Monday, November 27, 2006

Donald Miller Interview

As many of you know, I got to tag along as a friend of mine, James Brown, got to interview Donald Miller, the author of Blue Like Jazz, back in September. I wrote about it here. finally, after the editing of the video is done and a copy made it into my hand, and I was able to transfer it to text, I am now posting the transcript of the interview. I tried unsuccessfully to post the video on myspace or youtube, but it is 3 times the maximum limit for space. I will continue to look into converting the video into a smaller format so I can post it on here for you guys. The transcript is not the best substitute, but you get the meat of what he is saying.

The interview was very conversational, so I did my best to keep it accurate. Unfortunately, that results in some grammatical issues and run on sentences. Please forgive that for now. I felt it was more important to keep it as close to the original as possible. I have added my own commentary in italics, if you care. If not, please feel free to skip over it. Also, forgive me as it is very, very long. I thought about posting it in 2 or 3 parts, but decided to just give you the whole thing and not mess with the flow by breaking it up. This is the longest post ever, but I think it is worth reading. Thanks ahead of time for reading it and I hope you enjoy. Let me know what you thought.

James Brown: Hey everybody, we are here with Donald Miller, and we are here to take a look at his book Blue like Jazz. Thanks so much, Donald, for coming…

Donald: Good to be here.

JB: …and spending some time with us. I don’t know if our community knows that much about you, so if you could tell them a few things about who you are; the essence of your being, what would you tell them?

DM: I love cats. I have over 50 cats in my house at all times.

JB: Really!? It must smell really good.

DM: When I come home. I’ve been gone for 3 weeks and they haven’t been out.

JB: Really? (laughs)

DM: I doubt it. But I love cats. My whole life is about cats. Cat posters, ceramic cats, cat snow globes. I collect cat things.

JB: Wow!

DM: Yeah.

JB: Well, my name is James Brown, I introduced myself earlier, but my dog I had for a little bit, his name was Ray Charles, so the two of us together made a fantastic pair.

DM: (laughs) I would imagine…that’s great.

The Interview started off on a fun note. If you couldn’t tell, Donald was making all of that stuff about the cats up as a joke (he confessed later off camera). Although, in a weird way, he did answer the question. He did give us a look at who he is as a person…because that’s him. He is a joker and likes to keep people on their toes. He also likes to make people a little uncomfortable, and you must admit that you were about half way through his story. Donald is a fun guy, and that is seen early on in the interview.

JB: So the title of your book is Blue Like Jazz. Can you tell us a little bit about the title, why you picked that?

DM: Yeah, ya know it’s not the greatest story ever but it was the working title. Usually if I’m working on a book it has a working title, then we come up with another title later when the book is done. So, we sat around for a couple hours, me and a bunch of marketing people, and we tried to come up with another title, but we couldn’t. We couldn’t think of one: most of them were very cheesy. So, Blue Like Jazz was the title we gave the book as a way of giving up on it. We literally were saying, “Well, let’s just throw it away and call it Blue Like Jazz.” And, I’m glad we kept it. I always liked it and wanted it but didn’t think I was going to get my way. Sometimes you don’t. And, uh, we kept it, and I really liked it because it is just a great metaphor for the idea…it makes sense to people, “Blue Like Jazz”, and yet it doesn’t make any sense at all. And sometimes that’s the way that not only faith works, but relational dynamics work that way too. We can’t really explain it, but you just sort of get it.

JB: It’s kind of a metaphor for it.

DM: Yeah. A metaphor for what faith actually is.

I love his explanation of the title for a couple of reasons. First, it gives us a bit of background as to the history of the book: that it was being given up on etc. We Americans like a story where an underdog prevails, and this book is sort of like that. Secondly, I love that even the title, he admits, is a metaphor. I feel that one of the things that Donald does best is attach metaphors to faith issues. He does that, even with the title. I also like the whole idea where he admits it makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense at all. His writing echoes that in places, and I think it is quite beautiful.

JB: Very cool. Also one of the things I thought was interesting about the book was the subtitle, in addition to the title, which is “nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality.” I’m curious, why do we need nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality?

DM: I don’t know that we need them. That’s just what it is. Ya know, that’s just what the book is. I’m not certain that we need them or that it’s better than something else or anything like that. I think that’s where I was when I lived the stories that were in the book, um, I think I was tired of religion, ya know, I was tired of trying to earn something with God. I was tired of what religion meant in a political sense, at least in our culture. And, I wanted faith, I wanted spirituality outside of the trappings of what religion meant, and religion has meant many different things throughout history. But, for me, in my context, it didn’t mean very many good things that I wanted, and yet I didn’t want to throw God out. I wanted that. So I just tried to explore what a relationship with God looked like outside of some of those religious trappings. And the book is a series of stories of what I’ve found.

Donald really hits on something here. More and more people are giving up on religion…myself included, because of what it has come to mean in our culture. I like how he says he was tired of trying to “Earn something with God.” I think we need to guard against religion and focus on a relationship with our God, which is exactly what Donald is doing. You’ll be happy to know, as I was, that he did go back to the church, something he talks a lot about in BLJ. I think the danger in people getting fed up with religion is that they will abandon the church and try to do it on their own, which almost never works and is seldom a healthy alternative. Donald is a good example of how to leave religion without turning your back on God or the church.

JB: With that being said, did you have an audience in mind when you were writing the book?

DM: No, I didn’t. And I normally don’t. I think that when you’re writing, you want to write to yourself and you hope that if you think it’s funny, someone else will think it’s funny. If you think it’s beautiful someone else will think it’s beautiful. And what’s great about that is that you’re not trying to sell anything. If you have an audience in mind you’re trying to sell something to them, and instead you’re just sharing your life and your story and your thoughts. And the other thing that is great about that is the people who are touched by that, you tend to click pretty well with those people. It’s a nice benefit of being yourself, of trying to be yourself at least, in your work.

