Searching For Don Knows What

At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I liked Donald Miller before he was famous, and now––thanks to my friend Amy––I fear he’s selling out.

First, my true-blue-fan cred: I met him 3 years before Blue Like Jazz was published. Great guy. He came to speak at a Summit College reunion at my childhood camp in Huntsville, Ontario (Summit was a one year outdoor adventure/Bible/leadership program that I did after high school). I liked his talk so much––about how we carry around needless baggage like giant rocks in our hiking packs (a talk well suited for us outdoorsy folk)––that I bought his first book called Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance (later released as Through Painted Deserts). As I read though this journal about his road trip from Texas to Oregon in a broken-down VW van, I remember thinking this guy is wonderful. He had such a unique, laugh-out-loud funny, comforting voice, and told so many great stories, that I was sad when it was finished. I later I lent it to a boy I liked, trying to impress him with the fact that I read cool stuff, and never got it back. Which sucks because in addition to being a great story, that first cover was way better than the re-published one.

I was ecstatic when Blue Like Jazz came out 3 years later and gobbled down every delicious, witty, insightful morsel. I lent it to all my friends who didn’t believe, to prove Christian spirituality could be about freedom and love and light, and they liked it. Since then, I’ve read all his books (OK, except the fathering one), and each one felt like I was spending time with a hilariously self-depreciating, ruthlessly honest, wise friend. I resonated deeply with his self-described “fundamentalist phase” in Blue Like Jazz (Oh MAN was I ever fundy back in my early 20s! Sorry Justin Broadbent, my YWAM team and anyone else I pissed off). I loved how his friends at college made a confessional booth, dressed up as monks, and then during a campus-wide party night gave confessions to students on behalf of Christians who have done a lot of hurtful things. I may have shed a tear, I’m not gonna lie.

I understood his frustration with mainstream, formulaic Christian spirituality in Searching for God Knows What. I appreciated his call for something better (something to do with allowing God’s love to be your chill-pill to help you to live authentically). I even day-dreamed about going to his church in Portland and tricking the man to fall in love with me, as I know he loves Canadian girls, Ani DiFranco, and chicks who don’t wear shoes (two outta three ain’t bad). He got me reading Anne Lamott (an older, wiser, funnier female version of him), whose brilliant writing has saved and comforted me in more ways than I can say.

And his latest book was great, though horribly named because everyone always screws up the title (A Thousand Miles in a Million Years? A Million Miles in a Thousand Years?) It made me think, laugh, cry, and even got me thinking about how to live my own story with more… intentionality. Shortly after, he even added me on Facebook (well, ok, he responded to my plea of a friend request, and then wrote on my wall saying he remembered giving that first Summit College talk), but then a few days later I noticed we were no longer friends. I like to tell people that he probably had to make room for real people in his life, as apparently you can only have like 3000 friends before you have to get a Fan Page, but I really just made that up. I have no idea why my favourite author de-friended me.

Despite this heartbreak, I was excited when I found out that his Storyline Conference would be happening when my friend Amy and I will be driving through Portland on a west coast road trip. My other friend Sam and his friends are going too, and we could possibly all drive down from Vancouver together. I sent Amy the link to the conference, as she has always liked his books too, and also because she’s about the smartest person I know (she’s doing a PhD in Anthropology of Religion)–so she’d be fun to go with. I waited about a day, and got an email back saying that she had seen that about a month ago and knew I would want to go, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. She studies Christian behaviour for a living, you see, and she needed a break from this on her holiday. But there was another reason she mentioned that I didn’t understand. I called her so that she could explain over the phone.

“Well,” she sighed. “I just––I think he’s selling out.”

“What?” I asked. “How come?”

“I don’t know. Remember when he wrote all that stuff about how Christianity isn’t a formula, or about checking off boxes of a to-do list? And we believed him. Our 20-year-old selves needed to hear that and we believed him. But now he’s charging $250 to sit in an auditorium for two days so that they can learn––wait, what does the website say?–– ‘the elements of a meaningful life and gain practical tools to plan a better story for yourself, your team and the people you lead’?”

“Oh. Yeah I never thought of that.”

“It’s says there’ll be worksheets and workbooks and ‘reflective assignments’? It’s like he’s figured out that this is how you make money as a Christian author. You tell people: ‘This is what you need to know. This will save your life.’ And that’s the way things are in the world, I get it. But hearing whatever he says in two days isn’t going to magically make everything OK. So I’d rather not pretend it will…”

I was a bit taken aback, and stammered out a bit of a pathetic defense: “Well, yeah, but I feel a little lost in my own story right now. It could be used as a, I don’t know, tool (I cringed as I said this word) to, you know, help me out.”

“Yeah, but you already do all of the stuff he’s says he’ll teach you! You read. You reflect. You study at Regent! You’re inspired to change the world by a thousand different things. You think about who you are and what you should do all the time. And it costs way more and way less than $250; it takes way more and way less than a weekend. But hey, honestly, I don’t need to dissuade you. You don’t need to be as cynical as me! You should go…I just can’t.”

I sighed and told Amy that I’d think about it and let her know. Hanging up, I was instantly depressed. She raised a really good point. As I look more at the website, it does seem to be implying that there is a formula to follow––a storyline––to help you improve your life and be a better Christian.

But wait, this post on his blog seems to suggest that Christians don’t need to know about stuff! From academics. Just him, I guess.  (Best response to that post I’ve read is here.)

