Authority and History: Reflections on Reading Donald Miller

Earlier this summer, in the course of research and reading for a writing project I am working on I decided to read some Donald Miller. Having made a name for himself during the emerging church movement in the early to mid 2000s with his bestseller Blue Like Jazz, Miller has published sever works since then. Though none of them received the popularity of Blue Like Jazz, which was made into an indie film in 2012. Two of Miller’s books seemed like they would have some relevance to the topic I am studying: Father Fiction and Scary Close. In the name of full disclosure, I find Miller’s writings to be like eating fast food. When I was younger, I enjoyed grazing the pseudo-deep navel gazing of Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. My tastes, I believe, have been refined to a more well balanced and nutritious diet. However, on occasion I spot a book by Miller on sale and think I wonder what he is up to. By the time I finish the book I have been well reminded of why I had been abstaining from them. While fast food has the tendency to upset my stomach, Miller has the tendency to upset what we might metaphorically call the gut. The reason for this is some inconsistencies and errors that, really, we are all capable of, but that are troubling. For the remainder of this post I want to point out a few issues I took with Father Fiction and Scary Close, comment on why they are troubling and important, and mention how Miller’s books might admonish us. Before getting into it too far, I should say that I do not intend this post to be insulting or defaming. I do not know Miller and I have never met him, but by his straight-forward account he is a Christian, a brother-in-Christ, and thus I do not wish attack him (not that I would wish to if he were not a Christian), but since he made these thoughts and reflections public, I believe it is within the realm of what we might call “fair play” to make some criticism about them in the hopes that they may be helpful to some. I apologize if you are a fan of Miller and are upset by this post. It is not my desire to offend, but to honestly assess a published work.

  • Confusion of Man and Male and Theological Reflection

I took up these books in the course of a project I am currently working on on masculinity, Scary Close was recommended to me by a friend and Amazon suggested Father Fiction to me after the purchase of the other. Father Fiction had some useful stuff in it, after all one of the biggest causes of the current state of masculinity according to sociologists is the increasing lack of fathers in homes. However, when it came to defining manhood Miller utterly dropped the ball:

I had to accept the terms “man,” “manliness,” and “manhood” as biological terms, and while the sales tactics played on emotions, what I had to focus on was facts. Here’s what I mean: I was asked to speak to a group of nine hundred guys a couple of years ago. They were in high school, mostly, so I started the session by asking the group what a real man was. “How would you define a real man?” I asked the group, all of them sitting quietly. A hand slowly went up. “A real man is somebody who provides for his family,” the kid said, rather sheepishly. “Okay, that is good,” I confirmed. “That is something a ‘good’ man does, but I don’t think you have to do that to be a real man. Anybody else?” “A real man is honest; he doesn’t lie!” a kid shouted out. “Very good. But again, I would say this is something a good man does, but not a qualifier for what makes a man a man. Who else wants to play?”… “Okay,” I said, “Take out a sheet of paper, because I am going to give you the definition of a real man. And you are going to want to come back to this over the next several years, because there are going to be times when you will wonder whether you are a real man, and here is a sure way to find out… Let me give you God’s definition of a real man. I have searched through the Bible, and I have thought a great deal about it, and I think I have come up with the perfect qualifier. If you have this thing, then, according to God, you are a real man…. God’s definition of a real man … is … a person… with… a penis!”  (pp. 88-90).

Miller creates a confusion by erasing the distinction between the words “man” and “male”. Male is a biological distinction. Just consider the how a doctor might describe a new born baby. He would say “the child is a boy” or “the child is a male”. The doctor would not say, however, “the child is a man”. This statement is also curious to me considering that Miller assures his audience (and thus his readers) that he has “searched through the Bible, and I have thought a great deal about it, and I think I have come up with the perfect qualifier.” In his searching, however, he must then have missed David’s admonition to Solomon and Paul’s challenge to the church at Corinth:

“I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn, (1 Kings 2:2-3 ESV)

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 ESV)

Missing these statements may seem like merely a minor oversight at first blush, after all Miller only failed to notice a few verses in a book that is over a thousand pages long. Well first of all his comment implies careful study, which he clearly did not do and thus he runs into a pretty big issue. The problem, simply put, is that these are among the only times that the Bible uses the word ‘man’ to mean something other than ‘mankind’. Theses verses are central to any study of masculinity. To test if Miller’s qualifier works we, based on the law of identity if your wondering, just need to stick it into the sentence where the word ‘man’ or ‘men’ appear. But the phrase “show yourself to be a person with a penis” or “act like a person with a penis” doesn’t quiet communicate the same thing as the verse does it.