This is the first place we see Donald mention this idea about phoniness and the beauty in being yourself etc. I agree with him on this issue. I think we have become too much of a salesman type culture. It is refreshing to me to hear him say that he was just writing to himself. I feel that is what I do in this blog…write to myself and hope others come along for the ride. Interesting thoughts.

JB: Tonight’s our kickoff for meal groups. One of the values for our meal groups is the idea of community, and I know that in your book you talked about the community you had with the fellow Christians at Reed College, and then those that you lived with in Oregon. What is it about community? What is it that our people should strive for as they begin these meal groups?

DM: (laughs) I don’t know. That’s not unlike saying “What does it look like to be in love?” It looks a million different ways to a million different people. Um…I think we’re obsessed with doing things right. And our obsession with doing things right illustrates our bad theology. It really does. It illustrates our desire for redemption outside of Christ. To some degree…this is getting much too complicated. I should just give you a simple answer like “people are happy” [in community].

This was a hard part to edit. He doesn’t really answer the question, but his reaction to the question is good enough to include. He talked a bit more about this later, off camera, but the point we should take from Donald is that community is not created with an easy formula, and our attempts to boil it down to an easy formula are sorely lacking.

JB: This book has obviously resonated with a lot of people, both religious and nonreligious people. People who have been in the church for years, and people that I interact with in a coffee shop that would never consider themselves to be in a relationship with God, but it resonates with them. The book seems to be for “now,” at this very moment. Is there something in culture that you recognize that this is resonating with?

DM: Well, I’m not sure what it is that people are responding to. I think…I think, ya know, when writing the book, I didn’t really expect that many people would read it, so there is a level of honesty there that you normally only reserve for your closest friends, and I think that’s part of it, which really tells us something about relationships, that it pays to be honest and be who you are. And, you lose some people, but those people you never would have had anyway, ya know, unless you were fake. And, so there is a level of vulnerability in the book, that, ya know…it taught me a lot, to do that and not know that anybody would read it, and then to have it take off has told me that it’s okay to just kinda be who you are; to at least try.

JB: So this idea of gut level honesty is really appealing. We don’t have that on a day to day basis in our relationships.

DM: No. Think about our culture; everything is fake. Everything is a spin on some half truth. So, we’re being sold products all the time. And in order to sell a product you spin; you point out the benefits and not the reality of what you’re actually going to get. So we encounter this all the time. Our politicians give us half truths …or they can’t get elected if they told us the truth. Um, unless you’re in Minnesota, apparently. You can get elected if you tell the truth. (laughs). Which in a funny way is really great. And, so I think it is so refreshing when someone comes along and they just tell the truth. It’s hard at first. I have a friend who just let me in on some difficulty in his life, not necessarily dark or anything like that, but I just found myself for the month or so after he told me about all this stuff kind of not wanting to talk to him, ‘cause I like things being [neat]…and then suddenly it occurred to me that everybody has this stuff and this guy just actually has the guts to be honest with me. And now I find myself drawn to that friendship and finding it to be real; that this is what I want. I don’t want the pottery barn catalog version of friendships, ya know. I want real life with baby toys around and cheerios. And the Pottery barn lamp is nice, but ya know.

JB: There’s a beauty in that.

DM: There is! There’s a beauty in reality. It’s an acquired taste. It’s not something that immediately you like. But once you acquire a taste for reality, for no BS, no spin, you actually lose your taste for all the sugar that we are constantly being fed, all the spin. And I think we have to break through that in community, in meal groups, whatever, we have to break through the spin and we have to go, “What am I really dealing with?” ya know, and “What’s really going on, both positive and negative?” and not delve into the negative and live in that place, ‘cause there’s so much hope that God gives us, but, at the same time to go, “Here’s where I really am.” “Here’s who I am” and “Here’s what I need” and we find true friendships in those places.

This string of dialogue is my favorite in our time with Donald Miller. He makes some great points about our culture and the relationships we have. You see how he has this hunger for truth and honesty, and this very strong distaste for “pitch” and “spin” and those sorts of things associated with selling a product. One of his primary messages, which he doesn’t connect here, is that god is not a product for us to sell: he is a Father we can choose to relate to and have a relationship with. I think that is a great thing to keep in mind for those of us in church work. How often do we sell Jesus as savior, but leave out the part where he says “Pick up your cross and follow me” or “all men will hate you because of me.” We have been selling Jesus as a self help manual, and it isn’t working. May we not spin Jesus. May we offer him to people in all of his humility and all of his offense.

JB: So as we wrap up with Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, are there any concluding thoughts for us?

DM: No, just have a great time. Meal groups are…I mean the idea of sitting around, together, with a group of people, is the closest picture that we have to the ancient church. It really is. Ya know, we go to these ancient cathedrals in Europe and we think “Oh, this church is a thousand years old” and “The way they did things…”. It is incredibly far removed from the actual church that the apostles started, which looked just like meal groups. They weren’t reading Blue Like Jazz back then. But, ya know, if you had the books they were reading back then they would be in Greek and we wouldn’t understand them anyway. Blue Like Jazz is in English (laughs). But have fun, and I think You’ll find God in those places.

It is good to see Donald point back to the ancient church like this…something we could all do more. It is also appropriate that he ends on a light, humorous note. That is Donald. I find it interesting that his goal, as it appears here, is “finding God.” What a great goal. May we vow to find God in whatever way we can and, if we do, I think we have found a great thing.

JB: Excellent. Thank you so much.

DM: Thank you.

1 comment:

Tylor said...

You could use Google Video. If you use there upload tool there is no size or time limit.