A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

About a decade ago, I read books by Christian authors with Christian themes. Especially the popular ones, like In the Grip of Grace by Max Lucado and I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. The former was a cut and paste of legitimate authors like C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine and the later ruined my life. (Okay, maybe I’m still thinking from the perspective of a teenager prone to dramatic statement like that, but I would not recommend it.) After bad experiences like these, I gave up and basically swore never to read another so-called Christian book ever again.

However, my friend Becky is able to get me to try things I had closed my mind to, such as reading the Twilight series. Or even dressing up as a Twilight character. She recommended A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, which I never would have even picked up to look at in the book store. Not that it is a Christian book per se, but his previous works were. What drew me to Miller’s most recent book, though, is the theme.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is about editing your life. And as you know, if you’ve looked around my blog, I love me some editing. “Can you even do that – edit your life?” I expectantly wondered, when I saw the subtitle, “What I Learned While Editing My Life.” Well, yes and no.

Miller finds himself in a unique position of being able to edit his life story for a film memoir and writes about the process and his discoveries. The author is not some sci-fi geek who believes one can actually go back in time to change one’s decisions. (Believe me, I was severely disappointed he had not indeed made the discovery of time travel and was going to share the secret of how to truly edit one’s life.) But as Miller learns about what makes a good story, he realizes his current life is lame and needs a makeover.

What Miller essentially asks is, “If one can edit the story of his life for story-telling purposes, why can’t he apply those same principles to day-to-day living?” He tests his hypothesis and the results are very satisfactory: he pursues a girl he’s interested at the risk of a broken heart, goes hiking in South America, bikes across America, founds a charitable organization and meets amazing characters.

Not that I think everyone’s story will look similar, but let’s face it, if you are a single man in his mid-thirties or whatever and a flexible work schedule, shouldn’t you be doing stuff like this? Either Miller is totally honest and even as an already successful writer he really is a lame duck at the beginning of this book or he is self-depreciating. Either way, he is a fantastic writer because I began the reading of this book basically loathing his character. I’m surprised I even kept reading, that’s how much of a jerk he makes himself out to be. Don might as well be in his underwear eating Cheetos and watching a football game, that’s how much of a loser he seems. (Disclaimer: I do not condemn watching football. Or being in your underwear, as long as you also wear clothing. In fact, you should wear underwear. As to Cheetos, may I point you to the back of the bag? Or the orange fingers?)

But by the end of the book, I was thinking this guy is brilliant and has valuable pointers for my own life. Brilliant except for one thing – he seems to know absolutely nothing about story until he talks to the producers of the film about his life and goes to a writing conference. Is this another gimmick like the subtitle or self-depreciating descriptions? Or did he truly manage to skip all this English classes and know enough to publish in another genre? However and whenever he learns about it, Miller highlights the elements of story that can make one’s own life an exciting one to tell.

Again, your life might not look like the adventurist/charity founder’s when you’ve begun to write your story, but I highly recommend reading A Million Miles… even if you already think you are living up to your potential – you might be surprised at some of his conclusions – and taking charge of your own story, that is, taking charge of your own life. Although writing such an epic can be daunting, I’m excited about writing mine. I’m still at the part where you figure out what makes your character tick, but that’s okay. Some great stories take decades to write. Maybe I can start a writer’s circle/support group. Or something.

Stuff Christians Like

If you haven’t read the website Stuff Christians Like, you should. It’s a blog that parodies Christian culture exactly the way Stuff White People Like parodies yuppy culture. Only Jon Acuff, author of the rip off, posts more often. (What is Christian Lander doing these days anyway?) And while Lander, of SWPL, scientifically analyzes White People in order to give minorities hilarious advice, Acuff’s satire is targeted more towards those it pokes at, with fun lists to check whether or not the topics apply to you, and more purposeful – as the author puts it, he tries to “clear away the clutter of Christianity, so people can see Christ.”

The blog is now a book, with the most popular posts, such as the “Side Hug” and some original essays, making it all the website is and more. The first essay, written for the book, is entitled, “Ranking Honeymoon Sex Slightly Higher than the Second Coming of Christ.” I let my father-in-law, a preacher, borrow this book and he opened it immediately. Suddenly, he was laughing so hard he could hardly breathe (which is kind of scary, since he’s had heart problems in the past); all of us present at the time of me handing him the book switched to alert mode, ready to dial 911. When he finally composed himself, he said, “The…first…chapter!” My husband and I smiled wryly and my mother-in-law looked puzzled, as if to say, “What on earth can be that funny?” When my father-in-law finally blurted out the title, he followed it up with, “You don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘I just want to have sex first and then Christ can return!’”

As I said before, these essays are targeted towards those on the inside to help them see how ridiculous they can be. It’s almost like looking at oneself from the outside and I don’t doubt that many non-evangelical Christians or non-Christians will find the book just as entertaining I and my Christian friends did. If you’re reading this and you don’t get the above paragraph because you can’t relate and don’t have a Christian friend or co-worker, well, this book explains a lot of those weird bumper stickers. Although you may still need a guide at times. And you must be brave, my friend, very brave.

