A Million Miles in a Thousand Years – Book Review

Not too long ago, I completed Donald Miller’s 2009 release, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. The book deals with Miller re-telling the story of Blue Like Jazz, but this time as movie producers arrive on the scene showing interest in creating a film about the best seller. Click on the link to find out more about Blue Like Jazz The Movie.

I’ve read every book authored by Miller and this book follows in the same vein as the others – a very candid, honest, conversationally-natured account of specific happenings in his own life. What is unique about this book is that it gives a glance into Miller’s experience of rethinking, or rewriting, his own story as he and the producers prepare to edit and reinvent his life into a movie.

At first, the book bothered me. There was the usual dialogue that felt, for lack of a better word, somewhat immature. Some of the conversation laid out in the book seems more contrived rather than actual, real conversation. Or maybe it is actually crafted as such because Miller knew he would one day write about certain aspects of his life, and he wanted to continue to have his books appeal to his choice of audience. I give a rather annoying example:

Steve and Ben [the producers] left when the snow melted. And I got a contract from Steve a week later. I signed it and sent it back. Then they came again, with sleeping bags and notebook computers. Ben brought me a bottle of wine and handed it to me with a bow around it. Then he drank it that night at dinner. He wanted to go to the store, and I took him, and he looked around for olives. We were walking through Trader Joe’s, and he asked what it felt like to edit my life. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know. Just to dream it all up again. Everybody wants to go back, man. Everybody wants to make it right. We get to edit your story so it has punch and meaning. That has to be an incredible feeling.” I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t thought of it like that.

“It’s not like my life is real,” I said. “It’s just a movie.”

“That’s true, man,” he said, holding a jar of olives. “You can’t get your life back.” He stood in the aisle, as if he were reflecting. “It’s sad, but it’s deep.” He shook his head as though to grieve something. “What do I know, man? I’m just a cinematographer,” he finally said.

“No,” I said. “It’s true.” I was trying to comfort him or something. “We do get to edit a life. It’s a fake life, but maybe we will learn something we can apply to our real lives.” Ben nearly dropped the olives when I said that. I swear I thought he’d pull out a joint and light it right there in the aisle at Trader Joe’s.

“Beautiful, man. We will learn something.” He looked at the floor for a second as though to try to remember something, then looked up again. “I got my olives, man,” he said. “I just don’t think we need anything else from this store. I feel like we got the olives, but we got a whole lot more.”

“We should leave, then,” I said.

“We should pay for these first,” Ben said, holding up the jar. (p21-22)

At times, I just want to ask – Are these two high school sixteen year olds?

Now, as hinted at above, I am aware of what seems to be the normal audience that Miller writes for – a younger generation, as well as making this very easy and accessible to those searching for something spiritual in life. He wants his books to be accessible to the ‘non-religious’. I had hoped to include myself in that group. But I guess since some of this stuff annoys me, then I must be too religious. And I also thought I was part of the younger generation at the tender age of 31. Anyways, I digress…

But the book begins to get better and better as you move through it, especially around the half-way point. Some great thoughts were shared about the nature and importance of story. God is telling a story. Scripture is a story (not just a story, but still a story). Our lives are stories in the bigger story of God’s drama. And so I enjoy stories and I enjoy books that are not stories but can help us draw into the deeper story that God is telling.

So I will share some interesting thoughts that I found throughout the book, four to be specific, though there were more.

Here are some challenging thoughts for those who would believe life is meaningless:

I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants.

But I’ve noticed something. I’ve never walked out of a meaningless movie thinking all movies are meaningless. I only thought the movie I walked out on was meaningless. I wonder, then, if when people say life is meaningless, what they really mean is their lives are meaningless. I wonder if they’ve chosen to believe their whole existence is unremarkable, and are projecting their dreary life on the rest of us. (p59-60)

Miller shares similar thoughts later on:

I was watching the movie Star Wars recently and wondered what made that movie so good. Of course, there are a thousand reasons. But I also noticed that if I paused the DVD on any frame, I could point toward any major character and say exactly what that person wanted. No character had a vague ambition. It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want. (p113)

Below follow some thoughts on the difficulty of change:

I heard an interview on the radio with a women who worked with people in domestic abuse situations. She said most women who come to her for help go back to the situation they come out of, back to the man who abused them. When the interviewer asked why, the woman said that even though most women had family they could escape to and friends who would take them in, they returned to the abusive man because the situation, as bad as it might be, was familiar. People fear change, she said. Though their situations may be terrible, at least they have a sense of control; at least they know what to expect. Change presents a world of variables that are largely out of their control. And then the woman said this: “The women in these situations are afraid to choose a better story, because though their current situation might be bad, at least it’s a bad story they are familiar with. So they stay.” (p100-101)

Finally, after finishing a long and difficult trek through the Andes of Peru, Miller shares his insights on the significance of difficulty, pain and suffering in shaping our lives:

The pain made the city more beautiful. The story made us different characters than if we’d showed up at the ending an easier way. It made me think about the hard lives so many people have had, the sacrifices they’ve endured, and how those people will see heaven differently from those of us who have had easier lives. (p143)

What struggles and hurt and sufferings we walk through here, in this age, to conform us into the image of God’s Son, will make the city that is to come that much more beautiful, with the celebration of life in God’s presence that much more sweeter. I want to be faithful to learn in suffering, however that might look.

So, though I was disappointed with some of the dialogue earlier on in the book, I hope you can see there were some thought-provoking insights within the text. Will I read the next Miller book? Maybe. Probably so. Will I watch the Blue Like Jazz movie? I believe so. I only hope that Donald Miller can continue to write for and reach the people he desires, but with a slightly better conversation format.

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