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February 2nd, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Portland writer Donald Miller is selling books, wowing fans-and fighting to shake up Christianity as we know it.

     
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Don Miller sits at Crema, a sleek coffeeshop at Southeast 28th Avenue and Ankeny Street, his cell phone buzzing every few minutes. A magazine photographer is scrambling to reschedule a shoot for that afternoon. The 33-year-old author, who has an expressive, oversized little-boy face, isn't exactly pin-up material. His haircut looks like a squall just passed through. He wears a rumpled blue sweater and battered jeans.

In the circles he travels, though, this guy is a star.

Since 2003, Miller's memoir Blue Like Jazz has sold 150,000 copies and counting. (By way of comparison, Will in the World, the hot new Shakespeare bio, has sold about the same number.) Miller's follow-up, Searching for God Knows What, just hit the shelves.

Each day, Miller fields four or five requests for speaking appearances; he says he's on the road about 60 percent of the time. He's off to Nashville in a few days and also has gigs scheduled at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and Harvard. This spring in Toronto, a live stage version of Blue Like Jazz will debut.

National rep aside, Miller's a Portland writer to the core. His nonfiction, first-person stories take place in this city's taverns, cafes, streets, parks and colleges. His moody, meandering style is pitch-perfect young Rose City bohemian prose. His cast of characters draws heavily on Portland's deep pool of oddballs.

Yet he isn't exactly the toast of Portland's literary scene. Powell's sells his paperbacks by the score, but he has never made an appearance at the City of Books. Multnomah County Library can't keep his books on the shelves (at press time, all 15 copies of Blue Like Jazz and all 17 copies of Searching for God Knows What were checked out), but no local newspaper (including this one) has reviewed it.

How come? Simple: Miller's a Christian. Half his sales are through religious bookstores. The afternoon photo shoot is for a slick magazine called Relevant, basically a hybrid of Spin and Entertainment Weekly aimed at the youth-ministry set. At Harvard, he'll address the Veritas Forum, a gathering of Christian intellectuals. In Toronto, he's speaking at a Christian college so small even he hasn't heard of it. The stage version of his book will run at "faith-based" venues in Canada's biggest city.

The weird thing is, Miller is not just a religious fish out of Portland's hyper-secular water. He's also an oddity among Christian authors. Some Christians don't care for him one bit. "I truly believe that Blue Like Jazz is in large part a heresy masquerading as Christianity," says Vince Bissey, one of Miller's most vociferous online critics.

His fans, however, love him. They've made his writing a hit largely on the strength of word of mouth, blogs and the grapevine that links scattered bands of rebel evangelicals across the country. Indeed, for a Christian writer, Miller's raising a lot of hell.

Christian publishing is, by some estimates, the fastest-growing segment of the book biz. According to the Association of American Publishers, sales of religious titles jumped 37 percent in 2003 and increased again last year. Though the field accounts for just 5 percent of total book sales, it's responsible for the lion's share of overall growth in sales to adults.

Beyond endless repackaging of the Bible and commentaries on Scripture, the industry has a couple of sweet spots. The first is Christian fiction. The genre even has its own Grishams. Collaborators Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' "Left Behind" series of over-the-top apocalyptic thrillers has sold more than 55 million copies and spawned a brood of spinoffs. In the Left Behind books, Jesus personally tosses nonbelievers into a lake of fire, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations is the Antichrist. Literally.

Christian publishing's other mainstay is self-help. Christian bookstores (and the growing "spirituality" sections of secular stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble) overflow with books that promise Bible-based formulae for success and serenity, with subtitles like "Seven Steps to Living Your Best Life Now" or "Breaking Through to the Blessed Life." The king of them all is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, which has occupied the New York Times bestseller list for 106 weeks and can be found stacked in ziggurats at Costcos and Wal-Marts across the land.

Don Miller's stuff is different.

It's not that his work isn't Christian. His books revolve around his faith. He rhapsodizes for pages and pages about what Eden must have been like before the Fall. His new book, Searching for God Knows What, is dense with Scriptural references. Blue Like Jazz, his big hit, is an aching, sincere story of his personal faith journey: boy meets Jesus, boy loses Jesus, boy meets Jesus again.

