Donald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What begins with an anecdote that sums up some of what I like best and what I like least in his writing. In this opening story, Miller attends a Christian writers’ workshop. His analysis of the other conference attendees and speakers (whom he describes as “Very small people ... mostly women”) is funny, but also annoyingly patronizing and chauvinistic, as in the following passage:
The lady sitting next to me was writing a wonderful series of Christian devotionals for girls who were taking ballet classes, and the lady on the other side of me was writing a series of devotionals you could read while drinking tea. When she told me this, a lady in front of us turned around and smiled because she was working on a series of devotionals you could read while drinking coffee. I told them their books sounded terrific, because it is true that some people like tea and some people like coffee, and for that matter, some people dance in ballets.
The description is funny and dismissive at the same time: there’s a clear message here that Donald Miller is allowed to poke fun at Christians who aren’t quite as young, cool, edgy, emergent (or male?) as he is. This attitude runs throughout the book, although it’s laced with enough self-deprecating humor to make it a little less offensive. But worse than just annoying me, Miller’s unstated assumption that some Christians are cooler than others undercuts one of the major themes of his book: that Christians are called to opt out of society’s status games and stop judging people on the basis of who’s cooler.
Miller calls this his “lifeboat” theory, in honor of that time-honored discussion starter where we imagine a handful of people in a lifeboat with limited resources and try to decide who’s worth saving and who should be thrown overboard. He argues that most of us spend most of our lives playing the lifeboat game, judging others on their status and trying to increase our own status relative to others. And though Jesus’ message was all about eschewing this game, it seems Christians are just as quick to play it as everyone else.
And that’s where the Bible comes in. Back at that Christian writers’ conference full of small Christian “lady” writers, Miller learned that many Christian writers (and, by extension, he suggests, many pastors and teachers and just plain Christians) seek to boil the Christian message down to an easy, step-by-step formula for living a more successful life. But alone in his hotel room reading the Bible, Miller reflects that it isn’t really the kind of book that lends itself well to a “formula for success” approach. Rather, he suggests, the Bible is a complicated and messy book that can only be understood relationally, rather than formulaically, and that the relationship into which it leads us is one that is not likely to make us successful by society’s standards.
Miller goes on to explore his own rejection of his childhood faith — a religion of rules and formulae, as he sees it now — and how he replaced it with a relationship with God. There’s a lot here that many Adventist readers will be able to relate to, since many people who grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church share Miller’s experience of learning a “formulaic” approach to Christianity and the Bible, though I’m not sure the Adventist “formula” is at all points the same as the conservative evangelical “formula” Miller grew up with. I found his recognition of the Bible’s complexity, its inability to fit our human-devised formulae, refreshing, and it resonated with where I find myself in my relationship with the Bible.
Despite having ditched the formula, however, it’s clear that Donald Miller hasn’t strayed far, theologically, from conservative evangelical Protestantism. He introduces without question some very conservative assumptions about the Biblical text, such as the idea that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, without question or debate. If you grilled him on this, Miller might say that whether Moses was literally the author is irrelevant to the point he’s exploring, but his discussion of the Bible does seem rooted in a very traditional evangelical, though not fundamentalist, understanding of how the Scriptural texts were written and compiled.
Scholars, and for that matter the people who listen to scholars, are not Miller’s primary audience here. He seems to be speaking most directly to Christians who have bought into a particular cultural interpretation of what Christianity is and how it works (specifically, I think, an interpretation shared by politically and socially right-wing American evangelicals) and attempts to broaden their perspective by re-evaluating who Jesus was and what the Bible really says. Jesus, He argues, wasn’t particularly concerned with playing society’s status games to figure out who deserves to stay in the lifeboat, and neither should His followers be.
For Miller, this translates into the belief that Christians should be less concerned about waging “culture wars” and more concerned about loving others as Jesus loved them. Not exactly a new or earth-shattering message, but one that may need to be heard in the current North American religious climate.
Searching for God Knows What raises some interesting questions: how do Christians opt out of society’s status games? What does that kind of Christianity look like? In theory, Miller’s ideas suggest that we might be less concerned about labeling one another as the “right” or “wrong” kind of Christian, thus potentially healing some rifts between “liberals” and “conservatives” within and across denominational lines. But his actual tone and
attitude towards other Christians — as evidenced in that opening anecdote about the writers’ workshop — make me wonder whether Miller has really taken on board his own message, as he seems to reserve the right to gently mock other Christians who don’t quite measure up to his standard. Of course, the fact that the author doesn’t always practice what he preaches doesn’t mean the message itself is not valid.
Also, I wonder what a relational rather than a formulaic approach to the Bible might mean for those Christians (and I would include Adventists in this group) who have traditionally viewed the Bible primarily as a “road map to salvation” with the emphasis on believing the “right” doctrines. Does it water down our view of the Bible if we shift our focus away from “getting it right” to loving Jesus, and loving others as He loves them? Donald Miller’s relaxed, anecdotal style and his occasionally barbed humor make this book an easy and usually enjoyable read as he explores these and other issues.
Trudy Morgan-Cole is a writer, teacher and mom from Newfoundland who writes regular book reviews over at Compulsive Overreader.
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