Christianity without formulas. imagine that.

Christianity without formulas. imagine that. October 21, 2013

Today’s post is a short interview with Ryan Miller, author of everything breathes, which just came out this month. Miller spent 10+ years creating video games, including the best sellers Myst and Riven, before taking his creativity to a different arena: the church world. He eventually started Branches in Spokane, WA in 2010. In addition to being the pastor there, he owns and operates an online stationery boutique with his wife, does some graphic design on the side, and attempts to parent three kids… all while trying to enjoy the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Miller has timely ideas about the life of faith and a great style for getting them across to everyday pilgrims. Those looking for helpful paths forward will like this book a lot.

What’s this book about?

I didn’t realize as it was happening but I grew up with formulas. I am a pastor’s kid but not one of those who grew up to reject my faith or get angry at everything that had been done to me. At the same time, my faith has evolved immensely over the last 10 years into something very different than what I was raised with and much of it has had to do with the idea of formulas.

The formulas always seem to start with some kind of “if”: If I accept Jesus; If I read the Bible more; If I find God; If I confess; If I pray more.

The next word to come into play is “then”: Then I will be happy; Then I won’t get cancer; Then I will find joy.

This isn’t just a “Christian” thing – it’s everywhere we look. Advertisements are built on it as much as sermons. If I get new body wash, new clothes, or a new phone, then I will get a partner, a new job, more time…. And if I get a partner, a new job, and more time….then I’ll be happy. That “then” is hanging out, controlling us, but rarely satisfying us.

In early 2013 I spoke on Ecclesiastes for a series during Lent at our church. As I looked at the book with some fresh eyes and perspective, I was blown away. It was rejuvenating.

The book blasts formulas out of the water. It blasts formulas that we get from churches, from pastors, and from the Bible (or our views of it) into oblivion. It says there are no more formulas. There are no ways to get here or there but that there is that which exists right now, right here, and it’s time to start living it. With God.

It was beautiful for a lot of people, including myself. As the formulas vanished, their chains left as well and people found themselves free to lament, to rejoice and to live wherever they were on the spectrum. I was writing a fiction book at the time and my wife told me I needed to stop writing that fiction book (which probably means it’s not very good) and start writing a book related to the series we had done instead. She’s a smart woman so I listened.

So your formula is “If I get rid of the formulas, then…” what?

Right. I’m really trying not to replace one formula with another but it’s so hard given my Western frame of mind. How do I get what I want and not get what I don’t want? So much of our life, or my life, comes to that.

But, I’m actually starting to believe that the good news of Christianity is that I don’t have to live that way anymore. There are no more “if I just do this enough than this will happen.” Instead, it’s live now. It’s all already happening.

Even when we look at Jesus who says things like “Blessed are those who mourn” my first inclination is to read it like a formula and find a way to mourn so that I’ll be blessed. But I think what Jesus may have been saying—and I think he did in various ways—is more along the lines of if you’re mourning you’re blessed. Right now. And if you’re persecuted. And if you’re poor. There’s still life to live right now.

The message seems to be repeated often: start living the life God has for you right now and stop waiting for some kind of life you think will come tomorrow or next week or in Heaven. Live now. You can no matter your circumstance and you can know God is with you in those circumstances.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. And I don’t think the author of Ecclesiastes does or did either. And I know that there are many who disagree on what the author of Ecclesiastes is even saying.

But, I do think there are some ingredients that have impacted me. More mystery. More awe. More wonder. More awareness. More love. More faith in humanity. More faith that God is with us no matter where we’re at and more faith that God is pulling all of humanity to somewhere better.

What’s your hope for this book?

My daughter begged me to take her to Arby’s one night after a soccer practice so I did. It was late and the only people in the restaurant were the two of us (she’s 8) and another older couple.

I watched as this older man opened up his sandwich and looked at it with disgust. He then went up to the counter and berated the minimum wage “cook” and the girl behind the counter and the manger because the sandwich was not dripping cheddar like it showed in the picture. He called out corporate America for trying to save money, he called out the millennial generation for being lazy, all because his cheddar melt wasn’t dripping cheddar.

He got a new sandwich and sat down and ate it in silence with his wife.

Maybe the guy was just having a bad day or maybe he needs to be freed from stuff. I think the latter, because I think a lot of us are walking around in prisons.

I know there are people who are going through lots of pain and they have a list of reasons as to why that pain is there. Many of those reasons have to do with formulas and their failure to correctly live them. They need to be freed to live in their pain and not carry the shame they so often have.

I know there are people who are waiting to start life, after they graduate, or get that job, or see Italy. They have a different set of formulas they are already getting tired of trying to fulfill. They need to be inspired to start living today.

