Friday, June 25, 2010

Is Donald Miller stretching the truth?

Mike Adams has taken his beef with popular "Emergent" author Donald Miller a step further. In a column last week, Adams critiqued Miller and other leading voices of the "Emergent Church movement" for their general aversion to absolutes. This week, in a column provocatively titled "White Like Lies," Adams singles out Miller for a more specific aversion to a more specific absolute, namely, the truth.
As I was reading Don Miller’s fictional biography Blue like Jazz, I found the following on page 79:

“I was a fundamentalist Christian once. It lasted a summer. I was in that same phase of trying to discipline myself to ‘behave’ as if I loved light and not ‘behave’ as if I loved darkness.”

Some may be confused about the derisive quotes around the word “behave.” Don Miller is using them here to remind us that Christianity is about a relationship, and not about rules. He continues:

“I used to get ticked about preachers who talked too much about grace, because it tempted me to not be disciplined. I figured what people needed was a kick in the butt, and if I failed at godliness it was because those around me weren’t trying hard enough. I believed if word got out about grace, the whole church was going to turn into a brothel. I was a real jerk, I think.”

So when did Don hit his all-time peak of intolerance? It was when he arrived at Summit Ministries, according to his million-selling fictional biography:

“I hit my self-righteous apex while working at a fundamentalist Christian camp in Colorado. I was living in a cabin in the Rockies with about seven other guys, and the whole lot of us fell into this militant Christianity that says you should live like a Navy SEAL for Jesus. I am absolutely ashamed to admit this now.”

The only problem with this story is that it isn’t true. Oddly, Don came back to visit that Christian camp just a few years ago. When he did, he was confronted with his very public and untruthful account his time at Summit Ministries.

In response, Don just said it wasn’t a big deal. He fabricated the story just to make a point. He was confronted privately but was unrepentant, which was not too surprising. Remember that Don thinks Christianity is not about rules. It’s about a relationship with God.

So I guess Don can bear false witness, in violation of the Ninth Commandment, if he thinks it will bring himself and others closer to God.
My personal impression of Blue Like Jazz was that it was an entertaining, if often theologically fuzzy, read. While some of the "fundamentalists" Miller disparaged in the book sounded somewhat contrived and caricatured, I had no reason to believe the stories he told about them and his interactions with them were not based on actual events. Adams makes the astounding claim, apparently confirmed by Miller, that much of Blue Like Jazz is entirely fictional. This casts Miller's work, if not Miller himself, in an entirely different, and most unfortunate, light.

There is nothing particularly wrong with an author embellishing his own autobiography, provided he lets the reader in on his secret from the outset. Had Miller included a disclaimer at the beginning of his book, informing readers that his account of events was intended to be creative and provocative while not necessarily historically accurate, he would have avoided the questions which are now bound to be raised concerning his credibility.

The "Emergent Church" is, as many of its critics have noted, little more than a repackaged version of oldline Protestant liberalism. In that light, Miller's embellishments are perfectly understandable. Protestant liberalism views the Bible as a collection of embellished stories. What harm, then, could come from a few more embellished stories? After all, stretching the truth in order to propagate a larger truth is merely following in the footsteps of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Or do you mean to say you actually believe that stuff about Jesus healing the sick, feeding the five thousand, and rising from the dead?

I was told, by the way, that Miller had posted a response to Adams on his blog, but it has apparently been withdrawn. I hope he offers his side of the story in detail soon.