Donald Miller Answers My Question - Sort Of ~ BitterSweetLife

Monday, April 17, 2006

Donald Miller Answers My Question - Sort Of

A couple months ago I sauntered over to, the place where Donald Miller hangs out online. It felt weird, sort of, to enter the e-bachelor pad of a pseudo-celebrity. I wasn’t sure how to carry myself.

Not merely another adoring fan, though, I was there with a reason. So I walked purposefully. After a provocative initial read of Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, I'd come to ask a question. I typed up my query, checked it for spelling, and slapped it up.

Don had stated in the site description that he would read every question posted, and I wasn't one to doubt his sincerity. But after two months or so I was wondering whether he would get around to responding to my question. No guarantees.

That's why I was pleasantly surprised Saturday when I got a congratulatory email from Andy, informing me that Don had answered my question. At last. BitterSweetLife's Donald Miller Show was back on the road.

Here is my original question followed by Don's reply:

Hey Don,

A friend gave me a copy of your Blue Like Jazz last semester and I ended up reading it in a matter of hours. I enjoyed the book a lot because it provoked me to think freshly about my faith and because it gave me a reason to sit around drinking coffee when I should have been studying for my final exams. Afterwards I talked about the book on my blog a lot.

I’m curious what your take is on “discipline” in the Christian life. Jazz didn’t strike me as being against spiritual discipline (as in 1 Corinthians 9), but with the anti-“fundamentalist” chapter, the jazz motif (“never resolves”), the hippy perspective, and the good emphasis on authenticity, it seems like the book tends toward a more relaxed, off-the-cuff approach to knowing God.

My question is, what’s the place of discipline, i.e. strenuous obedience to God, in Christian spirituality?

Also, if you wouldn’t mind, would you elaborate on your NCAA hoops loyalties? That will help me decide how high you place on the scale of cool.


ariel, i tend to avoid ritual because it tempts me to replace “action” with devotion. the two can go hand in hand, but they are more comfortable separated. while disciplines help us love God, they are also the ego’s favorite food. instead, i try to ask myself fairly often how i feel about God, and if the answer is a negative, i do some praying and soul searching. i’m no expert, i assure you, but thanks for trusting me with the question.


p.s. ncaa hoops: oregon, gonzaga, north carolina.

It was pretty cool to get a reply from the big man. As I've said before, I like Donald Miller's stripped down writing style, and his take on the Christian life is fresh and thought-provoking. I wouldn't give Don as much face-time on the blog as I do if I didn't think his voice is worth listening to.

That being said, I'm not convinced that he really answered my question. And this is a surprise.

Not to put on a rhetorical show. (I'm so SHOCKED that he didn't SAY what I THOUGHT he would...) But once I realized that Donald Miller had opted to answer my question, I did expect him to say a little more.

To be honest (really!), when I read Blue Like Jazz, and took in Don's fairly soft approach to concerted exertion, "strenuous obedience to God" (discipline) in the Christian life, I thought it was an intentional down-playing of an aspect of spirituality that just doesn't sell very well. In a book with a largely apologetic flavor, I thought I understood what Miller was up to.

Now I'm not so sure.

I'm extremely reluctant to classify spiritual discipline as ritual. Not only does "ritual" convey a host of stale connotations, the Bible definitely doesn't portray prayer, reading, meditation, etc., in this light. Quite the opposite. When we open the Bible, we're confronted with the paradoxical idea that to forcibly obey God, and throw your full weight into the effort, is to discover what freedom really means. I can hardly think of anything further from "ritual."

So, my visceral reaction to Donald Miller's take on spiritual disciplines: What? Was something lost in translation here?

I'll side with Don in his assessment of the dangers of discipline. Self-control in the hands of an egoist is an ugly thing. Just look at the Pharisees (legalism). Just look at almost anyone who can do something really well and knows it (arrogance). But I think it's misleading to say that "discipline is the ego's favorite food." Since when does discipline hold a monopoly on ego?

Possibly, I don't have enough discipline in my own life to assess the situation accurately. But it seems like if discipline is really that dangerous, then throughout the Bible we'll discover some pretty subversive stuff. What is Paul thinking when he talks about "beating his body into submission" and "working harder than anyone?" Didn't he know he was supposed to lean back
and let the current take him in order to avoid arrogance?

And what was Jesus thinking? All these early morning prayer sessions with the Father, fasting for 40 days (an ego trip in the desert), and subjecting his will forcibly to God's plan ("sweating drops of blood")? Talk about wrong-headed.

I guess I should turn down the volume on my riff at this point. I appreciated the intuitive, relational approach to God that Donald Miller alluded to: "i try to ask myself fairly often how i feel about God, and if the answer is a negative, i do some praying and soul searching." Although I'm not sure what Miller means in his first sentence - "replacing 'action' with devotion" - I think the soul searching he describes is essential to a life of good devotion to Christ.
But I don't even see how these times of soul searching can happen without discipline. Since when do quiet moments occur spontaneously? Life doesn't just happen to slow down when I need time with Jesus. In parallel, what about writing? Maybe authentic, unhurried prose is what you're looking for. But you don't write this stuff in the five minutes before you catch the bus. If you want the appearance of spontaneous health (or syntax) you will have to work at it. And you may as well be up front about the fact, or you will confuse your readers.