"I don't really deal with doubt anymore," Miller says. "I just don't."

On the other hand, Miller has many surprises in store for anyone looking to pigeonhole him. One passage of Blue Like Jazz recounts a scuffle with Portland cops at anti-Bush protests. Many of the conversations in his books take place over beers at the Horse Brass Pub. He describes watching penguins screw in wildlife documentaries as a spiritually enlightening experience. He recounts how, as an angsty Houston adolescent, he once renounced God while listening to the Smiths' song "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" and vandalizing a carwash. His first book was about taking off from Texas in a VW bus and ending up in a hippie encampment in the Oregon woods with a bunch of guys who were, as he says now, "brushing their teeth with beer."

All this makes Miller an extremely unlikely entrant into the Christian publishing sweepstakes. His following is equally unusual. Last month, he gave a reading at an old Nashville theater "sort of comparable to the Bagdad." The line started forming two hours before Miller went on stage, stretching around the block. The theater canceled its late movie so he could give a second reading.

To hear him tell it, though, those fans weren't exactly looking for a guru.

"Everyone just wants to have a beer," Miller says. "I could be an alcoholic for free if I lived in the South."

Miller's success doesn't quite have Tim LaHaye looking nervously over his shoulder, but it has changed life for a guy who says he used to end up praying for rent money at the end of each month. He still lives in a communal house off Burnside with four other guys, but he drives a newish Saab. With two books coming out in the next year and a freshly inked deal for two more, he knows for the first time that writing will be his job for a while. None of it, he says, is according to plan.

"I figured Blue Like Jazz would sell about 5,000 copies," he says. "When my agent was sending it out, I told her, 'Hey, we have a moral obligation to tell people this won't sell.'"

Miller was once an enthusiastic Young Republican who forged credentials just so he could hang out inside the 1992 GOP convention in Houston. Now he's a Green-turned-Democrat with a link to MoveOn.org on his website. And he is also the only writer in the cosmos who jump-started a career in Christian publishing by going to Reed College, a school where the unofficial motto is "Atheism, Communism, Free Love."

In 2001, Miller found himself living a somewhat disgruntled existence. He'd moved to Portland in the early '90s, in part because it offered a different cultural universe than Houston, where he grew up Southern Baptist. His first book had stiffed and gone out of print. He'd quit his job as a youth minister at a suburban church ("It was like going to church at the Gap," he wrote in Blue Like Jazz).

Tony Kriz, a Gospel-debating buddy whose pointy Bolshevik goatee and intense intellectual bearing earned him the alias "Tony the Beat Poet" in Miller's books, helped convince the stalled-out writer to audit a humanities class at Reed. Soon, the pair took charge of Reed's microscopic campus Christian ministry-a project roughly comparable to convincing NFL linemen to take up cricket.

The group (dubbed Oh, For Christ's Sake) organized trips to homeless shelters on one hand, round-tables on "the darkness of the human heart" on the other. During Renn Fayre, Reed's notoriously debauched end-of-term celebration, Oh, For Christ's Sake set up a "reverse confessional" so students could hear about the sins of the church.

"There would be, like, three Christians in a group of 30," Kriz recalls. "We were trying to show kids that Christianity valued what they valued, because that's certainly not how most people saw it. And I think Don suddenly felt like he had something to write about."

Miller remembers his epihany a little differently-"I ran out of money and thought, 'Hmm, maybe I should write again,'" he says.

Blue Like Jazz is, in the Seinfeldian sense, a book about nothing. Or more accurately, it's a wildly wandering coming-of-age-story, with segues into religious meditations. (Miller also confesses a crush on the bisexual songwriter Ani DiFranco.)

This weird mix struck a nerve, becoming the kind of book people buy for six or a dozen friends. Some of its devotees are natural spiritual searchers. "It's almost easier to tell people you're into witchcraft these days than to tell them you're a Christian," says Houston's Kelly Ann Hall, an ex-Wiccan who's now a sort of avant-garde Baptist. "The way Don talks about his faith helped me think, 'It's OK to believe this way.'"