Humor aside, this is a critical mistake and reflects much of the source of complaint that conservative theologians level at Miller. Put succinctly, Miller’s understand of theological reflection seems to be limited to spotty Bible reading and pure assumption. Father Fiction is full of Miller’s reflections on struggling to with authority figures and healing the wounds made by his father. As such what it seems Miller is searching for then is a fatherly voice to tell him he is alright, to affirm him, especially to affirm his masculinity. Miller finds this affirmation in the wrong place, we ought to find our affirmation not in the present state of our fallen masculinity (especially not by linking it to mere biology), but ought to find affirmation in the adoption and election of God the Father (Ephesians 1) and thus be encourage and admonished to (as every boy wants to) strive to reflect our Father’s character in our own lives—thus attaining true masculinity. I would love to say more here, but I have already spent too much time dwelling on this point.

  • Neglecting Church History, Church Authority, and Church Community

Miller is a curious guy. I have to remind myself to cut him slack because he might not realize the things that I know since I studied them in seminary. But I am always curious how he can both affirm and completely neglect church history. For example Miller writes the following:

[In relation to authority] I started thinking about the wisdom that is handed down when we have authority figures in our lives. We learn a trade by submitting to authority, we learn a work ethic by submitting to authority, we gain an academic life by submitting to authority, and more than any of this, we learn who we actually are by submitting to authority. And when we have earned authority ourselves, we teach others, because for so many years we have been taught. A guy like me, then, who has a resistance to authority, is begging to be useless. (Father Fiction, 75-76).

[Reflecting on the book of Proverbs] Two thousand years of tested wisdom can’t steer you wrong. (Father Fiction, 112)

[Reflecting on theologians] Every few years, an angry theologian will go on a rant against me. It’s all a bit silly. And I suspect what they’re really trying to do is not just label me, but scare me. If I don’t agree with them, I’m going to go to hell. If I don’t agree with them, I’m a horrible person. And they’re quite scary. One theologian who came after me was actually fired by his seminary over anger-related issues. Some people fell for it though. They’d show up at a book signing and hand out leaflets saying I was part of a group of thinkers trying to destroy America. The camp grew into websites and blogs and Facebook groups. Suddenly I was being lumped in with liberal theologians I’d never heard of. (Scary Close, 120-121)

I wrote about not having attended church in more than five years. I wrote my story. I stepped out and let people know who I was, not as a shock-jock, but in the kind of risk it takes to actually connect with people. (Scary Close, 146-147)

[Reflecting on Starting a Business] Honestly, though, I did it so I could have a group of people to be with. I wanted a community…the business wouldn’t exist to make money, it would exist to build a healthy community… The result was predictable, of course. The company grew exponentially. Everybody wanted to be the first person to the office and the last one to leave. We began to realize there was joy in serving each other. (Scary Close, 179-182)

Allow me to walk you through this a little bit just in case you can’t see what is driving me crazy. Miller, in the first two quotes reflects on two important truths: (1) it is good for man to submit to authority and (2) the Bible and, to a much lesser level, historical church writings are time tested wisdom. It is not a stretch, then, to affirm, as evangelical theologians do, that the Bible and church history (again to a much lesser degree) are both an authority on God and humanity and our guide to faith. This position should not be all to startling as it has been widely affirmed by many conservative Christian thinkers. For my money, one of the most notable is G.K. Chesterton, who referred to past church figures as members of the democracy of the dead:

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record… Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. (Orthodoxy, 49-50)

However, in Scary Close, he also mocks a theologian who challenges theological beliefs that he asserts. Theologians, by trade, are men and women studied in the scriptures and the traditions of the Christian church. While they can be wrong, it would be silly, and in Miller’s case contradictory, to reject their comments without investigation. Miller provides us with an assumption about what he thinks the theologian’s intentions were and a mere comment about his dismissal due to his temper as evidence that the theologian was wrong. Miller never leads us to believe that he considered or took seriously the charges of liberalism, but rather shrugs them off commenting that he had never heard of who the people was accused of reflecting. This, however, is a weak rebuttal. Just because you don’t know of someone does not mean you are not accidentally espousing their views—this is a good critique of Miller’s friend Paul Young, author of the Shack, who also unknowingly presents a position usually classified as feminist or post-modern theology.

