Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Man to Man: An Interview With Donald Miller

  • Shawn McEvoy Senior Editor
  • 2006 16 May
Man to Man:  An Interview With Donald Miller

Editor's Note: This interview originally ran on May 8, 2006. We run it again today in conjuction with the release (and corresponding new interview with Miller) of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Click the link to read the new interview.

The latest offering from the increasingly-popular scribe of "Blue Like Jazz" and "Searching for God Knows What" is titled "To Own a Dragon - Reflections on Growing Up Without a Father." In it, Donald Miller, co-writing with friend, mentor, and father figure John MacMurray, spares us none of the wounds he received growing up trying to define his place in this world without the guidance of a male parent.

Miller weaves his story around his experiences living with the MacMurray family in his 20s, and relates the lessons he gathered watching a real father in action for the first time in his life to obstacles he's overcome and struggles he still has.

Recently, Miller took the time to chat it up with about men, manliness, prison, men, his writing style, guys, The Discovery Channel, dudes, compulsive habits, book covers, and did I mention… men?  I just finished reading "To Own a Dragon," and got a lot out of it. Congratulations on another success there.

Donald Miller:  Thanks!

CW:  Even though in "To Own a Dragon" you speak directly to an audience of the fatherless, the text still spoke as relevantly to me (I had a very good father and I like to think I'm a good father) as your "Blue Like Jazz" or male-focused books like "Wild at Heart." Why do you think even guys who had positive role models as fathers still take so much from this book?

Miller:  I think the message is just the same, regardless of how great our father was. We still have to transition to God being our father, and it's also just basic wisdom. In our culture we're just inundated with bad advice all the time, so there's a benefit to having basic life wisdom just crash through, and in saying here's how it really works, and I think that's a part of it.

CW:  There is a lot of personal life wisdom in "To Own a Dragon"; was it difficult to write about such a painful subject? And as you wrote did you ever struggle with feelings of animosity toward young Chris MacMurray or other guys with great fathers?

Miller:  There's no doubt about it, I absolutely did, which is a weird thing if you think about it. Here I move into the family, I'm in my 20s, it's the first time I've ever seen a family with a father in the home, and I'm jealous of the three-year-old kid because I wanted somebody to be a father figure to me. I wanted somebody to be there and care but there wasn't. Then there was animosity, there was anger, there was hostility, all were issues that I tried to work through, or had to work through. It was either live in frustration or work through those issues.

CW:  It was well detailed how you actually worked through that. The book concludes with the idea of being a "wounded healer." How do you hope that you and others who have been hurt by fatherly neglect can become wounded healers?

Miller:  Well, Desmond Tutu talks about taking somebody from arrogant victim to wounded healer. This [progression] cannot be accomplished except through a deeply-rooted spiritual life. So what I think is involved is faith in God, and submission to God. To say, "God please move from me arrogant victim to wounded healer - I need to be healed." And the process begins. Inviting God into that journey is the first step, and then surrounding yourself with a group of people who can help you, who can mentor you.

CW:  Do you think any man can become a wounded healer? And what advice would you give a man who feels unqualified to heal or mentor?

Miller:  I think any man can become a wounded healer, especially guys who grew up without dads. So much of my story is about not knowing. I remember believing - in my senior year of high school - actually believing that I was stupid, that my brain didn't work as well as other people's brains worked. And it wasn't until I had a teacher who basically pointed out that I was intelligent (I had written an article) that I learned I was a good writer. In other words, it wasn't until somebody outside myself said hey, you're intelligent, that I could actually believe that. So I began reading, and of course that's what I do today, I read and think and pray. But it took somebody else telling me. So I think there are people who think, "Oh, I could never lead, I could never [mentor]," but that's not true, it's really not true, and what we need to do is step in and give affirmation and keep moving forward. If we act "as if," sometimes the "as if" becomes true; you just have to keep doing that in faith. So yes, any broken man can become a wounded healer. No matter how badly you're broken, God can use you to heal other people's lives, whether you know it or not.

CW:  Regarding feelings of stupidity or worthlessness, you admit in the book that you still sometimes struggle with thinking your words are "just going to be another burden on the world's library."

Miller:  It's always something that you fight, but more and more I'm trying to just get over that, and say this is an ability that to some degree God has given me, and use the opportunity that God has given me. I need to stand up and I need to use it, and receive what He's given.

CW:  Your previous answer about qualification reminds me of a Christian camp director who was fond of saying that God doesn't call the qualified, He qualifies the called. To use your terms, you might not even know you're in a situation to be a healer or mentor. I just find that very interesting that you would say you may not even know you're doing it.

