A Bit About Our Reading Circles

I’ve received a few DM’s and emails about our Reading Circles so here’s a bit of the what and why.
At first glance, one might mistake this for a book club. But it isn’t. For one, I dislike the term “book club.”
And two, our time is not about the book necessarily, the focus is intended to be more on those that have gathered.

The Reading Circle is about conversation to create community for our GC@Night service. Of course anyone can attend, as we have regulars who come from the morning services but because the evening service does not have ministries like Adult Discipleship (and doing these classes in the evening generally do not work), the idea of facilitating discussions in our cafe after the service made sense.

It’s also helpful for those that are not able (or not ready) to be part of a small group. Obviously those who like to read will be drawn but it’s also for people who like to converse and connect and that’ s been the real strength of this time. When people share from their minds and hearts, it goes from being a book club to a moment of community.

The first Circle we did this year at Grace Chapel was Don Miller’s A MIllion Miles in a Thousand Years (We actually did it twice, once in the morning, then in the evening – both went very well). Then we took a month off and Andrew Sullivan’s article “Christianity in Crisis” which was featured on the cover of Newsweek back in April. And today to be consistent with our summer series on the Psalms, we are are starting Reflections of the Psalms by C.S. Lewis.

We’re trying to create community and conversation so the idea is to pick books that will allow for dialogue. Not all books do that easily. If you are in a group of people you don’t know very well, it can be hard to be interesting because most people wish to avoid awkward moments potentially brought on by critique. My idea is to select books/readings that let you disagree. Don Miller is one. Sometimes he’s flippant, sarcastic, irreverent, too honest, and at moments he can come across as self-centered (which he acknowledges when he makes the comment Million Miles is about me writing a book about me making a movie about me which is based on a book about me ….

“Christianity in Crisis” was another example. It was brief, easily accessible and relevant. Honestly, I liked a good bit of the article, and here was my initial review when it first came out  “Wishing Andrew Sullivan a beautiful Easter …”  I think what I liked least was the title – it was so dramatic. But a more appropriate title like, “Issues the Christian Church Should Look Into Resolving So It Can Move Forward” isn’t going to move a lot of Newsweek’s or generate a lot of clicks.

And here we are with Lewis’ Reflections of the Psalms. What I like about the book is that it’s not a scholarly commentary and lives up to its title of being reflective. My hope is that those gathered will feel free to push back against a figure and a mind like Lewis because I think he allows for that in this book. I also hope that his take opens the door for our take on some of what naturally comes out from reading the Psalms.

In all honesty, I’m excited. So, if you around Lexington, come on out, we’ll likely start a little after 7.30p, we’ll have fair trade coffee and tea, some light foods and will be meeting again on the July 8th, 22nd, and August 5th.

We’ll be starting another one in the fall and will most likely be A Faith Of Our Own by Jonathan Merritt. If you are in a book club/reading circle or been a part of one, feel free to add your thoughts. Also, if you are interested in starting one and need some help, know that I’d love to connect – send me an email if it’s easier than posting below.

New Grace Chapel Reading Circle on “Christianity in Crisis” by Andrew Sullivan

Just about every week I get asked what is up with our Reading Circle, when is the next one, what are we reading, what in the world is it?

Here’s the 101 and an invitation to participate in the next one that begins this week.

“Don’t call it a book club!” is the first thing you need to know about our Reading Circle. Book clubs are about the books, we’re about the conversations – see? And further, this time we’re not reading a book. We’re reading an essay by Andrew Sullivan that was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine last month called, “Christianity in Crisis.” Here’s the printer-friendly link.

Here’s an exert.
“… Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial, … even regular churchgoers have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions-Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?-remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?”

In my opinion, it’s a thought-provoking piece. I’ve already blogged about it as I found myself agreeing and disagreeing throughout. Like with all things, discussing it with others will be probably add and shift some of my thoughts on the piece and all that it relates to. Our Reading Circles are intended to create community and conversation by engaging how stories, ideas, and cultural trends intersect with our faith in Christ.

Many of us had a positive experience reading Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years together. I know I have thought about some of our conversations since the last gathering, especially on the parts that I did not connect with but where others did. And I’m confident this two-week circle and our summer circle will be beneficial as well.

If you are reading this outside of my church community, know your thoughts are welcomed too. I’m always up for a good conversation.  Feel free to comment/email/call me.
For those of you around the Grace Chapel, Metro Boston area, hope to see you in the Cafe after GC@Night.

Some More Thoughts on Blue Like Jazz

Yep, still thinking about Blue Like Jazz. Difficult for me not to in some ways. I loved the book, supported the Kickstarter campaign, participated in several book studies with it and currently leading a Reading Circle on a Million Miles in a Thousand Years. If you are around Lexington, MA, we’ll be discussing Part 5 and the movie this Sunday night after GC@Night in the cafe – All are welcome.