I know there are people who have found the message of Jesus and the message of Christianity to be more stale and cliché than fresh and rejuvenating. I think they need to find a message that makes them fall in love with this faith and gain a new perspective of the world and others again.

I hope people are able to throw away the formulas and boxes and even many of the answers… that only fail us most of the time and find something beautiful and optimistic and empower again. I hope people are able to read this and be directed, at least a little, toward the mystical, confusing, vibrant, inspiring God again.


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  • Mike F

    I hear Ryan Miller is a pretty good hockey player too

    • John

      Ryan can’t play hockey, Nobody from Texas can play hockey…

      • rjsm

        True. Especially me. Although I have pretended to be that Ryan on occasion. : )

  • Out of the park, Ryan! As Peter Mayer sings– and Faith Rivera — “everything is holy now!” 🙂

    • rjsm

      Thank you sir. And awesome song. Way cool.

  • Beautiful… Alan Watts offers a similar critique of the secular formula:

  • I think that this Evangelical obsession to give easy and (apparently convincing) answers to every area of uncertainty is one of the main cause of the rising atheism in the US.

    Nothing is certain in life and there are many things about which we are completely ignorant.

    When clever young Evangelicals realize that the answers they were given don’t hold water, they will often conclude that their faith is false, committing an “atheism of the gap” fallacy.

    British theologian Alister McGrath wrote a great article about doubting which I found helpful:

  • NateW

    Ok, so… Is it just a coincidence that this has been posted in the midst of all the hype about the movie Gravity?? I mean, this is pretty much exactly what that movie is all about, near as I can tell.

    GREAT post!!

    • rjsm

      Hey Nate, you’re right. You gotta see the movie. (And read the book.)

      But seriously I did love the movie.

      : )

      • NateW

        Actually, I saw the movie last night and was blown away. One of my top theater experiences of all time (saw it in IMAX 3D). I went in fresh (had avoided reading any reviews and commentary) and have been thinking about the allegorical concepts a lot, writing some, etc, so when I read this post today that pretty much says exactly what I was thinking about the movie it was kinda eerie, haha.

        I’ve been ruminating on Ecclesiastes a lot lately too and have had my mind blown by the radical concept of the eternal present (“olam”). We live life like a rowboat on a globe of pure ocean, always chasing the horizon even as it always recedes ahead of us. I’m finally learning that life isn’t about somehow possessing what lies shadowed by the horizon of my limited knowledge, but about taking hold of the present (eternal) moment with the utmost sincerity.

        To know fully is to know only that I am fully known—and yet loved. To Live eternally is to have such faith in this Truth that I am willing to always be stepping, moment by moment, into forsakenness to reveal it to an other.

        • rjsm

          Love it. Good stuff. And I do use the rowboat analogy in the book – we’re on the same page here…

          And as far as Gravity – my wife and I couldn’t stop talking about the analogies and imagery. So good…

          • NateW

            Wow, that’s funny! Guess I don’t need to write a book about Ecclesiastes after all. ; )

            Have you listened to Bob Dylan at all? His 1997 Album “Time Out of Mind” has played a huge role in helping me work through this big transition in my faith. Really, the whole album is from the perspective of someone who, in his last years, is overwhelmed by the experiential absence of the formulaic God—finally understanding that life happens within the void, not after escaping from it.

            “Every day is the same thing out the door
            Feel further away than ever before
            Some things in life, it gets too late to learn
            Well, I’m lost somewhere
            I must have made a few bad turns

            I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
            They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright-colored clothes
            All the young men with their young women looking so good
            Well, I’d trade places with any of them
            In a minute, if I could

            The sun is beginning to shine on me
            But it’s not like the sun that used to be
            The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
            I got new eyes
            Everything looks far away

            Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day
            Over the hills and far away
            There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
            But I’m already there in my mind
            And that’s good enough for now”
            – “Highlands”

            I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
            I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
            Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
            I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
            Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
            It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
            – “Not Dark Yet”

            I see, I see lovers in the meadow
            I see, I see silhouettes in the window
            I watch them ’til they’re gone and they leave me hanging on
            To a shadow

            I’m sick of love; I hear the clock tick
            This kind of love; I’m love sick

            Sometimes the silence can be like the thunder
            Sometimes I feel like I’m being plowed under
            Could you ever be true? I think of you
            And I wonder

            I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
            I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you

            Just don’t know what to do
            I’d give anything to be with you
            – Love Sick

          • rjsm

            Hmm, I’ve heard some of it but never jumped into the whole thing. Might be time. You’ve sold me.