Miller:  I know, there's no question. We're having a dramatic effect on each other's lives and we have no idea that we really are. Aren't the people who have affected our lives the ones who have the most confidence that what they say and do matters? The people who have the confidence to come to us and say, "Hey, you did a great job and I'm proud of you"? Those are the people who have the most dramatic effect on our lives. But if you think about it from our perspective, we always say, "No, no, we wouldn't dare, and who am I to say I'm proud of somebody?" We need to get over that and realize that what we say matters, and we need to own that responsibility. We need to affirm people and speak into their lives.

CW:  If that doesn't happen, do you think there are life lessons or self-beliefs that a boy just won't get without a father? If so, which ones?

Miller:  The biggest one is that he is affirmed and loved. Not going to learn that without a dad. Probably not going to learn it well without a mom, for that matter. It's just a necessary component of upbringing to our well-being, to have a father say, "You're loved, I love you, I care about you." I long for that every day. I wish I had a dad who would say that. I'm 34, and I still want that. It's not going to go away. There are other people who do that in our lives and that's great, and everybody walks around with some sort of pain, some sort of wound, so I'm not playing the victim card here, but that's the big one.

Then there are all sorts of lessons that we see, like the 85 percent of guys in prison who grew up without fathers. 85 percent. That's an enormous percentage, and those are the ones who had no father in their home. If you think about the ones who had a bad father, you're up over 95 percent. Only about 1 percent of all the men in prison had good father figures in their homes. That means if every father in America didn't leave his family and cared about his kids, our prison population would be about 1 percent of what it is now. This is an enormous issue!

So yeah, there are things you will not learn unless you have a father in your home. That said, it's not a hopeless case. I didn't have a father in my home, and I write books, have a great life, teach at a school, interact with people, have good friends. But that's because there were mentors in my life that taught me certain things. What I wanted to do with this book was go through what I had to learn elsewhere having grown up without a father. I missed out on so much, from how to deal with money, to how to make decisions, to how to talk to and engage a woman.

CW:  Speaking of affirmation, in "To Own a Dragon," you use a humorous story to make a strong case for what defines a "real man." By offering a definition that, shall we say, is simply based in anatomy, are you opening yourself up to criticism that an overly-simple definition might undervalue cultural rites of passage that help boys slowly evolve into men?

Miller:  I may be opening myself up to criticism, but that criticism is based on people not having read the entire chapter. In it I basically qualify by saying look, if you have the right "equipment," God has decided that you are a man. Now, you may not be a good man [yet], but you are a man, which means you have what it takes to go through these rites of passage. God has decided, and don't let anybody tell you differently.

CW:  It sounds like from your perspective and that of your intended audience that this is a message many young men might not have gotten.

Miller:  The message I got growing up in the church was that I was not a man. It was constantly, "A real man cares for his wife and kids." Well what if I'm afraid of intimacy with women? (Laughs) Am I not a real man? I have no ability to even get there! Nobody came to me and said, "Hey, Don, you know you're a real man - you absolutely have what it takes. Let me teach you how to do this, or let me teach you the right perspective." It was, "Unless you can jump this high, you are not a real man." Well, no father ever taught me to jump that high, so I must not be a real man. That's the assumption that I lived under and it wasn't until my late 20s that I thought this can't possibly be true. I'm a real man; God says I'm a real man. And I stopped living under the shadow of the thought that I wasn't.

It's rare to go to any sort of men's retreat or men's camp or men's anything, or even hear a man talk about manhood, and not have it said that "a real man does [x]." I can get people to do anything I want, for example, just by announcing, "A real man will come over and mow my lawn." Out of group of 100, you'd probably get at least three guys to come over and mow your lawn because they want to be a real man. We believe it's a motivating thing to say, but unfortunately it's not motivation, it's manipulation.

CW:  Earlier you brought up a very interesting statistic about prisons; can you talk about your efforts to take the message of "To Own a Dragon" into prisons and rehab centers, and have you visited a prison yet?

Miller:  I haven't visited a prison yet, but one of the deals we made in publishing the book was that we would be able to make copies available to prison ministries. Then a beautiful thing happened. I had written a chapter that was sort of a rough draft, and then I rewrote it, getting it really finely honed, but the publisher accidentally printed about 45,000 copies with the rough draft chapter in it. Rather than throw those books away, we donated them to prisons. The book's only officially been out a couple of weeks, but already, thousands and thousands of copies have been distributed in prisons all over the country!

Our church then started a division called the Belmont Foundation - you can read about it at - that's a mentoring program for young people growing up without fathers. Our goal is basically to sort of put a band-aid over their wounds, try to fix things a little bit.

CW:  Isn't there also another branch extending help and support to single moms?

Miller:  Yeah, that's the first year. We're going to try to take care of some of the needs of single moms, to decrease the amount of stress in their lives so that they can give more energy and time to their own children. We want to fix their washing machines, fix their cars, paint their houses. We want to provide them with educational seminars where we provide childcare and they can afford to take the day off to attend classes on meeting the specific demands of being a single mom. Basically, we just want to release some of the stress that's going on in their lives.

