It’s not surprising that Donald Miller relates to the Bible through its stories. The author has always been intrigued with the art of storytelling—even more so since he was approached by director Steve Taylor to create a movie of his soul-searching memoir, Blue Like Jazz.
Adapting the memoir to a screenplay was a strange experience for Miller, especially when it came to writing the main character—essentially a younger version of himself. The process prompted another memoir, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. In it he writes, “It didn't occur to me at the time, but it’s obvious now that in creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about . . . I was creating someone I could live through, the person I’d be if I redrew the world, a character that was me but flesh and soul other. And flesh and soul better too.”
For Miller, analyzing his past self as a character is similar to analyzing characters in the Bible: “There aren’t a lot of perfect heroes in the text. You’ve got Peter betraying Christ, and Paul confronting Peter about whether or not Jews can be converted. But I love the confidence I have that God is with me, and I get a lot of that from Scripture. He’s been with these characters and He’s never left these characters.”
But in fall 2010, the Blue Like Jazz film project lost its funding. It looked like the film would not go into production, until fans of the book started a “Save Blue Like Jazz” campaign. They asked for donations on the crowd-sourcing website, Kickstarter.com, and within thirty days they had raised nearly $350,000—more than double the amount needed to complete filming. It was Kickstarter’s first movie project, and the highest grossing project by more than $100,000.
The filming of the movie began as soon as the fundraising effort ended in late October, 2010. More than four thousand people donated to the cause. Blue Like Jazz: The Movie is set to release in spring 2012.
It is safe to say that Miller’s ability to connect honestly with his readers is what saved the movie. Miller has built his following by being vulnerable—counting on his readers to relate his struggles in life, relationships, and spirituality with their own.
His permission to be honest comes from the Bible: “I think we have a wonderful biblical model of openness and vulnerability in life. I think we can be more honest with God. In my prayer life, I tell God how I feel. I’m not often angry with God anymore but I have no problem just saying, ‘God, this is confusing,’ or, ‘I want this thing that you don't want me to want.’ Or even, ‘Can I have it anyway?’ I enjoy that kind of honesty with the Lord, and I think He rewards that.”
“Why we can't be honest is sometimes confusing. I think we're safe. We're fine. I think we fear each other more than anything. We even fear God. We fear we're not going to heaven, or that God's going to ask someone else whether or not we should get in. But he's not going to ask, thank God. I've got people who don't like me, so I'm glad He's not going to ask anybody.”
For Miller, the Bible has even changed the way he writes. “It gives me permission to be a little more artistic in my expression as well. It is a genius book—apart from being the word of God—it's a genius piece of literature. It's just brilliant. I feel like that gives me permission to do what I do.
“There are books of the Bible that are so beautifully composed. Hebrews is one. And the Pentateuch is written so efficiently and so well. These are master craftsmen writing these books. It makes me feel like I shouldn’t just throw words on the page. Not that my books are going to be canonized. But I think God used craftsmen—he picked really good writers to put some of these books together. He’s a fan of literature.”
Miller says he reads the Bible “like a piece of literature,” freeing him to enjoy it. "Before I felt like I was researching—trying to prove something or defend something. Now I study it because I’m curious, so the actual study is more pleasure-oriented, I think. I find myself engaged in stories, especially if it’s from the Old Testament. And it’s become a more pleasurable experience.
“Reading the Bible is spending time with God. Sometimes I don’t exactly know what I’m learning about someone, but you learn things by interacting with people. So there’s a little bit of that sometimes when you read the Scriptures. It just sort of seeps into your subconscious.”
Miller readily admits that the Bible is not an easy book. “Scripture is an acquired taste. Many of the things that people enjoy they didn't enjoy at first. Remember when you first tasted coffee? I remember drinking coffee and thinking, ‘Why would anybody ever drink this?’
“But Scripture also helps us counter the other influences that come at us from culture—commercial influences, sexual influences, and these sorts of things.”
Often we expect a healthy spiritual life to come easily. Miller says, “I also think there’s so much fast food spirituality out there. And by fast food spirituality, I’m just talking about consumers—the attitude that says, ‘If I buy this it'll make me happy.’ The Bible doesn't really offer that. It offers a way for us to learn to be more content, as Paul would say.
“And Paul talks about the hope that we have—meaning that right now things may suck, but there’s hope for us. It helps me understand the reality better, where I think that a lot of marketing and commercialism wants me to escape reality into fantasy—a world that actually doesn't even exist.”
In A Million Miles, Miller writes, “I live in fantasies. I live terrific lives in my head. It’s part of the creative imagination, to daydream, to invent stories.” But the imagined universe in a storyteller’s head can morph into a substitute for something real: “It’s an odd feeling to be awakened from a life of fantasy. You stand there looking at a bare mantel and the house gets an eerie feel, as though it were haunted by a kind of nothingness . . . the absent glory of a life that could have been.”
The Bible offers a contrast to that. “The Bible's grounded in a world that exists. The way the world is apart from your fantasies, your imagination—this is how it actually is. And that is very comforting to me. And once we subscribe to life the way it is, we are free to be happy, right? You're not escaping anything.”
Jessi Gering is the editor of Raysd.
She lives, works, and writes in Bellingham, WA.