It occurred to me halfway through my second viewing of BLJ, that I was enjoying the movie more this time around. Perhaps my expectations were tempered, maybe I was responding to all the negative reviews of the movie/project, or maybe I was a in a better frame of mind – I don’t know.

The negativity does crack me up. Though it’s not as bad as the Tebow deal, it’s become humorous how people are so quick to hate on this movie and on Don Miller and crew. A while back I saw someone commenting on Don’s body language during an interview. Come on dude, Don and his friends are out out promoting this movie city to city for the past 3 months, cut him/them some slack. The guy sold his house to help finance the project!

In some ways, Blue Like Jazz can’t be the movie to do what many of us want it to be. Primarily because it had become too big in the Christian subculture and Don is too popular of a writer to not have expectations for.   the “first-responders of this movie” are going to be those fans  (It will be interesting to see  more from those who haven’t heard of the book).  Many of us want this to be a conversation piece about God, spirituality, Christianity in general, many others want this to be a traditional tool of evangelism, others seem to want it to be an obscure piece of art floating like an astronaut in space.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of things I didn’t like but I am glad it was made, glad it’s out there and I think Don, Steve and Ben did an amazing job, especially with what they had to work with.

My concerns are as follows: I was never really sold on the “inciting incidents” (thanks Don and Friends for giving us the language to critique your work) that led to Don’s collapse of faith and then the “bottoming out” scene that soon led to his repentance.  If the movie was a true comedy, maybe the “youth pastor sleeping with mom thing” and later “waking up in a porta potty and realizing that your life stinks and the priest rescuing you” works but I thought they could have come up with something better.

In any case, I truly liked the characters of BLJ. I’ll admit my first impression of Marshall Allman playing a young Don Miller threw me off. He looked like a cross between a goofy-looking Sufjan Stevens and a hooded Portlandian version of Eminem from 8 Mile (the movie poster has him in this pose staring down Penny and I’m worried that he’s hiding a black eye about to try to battle her on the bridge). But I have to say Marshall did a fantastic job.

I liked pretty much all the characters and truly hated the cheating youth pastor (played so well by Jason Marsden. While I know this is part is not autobiographical of Don and his mother, I am seriously suspicious of Jason, know what I mean “bro?”). Penny is charming and sweet, thought the Pope character had the best lines and Yuri (the Russian) was great in his small role.

But then there was Lauryn. I liked her immediately because she’s Alex from LOST. She had such a great character until the end – why was there no resolve to her? She’s a key figure in the first half of the movie, Don’s first real friend if you will, then not only does Quinn break her heart but she seems to get dumped by the script as well. She bears her broken-hearted soul to Don and then gets regulated to picking up drunk kids at the Ren Fayre and laundry duty. I know it’s a little complicated that her character is a lesbian but I was expecting a bit more resolve to her.

I’m sure Don, Steve and Ben left a lot on the cutting room floor but if there any plans for a director’s cut, I’d like to see a scene that gives her some dignity and closure (if one exists).

What I was really let down by and I think this will always bug me is that legitimate money was not put into this. Itt should have received the Eat Pray Love treatment (wait they spent $6o million on that??  Ok, how about a tenth of it?). Had it been financed and distributed consistent with standards of modern movie making, I think it could have been a significant cultural moment. I know that sounds naive but if you just go and see what’s out on Fandango, I think I have a killer point.

I hear stories but I don’t really know how these things get funded. I don’t really picture local churches taking their missions budgets and giving them to Kickstarter but I do think the Church as a whole missed an opportunity. If history is any gauge, the next Kirk Cameron film or Fireproof 2 (More Inferno, More Evidence) will get a $10 million backing.  Not sure what a real solution looks like, but we need one, we actually need a quite a few, multifaceted ones.

Limited runs in theaters are tricky, you can read Don’s figures and thoughts here. I anticipate that the DVD Sales will be pretty solid. It will be used in countless sermon illustrations, youth group lessons, college Bible studies and various other places. We’ll see this DVD in every CBD catalog for years to come and will likely end up in Best Buy $4.99 bin, which isn’t bad, it just how consumer culture robs the remaining essence of something.  I’m confident that they’ll make their money back and then some but wish it had a better theater run.

Again, ultimately, I do think Don, Steve and Ben did an amazing job with what they had. And I wish them the best as BLJ rides out and hope this experience ushers in many good things.

For more check out:
Don’s BLJ brief “What Critics Are Saying…” List (one-liners from from NY Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, etc.)