Whatever you decide to call it, it's just hard to keep discipline out of the Christian life. It seems like Donald Miller had created a false dichotomy here, probably with the goal of combating legalism. What he fails to realize, I think, is that it's about as easy to be a prideful slob as a prideful perfectionist. Both approaches have their selling points.

I guess I should stop here. But I can't. I have to go on and make one more comment, and this one may be the most scathing of all.
p.s. ncaa hoops: oregon, gonzaga, north carolina.
Now this just strains the limits of credulity.
Don, can you be serious? If Miller takes my hint, he'll rethink his loyalties before Bill Self's Jayhawks whack Roy's Boys in next year's Final Four. Please, Don, do it for the sake of your readers.

Peace, I'm out. I've got to leave before I start talking about discipline and basketball.

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Will Robison said...

My short answer to your post would be: Its a West Coast Thing, you wouldn't understand. ;)

My longer answer would be: I think what Donald Miller is trying to say is that people can get completely wrapped up in the discipline of their religion and forget the meaning behind that discipline. God would much prefer us to be sincere slobs than disciplinarian drones. The one thing I do remember about Martin Luther was that he didn't really meet God until he lightened up. And when he lightened up and found God, he tried to change the church to show people that all this Catholic ritual was ruining their spiritual lives - discipline for discipline's sake.

I could never get close to God when I was young because it all seemed like so much work - reading the Bible, praying, etc... When I finally let go of my pre-conceptions and met God I found myself reading the Bible, praying, etc... because I wanted to. The discipline has come. And it has been hard at times. But I am always cognizant of the reason behind the discipline.

At least, that's my take.

And I'm sorry, but I just can't pick KU anymore until they prove that they won't choke when it really matters. They cost me a lot of games during this last tournament. Gonzaga, on the other hand, got robbed!

Andrew Simone said...

Et tu, Ariel?

Kidding, although I tend to agree with you that Miller is a little "soft" on discipline and such. But perhaps that is because I did not grow up in a legalistic environments. I think much of this is perspectivial.

Andy said...

Both OC and Will nailed it, I think - there's the legalistic trap as well as the trap of doing ritual for the sake of doing ritual.

I think this begs the question - how do we define spiritual discipline, as opposed to "doing church" or "doing religion"?

Ariel said...

Well, you guys may be right. I could be overstating my position here. Many Christians need to stop trying so hard to be holy and just loosen up. If God's grace saves us, we had better stay in it.

Having said that...

It's not helpful to be be evasive or slippery on a topic where the Bible is very clear. And I think the Bible is pretty clear about "discipline."

I realize though, as Andy says, that there's a semantic dimension to this question. "Discipline" probably has a lot of shady connotations these days. Maybe if I said "spiritual intentionality..."

The Bible doesn't call us to be masochists, and Jesus invested liberal amounts of time ruining the "ministries" of legalistic people. But God still urges us to respond to his free grace with our personal exertion. Somehow they go hand in hand.

We can say, biblically, that if grace does not lead to spiritual effort (I'll insert the "discipline" word here) then the grace has been wasted.

The paradox is that God wants us to impose order in our lives that will help us become more like Jesus - and he doesn't consider it mere ritual.

It is a challenge to take the imposed religiosity that we find in our various spiritual subcultures (ghettos) and realize that some of the same things we see abused - prayer, accountability, Bible reading, meditation - are endorsed heartily by Jesus.

Maybe Miller is in the clear about all this, but I didn't get that impression from his necessarily brief answer.

gymbrall said...

I think it's useful to remember that while God does care how we feel about worship, we do not necessarily have to feel correctly to worship. God is worshipped in spirit and in truth and throughout scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments, the primary external mark of a believer is obedience.
And this is instructive, because on many days, the most spiritual thing a man can do whether he feels like it or not, is to go to work and while he is there, to speak the truth in love (or to be more specific, when someone at work mentions that they are considering removing their mother's feeding tube, he reminda them about the sanctity of life and what God says about innocent blood, or when he mentions to someone that his wife is pregnant, and they reply along the lines of 'what, another one?' or something along those lines, he reminds them that scripture says children are a blessing from the Lord)
And then when he is done with work, he comes home and spends time anointing his family with the word. Whether he feels like it or not.
I hope this doesn't sound too preachy, because if I am preaching to anyone, I swear it's mostly to myself. I'm just tired of not going to church because I don't feel like it or sitting and watching the TV while my wife reads and my child plays instead of opening the Word of God and reading with them.
I think we get into trouble when we try to step back and make a system from which to approach and live our Christian life, instead of asking "what things do I know that Christ has told me to do?" and then doing them...

Sorry for ranting on so long...


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife