Donald Miller Takes the Postmodern Church 'Through Painted Deserts'
By Jennifer E. Jones
The postmodern church. It’s not so much a place as it is a group of people. They read Relevant magazine and attend church in jeans. Their iPODs shuffle between David Crowder Band and Dave Matthews Band. They range from the 18-year-old college freshman to the 30-something who is bewildered by first-time parenthood. What bonds them together is a collective, recognized desperation for truth.
Having received a steady diet of MTV for most of their lives, they want the kind of reality that TV can’t provide. It’s a hunger and thirst that goes deep. They don’t have all the answers, but they know that God does.
The postmodern church is all about seeking God in nontraditional ways and finding answers to the perpetual question of “why.” In other words, this ain’t your Daddy’s ol’ time religion.
One name that is popular in these circles is author Donald Miller. He’s a one-man revolution of sorts. His books boast “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” and their impact on Generation X, Y, and everyone in between has been nothing short of impressive.
His book Blue Like Jazz sold more than 300,000 copies. According to his interview in Relevant earlier this year, Switchfoot lead singer Jonathon Foreman gave it away as Christmas gifts. Donald’s also made appearances on ABC News, Fortune magazine, Christianity Today and a host of other media.
He’s responsible for such “Millerisms” as:
“I needed God to be larger than our free market economy, larger than our two for one coupons, larger than our religious ideas.”
“It confuses me that Christian living is not simpler. The gospel, the very good news, is simple.”
“I think joy into a coffin.”
If the postmodern church had a pastor, Donald Miller would be it.
Before the jazz and the fans, there was a road trip from Texas to Oregon that Miller took with his friend, Paul, and the enlightenment of that journey is the subject of Don’s latest book Through Painted Deserts: Light, God and Beauty on the Open Road.
“It’s a true story,” he tells CBN.com. “The trip was actually close to six months long, and I condensed it into two months in order to capture the essence of the journey.”
Although it details his odyssey from the south to the northwest like a travelogue, Miller takes plenty of time to reflect in the same way that he did in Searching For God Knows What. His musings question almost as much as they answer. So what made him trade blind faith for inquisitiveness?
“The ‘how’ doesn’t make sense unless we know the answer to the ‘why,’” he explains. “Here’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that illustrates this for you. Calvin is in class, and the teacher is asking everybody to turn in their homework. Calvin asks, ‘Why do we exist?’ The teacher says, ‘Calvin, don’t change the subject. Just turn in your homework.’ But he says, ‘I need the answer to that question before turning in my homework becomes important.’ Our culture is just doing things without asking why they’re doing them.
"I really wanted to do a couple things with this book. One is to say, stop. Leave what you’re doing because it might not make sense. Then begin to ask, Why am I doing this, why does it matter. Then hopefully, in a backdoor kind of way, [I] present the idea that Christian spirituality has helped me answer the why questions.”
Miller mixes heavy spirituality with light comedy even more so than he’s done in the past. The relationship between Don and Paul in Through Painted Deserts has many Laurel and Hardy moments with Paul losing his cool and Don making fun of it all.
“The subject matter of Searching for God Knows What was more cerebral, so this book was more light-hearted because I’m just telling a story,” Don says.
In all the fun that was to be had, the true story was life changing for Don.
“It’s a story about leaving home and finding out who you really are,” he says. “It’s not an epiphany or a realization as much as it is the first time a bird opens his wings, jumps out of his nest, and feels the freedom of flight. I think I’m a different person just because I’m not in the nest. That becomes a metaphor for the spiritual and the physical journey.”
Don Miller is in his 30s now, and although his trip is a decade behind him, his experience on the open road remains something he wouldn’t trade for anything. “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Looking back, it all seems so providential. You wouldn’t want to mess with it.”
The sensation of leaving the familiar and breaking free is a feeling that he hopes will resonate with his audience. “It’s an exhilarating time. The world is new in a lot of ways, and it’s yours for the first time.”
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