Go see it, here’s the theater list –  http://www.bluelikejazzthemovie.com
Here’s a link to my first post, “Why I Hope Blue Like Jazz the Movie Does (Really) Well”

Why I Hope Blue Like Jazz the Movie Does (Really) Well #bluelikejazz

Last week I got to see an advanced screening of Blue Like Jazz – I liked it and I give it an A- and I hope you go see it as soon as it comes out on April 13th. It’s an indie movie, so its theater run will be directly related to the success of its release in the opening weekend.

For those who are unfamiliar with BLJ (and Don Miller), it was a very popular book that was released back in 2003. The subtitle was “Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality” and it especially resonated with countless young adults who were/still are frustrated with the idea of organized religion (and several aspects of the Christian subculture). It became a New York Times bestseller and Don became a bit of an anti-hero for the jaded church brats (like me).

Then he became a regular on the Christian speaking circuit which caused some to burn their BLJ books. This is probably more appropriate for a different post but this reminds me of those who stopped listening to Arcade Fire when they won the Grammy in 2011. What is about rejecting something that we liked so much but now hate it because it’s mainstream? Seems to me that we ought to celebrate the times when the mainstream gets it right. Frankly, it just comes across as snobby and this post may be in reaction to that type of criticism.

Personally, I want more writers like Don and more movies like Blue Like Jazz. Not imitations, just good, honest, “unresolved but trying to resolve” stories and storytellers. For those who have never read anything by Don, he writes in a casual yet blunt memoir style. He’s intelligent, he’s funny and he gets away with a good bit because he’s self-deprecating. Perhaps one of the key pieces to his popularity is that people don’t really want to be Don Miller. They may want his success, his platform, parts of his story but I don’t know anyone that wants to be him. Why? Well, as he will tell you, he’s got issues – he reminds you of that regularly.

Again, that’s why so many resonate with him. Especially in 2003 when it seemed that everyone who was writing had their act together. We like stories and movies about people who don’t have their act together and that’s why Blue Like Jazz the movie works.

The movie is about a graduating senior, you guessed it – named Don Miller – who is a church youth group volunteer, a good son, and has planned to attend a Christian college in Texas. At his last Sunday in church, he finds himself betrayed by his most trusted relationships. He takes his father up on his offer to attend the well-respected, progressive Reed College in Portland, WA. “Baptist boy” comes on campus and his paradigm is radically altered.

The movie is about his resignation of believing in God, a search for his true identity, a girl named Penny, understanding the dynamics of family and friendship, redemption and rediscovering God. There are a number of themes here that most people can relate to.

I liked that Steve Taylor directed it. He’s been around the Christian subculture scene enough to know what’s not going to work with the audience that he wants it to work for. I admire his courage here. They could have decided to play this safe and gone the Courageous-Face the Giants-Fireproof route but they would been Left Behind. Even I would have set fire to my Blue Like Jazz book.

I liked that they didn’t go the Christian movie route. I like that it’s PG-13. Steve Taylor explains the rating on the movie site. “I made it clear to all our potential investors and/or heads of media companies, the vast majority of whom were fellow Christians, that this was not going to be a family movie. The reason was simple: How do you tell the story of a college kid who flees his Southern Baptist upbringing in suburban Houston to attend the ‘most godless campus in America’ without showing what that environment is like? And how can that environment be portrayed realistically in the context of a ‘family’ movie? Doesn’t have to be rated R, but it’s probably going to be PG-13, right?” Admittedly, while this has caused me to think twice about promoting this church-wide, in the long run, this is the right move.

Further, I like that I didn’t hear Switchfoot as the credits rolled … even though I like Switchfoot. And though I wished they had a bigger budget, I really like the way it was shot – it’s a cool looking movie and Ben Pearson did an absolutely fantastic job.

My hope is that the risk is rewarded. My hope is that people who are fed up with church-types and parts of the Christian sub-culture will watch it and say what a number of people said after they read the book, “Yeah that’s what I’m talking about!” I’m not expecting a cultural awakening here nor do I hope that Don Miller becomes a “superstar” religious figure – I just think his voice and this story will connect with people and I’m excited about that.

While there were some things I wasn’t sure about (I’m going to wait until after the movie is released to give my full review), I genuinely liked it. Again, it’s an A- and I hope it does well, really well.

It releases April 13th – Check out the site http://www.bluelikejazzthemovie.com/ and watch the preview here.

Reflecting on Don Miller's Million Miles Book Tour in NYC

Last night Tim Nye and I headed into the city to catch Don Miller on his A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life book tour.  It was quite an evening.  Heading into the city during rush-hour, I  skillfully weaved in and out of the traffic, dodging cabbies, flying across bridges, darting through tunnels, I made record time to the address I put into the GPS.  Unfortunately I ended up on the wrong borough (Don’t ask, it was the stupid GPS.)  But as fate would have it, Don Miller waited for us as we arrived during the intermission between him and Susan Isaacs (we heard she was very funny).

