Q&A with Eric Miller, Professor of History, Geneva College, Pennsylvania
Creative communicating to students, in some fashion, is at the heart of my calling.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Eric Miller: I try my best to understand what's going on in the world, and then do whatever I can to help others gain that understanding.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
EM: In the midst of a profoundly disorienting spiritual and intellectual crisis as a college student, I started to read the circle of writers who had been touched by the work of Francis Schaeffer and L'Abri, including Os Guinness, Schaeffer himself, and many others. Seeing my own situation in the light of theology, philosophy, and history was enormously liberating, and propelled me toward deeper study. Meanwhile, the increasing opportunities I had after college to work with high school and college students as part of a church ministry led me to believe that creative communicating, in some fashion, was at the heart of my calling.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
EM: The most helpful experiences I've had have ended up being those that showed me what I could not do well—what I had to steer clear of in order to remain alive and fruitful elsewhere. I discovered early on that when I tried to handle executive and administrative responsibilities, it harshly taxed, and even torpedoed, both my social and creative impulses. Unfortunately, I've had to learn that lesson one too many times—part of the risk of working in Christian organizations, I suppose, which seem to be administratively needy.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
EM: My one living grandparent, my maternal grandmother, has with her life imparted one cumulative piece of advice to me: Seize the available good. As one prone to criticism, I treasure her disciplined determination to celebrate the good that is always already there.
I also have taken advice from C.S. Lewis through the advice he gave to one correspondent (Letters To An American Lady, letter of March 19, 1956):
Don't be too easily convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work you needn't do . . . by doing what 'one's stations and its duties' does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand and so commit some injustice. Just you give Mary a little chance as well as Martha!
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
EM: My home, and the relations and experiences that flow in and out of it, have been my greatest inspiration over the past seven or eight years. My immediate family, as known and nurtured within our home, is the source of so much of what I know of the good, and is a critical reference point for how I understand good and evil, and right and wrong. I see increasingly that apart from my family I do not know myself. My parents who are missionaries in Brazil still inspire me in ways that seem to always surprise me.
I also draw continued, immediate inspiration from students at colleagues at Geneva (and other colleges), my pastors, and past teachers at all levels of education. For inspiration of a less immediate, more distant variety, I am especially in the debt of Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mark Heard, John Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, and the Innocence Mission.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
EM: I run a few miles several days a week throughout the year—just enough to clear my mind (or, better, feed it) and work my body. From March through September I'm usually trying to keep a vegetable garden, which also involves the work of trying to preserve its produce. The joy of these activities makes other more narrowly intellectual work more enjoyable too, and I think more fruitful.
Scripture reading and memorizing, prayer, meditation, contemplation, poetry reading and memorizing: all of these I do with regularity, though their structural quality varies, or perhaps strengthens and weakens, from year to year. In these areas, what some call "disciplines," I find it best to flex.
I enjoy correspondence, but have a now engrained dislike of doing it by e-mail, which, in my experience, has cheapened and disfigured what correspondence was when done by land. "E-mailing" has now become part of the structure of my day—even a ritual—but I don't usually experience it as a means of joy, as I did correspondence in the pre-internet world.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
EM: Sanford mechanical pencils (.5 mm 2B lead), Pilot Razor Point pens, white Ampad writing pads, Levenger note cards, a lap desk, an old (well, 2001) iBook, an old (well, 1988) shallow-back Celebrity guitar.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
EM: When I was ABD at the University of Delaware in the late nineties I saw an ad in Christianity Today for a writing contest on "faith and consumerism." I was doing a lot of reading and thinking about consumerism, and was feeling increasingly drawn toward writing, especially in a less academic way. This seemed a good opportunity to bring the two together, but a long domestic emergency kept me from working at it. Finally, just before the contest deadline, I happened to watch the Gregory Peck film Gentleman's Agreement, a story about a crusading journalist, and woke up the next morning inspired to try the essay, some ideas for which had been gathering in my head but had never made it on to paper in any coherent form. Once I started to write I could barely stop. Something about the creative non-fiction form helped release a kind of surging energy I had only had foretastes of previously, and with it an excitement that yanked me out of bed early several mornings to get back to work on it. The essay I wrote came in second in the contest, and was eventually published as "Keeping Up with the Amish" in Christianity Today.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
EM: I'm a horrible planner. I have a hard time believing that anything that lies more than two weeks in the future will actually happen. (Hence my struggles, noted above, in administration). So I struggle to plan courses, essays, books, vacations, my garden—practically everything. I'm generally propelled into what I do by a sense of deep impulse and desire, focused on a particular sphere or realm of interest, and as ideas come I try to get them down on paper as best I can, in the hope that when I return to them the flavor and texture that captured me at the time will still be there, somewhere.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
EM: I have a grand hope that somehow all of the "learning" that my vocational path has required is yielding a durable ethic in my own life (I think of this as my wife's secret prayer), and a fundamentally sounder way of living together. Unfortunately, many of the connections between my work and my home and church (in tandem with troubles that are all my own) seem to conspire against this end. I find it increasingly difficult, for example, to carve out private space in a world whose high-tech nature makes one so continually accessible, while at the same time, paradoxically, diminishing actual human relations. Increasingly, the need for a radical alternative to the nexus of economic, academic, collegiate, and domestic structures that so shapes my life, and the life of my family, seems not only desirable but necessary. But this very sense of necessity is at the same time a sign of its near impossibility. We're enmeshed in a world that makes the possibility of a true alternative increasingly difficult to realize. Struggling against this formidable reality seems to me the most important task our generation of Christians faces.