If you are reading this and you can relate to the “Side Hug” or “Ranking Honeymoon Sex Slightly Higher than the Second Coming of Christ,” well, this book is definitely for you. You will laugh but you will also grit your teeth. You will feel conviction and you will feel righteous indignation. But most of all, you will see the Church as Christ sees her, I think, because Acuff doesn’t get nasty and I think God also has a sense of humor. It can’t be easy, stripping people naked and then making them laugh yet properly ashamed of how they look rather than feeling humiliated and/or angry. But this is what Acuff does and continues to do on his blog every day.

The Harry Potter Series

Wow, lofty goal, that – tackling the entire Harry Potter series – and while I don’t expect this review to compete with others, I’m still a little nervous. I’ve never read an entire review of the infamous book series about a boy wizard, but I’d have to live in a cave to not hear things. And I’m going to start off by making a bold statement: everything I heard was wrong. The Harry Potter books are not books of the occult, nor are they an attempt to convert to Christianity. They’re not children’s books, nor are they adult books just because of their theme. They’re not for nerds and they’re not for the masses. They’re both in and outside most of these things (the exceptions being the first paired statements). Publishers and readers recognize J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece for what it is, that something called timeless classic. That’s why the author was offered an unheard of amount for her first big hit, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as it is known in the U.S.). That’s why it has millions upon millions of readers. It is not some well-designed conspiracy.

That said, it is true that the central theme of the series is death. And it’s also true it’s about conquering death through sacrificial love. It’s true that the series starts with an 11-year-old protagonist, but as he grows, so does the writing style, the depth of the mystery and the number of subplots and themes. This is actually a brilliant understanding of point of view. It’s true that geeks can latch onto a whole word of people, places, objects, subjects and spells. But Rowling’s knowledge of the world she has created – full of both old legend and fresh imagination – is one of the ways she creates a subversive fantasy adventure.

Another way in which Rowling grabs our attention is by grabbing our hearts with her characters. Sure, Severus Snape, one of the antagonists (or protagonists?) is right; Harry is indeed a snide, sneaky, sub-par student. But he’s confident enough to stand up to evil and humble enough to embrace remorse for his wrongdoings. And his average talents are what makes his victories so worth watching. He can’t defeat the Dark Lord alone; he needs his friends, who make up for his weaknesses.

Hermoine Granger, Harry’s female friend, makes up for most of his weaknesses. She’s clever, talented, sympathetic and scrupulous. It is she who prevents capture by quick-thinking and keeps Harry to his goal by her unabashed nagging.

Ron Weasley is the less gifted, principled, intelligent – well, everything – of the bunch, except that he’s the most humble and proves that fame (for Harry is already famous in the wizarding world when he enters it at age eleven) and success (Hermoine is the top student in their class) aren’t everything and friendship and love is both the reason and the means of fighting evil.

Among this trio of youngsters is a whole supporting cast of stern yet motherly figures, boyish yet sober father figures and more loyal friends. And all must stand up against the powerful and prideful Dark Lord, his faithful followers and the cowardly who seek protection in his shadow. Even these characters are portrayed so as to empathize with a tiny portion of their mistakes or plights.

It’s not just because of our love of her characters that Rowling is able to maintain the suspense throughout the series. Harry’s job is to survive, again and again, from the Dark Lord’s attempts to murder him. At the end of each of his school years, when Harry is traveling home for the summer, readers feel the tension that is the calm before the storm and the suspense mounts with each year. (Each book follows a year of Harry’s life.) We know that eventually, when Harry is of age, he will have his final battle with Lord Voldemort. It’s the suspense, wound with the desire to solve mysteries in the plot, that keep us turning pages as fast as we can while still absorbing enough information to understand the action.

The mystery element of the series is perhaps my favorite. I know she’s been compared to C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien but I’m not sure whether Rowling has gotten due credit for this other talent. One of the issues I have with most mystery writers is that they withhold information until the mystery is solved. Rowling never does this. All the clues are present before the explanation of how the puzzle was solved. The reader has to be observant to catch the clue but never has to pull at straws and it is so sublimely satisfying to reach a correct conclusion “on one’s own,” it’s like a drug. (Ya know, like chocolate, which by the way is mentioned in the Harry Potter books as a magical cure for sadness. I knew it!)

Basically my only complaint with the series is the resolution. A lot is resolved in the midst of action and when the action ends, there’s kind of a feeling of being dumped. Rowling does add an epilogue but only explains what happens to a choice few characters, most of whom are new (and we don’t really care about those, do we? No, we care about the ones with which we faced death – or, er, felt like it.) It’s just heart-wrenching, having those characters we cared about leave us without a proper goodbye. Or was that just me?