      • NateW

        Also, Just wanted you to know that as Gravity may be one of my most enjoyable movie theater experiences, playing through Myst as a kid (figure I was about 12) is certainly among my fondest gaming experiences. Almost 20 years later (!!!!) I can stil vividly remember much of that world. I thought the skull/rose was the coolest thing ever! I even read the Myst Book, haha. I should dig around and see if I can find that notebook full of sketches and puzzle ideas…


        • rjsm

          Awesome! I helped work on that Myst book. Gotta love it. Haha.

          Take care Nate!

  • David

    Thanks for this really helpful interview. The church has been so influenced by Greek philosophy that we do often seek to analyse, put everything in a box and develop formulas for living.

    However the Hebrew mindset is very different: where the Greek mindset seeks to know about God, the Hebrew mindset seek to know God. Where the Greek mindset seeks to analyse and understand, the Hebrew mindset seek to do (live).

    Without promoting another formula (as if I would!!) as Christians it might be time for us to rediscover how to think Hebraically. This doesn’t mean converting to Judaism or beginning to adopt Jewish practices – but it does mean, as David Pawson puts it, being ‘de-greeced’ from our Greek influences. Steve Maltz’s books explain all this far better than I can and tie in with lots of what Ryan is talking about.

    • I think both mindsets have their strengths and weaknesses.
      One should try to understand as much as possible while accepting that certain things will always remain mysterious.

    • Seraphim Hamilton

      David, I vigorously reject your assertion. The assertion that the Church replaced the “Hebrew mind” with the “Greek mind” is about as trite (and false) as the idea that the deity of Jesus reflects a “Hellenization” of Christianity. You would do well to read the writings of the Desert Fathers and see how they cared to know God. You should also read the work of Skarsaune, Gavrilyuk, Lossky, and Zizioulas. This idea has been thoroughly critiqued and Patrologists are coming to understand just how deeply the Fathers transformed and Christianized the philosophers. Origen is the exception, and he has been regarded with extreme caution by most Christians ever since.

      • rjsm

        Hard to argue the idea that East and West view the world and language and theology from pretty different perspectives. I think David was saying the Western Church altered that Eastern worldview quite a bit, right?

        I wasn’t aware that the idea has been “thoroughly critiqued”, honestly. I’ll have to check out some of those works.

        • Seraphim Hamilton

          The use of the philosophers to expound Christian doctrine developed in the Eastern Church and was appropriated by the West- usually these sorts of critiques are directed at the Holy Fathers of the East- such as St. Maximus and St. Basil. I would argue that the medieval capitulation to Thomism represents a wholesale reception (rather than transformation) of the philosophers. Even so, it’s very important to note that in the 19th century, many Roman Catholic scholars came to believe that most of the Greek AND Latin Fathers had fallen into heresy and that this was repaired by Thomas. Check out Bradshaw’s “Aristotle East and West.” Too often, we equate “Thomas’ reading of Aristotle” with “Aristotle.” In fact, East and West have historically read Aristotle differently, and there was quite a lot of work on this question during the (little known) Byzantine Renaissance.

          • Seraphim Hamilton

            Though we should remember that near the end of his life (on his way to the Council of Florence), Thomas had a direct encounter with God and proclaimed all of his work “worthless.” This is why the Summa was never finished. He then hit his head on a branch and died. Oh, how I wish Thomas had made it to the Council.

    • rjsm

      For what it’s worth, generally speaking, I agree with you David! Obviously there is a place for logic and reason but when we value it above all else, it gets pretty scary, pretty fast.

      Or as the pope recently said: “A religion without mysticism is just a philosophy.”

  • Ann Gingrow Corbett

    I ordered the book yesterday and just got a notice that it’s already shipped. I can’t wait to read it!

  • Sue

    Real Intelligence is tacit or intrinsically wordless living existence.

    Which is to point out that if you were really interested in what it takes to live life without any kind of formula you would have to throw away with both hands all of your Biblical and theological babble/babel.

    If you can breate, fully and deeply, and if your breath is consciously attuned, through feeling, to the tangible and infinite energy of the universe – only then can you love.
    If your attention is always free of obsession with your own atrocious thoughts, and reveries and memories and reactions – only then are you capable of genuine participation in life, even in the matters that might otherwise preoccupy you.
    If your living body is open, relaxed, fluid with feeling, supple and graceful in its action, and not bound up in a physically visible knot of tension and self-possession – only then can you live a truly effective and moral or relational life in this human realm.
    And – only then are you happy, and thus always good company to all beings

    • I agree that believing in Biblical inerrancy is morally, intellectually and spiritually harmful.

      But why should we give up all theological beliefs?

      Is the hope that there is a good God offering eternal life to everyone desiring Him a hurdle for fully living?