We do not live the life we think we do. We think that we are the star of our own show or, sometimes, the villain. We think that what we do matters, because we are doing it; our acts are windows into the soul or the building blocks of our character. We assume, though we claim to be disciples, though we claim to be saints, that we are the most important actors in our salvation play. I’m not certain that we are entirely wrong, but we are definitely not entirely right.
One of my criteria for scripture is that it reminds us of this truth: there is a distance between the life we actually live and the life that we narrate. This gap, according to Adam Miller’s recently released Letters to a Young Mormon, is the central problem of Christian life. Miller’s book is an eloquent argument, framed as a series of letters written to S., a young Mormon, for the proposition that what we do or say matters less than who we are, that self-discovery is the discipline to which the Lord would bind us, and that this discipline is what overcomes the distance.
To illustrate the distance, Miller returns, again and again, to the stories we tell ourselves. Stories about scripture, history, science, agency, and sin; stories that comfort us, swallow us, and impede our progress. We tell stories to justify our sins, to conceal our errors, to promote our victories, and to delineate our company. Stories are no universal evil (Miller freely dips into history, memory, and scripture, all story, to support his arguments), but they are not life. Life is stranger, more chaotic, and much, much less interested in what you think about the whole process.
The process will continue ever onward, with or without you. You may be stardust, but there’s an awful lot of it lying around. We may re-enact scenes from the Savior’s life in speech and ritual, but we are no saviors; we’re just people. People are flawed, hungry, horny, easily distracted, easily bored. We’ll be children until we die; if the prophets are to be believed, we may some time later become adolescent. Our stories, with the narrative necessity of a beginning and an end, betray us. We lose ourselves in the temporal because we feel the end coming, and worry that we must begin before it is too late (tomorrow should do it).
But what should we begin to do? Miller suggests that we pursue our ambitions, that we explore our surroundings, that we ask probing questions and seek provisional answers. He feels that we should acquaint ourselves with our bodies, the source of our life, with the hungers and desires that motivate our flesh. Not to deny ourselves, but to better understand ourselves. Miller approves of exploring what can be learned from science and history, implying that stories that don’t bear scrutiny may well be false or, at least, apt for revision. But most of all, Miller suggests that getting out of one’s own head is a necessary step. Alone and contemplative, we only have stories. It is in living that we can measure the distance between the tales we tell ourselves and the life we actually lead. It is in living that we find God at work in and with us.
For all his suspicion of story, Miller is as prone to narrative’s vices as anyone. These letters are written by a man and betray the male notion of what makes life important. Thus, the letter on sex has little to say about women. Not that Miller’s advice is only applicable to men, but rather the chapter demonstrates what for Miller is a blind spot. There is no work being done with gender in this book. This may speak to Miller’s interests or it may due to some self-perceived inadequacy to the task, but most likely Miller may have simply felt that there is already a sufficient number of men telling women what they ought to think of themselves. Nevertheless, the absence of a discussion on the subject is glaring.
All in all, Miller assumes justifiably that there is a gap between what the reader thinks they do, what the reader does, and why the reader either thinks or does these things. This chasm, for a Christian, is not to be bridged. The story that we tell is not our own; it is the Lord’s. We are the disciples; we don’t determine the discipline. The distance between the story and our life, Miller argues, will not be traversed, but rather both story and life will be lost when we give ourselves up unto Christ, in whom all things are one.
Miller’s work here, to my mind, constitutes scripture. It points us to God, reminds us of the goodness of Christ, and inspires us to feed his lambs. There is little more we could ask of any Christian act.