Column: Donald Miller's Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

(Wikipedia) :: Supporters say Donald Miller's authentic, graceful approach to God has finally given a voice to their brand of Christianity.

Updated: 1/17/2008


Donald Miller still loves God and Jesus. Don't misunderstand him.

His problem is with Christianity, at least how it's often practiced.

''It's a dangerous term so I try to avoid it,'' said Miller, who considered giving up his career as a Christian writer and leaving the church in 2003 because he couldn't attend services without getting angry.

For him, the word conjured up conservative politics, suburban consumerism and an ''insensitivity to people who aren't like us.'' He sat in his boxer shorts and banged out a memoir of his experiences with God, stripped of the trappings of religion.

''Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality'' sold just enough to pay a few months rent. Then five years later, spurred by a grass-roots movement of 20-something Christians longing to connect to God without ties to the religious right, the book became a sudden hit.

Fans were buying caseloads and passing out copies to friends. It peaked at No. 18 on The New York Times list of best-sellers among paperback nonfiction in November. He was mobbed by fans after a recent Young Life conference in Orlando where he addressed a crowd of roughly 4,000.

Christians tired of the ''life is perfect'' mantra of some churches, revel in his ability to talk unashamedly about smoking pot, living in a hippie commune and the notion that God isn't a Republican.

Supporters say Miller's authentic, graceful approach to God has finally given a voice to their brand of Christianity. The book also debuted at a time when the emerging church movement — which emphasizes the individual's faith experience and varied worship styles — is flourishing, signaling a fertile audience for such religious musings among more socially liberal evangelicals.

Watching TBN one night on TV, Miller, 36, realized the conservative religious network was many people's baseline for Christianity. He wanted to change that.

''These people are absurd. I've been a Christian all my life and I don't even know Christians this weird,'' said the Portland, Ore.-based writer, who is single.

In his book, Miller describes his disdain for the us vs. them mentality between Christians and non-Christians.

''I felt, once again, that there was this underlying hostility for homosexuals and Democrats and, well, hippie types. I cannot tell you how much I did not want liberal or gay people to be my enemies. I liked them,'' he wrote. ''The real issue in the Christian community was that (love) was conditional ... You were loved in word, but there was, without question, a social commodity that was being withheld from you until you shaped up.''

Dave Morton was also growing cold on the church when he picked up Miller's book.

''The perspective that was refreshing to me was that your Christian faith doesn't have to look exactly like everybody's else's,'' said Morton, a 28-year-old ski instructor from Bend, Ore. ''It kind of inspired me to pursue God again with a fresh perspective.''

Brad Jones, a 30-year-old youth pastor at a conservative Southern Baptist Church in South Florida, said he felt alone in his desire for more authentic dialogue about God.

''My thoughts on faith aren't really going along with everyone else and then I read this and said, 'That's what I've been thinking the whole time,''' he said.

Miller's book embraces cultural relevance, not cultural dominance, he said.

''The typical judgmental, hate-filled, bigoted, more people knew what we were against than what we were for,'' mentality has little to do with the real God, Jones said.

Some experts say Miller and authors like him are in sync with a generation of young adults who very much believes in God, Jesus and the basics of Christianity, but are struggling to balance their conservative Christian upbringings with a culture that embraces a go-along-to get-along philosophy.

''People like Donald Miller are speaking almost like a prophet of a new age and describing the landscape in a way people who feel comfortable in that landscape really couldn't articulate before,'' said David Kinnaman, a researcher for The Barna Group and author of ''Unchristian.''

Critics call Miller's works casual and glib and say he strays from biblical truths when he downplays homosexuality and other sins.

One such critic, Shane Walker, says Miller presents Jesus as a ''nice fellow who meets one at the campfire and swaps stories.'' He forgets to remind readers that Jesus is also a judge and avenger who ''wants to save you from his just wrath,'' according to his review for 9Marks, an organization designed to help local churches re-establish their biblical bearings.

Miller, who is almost disappointingly normal looking in jeans and a blue button-down shirt, says ''toeing the party line for the church is not my job; telling the truth is my job. I don't fear saying that certain Republican policies are painful for God to endure.''

Miller has sold more than a million books, including ''Searching for God Knows What,'' and republished his first book, ''Through Painted Deserts,'' which sold dismally before his ''Blue Like Jazz'' fame. He also travels much of the year for speaking engagements.

''When I wrote this book I felt like I was stuffing a message in a bottle,'' Miller said.

Like the old Police song, Miller's beach is now flooded with responses.

''There's this connection of 'Hey, we're not alone in this boat.'''

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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