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Post-Modern Prophet

Meet Donald Miller, the Evangelical Left's poster-boy.

12:00 AM, May 29, 2009 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Not many outside the evangelical world have yet heard of him, but 37-year-old Donald Miller is one of the Evangelical Left's fresh faces. His 2003 spiritual odyssey Blue Like Jazz, a sort of evangelical version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, sold over a million copies, launching Miller as a leader among "emergent" post-modern Christians. Blue mocked Evangelical support for Republicans and George W. Bush particularly. Last year, Miller gave a public benediction at the Democratic Convention and actively campaigned for Barack Obama.

"Barack is the only candidate willing to talk about his faith in Jesus," Miller explained on the campaign trail last September, in an interview with the Burnside Writers Collective. "So one of the reasons I support Barack is because he is my Christian brother, and other Christians are rejecting him."

Ostensibly, conservative evangelicals were robots when they supported fellow evangelical George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Miller complained in Blue Like Jazz that conservative churches he had previously attended were "parrots" for the GOP, when actually Republicans "did not give a crap about the causes of Christ."

"I just felt like, in order to be a part of the family, I had to think George W. Bush was Jesus," Miller recalled of the supposed attitude of conservative evangelicals. In 2008, most evangelicals supported the religiously inarticulate John McCain, though not by the same margins they had voted for Bush. Support for Obama by Evangelical Left voices like Miller has been credited for reduced evangelical enthusiasm for Republicans, especially among younger church-goers.

True or not, Miller and other "emergent" church voices do speak for growing numbers of evangelical college students and young adults who are wary of cultural confrontation. Miller is a former Southern Baptist from Houston who now attends a socially conscious church in Portland. The "emerging church" describes the progeny of the evangelical world who are trying to transcend polemics and speak to post-modernity. Critics claim that Christian "emergents" have surrendered to post-modernity's moral relativity, just as theological liberals of earlier generations surrendered to modernity's rejection of the supernatural.

In justifying support for Obama, the "emergents" and others on the Evangelical Left minimize abortion and same-sex marriage as politically motivating issues for evangelicals. Miller told Christianity Today last August that the presidency "doesn't have that much power" over abortion. The Republican "mindset" of trying to restrict abortion has failed, he said. He hoped Democrats, with their concern for the "marginalized and the oppressed and the poor," would create "better social conditions so that less women are put in situations where they feel like they need to have an abortion." On marriage, Miller vaguely asserted that since America is not a "theocracy," marriage was strictly a "constitutional issue" involving equal rights.

Miller's implied comfort with same-sex marriage and seeming apathy about pro-life causes would have upset one-time Religious Right icon Bill Bright, the late founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, the international college ministry that elevated Miller to best-selling author by distributing Blue Like Jazz to thousands of college freshmen. Bright, like other old-line evangelicals, might also have been discomfited with Miller's casual references to profanity, liquor, sexuality and marijuana in his spiritual odyssey.

A winsome and humorous public speaker, Miller has a compelling biography that includes an impoverished childhood without a father. His substantial book earnings have created a foundation to mentor fatherless children. Miller's books and speaking displace traditional evangelical moralism with what he believes is a passionate search for Jesus, based on relationships and storytelling rather than creeds.

Understandably, Miller has developed a substantial public following. Blue Like Jazz is now being turned into a film, an unusual accomplishment for a spiritual autobiography. (The screenplay portrays Miller as a college sophomore rather than a 30-something auditing college classes.) His next book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, tells how filmmakers struggled to edit his life to seem "less boring." Set for release later this year, it already has Miller scheduled to speak in over 60 cities.