Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 250 pages. $19.99.
How would our lives look like if we tried to live a better narrative? In his latest memoir, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller sets out to explore the implications and effects of such a lifestyle. This extended reflection on life as a story showcases a somewhat more mature Miller than that of his past books, although A Million Miles does retain much of his characteristic light and informal style. He writes in a frank, uninhibited, and often disarmingly self-deprecating manner (p. 9), but at times he strives so hard for authenticity that he risks making the reader blush or even question his character (pp. 81, p. 98) . Regardless of one’s personal opinion of Miller, we must carefully work to evaluate the book based upon its content as well as its implications.
The book’s overarching thesis is that all people are living a story, whether good or bad. Most people do not pay attention to their own story, Miller laments, as shown by the fact that few remember the majority of details in their lives. He even labels that fact the “saddest thing about life” (p. 3). Awkwardness with God will ensue, he playfully warns at one point, if we don’t have anything more interesting to show for our lives than a few Scout merit badges (p. 4). After making a simple argument that God wants us to live a good story, Miller proceeds for the duration of the book to use his life as an example of how a bad story can be made better (p. 7).
In chapters 2 through 5, Miller sets the stage for the rest of the book. He writes about his introduction to and interaction with a couple of filmmakers who wanted to make a movie based on his previous memoir, Blue Like Jazz. After much talking and joking, the screenplay writers finally persuade a skeptical Miller that Blue Like Jazz simply needed to become more interesting in order to make a good film. Thus, Miller is inspired to embark on a quest to evaluate why his life is boring, and how to make it better. In one chapter, he finds an example and inspiration in the life and death of his uncle, a man who spent his life caring for troubled youth and was loved by many. When his uncle died, Miller was touched by the greatness of the man’s life story: “He was like a good movie, in a way, an indie film, perhaps. But a good film, a tear-jerker in the end” (p. 39). Miller later muses, “If you aren’t telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died” (p. 38). After a great deal of brainstorming and fairly random reflection, he and his roommate finally determine that the basis of every good story is “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it” (p. 48). This is the working definition for the rest of the book.
The bulk of A Million Miles follows Don on multiple “inciting incidents” (events that force a character to change) that he creates for himself. Interspersed in the midst of these micronarratives are occasional reflections about how good stories have realistic problems. In order to become a truly great story, however, Miller explains that it must have memorable scenes (pp. 207-214). Living in this way is also self-reinforcing; on page 155, Miller reflects:
And I found myself wanting even better stories. And that’s the thing you’ll realize when you organize your life into the structure of a story. You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and the stories will build until you’re living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the character whose roles you’ve been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal.
After many more brief chapters filled with examples of great stories from either Miller’s own life or lives of his friends, he notes that living in this fashion had positively affected his morality: “If a story sets our moral compass, my compass had changed from cynicism to hope” (p. 241). Finally, Miller concludes with the overall positive impact that intentionally creating a life story has made on him: “It has been a year since I had a very sad thought,” he reflects, thus (perhaps incidentally) implying that the meaningful life will, in fact, be happy (p. 245).
While the overall thesis of this book is not without value, this reviewer did not find it to be an overall worthwhile read. First, the style is distractingly random and disjointed, in typical Donald Miller fashion. The task of following the development of a primary idea while trudging through the cacophony of whimsical tangents and irrelevant descriptions was difficult.
Of more significance, however, is murkiness surrounding the book’s audience and purpose. It is difficult to understand just who Miller is writing to, and just what his goal is. Miller is considered by many in evangelical circles to be a theological leader with a fresh and culturally relevant spiritual insight. Nevertheless, even Miller himself has stated that this book is “much more utilitarian” and shouldn’t be over-spiritualized (Interview in Christianity Today, September 29, 2009). While the book is not actually philosophically utilitarian, it certainly does read like a non-spiritual, youthful self-help or motivational book, designed simply to propel the reader off the couch and into a more interesting life.
This is not a particularly Christian book. What little theology or Christian thought is included is often quite ambiguous, flippant, or even incorrect. For example, there are only a handful of mentions of God at all, and most of those are theologically problematic. On page 4, Miller talks of how at the end of his life there will be awkwardness between him and God if his life story was boring, leaving God “wondering what to talk about next.” This is remarkably inconsistent with the biblical portrait of God. For instance, Jesus always responded perfectly, without hesitation, to situations that would have left others stumbling or speechless. Further, Miller states that when he creates his own stories, “I felt the way I hope God feels” (p. 59). Although this section is characteristically murky and somewhat puzzling, it seems that Miller hopes God will validate his own feelings rather than humbly evaluating his life according to God’s standard. Instead of an exalted, holy God, most of Miller’s caricatures show a diminished, almost innocuous divinity. To his credit, he does refer to God as creator and thus as a master storyteller, but this does little to rescue his sinking theological ship.
Yet another problem is that Miller frequently confuses his terms. At times he argues that we all need to live a good story, while at other times he clearly supports living an interesting or exciting story. Despite some possible overlap, these two are vastly different concepts. In chapter 9, a girl who was living what Miller termed a “bad” story turned her life around and made it a “good” story. Unfortunately, Miller’s concept of a “good” story is entirely arbitrary. He never explicitly determines an objective standard for determining goodness, and so his own standard of “interesting” functionally fills the void. All throughout the book, the good life consistently reduces to something along the lines of “interesting” or “exciting.” A bad story is thus equivalent to a boring story. “I didn’t want to live a boring story anymore” he writes at one point (p. 71).
The goal of living an interesting life story is quite off-base. The purpose and meaning of our lives is to know God and to make him known (Psalm 46:10; Matthew 28:19). There is no promise of an interesting, exciting, or fun life for the Christian, but there is promise of hardship (see, for instance, Matthew 5:10 and 2 Timothy 3:12). In fact, the only story that ultimately matters is the story of Jesus Christ and our response to it. Moreover, someone who is living a godly life may have a story that appears repulsively boring to people like Miller, and likewise, there are some who live an exciting life yet are lost. Even in good movies—Miller’s gold standard— the protagonist is often a romanticized criminal or an otherwise depraved soul.
There is much more to be said about this book, but overall it is little more than a marginally entertaining memoir with a few good points. If one personally enjoys the book, so be it. We can all find something to appreciate within A Million Miles, but nothing significant enough to warrant slogging through the entirety of Miller’s inner monologues and tangential micronarratives. Furthermore, when placed alongside the vast expanse of truly great literature, it is simply a poor reading choice by comparison, especially in an age when many do not read at all. Regardless of personal taste, this book needs to be seen for what it is and not mined for insight that it cannot yield.