REED HOME Gryphon icon
Feature Story
reed magazine logoSummer 2009

A Spiritual Odyssey

As he shuffles into one of his favorite Portland coffee shops, a hipster hole-in-the-wall called The Ugly Mug, Miller does not have the air of an Important Best-Selling Writer. He looks downright scruffy, striking an unassuming figure in hoodie, jeans, and sneakers. He remains down-to-earth despite having achieved fame and wealth (he doesn’t bother reading royalty reports). Yet he admits that he isn’t the same person who wrote Blue Like Jazz.

“I just don’t feel like that guy anymore,” he says. “I guess I’ve grown up a bit.”


Miller was born in Houston, raised by his mother after his parents split. As a child he rarely saw his father. His family is Southern Baptist, and at one point in his youth he considered himself a militant fundamentalist, but the phase did not last long. In his 20s, he took a road trip in a VW van and washed up in Portland when he ran out of gas money. He worked as a writer, enjoying modest success, penning a book that sold a respectable 10,000 copies.

When he first visited Reed in 2001, he sat in on a humanities lecture by political science professor Peter Steinberger (at the time, the college’s acting president). He was enthralled, though he admitted that he understood, at best, 10 percent of the lecture.

“The first day of school was exhilarating,” he wrote. “Reed had ashtrays, and everybody said cusswords.”

He kept coming back, connecting with the campus community of Christians, attending lectures, spending time with students, and generally soaking up the vibe. He thrived on the intense intellectual debate and “felt connected to the raging current of thoughts and ideas” about literature and politics and philosophy.

“I felt alive at Reed,” he wrote. “Reed is one of the few places on earth where a person can do just about anything they want… The students were brilliant and engaged.”

While a college where the student body motto is “communism, atheism, and free love” might not seem like the most obvious setting for a Christian memoir, Miller came away with a profound appreciation for Reed. He identified with the college’s quintessential passion for ideas, drawing a parallel between that intellectual inquiry and his own spiritual hunger: “I had more significant spiritual experiences at Reed than I ever had in church.”

Miller also appreciated the way that students looked past superficialities and respected each other for their ideas. He described a student he helped move a couch up some stairs to his dorm room. The student was short and stocky and, as Miller described it, spoke with a lisp that made him sound just like the cartoon character Elmer Fudd. What’s more, the student couldn’t tell his left from his right, which made getting the couch up the stairs quite a challenge. As he got to know the student a bit more, Miller realized how brilliant he was—a “genius,” he described him.

If that student were to visit his church, Miller wrote, he might well be mocked for the way he looked and acted. At Reed, however, “where what you are on the surface does not define you,” he was accepted.

“The thing about Reed College you may not know is that it is a beautiful place,” he wrote. “I mean the people are beautiful, and I love them.”

Miller acknowledged that most of the students he met weren’t religious, and that “there has always been a resistance to Christianity at Reed.” But paradoxically, the Reedies he got to know embodied what he considered Christian values: they were open to new ideas and new experiences, and they genuinely cared about one another. Reedies are many contradictory things, he found, but they are not phonies.

“To me Reed is like heaven,” Miller enthused. “I wish everybody could spend four years in a place like that, being taught the truth, that they matter regardless of their faults, regardless of their insecurities.”

Reed is the setting for just 30 of Blue Like Jazz’s 240 pages, but many of the book’s most memorable passages take place on campus or involve students—particularly the most compelling chapter in the book, titled “Confession.”

Miller and his fellow Christians on campus decided to “come out of the closet” with a bold statement—during Renn Fayre, no less. Dressed in monks’ robes, they erected a Confession Booth, lit by tiki torches, on the lawn across from the Old Dorm Block.

There was a catch to their scheme, however. Instead of asking students to confess their sins, Miller and his companions confessed to the students. When curious revelers poked their heads into the booth to see what was going on, Miller engaged them. He apologized for all the wrongs committed in Christ’s name over the centuries. Apologized for the Crusades and for Columbus. For mixing spirituality and politics. For televangelist preachers. For his own failure to live up to Christ’s teachings: “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened.” And so it went much of the night. Dozens of students dropped in to chat and to ask questions. One of them, moved to tears, told Miller: “I forgive you.”

Miller wrote that the episode made him realize how much God mattered, even, or especially, on this supposedly irreverent campus: “I felt very strongly that Jesus was relevant in this place.”

reed magazine logoSummer 2009