Dear Donald Miller,
Your writing has helped me at some of my darkest points. Your words have inspired me to go places in life I had never before considered.
Lately, however, your writing frustrates me. Your words disappoint me and alarm me at the implications for those who might take you seriously.
Let me explain.
I won’t pretend I have been a fan from the beginning. When I became a fan, however, it was when I needed your words most. Recovering from my worst-ever season of depression, I couldn’t tolerate much from the Christianity I once clung to. Most familiar books and music made me nauseous just at the thought. That’s when my counselor suggested I read Blue Like Jazz.
When I finally followed his suggestion, it was via audiobook. I was in such a state I needed to take in the words as passively as I could–I wouldn’t be able to make myself put forth the effort to read it. In the audiobook version I chose, you read the book out loud yourself. It was like a friend telling me a story. I especially remember the chapter where you imagine Jesus sitting with you at a campfire, lovingly remembering your life with you and compassionately answering hard questions. I had that chapter on repeat in my car’s CD player for several days.
After relating to Blue Like Jazz, I was ready and eager to read your words myself. So, I went to my local library and checked out a copy of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I enjoyed watching your realizations from Blue come to maturity in A Million Miles, and the description of the pain you felt as your life unraveled was so real I felt like you could be describing my own grief and heartbreak.
Most importantly, one chapter in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years set off a chain of events in my life for which I will be forever grateful. Near the end of the book, you point out that we grew up in the church hearing that we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and we unsuccessfully try to stuff that whole with worldly things (alcohol, TV, sex, what have you). The church says only God will fill that whole, and once we accept him, we will be complete and fulfilled. You call that idea a lie, saying, “I think Jesus can make things better, but he’s not going to make things perfect. Not here and not now.”
Yes, I thought–that’s exactly it! All the church does is exchange one lie for another. There is so much that Jesus means to us, but his point is not to complete us here on earth. I was so excited that you had put this realization into words for me, and I told my counselor I wanted to write an article called “The Dangerous Lie That We Tell.” I was passionate, but not completely serious. I had never written anything for publication before. I didn’t even have a blog. But my counselor took me seriously, asking me when I was going to write the article and where I was going to submit it. Within a year my piece was published in PRISM Magazine (see p. 30). Soon after, I started my blog, and began to submit pieces to several other publications–many of which they accepted–and for the past two or three years, my writing has been an incredible outlet and affirmation for me. It all started with your words giving me the will to speak.
I don’t remember exactly when things started to change. It’s hard to pinpoint because the change was slow and subtle. But I know red flags started going up around the time you published your Storyline workbook.
Up to that point, I had read all of your published books, so I wanted to try the Storyline workbook, too. It encourages readers to map out their lives, define themes, and refocus the course of their life with newfound purpose. It’s not particularly original (when most people–including my own therapist–hear the description, they say, “Oh, that sounds like _______.”). Still, the process is fairly sound, and it’s based on ideas you develop in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years about using the elements of story to make your own life a story worth reading (and living).
That’s all well and good. What bothered me about the book was the claims it made. The introduction told me me, “Storyline will help you live a better story and as such experience a meaningful life. Once you’ve completed Storyline you’ll have clarity about what you’re doing and the courage to face life’s challenges.” Wow. Meaning, clarity, and courage? All from a 100-ish page workbook?
The Storyline conference e-mails “you” sent me made similar claims. “Order Storyline now and clarify your life,” “What gets lost when you fail to live a great story,” “Sometimes all you need is this,” etc.
Hold on. The author that finally put words to the lie I heard from evangelicalism–the lie that there is no magic fix–is advertising a magic fix?
When I said “e-mails ‘you’ sent me,” I put “you” in quotes. I don’t know how much is actually you and how much is someone else. But that’s part of the problem. Even reading through the Storyline workbook, it’s hard to tell what is you and what is from someone else… part of the mysterious “we” of Storyline that never gets defined.
It was the titles of the posts on your blog–sorry, the Storyline blog–that added alarm bells to the red flags already waving furiously in my mind. I can’t identify all of them, because, after several days, posts disappear into an undated mass, sometimes to reappear under different titles as though they were new. Here, however, are a few examples from the first few pages of posts from contributors on storylineblog.com as I’m writing this (italics added for emphasis):
- “The Life-Changing Secret to Overcoming Your Greatest Fears”
- “Why Feeling Sorry for Yourself Makes You Destined to Fail”
- “Couples Who Stay Together Follow This One Rule“
- “How to Make Complicated Problems Very Simple“
- “How to Ignore Your Worst Critic and Become Your Best Self“
- “Do You Filter Your Relationships? You Probably Should“
I’m waiting for the post titled, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
The author–who wrote an entire book about how God is like jazz because jazz doesn’t resolve–is now offering black-and-white life solutions. Life-changing, simple advice with one rule that I should follow so I can become my best self.
Some–maybe even most–of the posts I referenced above contain some helpful advice. But their marketing is reminiscent of the get-’em-in-the-seats sermon titles of the evangelicalism of my past. The same evangelicalism with jagged flaws you helped my generation start to name and heal from.
Over the past year or so, my e-mail inbox and twitter feed has been filled with your (and/or Storyline’s?) sudden expertise on a variety of topics, from running a company to parenthood. Then, several weeks ago, I started receiving e-mails about your newfound area of expertise: marriage. I wondered how you became an expert after a year or two of being married yourself. The first e-mail described your pre-marital resource as “six months of marriage or pre-marriage counseling boiled down into five powerful sessions.” If I was someone without firsthand knowledge and experience of how crucial counseling can be, and/or someone who has not done a lot of living and thinking about marriage (others’ marriages and the possibility of my own), this is what I got from those e-mails:
- Paying for and planning my wedding is more important than my actual marriage.
- Pre-marital counseling isn’t worth time or money.
- Your resource is going to prepare me and my future spouse for marriage just as well–or even better than–interacting with an objective third party would.
The tone of these e-mails from “you”–a person of influence–was incredibly irresponsible.
Further e-mails–and at least one related blog post–backed off of attacking traditional pre-marital counseling a bit, and, in fragments, explained what the resource actually is. If others took the time to follow several links and put the pieces together, they would see that the “resource” is actually videos, led by two experienced marriage therapists. It’s probably a helpful resource (especially since the therapists are Al Andrews and his wife). I’m not paying the $70 to find out (I’ll put that towards paying my in-person counselor). But a helpful resource is very different from a replacement for solid pre-marital counseling conducted by a licensed, experienced therapist.
Maybe the problem comes down to marketing. Maybe the problem comes down to involving too many people too quickly trying to attack too many projects.
Or maybe you actually have changed. Maybe now you think there are simple solutions. Maybe you’re no longer about living in the tensions of mystery and unanswered questions.
Either way, I hope that the Donald Miller that wrote these words below can speak to the Donald Miller of today: “Wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow.” (from Blue Like Jazz)
I want to say thank you. Thank you for writing honestly and sharing yourself in a way that has helped me–and others–deal with similar issues.
Also, I want to say: please stop. Please stop promising magical results and black-and-white solutions. Please stop delving into areas on which you simply haven’t earned the credibility to speak.
Those of us still living in the tensions miss your voice.
Emily A. Dause