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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Books & Film

The Gospel According to Miller

Blue Like Jazz Author Donald Miller to Students: “Engaging Culture Is Not Rocket Science”

While many mainstream readers are rediscovering a treasure trove of great 20th-century Christian writing, thanks to the resurgence of interest in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, several prominent contemporary writers are publishing works that pour powerful Christian ideas into popular “new wineskins.”

Portland writer Donald Miller has blazed trails for faith dialogue through his books, on the campus of Reed College, and beyond.

Anne Lamott is in the spotlight again for her sequel to Traveling Mercies, titled Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible With the Damned explores the rich resources of Scripture, and the awkwardness that comes when Christians try to present the Bible to unbelievers. Brian McLaren offers A Generous Orthodoxy, which calls for spiritual unity among disparate Christian traditions, and which is becoming a fundamental text for a new generation of Christians known as “the emerging church.”

Add Donald Miller’s name to the list, if you haven’t already. Thirty-four-year-old Miller has an enthusiastic following — particularly among younger readers — because of a unique storytelling style that stokes the fires of spiritual inquiry in those who shy away from sermonizing.

Miller’s visit to Seattle Pacific University on December 1, 2005, was eagerly anticipated by students, not to mention faculty, staff, and visitors to campus. Many read his bestselling memoir, Blue Like Jazz, subtitled Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nelson Books, 2003), and his recent, rowdy, and revealing study of Christian ideas called Searching for God Knows What (Nelson Books, 2004). His latest work, Through Painted Deserts (Nelson Books, 2005), is a revision of his first book, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance. This February, his reflections on growing up in a single-parent home, titled To Own a Dragon (Navpress Publishing Group, 2006), will arrive.

A native of Houston, Texas, Miller has had an unlikely influence on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. After Volkswagen Maintenance was published in 2000, he audited classes at Reed, and mounted a memorable stunt. He set up a campus confession booth ... with a twist. Booth visitors found Miller and other Christians confessing, apologizing for historical missteps of the church. Through open, nonconfrontational conversations, Miller helped to revise the prevalent understanding of Christianity for seekers, emphasizing the gospel instead of political views or behavioral codes. On a campus unfriendly toward evangelism, his efforts made faith in Christ an acceptable topic of conversation.

In anticipation of Miller’s visit to Seattle Pacific, Response asked what he would advise believers seeking to engage today’s culture.

Q| What have you learned that might be helpful for Christian university students who are hoping to change the world?

A| I think one of the misconceptions of the university experience is that you are “preparing” to go out and change the world. The truth is [that] the students who are going to have an impact after they graduate are probably already having an impact now. They may be volunteering at a shelter, writing for the school paper, protesting corporate greed, or helping the disabled. Our hearts are not going to change when we get out of school. We are not suddenly going to become activists, just because we have a slip of paper.

I should also say that even those who are already active in social concerns do so, often, out of a kind of discipline. It may not be something we want to do, but the question is … do we want to contribute to solutions? If we do, it is going to take some personal initiative, and some discipline.

But, yeah, engaging culture is not rocket science. You really have to work very hard not to see a million ways to get involved.

Q| What does it take to equip students for immersion in mainstream culture?

A| There is a great deal to be said about attending a Christian university and surrounding yourself with believers. For those wanting to strengthen their faith and their knowledge of Scripture, and to understand, fully, a Christian worldview, a place like SPU is fairly perfect.

The drawbacks are that we run the risk of isolating ourselves from people who aren’t like us. It is possible these days to grow up in a Christian home, only go to Christian schools, graduate and get a job at a church or Christian business, and never get to know anybody who isn’t exactly as we are.

Because of this, I recommend joining some kind of organization that is a departure from the evangelical bubble. There are plenty of organizations committed to creating a global culture where humans are treated decently. If we are only surrounded by people who validate our opinions, we are not learning to be people of influence.

— BY Jeffrey Overstreet

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A Conversion of the Imagination
2014: A Blueprint for Excellence shows "Seattle Pacific will be a place that knows and understands what's going on in the world, and it will be a place that embraces the Christian story," says President Philip Eaton. [President]

Katrina's Call
SPU professors, graduate students, and staff help with hurricane relief efforts on the Gulf Coast and on SPU's campus. [Campus]

Allowing Scripture to Transform Our Lives
Kerry Dearborn, associate professor of theology, contributes introductions and study notes to the Renovaré Spiritual Study Bible. [Faculty]

Quality Always
Alumni of the Year, Kathi and Jerry Teel, live out their Vitamilk Diary slogan, "Quality Always," in all areas of their lives. [Alumni]

Field Goals
Courted by Division I soccer teams while in high school, stand-out Falcon forward, Sarah Martinez, hits goals on and off the field. [Athletics]

My Response
John Perkins writes a letter to Seattle Pacific about God's grace during and after Hurricane Katrina.

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