Regardless of theologians criticizing his views, Miller’s neglect of the Christian tradition is most visible in his five year departure from church. Considering that the latter half of the New Testament is about the founding of and contains letters written to local churches, and that every major theologian and Christian philosopher was either a pastor, clergy member, or lay leader in a local church, it is startling that someone would speak so highly of the need for authority and the benefits of time tested belief while abandoning the practice of hearing the Word preached and receiving the sacraments within the local church structure.

What is, however, most ironic and astonishing is Miller’s reaction then to the need for community. He said he wanted to write about his absence from church in order to connect with people and that he would later found an organization in order to establish a community around himself. At no point does he ever reflect theologically on why the church has been (biblically and historically speaking) the loci of Christian community. At no point does he wonder whether it is legitimate to replace the community of the church with a different community, with a different mission, with a different head. I cannot help but wonder if this relates back to Miller’s issues with authority, it definitely reflects further on his failure to theological reflection.

Conclusion

While there are more criticism, those represent my primary concerns. I want to conclude, however, with a few admonitions about what we can learn from Miller:

  1. The Importance of Theological Reflection:

    Miller’s down fall, in every single book he has written, is his failure to understand that the fountain of God honoring theological reflection is not with in us as individuals, but the Bible. If we are to honor God then theological reflection must be done and it must be done on the basis of the Bible’s teachings. This should not be a startling idea to anyone. If we lose the Bible we lose our source for knowledge about God. Why think God is loving? Why think God cares about us? Philosophers arguing the problem of evil will point out the amount of natural disasters alone would appear to challenge God’s goodness. We know God’s character first, foremost, and most fully because of what the Bible says. The Bible is our authority on God, life, and faith. Therefore we must seek to base our theological reflection out of scripture being carful to submit our beliefs about how things ought to be to what reality presented by the Scriptures. Further, if Jesus is really the Lord of All Creation (as the Bible says), then it ought to be obvious that all areas of life deserve theological reflection, which includes community.

  2. The Importance of Understanding Insecurity:

    What Father Fiction presents to us is Donald Miller’s reflections on his insecurity and emotional wounds he suffers from as a result of his father’s abandonment of him and his mother. Much of the early part of the book deals with his struggles with authority, especially church authority. As a church planter, I want to reject this idea and talk about the importance of submission to church authority, but another part of me completely understands and wants to admonish pastors to be wary of the insecurities of our members and visitors. I am reminded of an article from Christianity Today entitled “I am Sick of Hearing About Your Hot Wife“, in which the author laments the trend of pastors to be more open and affirming about sex, while neglecting to be mindful of those who may have suffer from the memory of past sexual sin, sexual abuse, or inaccurate views of sexuality that condemn sex as a necessary evil. Similar to those, we ought also be aware of men and women who suffer insecurity due to the tragedy of their abandonment (physical or emotional). Our insecurities, if we are not careful, will hold power over us and over our relationship with the Father through Christ. Thus we can be manipulated and lead astray by our previous wounds. As pastors and fellow believers, we must be careful to communicate biblical and theological truths in truth and love.

  3. The Importance of Honesty and Self-Doubt:

    If there is something I can say that I am very thankful for, which arises from Miller’s texts, it is honesty. Many whom I would criticize their theology, as I occasionally do Miller’s, I feel are not intellectually honest. Sometimes I feel that they are not existentially honest as well. With Miller, however, I am willing to cut a bit more slack. Miller is not intentionally a theologian, though I think C.S. Lewis’s adage about not having theology might be occasionally applicable to him (“[I]f you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones— bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas”), he has not attended seminary nor formally studied theology (to my knowledge) as such I give him a bit more leeway than the Brian McLarens, Tony Compolos, and Rob Bells of the world. Miller’s books contain thoughts on spirituality and faith, and they appear to me to be unfiltered. Miller has not allowed knowledge that people like me will disagree with him to censor his views. This is critical because we have to be aware of our beliefs in order to correct or refine them. Our theology will not develop and strengthen if we are unreflective and self-deceptive about what we actually believe. Where Miller goes wrong seems to me to be a lack of self-doubt. He trusts his intellect and emotions too much in their ability to lead him to truth. I will close here as that leads us back to the first admonition. We ought to learn from Miller’s honesty as we ought to learn from Bell’s ability to ask questions, both of these are gifts, but we ought to follow up in different ways.

 

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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