However. I’d like to think that the man is not this deluded all of a sudden. In a short video on the conference website, he does seem to think its a really cool thing for people to come and think about their life’s story for a few days, and how it intersects with God’s story. And I agree, kinda. But to charge so much money for a workbook and a few hours of hearing him talk? And marketing it like a quick, self-help solution to your problems, like it’s that simple? How can he forget whole books that he’s written? I don’t know–perhaps it’s just the way the publishers and conference folk have marketed it? I just don’t know.

Ok wait–I just saw that the first screening of the Blue Like Jazz movie will be at the conference!! Oh man I REALLY want to see that!!! But, but…

Argh. So now the question is:

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12 Responses to “Searching For Don Knows What”


  1. 1 Sam May 3, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    hmm… she does raise good points… I just want to go on a road trip with some friends, meet Don, reconnect with Mike Hyatt, and have some good discussions. I can afford it without too much trouble, but it is a lot of money if you’re not working! I think he’ll surprise us, and it won’t be all formulaic and what not. He just has to present it that way to convince the right brain types to come (or is it left brain?).

    • 2 joyforaweek May 3, 2011 at 3:09 pm

      yeah, i hear ya Sam. You have extra reasons to go too, which are worthwhile. But as for me? I really want to see the Blue Like Jazz movie, and it would be fun to meet Don again, especially since I’ve read all the man’s books since the last time we met. But I don’t know about the whole point of the conference. We’ll see if I find a job before then, that might be the icebreaker.

      -Jen

    • 3 joyforaweek May 3, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      oh, and Sam it’s the left brain types that like charts and graphs. And I’m not so sure he needs to present it that way – especially when he wrote a WHOLE BOOK about how that stuff bugged him. Has he changed his mind? Or is a storyline different than a formula?

      -Jen

  2. 4 andrew May 3, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I’d be okay if you paid me some money to hang out all day. I’ll give you a fancy workbook and everything!

  3. 7 Julie N May 3, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I really like your thoughts! You know, a couple years ago I went through a phase where I attended every conference that I heard about that I thought might benefit my life in some way. And they did – at first. Then they started to all seem the same. But I also think I “benefited” from them in the first place because at that point in my life I needed reassurance in my “alternative” thinking. Then I matured a bit and didn’t really need that anymore – I preferred to have those dialogues with individuals around me in my “real life”. So eventually I decided that I wasn’t going to attend conferences anymore – unless there was a real reason that I could justify – because to me they seemed repetitive, too theoretical and not the best use of resources (mine or the organizers’). I’m not saying my reasoning should apply to everyone, but maybe you should examine your intentions in wanting to go to this conference and what you would get out of it? It kinda sounds like the reason you want to go is because Don is your hero – the same reason someone would spend that much money on a concert of their favourite band. Perhaps that is worth $250 to you, I don’t know; but if the point of the conference is supposed to be “personal development”, is it worth it? I also agree that it seems like Don is selling out; partly because of what the conference is, but come on – $250?!? That is ridiculous for 2 days and the only reason he can get away with that is because of his name; it is not a reflection of the quality of the conference. And it means Don is ok with excluding individuals who cannot afford that amount. That being said, if one day I am in a position where I am asked to speak at an overpriced, high-profile conference, I will probably accept. 😉 But then that would be by request, which is different than planning a whole conference focusing on yourself.

    If you really want to go but the money is the issue, you could always try contacting them to ask about getting a discount and explain your reasons. I once asked the organizers of a conference if they had a student discount rate, and they told me I could pay whatever I could afford!

    Julie

    P.S. Don isn’t the only one who has sold out. I have similar thoughts about Shane Claiborne.

    • 8 joyforaweek May 3, 2011 at 3:30 pm

      Thanks so much Julie! Yeah, you make good points about having the real people in your life help you through all that stuff, I’m fully with you there. And the theoretical part does bother me – like getting a workbook? really? That is the same for everyone? And yeah, I may need to spend my money elsewhere. Although in the last few years I did pay almost the same amount to see U2 and Leonard Cohen. Perhaps I could look at this like a concert? Just entertainment, not taken too seriously, and if I learn something about myself than it’s a bonus?

      And yeah, perhaps I’ll try asking about the discount!

      And I hear you on Shane, but I think the different may be that the guy is really living what he believes. I think to a certain extent to be a public figure one has to play the game that you are speaking against, just to be able to reach the people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I don’t know.

      thanks again for your thoughts dear! hope you are well.

      -Jen

  4. 9 nathan colquhoun May 3, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    and this is why i stopped running christian conferences (we even ran one with donald miller), i just couldn’t justify it anymore. Mixing economics/money so deeply with Christian formation just didn’t sit right with me anymore.

    • 10 Jen May 3, 2011 at 10:13 pm

      Sigh. Yeah, I don’t understand why they are so pricey. Julie raised a good point about the cost excluding a lot of folk who can’t pay. I understand the guy needs to make a living and all, and the money won’t all go to him, right? Nathan what is so expensive about conferences? Renting the facilities? The speakers? What?

  5. 11 Sharolyn July 14, 2011 at 11:48 am

    So did you go in the end Jen? I don’t I ever heard about your San Fran adventures… you’ll have to tell us this weekend. xo

    • 12 Jen Galicinski July 14, 2011 at 11:54 am

      No, didn’t go. Although I stopped by Don’s church, Imago Dei, on the way through Portland and had a small chat with the man. He really is a great guy. And from what I heard about the conference, it was decent, although most of what he taught was in his book, and perhaps not worth the $250. And yeah for sure, I’ll tell you more about San Fran soon! xo


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