CW:  Switching gears a bit here, Don, one thing that kind of astonishes me about your writing, especially from the perspective of biblical relevance, is how different it is from other works of Christian encouragement in that it's not just littered with scripture addresses - no distracting colons or parentheses - even though you often mention important Bible passages. Why leave the references out, and have you encountered any resistance or negativity about it?

Miller:  I haven't encountered much. I just leave the references out; in fact I often will paraphrase without mentioning I just paraphrased scripture. The reason is because I read a lot of books with scripture references that either feel misplaced, or like that's not actually what the text was trying to do, or where I sense that the author has a point and is trying to use an ace card to say, "See? God agrees with me, here's the scripture reference." That's not an enormous percentage of the Christian books out there, but there are some that do that and I wanted to disassociate myself.

The other thing is if scripture has power, then it has power regardless of whether I put the reference in there or not. If it's true, it's true. As to putting the reference in, it's rarely about helping the reader. It's all about me, as in, "Look at me quoting scripture." I don't need that. The reader is either helped by it or not helped by it, and truth is just truth, regardless of whether we put a parenthetical reference in there or not. The interesting thing about the text itself is that - as we all know - before the Nicene council, there were no references at all. So are we really defending the Bible, or are we defending a numeric code by which we have dissected the Bible?

CW:  Without scripture references your writing - I admit - comes across as less preachy and I think that's definitely a strength; you're able to just sit down and be honest. Kind of like how back in "Blue Light Jazz," you introduced us to a lesson from the animal kingdom regarding penguin sex, and now, in "To Own a Dragon," we learn about the mentoring habits of elephants. Are you planning on using any other great metaphors from the animal kingdom to explain spiritual truths?

Miller:  (Laughs). No, I don't have any more right now; I'm sure some will come to me.

CW:  I was wondering what inspired you to come up with those. Is it Discovery Channel viewing?

Miller:  It is! I'm an Animal Planet/Discovery Channel junkie. I don't have cable in the house, but when I'm in a hotel or something I just get stuck on those channels. The great thing is that they feel like a documentary. You know, I went to a movie place last night and came home with three documentaries that were boring animal stuff, so yes, I'm just a junkie.

CW:  Speaking of nature, did you consider using some of your co-author John's landscape photography for the book cover?

Miller:  You know, we didn't just because it wouldn't have made sense with the title of the book. It would have made sense inside the book to show some of John's photography.

CW:  So instead, you went with this, um, very interesting orange-tinted photograph of what I take to be a man's lips and beard. Who is this and why use this picture?

Miller:  It's really funny, I get this question an awful lot since the book came out. I don't know who it is; it's just a stock photo and it was one of those things where we had gone through probably seven or eight covers trying to figure out what the cover should be, and we came across this one. We were literally sitting in a restaurant in Portland with about four or five covers lying on the table, and we asked the waitress to pick one. The one you see is the one she picked. But I like it, it's sort of rough, and really I wanted the book to appeal to guys who were in prison.

CW:  Don, is there anything about "To Own a Dragon" that you're just waiting for somebody to ask you that you haven't gotten a chance to talk about yet?

Miller:  That's a terrific question, but no, there isn't. I'm a pretty open guy, so I just tend to do it all in the book and I tend to forget that I've spilled it all there. Thanks for asking, though. I just really appreciate that you would be interested in what I wrote, that means a lot.

CW:  In closing, I'd like to ask you to pick a number between 1 and 12 and we'll finish with a random query from The Book of Questions, get to know you a bit.

Miller:  Let's do 12.

CW:  Number 12 … "What are" - and feel free to "no comment" me on this - "your most compulsive habits and do you regularly struggle to break these habits?"

Miller:  Oh, yeah ... compulsive habits. The most compulsive habit is food. I tend to write about it sometimes. It's such a weird topic in our culture that some people have mixed emotions about it. I actually lost about 90 pounds in the last two years.

CW:  Oh my goodness, congratulations.

Miller:  I've got about that much more to go, but yeah, it would be food. For Lent, I gave up Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. People laugh at that. Hey, man, I'm dead serious.

CW:  Amen. It's a sacrifice.

Miller:  It's a big deal. That's the big one. I'm getting a lot better at it.

To Own a Dragon released in February 2006 from NavPress.

Donald Miller  is the founding director of The Belmont Foundation - an organization assisting single mothers and children growing up without fathers. He is author of the bestselling "Blue Like Jazz", "Searching for God Knows What", and "Through Painted Deserts." He travels extensively around North America as a popular conference and college speaker and lives in Portland, Oregon.