled.
Scholars, and for that matter the people who listen to scholars, are not Miller’s primary audience here. He seems to be speaking most directly to Christians who have bought into a particular cultural interpretation of what Christianity is and how it works (specifically, I think, an interpretation shared by politically and socially right-wing American evangelicals) in an attempt to broaden their perspective by re-evaluating who Jesus was and what the Bible really says. Central to this part of Miller’s message is his “lifeboat theory,” in which he suggests that most of us human beings are primarily concerned with evaluating others in terms of their status, and with increasing our own status. He makes the not-very-shocking suggestion that Jesus wasn’t too concerned with society’s measures of status, and then proceeds to make that practical by suggesting ways in which we as Christians can opt out of the status game, too.
Depending on who you are, what you’ve been reading, and to whom you’ve been listening, Miller’s message may strike you either as radical and revolutionary (which I’m pretty sure is how he’d like it to come across) or blindingly obvious. If, like me, you find yourself in the latter category, you may be disappointed that he has nothing strikingly new to add to this message, but you may still find the informal, intimate, anecdote-driven style in which he delivers that message engaging and readable. Just remember, if you happen to be a middle-aged female Christian writer (like me), you may need to deal with a few of your own status issues before engaging with this uber-cool, ironic, emergent young male author.