While I have always been a bit unsettled by “Christian celebrity”, I find Don to not have let his success get the best of him.  It did bother me that there was a charge for the book tour but I’m guessing that’s a publisher trying to recoup costs.  And in fairness, him and his team are traveling for 3 months.  All in all, I do like the concept of the book tour.  While I’m probably less inclined to pay money to hear most authors, I guess Don is among those I would.  In any case, I do appreciate these moments as they often help me appreciate the book more. It was a great night.  I’m glad I went.  I even bought the book again and asked Don to write a note to my wife who was too pregnant to attend.  In fact, she’s too pregnant to travel, sit, sleep, eat, breath but baby boy is coming Monday. It’s foreordained. Btw, my few moments with Don was very warm.

Here are the notes I took. I offer them with two bits of encouragement

1. Pick up the book.  He’s a gifted writer with sharp insights regarding life.  With gifted story-telling, humor, and short chapters, Don may be the only reason for you to ever consider going into a Christian bookstore.  If that sort of thing frightens you, his books are sold at every Barnes & Noble, Borders and of course, Amazon.com.  This was his first book in three years.  Though he is under contract, he told the story of how he told his publisher that he needed to change his life in order to write a better story.  Initially they weren’t happy with him then but I’m sure they are now.

2. If he comes to your city, you should check him out.  Click here for the rest of his tour schedule.


What makes a good story is what’s good in life.  What makes a story meaningful is what’s meaningful in life.

He attended a Robert McKee seminar on story.  It’s like a bootcamp for novelists, screen-writers, anyone trying to learn what makes a good story.

Story has to have a narrative context to make sense. There is no stoppage to tell the moral of the story (like how we do on Sundays).

One of the key features of a good story is that it contains a character that wants something that has to overcome conflict to get it.

It takes a special charcater to do it.

He/she “must save a cat”.  meaning must do something worthy for us to like him.
Example: The most recent Rocky movie.  There is nothing that is going to move an audience if he simply wins the fight.  In fact, we may perceive a movie about that has selfish.  But we care about the outcome of the movie because we like the character, Rocky.  We have journey with him through the conflict of losing Adrian, helping others like a single mom and her troubled son.  We’ve witnessed him adopt a dog, an ugly dog and eventually he has won us over. (Miller said all of this as a point of reference, as opposed to Citizen Kane.  Most people have either seen Rocky or know the basic plot line.)

A character is only what they do.
Not what they want to do, who they they think they are.  You can’t see a character’s dreams and ambitions, you only get to see what they are doing (what’s told to you) in the story. It’s based on actions.

In a story you have to show it.  Like when Rocky drives the single mother home.  The scene has an element of sexual tension and as he walks her up to her door, he leans over …. and changes out the light bulb that had gone out.  This does not advance the plot nor helps him win the fight but makes for a better character and which leads to a more beautiful story.

The character has to want something.  Has to desire something.

We are programmed into thinking that there is not supposed to be conflict in life.
We are often told conflict isn’t supposed to exist.  It’s the result of the fall but this is not true.
Consider Genesis 2, there is conflict.
The conflict is that God says that Adam was lonely.
He is feeling emotions he does not want to feel.
And God creates Eve.

Where do we get this message that there is not supposed to be conflict in life?
Often Jesus becomes a product that is going to complete our lives and get rid of all conflict.
Don does this funny bit about a Christian infomercial with Paul and another with Peter.  Repeating it in a blog post will not do it justice.  The medium is the message you know ;-)

We long for climax.

But the climax is not Jesus.
Climax is not Conversion as advertised.  It’s not encountering Jesus.
The Act III Climax is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb
We are in the middle of Act II.

When you are scared of something, you will encounter beauty.
Don tells the story of meeting his dad for the first time. In fact it was a bit awkward because he had just written a book about growing up without a dad. It was a moving story of pain and forgiveness.

He told another about bike-riding across the country (for Blood: Water Mission) and being at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
There he is inspired by Victor Frankl.  Having been captured in a concentration camp and witnessed the death of his family, he encourages his fellow suicidal prisoners to continue living for the sake of meaning.  “If you could desire to starve yourself or to be beaten to death, instead of taking your own life, then you would tell the world for generations the account of the evil that we have suffered.”

Freud says that we live for the sake of pleasure.
But it’s those like Frankl who are right – It’s meaning we need.
We turn to pleasure when we cannot find meaning.  We turn to pleasure to numb ourselves.

The challenge in life is to tell better stories with our lives.

Find better better desires, no one can stop you from creating life.