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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

A Spiritual Odyssey by Romel Hernandez

Friends warned Don Miller that hanging out at Reed would weaken his faith. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Donald Miller was at a dead end.

He was eking out a living as a writer, struggling most months to make the rent on the rambling house he shared with five roommates, across the way from a gilded Joan of Arc statue in a roundabout in Northeast Portland.

Miller was closing in on 30 and at loose ends personally and professionally. He wrote about religion and spirituality, but he found that “there’s not a lot of work in the Christian market if you won’t write self-righteous, conservative propaganda.” He was struggling spiritually, too. He attended a big suburban church, which he likened to shopping at the Gap. He didn’t fit in. His faith was messy, up and down, always more about questions than answers.

A friend, nicknamed Tony the Beat Poet because he sported a soul patch on his chin and smoked a pipe, asked Miller if he wanted to come along while Tony sat in on some college classes. Miller had dropped out of college years earlier because he couldn’t take the pressure of exams and papers. He didn’t have much else going on, so he accepted the invitation. When he told some churchgoing acquaintances about his plans, they were appalled.

Reed College? He was kidding, right? “Some of the Christians in Portland talk about Reed as if it is Hades,” Miller would write. “They say the students at Reed are pagans, heathens in heart.”

A friend sat him down and warned him, in no uncertain terms, that God did not want him to go to Reed. He went anyway.

Today, Miller is a superstar. Blue Like Jazz, the book that came out of his Reed experience, is a genuine blockbuster—a New York Times bestseller with over a million copies sold since 2003. Miller himself has become an in-demand speaker at churches and conferences across the country, a progressive voice to be reckoned with in contemporary Christianity. An Obama supporter, he delivered a prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Blue Like Jazz is a spiritual memoir, a nonfiction collection of essays in which Miller explores his relationship with Christ, dissecting his doubts and weaknesses and struggles with faith. He writes in a humorous, humble voice that is part Holden Caulfield, part St. Paul. There’s nothing preachy or holier-than-thou about the book, in which he writes about drinking beer, playing video games, cursing on occasion, and having a crush on bisexual rocker Ani DiFranco.

A number of the book’s chapters are set at Reed, where Miller spent the better part of two years hanging out (he was never a student), and helped start up the Christian student organization, Oh, for Christ’s Sake.

Blue Like Jazz sales were slow at first, but the reviews were mostly positive. Christianity Today magazine raved: “Miller’s words will resonate with any believer who has ever grappled with the paradoxes of faith.” When the book was championed by Campus Crusade for Christ, a national college organization, sales exploded, and the book quickly became a spiritual touchstone for young, progressive Christians.

“The book resonated with evangelicals who were fed up with pundits and extremists, and who were searching for a new voice,” says Michael Covington of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. “Don is the real deal.”

reed magazine logoSummer 2009