To Donald Miller: An Open Letter

Dear Donald  Miller,
I think you're probably an okay dude.  I want to believe that you have reasons for your career endeavors.

I was really moved by Blue Like Jazz, and I'd like to think you're fairly progressive, even though you attend a church that won't allow women to be pastors.

But today, in my e-mail inbox, I got this monstrosity:

This is the ultimate problem, not only with you, Donald Miller, but for the whole Emerging/gent/postmodern/hipster movement I am a shameless part of: it's run by money above all else.  Book sales.  Speaker circuit.  Books-on-CD.  Video series.  I never called you a sellout for being a New York Times Bestseller.  I never called Brian McLaren one either.  I'm glad progressive Christian writing gets out there.  I want you to be successful!

But do you realize what it does to the whole damn movement when it's so clearly being run by capitalism?

We're supposed to learn how to die.

We're supposed to surrender.

We're supposed to give up our own power.

I can't tell you I have done a great job of giving up my power, but for the life of me, I'm trying.  I'm quite confident that the motivational circuit is not the place to start.

Donald Miller, I still think you're probably a cool dude.  I know people who know you.  I even met you once - you seemed down-to-earth.  But is this the natural progression of your gifts?  Is this where the rest of us are headed?  Take off your headset.  There's a lot of work to be done, and fueling Christian businesspeople and the Evangelical masses with progressive-sounding fodder only feeds the beast.  Don't let the publishers define you.  Keep working to help boys without fathers.  While you're at it, try picking up the cause of women, too, invisible in Christian culture.  Maybe think about advocating for your queer friends, too. 

You can do better.  I guess we all can.  I'll still read your book when I have the chance...


Liz said...

Peter - thank you for saying this so beautifully said...

"We're supposed to learn how to die."

Perfectly said. Never trust anyone selling anything. If some one offers you a formula for Christians to conquer the world, he's conveniently eased the dust off your feet. Move on to the next town.

Simon said...

While I agree with the sentiment, I can't help thinking you're aiming at the wrong target.

American Christianity has become a slick and well-marketed enterprise, and those who want to get a message out to a wide audience have to play the marketing game. Publishers demand it. Hell, churches demand it. They want to hear big-shot preachers and household names. Someone with an international speaking ministry is a better person than someone with a local speaking ministry. Someone who has sold a hundred thousand books is saying something better than the person who has sold ten thousand.

In short, American Christians do exactly what Americans do: they equate success with correctness. It's ripped straight from the culture. Evangelicals judge the worth of a person's ideas not by their deeds but by their sales figures.

It's horrible, it sucks, but there it is.

So I see your point: someone who is really putting over a revolutionary, counter-cultural message should be refusing to play the game. But if they do that, they're removing themselves from the environment that most needs to hear what they're saying.

A conundrum.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you've read his latest book which talks about writing your own story. It kinda seems like you haven't in which case I can understand you missing the point. His advert is probably not worded as well as it could be but I think you're reading more into it than you realise.

The whole write a better story thing isn't a live your best life idea of spouting nice things. It actually is a whole philosophy of dying to yourself by creating a life story that matters even if it means making your life more difficult along the way. It's heavily borrowed from Viktor Frankl who came up with a similar a concentration camp.

I would seriously urge you to read the book if you haven't and possibly even attend the talk (I've done the book won't be doing the talk but I didn't write him a big open letter)and make sure that you will still stand by what you're saying.

I don't read many Christian books because to be honest most of them feel like one good idea stretched out for a weak 100 pages so that the author could say they have a book. But Don's book was really in a different league. It's message is incredibly deep and incredibly spiritual. Don't just throw him in the self-help garbage category unless you're aware of what it is he's saying.

I can see why you would struggle with the idea of it being a pay to enter conference but instead of writing a reputation damaging open letter could you not write one that maybe asks why the costs are so high and what they're going towards. You never know you might get surprised by answer that isn't "Don's pocket".

Bad Alice said...

I think you are viewing Donald Miller purely in his role as a Christian writer and speaker, but this is coming from a different place. This advertisement looks like it is promoting a writer’s seminar, and it uses the language of any piece promoting a seminar. The points are laid out to emphasize practical application, because how else would you justify the cost of the seminar? Christianity and ministry aren’t even mentioned, here or on the website for the conference, and I assume that was a deliberate choice. I would say that he’s trying to attract a secular audience and that his teaching points are primarily about using narrative and story as self-help strategies. He himself has blogged about what commercialism and advertising do to faith, and I suppose that’s why this seems double-minded. I wouldn’t be too hard on him – he’s pitching his services the way many writers do.

But you touch on a valid problem. Christianity has whole-heartedly adopted the language of marketing and advertising, which appears to be the only way to compete with all the other consumer products and services out there. And that is the jist of the problem, isn’t it? Churches offer a “service” with lots of practical applications. They want to let you know they offer value, that they will enhance your life if you, too, start using Christianity. They will instruct you in the use of those tools so that you can get the maximum benefit. They also offer a convenient café, as well as a number of other attractions, such as multi-media performances and a fantastic kids program. After all, they know you can always go elsewhere.

Peter said...