Most people who love Don Miller seem to be more conventional Christians who feel cast adrift in the conservative megachurch world. "I think most of my readers are disenfranchised evangelicals," Miller says. "They've been going to church and voting Republican all their lives, but it's not working for them anymore."

"Beneath the evangelical power crust, a lot of stuff is bubbling," says Jess Bielman, the campus ministry director at Warner Pacific College, a tiny Bible school on Mount Tabor where many students read Miller. "Miller taps right into that. And sarcasm is underappreciated in the Christian world."

From the outside, evangelical Christianity looks like a right-wing monolith right now: bolstering Bush, crushing gay marriage, waging abortion jihad, saving America's children from SpongeBob SquarePants.

Miller's success is evidence something else is afoot. Locally, the author is part of a loose network of evangelical thinkers who are trying, as another says, "to talk about faith without sounding like assholes." In Portland and nationally, a new breed of churches often labeled "emergent" is carving out an alternative to the suburban megachurch.

For example, there's Miller's own church, Imago Dei, founded by an ex-college football player named Rick McKinley. The pastor calls people "bro," sports a goatee and talks in a drowsy, stoned-frat-boy drawl. His church, which has gone from meeting in his living room to holding three crowded services a day at the Old Laurelhurst Church, emphasizes art, music and social activism. Like many emergent churches, it draws a young, hipster-flavored crowd.

"The emergent church is the product of a bunch of people coming to similar conclusions at the same time," says Bob Hyatt, the 35-year-old pastor of the Evergreen Community, an emergent church that meets every Sunday at the Lucky Lab pub in Multnomah Village. "We're not going to ignore 2,000 years of Christian history, but we're not going to do what our parents or grandparents did just because."

The fact that so many young kids love a book like Blue Like Jazz and question the evangelical church's direction makes some people very uncomfortable.

Some of Miller's critics go after him for theological reasons. Vince Bissey, the Missouri Presbyterian who vehemently criticized Blue Like Jazz, believes Miller gets the Bible dead wrong when he writes, for example, that "something inside me…caused Him to love me." Bissey, who's entering seminary training next year, believes God loves humanity despite humanity's total lack of worthiness. "I really believe there can only be one correct view," he says.

And then there's politics.

"What Miller says about Christian conservatives," says Michael Spencer, a Kentucky pastor and popular Christian blogger, "will just peel the hair off those of us who voted for Bush."

On one of the unseasonably springlike days at the end of January, Miller and I meet at a Starbucks. He has just returned from his trip to Nashville; a few days later, he'll hit the road again. After this spring, he says he plans to cut back on his speaking schedule. He has a lot of writing to do.

A rewrite of his first book, the commercially unsuccessful road memoir that appeared before Blue Like Jazz, will be published in August (see "Don Miller's Books," page 25). A book about growing up without a father-Miller compares the tone to the maniacally wry gay humorist David Sedaris-will follow next February.

Portland is usually considered one of the most godless cities in the country. Only about 12 percent of its citizens attend services. Miller, however, seems remarkably attuned to a city where, yoga retreats aside, the majority seems content to ignore religion.

"I think this is a wonderful place to live," he says, while adding, "there's probably more intolerance towards Christians than there is toward any other group-but not that much intolerance. I don't feel oppressed. I don't feel discriminated against."

One of his big plans, in fact, is to make the Rose City the hub of a national network of unconventional Christian writers, which he's calling the Burnside Writers Collective. There's Chris Seay, the pastor at ex-witch Kelly Hall's church in Houston, author of books called The Gospel According to Tony Soprano and The Tao of Enron; McKinley, pastor of Miller's own congregation, Imago Dei, will publish Jesus in the Margins this fall. Miller is characteristically self-effacing, calling plans to coordinate the promotion of a select bunch of writers through a website "a bait-and-switch operation, a cynical effort to sell more books."

"I just want to provide a way to get some like-minded thinkers together and say, 'If you like my book, you'll really like their books,'" he says. "There's a huge desire out there to say, 'This is what our faith can look like if you approach it in a different way.'"

As different as Miller is from the stereotypical evangelical, make no mistake: Miller's no poseur.

