Friday, April 18, 2008

Donald Miller: Dazzling the World with Good Stories and Big Amygdalas

"People often ask me questions about the emerging church...I don't know anything. They ask me if the church I go to is emerging. I have no idea. But we have some people who smoke; that may make it emerging...I don't know." -Donald Miller, yesterday

Here's just a very few quick peeks into my notes from Donald Miller
(if you are new to Miller's writings, there are samples here on his site, and on our forum well as a Christianity Today piece here, and video interview of him here) at the FPU Ministry Forum yesterday. You'll have to wait for Sts Derek, Mike, Tim ,Tom or Ryan..or others who were there to post more; and better stuff than me. These guys all have amygdaloids that are bigger than mine....

Uh, I'd better explain:

Having just this week discovered The Amygdaloids, the rock band of neuroscientist professors who create songs (stories) about the amygdala and the "emotional brain," I was thrilled Miller spent so much time on story and the amygdaloid.

It hit me that we who prefer this emerging/postmodern/narrative way to the traditional/modernity/propositional truth way are in danger of the sense of "My amygdala is bigger than yours." Miller, in an amazing way, gets away with basically bashing the old model by doing it with love....and seeing some truth in the old school/wineskin.

Of course the classic question at classic pastor's conferences is "Nice to meet you. How big is your church?" And the fact that the classic question at classic/emerging/organic conferences is sometimes almost "How small is your church?" with the expectation that we measure up only if our church is "biblically" small, doesn't make us any less idolatrous. And we can be even more guilty of numerology, edifice complex, pianist-envy and other spiritualizing covers for sexualizing the sheep...

For some reason, i was connecting Miller's message with Steve Taylor's loving but biting critiques of traditional church/clergry embedded in fthe "Squint" CD ("Welcome to our church.. We can help you evolve from merely self-righteous
To perfectly smug
" for example) . I didn't remember right now when I googled Miller that Steve Taylor is one of the two writers/producer's of the film being made on Miller's "Blue Like Jazz." Taylor's "Finish Line" lyric about "Caught in a washroom and turning old tricks/Death and joyless and full of it" is not directly (?) aimed at pastors, but sure describes us when we cave into the lifeless and angry defense of propositonal truth we fall into.

One of Miller's basic messages was that we are indeed "Caught in a washroom and turning old tricks/Death and joyless and full of it" when we act like that. But he would never say it so cruelly. He snuck the truth in through story like a good subversive poet.

His message was the power of narrative and story not only in preaching, but all of life; as the Bible is narrative story. We get to tell alternative stories, which (neurologically speaking) actually adjust and reset the moral compass of those around us."

As opposed to five propositional thruths that don't transform.

"Why would God put together a Bible of narratives without stopping to say 'Here's the point':
Five stones David threw at Goliath...Oh, The five stones are time, talent, treasure, tithe....
If that (drawing propositional truths out of context out of the narrative) is the point, why didn't God tell us?"

"There aren't 'five keys to a biblical marriage', anyway; there are thousands of them, and they are always changing."...

"If we control the stories in a culture, we can guide the culture."

Robert McKee's studies suggest there is a moral compass in everyone's brain; and (for right or wrong), story sets and readjusts that compass (correctly or incorrectly).

Instead of saying to preachers, 'Find five propositional truths or steps or keys in this text (this is driven not by God but by commercialism/empire/success, the dominant story in our culture) God says:

1)Here's your exposition: earth.
2.)I'll set the compass.
3)Here's a pen. Tell a story!

Propositional truth has its place (Proverbs, Romans), but a different kind of power than narrative truths. We need truth AND meaning.

Say you are on a date (preacherman); candlelight dinner, romantic atmosphere. What would your girl do if you passed her a note that said:

1)You are 5'6"
2)You have brown eyes
(Five factual propositional truths)..

She would say angrily "What is this?!"

You would say angrily, "That is the truth!"...and angrily defend it.

That is a sad picture of us preacher types!

"You don't feel anything in your heart...

unless you are having a heart attack or just ran too fast.
The Enlightenment cut out the amygdala (the emotional feeling part of the brain) and called it the heart. Now we think thruth happens in scientific method."

Miller's church, Imago Dei, is delightfully subversive for a fairly large church:

1)They actually tuned down a building after years of meeting in a school and looking for one. they did accept it, but turned it int a community center.

2)When busting at the seems and "obviously" needing to add another service, the pastor was asked (by Miller):" What are we going to do?"


"We'll just stop growing."

3)They decided to tell a different/alternative story to the dominant Christian story in culture and church culture: Go in debt to celebrate the Birth of Jesus.
The church cut a deal about Advent over ten years ago: Don't go into debt; Make presents..put thought into them; Take the money you saved (minus debt) and give to build wells in Africa.

For one this simply tells an alternate and compelling story.
For two, it sure beats the culture wars approach: Protest WalMart for replacing 'Christ" with 'X' on tags of stuff made by slaves in China.

For three, this project, "Advent Conspiracy" now is able to give billions of dollars a year to the Africa project. All because one guy decided it was time to tell a different story.

...Miller offered a "closing benediction...from an agnostic" (McKee):

"Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Keep Story at hand. Use what you learn from it as a guide, until command of its principles becomes as natural as the talent you were born with. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world." ("Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting", Robert McKee, p. 419,) .


  1. Thanks for posting this, Dave.

    And I love Squint. "Jesus is for Losers." "Easy Listening." So many great songs.

  2. Mike:

    i tried to text you towards the end of the event to see where you were sitting...but the devil..or God...or Verizon..wouldn't deliver the message.

  3. Hi Dave.
    Thankful for this post.

    God bless you.


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!