Simon, I think you're really right about the target. It IS consumer culture that is the problem. But Don is willingly marketing/being marketed in that paradigm, which is a deliberate choice.

I think rather than saying, "that's just the way it is," Christians need to literally refuse to play that game. Even to their own career detriment. If churches demand it, let them have Osteen.

Anonymous, you're right, I haven't read his latest book. I read his first three books, and I think he's a gifted writer who clearly has a caring heart. My critique is on the advertisement, and the portrayal of his seminar, because that's what most folks will see.

Blue Like Jazz was a lovely book, but did you catch the Blue Like Jazz motivational quotes book sold in Walmart? How about the full Purpose Driven Life product line? No matter how spiritual we make it, these are products being developed first and foremost for a profit.

That said, I'm still open to reading the book. I don't think that's a contradiction.

Bad Alice, I hear you. I still go back to my earlier point in this comment: whether secular or a religious audience, I think it's problematic to play this sort of game. It's dangerous. It's already compromised too many well-intentioned Christian thinkers/writers/speakers/disciples.

I don't want to be too hard on Don, but this is honest (well-intentioned) feedback. He's sold enough books that he doesn't really need to pitch his services the way many writers do.

And if, as Anonymous says, the money isn't going into Don's pocket (which wouldn't surprise me either - except for his publisher's cut) it should be pitched as a fundraiser for whatever cause or organization. At least that contextualizes things in the midst of slick advertising and energizing photos.

I'm not Don's judge. But as I said, I think he's better than this.

Ultimately, I am directing my vehemence at the industry that creates Christianized boy bands, rock stars, sex icons, gangsta rappers, romance novels, self-help books and motivational speakers.

Peter said...

In the interest of both better dialogue and self-reflection, I thought I'd share an e-mail comment from an online friend. He suggested:

* * *

- Don't scream. It makes you look more angry than loving.

- Ask questions instead of writing an open letter that Donal Miller will probably not read.

- Use your aversion to check yourself rather than judging him.

* * *

While I didn't feel I was screaming, the point is well taken: text is hard to infer tone from. That's why I worked so hard to affirm Don as a person, and as a writer - my "beef" is with his motivational speaking and with the broader commercial Christian marketplace.

I do try to check myself and take responsibility/accept guilt whenever I can. I think my writing, for all its rants and indignance, does convey this. I want to convey the ethos that we're all on this journey and that I'm struggling too: "I can't tell you I have done a great job of giving up my power, but for the life of me, I'm trying."

I concluded with, "You can do better. I guess we all can." Which is really true - no "I guess" about it. We can all do much better. And should.

This sort of feedback is a healthy reminder for me that I need to be aware that my voice doesn't always come off as I intend. Did I want to be provocative? Yes. Funny and a little sarcastic? Absolutely. But screaming, arrogant or mean-spirited? Not at all.

Thanks for the word, brother.

Brent said...

That's funny, Viktor Frankl has been borrowed from countless times. M. Scott Peck's Road Less Traveled is another book. I read an interview when Frankl was asked about these imitations, he said with a dismissive wave, "it is no matter. Better that they should borrow from logotherapy than use their own nonsense." It's admirable that Frankl was more concerned with good concepts being promoted than his own ego being puffed by recognition. If Miller's book is a close imitation of Frankl's, I would suggest just reading Frankl's Man Search For Meaning first.

Pete, I do share your disdain for the marketing of Christianity but I think its a little bold to say they are developed first and foremost for a profit. Do you really know the authors true motivation? Just as your own writing endeavors are sincere in their inception, I believe Millers could also be.

I can't say if what Miller is doing is harmful or not. Just as I can't say what you do is harmful or not. I simply don't know.

Peter said...

No, not the author's motivation - the motivations of Christian publishing and the general Christian marketplace. Emergent/Pomo-Hipster Incorporated.

I meant it when I said I think Miller is probably an okay dude, and has better intentions than generating profit for a corporation.

Brent said...

Yeah, your right. There is something unpleasant about this marketing.

I like your rant on "Christians do not need"

I will admit I have read a FEW books by Christians that have changed my thinking for the better. But for me the book has always been referred by a friend or parent.

Brent said...

Oops. the best books have always been referred...

Anonymous said...

As a published writer, Peter hits on a dilemma that faces anyone who is in this biz - how do those of us with a message to get across do so in a way without becoming part of a crass Christian marketing machine? Here I turn to writers like Ann Lamott and Phyllis Tickle, two highly respected religious writers who have established very successful careers are author/speakers without being branded and selling out.

- Becky Garrison

Peter said...

Thanks for stopping in, Becky!

Rhiannon Y Orizaga said...

I'm with Brent, why not just read Frankl's book? As a literary snob myself I think anybody who is dumb enough to spend money on "Christian" supplies they don't need is the real source of harm. Furthermore, what is it with Christians and these theological self-help books? I feel like a lot of Christians can't even be bothered to pick up a book unless it's going to tell them what to think. Most Christians I talk to honestly don't understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction, or between theory and truth. It's embarassing!

Eric said...

I love Brian McLaren but I have the same problem with him ... especially his blog. It seems like every post is just an excuse to link to one of his books.

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