At Starbucks, after I close my notebook, Miller looks at me. "So you've been talking to people, working on your stories," he says. "Has anyone explained to you what the Gospel is?"

I say, no, not in so many words.

"I could give you the sales pitch," he says. "Because maybe, who knows, 10 years down the road…"

Then Miller proceeds, in the most low-key and friendly way, to explain that God loves me, wants to have a relationship with me-and, for that matter, everyone. The relationship was damaged in the Garden, but Christ came to earth to fix it. The invitation, Miller says, is always open.

"That's one of the hardest things to do, to share your faith," Miller says when he's done. "I mean, especially with a journalist, someone you know could just hang you out to dry.

"So that's it," he says. "Plus, you have to vote Republican. Did I mention that?"

Don Miller's Books

Blue Like Jazz (2003). Miller says he wrote this freeform spiritual memoir under the influence of Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. "She's like the only Christian writer who can just drop an F-bomb every few pages, and no one notices," Miller says. Subtitled "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality," Blue Like Jazz traces Miller's spiritual evolution, from right-wing Southern Baptist to Reed College campus minister. "At church they told us we were children of God," he writes of his childhood, "but I knew God's family was better than mine, that He had a daughter who was a cheerleader and a son who played football." Later in the book, when he goes to Reed, most of his evangelical friends are alarmed: "Some of the Christians in Portland talk about Reed College as if it is hades…. [W]hen I told them I wanted to audit classes at Reed they looked at me as if I wanted to date Satan." The penguin sex comes later.

Searching for God Knows What (2004). Miller's most recent book is both more political and more complex than Blue Like Jazz. It delves into psychology and literary theory; contains some heavy-duty theology; aliens visit earth; the first chapter is Kurt Vonnegut-esque fiction. Miller says the book, unlike Blue Like Jazz, confronts the evangelical audience. "[T]he Jesus that is a collection of evangelical personalities," he writes, "is often a Jesus of the suburbs, a Jesus who wants you to be a better yuppie, a Jesus who is extremely political and supports a specific party, a Jesus who has declared a kind of culture war in the name of our children…Is this the real Jesus?"

Through Painted Deserts (August 2005). Before Blue Like Jazz, Miller debuted with a memoir called Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance. The book recounted a road trip he took when he was 21, starting in Houston and ending in a hippie encampment in Oregon. The original version went out of print in less than a year; he's rewriting it, giving it a new title and the subtitle "Finding God on the Open Road."

To Own a Dragon (February 2006). Miller is collaborating with Bible scholar John MacMurray on this book about growing up without a father.

A Map of Eden (2006?). Miller's next from-scratch solo book project will be nonfiction, but just barely. "I'm inventing a character named Adam," he says, "who thinks he's the reincarnation of the original Adam. He's so mad about what humanity's doing to the Garden of Eden, he's become an ecoterrorist."


Donald Miller's website is www.bluelikejazz.com .

Miller says of his move from Houston to Portland, "It sounds stupid, but Powell's Books was about 75 percent of the reason I moved here. I lived in Gresham and I would take the MAX in every day, sit in the coffeeshop and read for free. But, hey, I've paid 'em back!"

Miller and a buddy bluffed their way into the 1992 Republican Convention by telling officials at the convention hotel that they were Ohio delegates and had lost their credentials.

Miller says the fate of his mom's Enron-based 401(k) played a role in his political conversion. "She's lost 95 percent of her retirement, she's working two jobs, and Bush is denying he's friends with Ken Lay," he says. "And I'm like, you really don't care about us, do you?"

Imago Dei's website is www.imagodeicommunity.com .

Evergreen's website is www.evergreenlife.org .

For more on the "emergent" church, see www.emergentvillage.com .

Blogger Michael Spencer writes at www.internetmonk.com . Despite their political differences, he's a fan of Miller's writing. "I've been reading Christian literature all my life," says the 48-year-old Kentuckian. "I think that a guy like him getting published at all is significant."

Miller's new group of like-minded writers can be found at www.burnsidewriterscollective.com . Imago Dei pastor Rick McKinley's book Jesus in the Margins will be published by the Sisters-based press Multnomah Publishers.

 
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