Donald Miller is no stranger to the Christian world. In 1998, he published Blue Like Jazz which has become not only a best-seller, but a manifesto of the Emerging Church. Although his books are not as directly ideological as others in the Emerging scene, he puts those same ideas into narrative form and intersperses observations throughout his books which are geared for a more post-modern Christian.
Through Painted Deserts is even less propositional than Blue Like Jazz. So even if you don’t care about Miller’s ideas about life, you still may find the book enjoyable. The book, simply put, is about Miller’s van trip from Houston, Texas to Portland, Oregon. He drives this route with his friend, Paul. Both seem to be on a journey of self-discovery and divine inquiry.
In the author’s note, Miller writes,
We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?
It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.
I want to repeat one word for you:
The theme of “leaving” permeates the early portion of the book. Miller and his friend, Paul, head out of Houston destined for Portland, Oregon. Miller leaves behind the city in which he lived, his friends, and his girlfriend.
As he leaves home, we are invited along to see, smell, hear, taste, and touch everything through Miller’s highly descriptive prose. If anything else, his narrative ability makes the book accessible and imaginative for the reader. Often, Miller uses very poetic language to describe the events of the trip. On several occasions, their Volkswagen van breaks down and requires some sort of jerry-rig to restore some semblance of operation. Right before one of these incidents, we read an entertaining account that flirts with aspects of horror and comedy:
I can tell by the look on [Paul’s] face that he wants the van to die. It’s like a vengeance thing. This old heap has been kicking him around for months and now he’s killing it. Slowly, but surely, driving it into the ground. The engine light casts a demon-red glare in his eye. It’s like he’s possessed. (p. 49)
Vivid descriptions such as this give the reader a clear sense of the moment throughout the memoir.
Interspersed throughout the novel are several reflections which indicate there is, in fact, a larger journey Miller is taking. This journey is not merely a matter of geographical re-location. On his website, he writes, “What you will find in Through Painted Deserts is the beginning of a long trail of walking away from home, from religion and from an American version of Christianity.” His exit from Texas parallels his departure from the spiritual infrastructure to which he has grown accustomed.
As he reaches Dallas, in chapter two, he reflects,
Dallas blew in on the wings of a Gulf coast hurricane and rained glass and steel onto a field of bluebonnets…A big, Republican, evangelical city where you can’t drink, girls wear black dresses for dates on Wednesday, and the goal is to join the local country club like your daddy and his daddy before him. When you build a city near no mountains and no ocean, you get materialism and traditional religion. People have too much time and lack inspiration. (p.21)
This passage, and many others like it, encapsulate much of Miller’s discomfort with the South. He chafes at institutionalized Christianity which tells him, “Here are the five keys to a successful marriage,” when he asks, “What is beauty?” (p. 10) Miller offers no certain alternative to this spiritual paradigm, instead focusing on emphasizing the question “Why?” as opposed to “How?” The spiritual environment in which he has grown up tells him that Christian faith is rooted in pragmatism, its exercise is merely expedient, and its rewards are purely materialistic.
I agree with many of Miller’s critiques. As an outsider to the South, I’m interested to hear his observations and, inasmuch as I’ve grown up in “American Christianity”, I feel very sympathetic with his dislike of shallow pragmatism. It seems that self-help guides, the prosperity gospel, and cutesy little books attempting to answer vast questions are the big sellers in Christian bookstores.
Though I suspect Miller doesn’t intend to deceive his audience, at times he is too immersed in his own subjectivity to compel me to agree. I appreciate the depth of imagery with which he expresses his immediate situation; but in order to legitimate his struggles, he must ground them in reality, or at least address his own biases – not pontificate from the perspective of an outsider.
In fact, Miller mistakenly stereotypes Southerners similarly to the way he claims American evangelicals stereotype God. If you’re curious, I ask you to consider Miller’s claim that Dallas is a “big Republican” city. In, 2004, one year before Miller’s book was published, Dallas voted for Bush over Kerry by 50.3% to 49%. But the nation as a whole voted for Bush by 51%! So Dallas is actually a tad bit left of center. Moreover, it would do well to remember that Multnomah county, which includes Miller’ current home, Portland, voted for Kerry overwhelmingly by about 71%, with only 27% voting for Bush.
Most of the time, Through Painted Deserts isn’t like this. It is, first and foremost, a story. But I cite this problem because it’s clearly indicative of one of the goals of Miller’s book (as well as others he has written): to create a dichotomy between conservative Christians who are almost always hypocritical and his own liberal, “spiritual” perspective, which supposedly lends itself to openness, thoughtfulness, and integrity.
I enjoyed the book. Miller is a good writer. You might enjoy it too, especially if you enjoy memoirs. As a student of literature, I have a deep appreciation for Miller’s ability to write compelling stories about his life. But as much as I like it, I hasten to say that reading this book required me to exercise a fair amount of spiritual discernment.
But shouldn’t all books be that way?