November 20, 2009 / Filmwell
Moving past the “inspiration” film to the unsanitized story.
April 15, 2012
Blue Like Jazz, the new film by director Steve Taylor, is based on Donald Miller’s New York Times-bestselling memoir. It’s the biggest filmmaking success story in the history of the Kickstarter program, earning $345,000 in donations to help cover its costs. Were their investments rewarded? If you skim through the reviews, you might be inclined to say, “Apparently not.”
But I think reviewers are responding with some knee-jerk judgments and prejudice that is, in fact, one of this movie’s primary subjects.
Here’s my defense of the film.
Before I review the film, I suggest that we play a little make-believe.
Imagine this: A bunch of atheists make a movie about a young atheist who finds himself stuck in a Southern Baptist college.
What would you expect to see? You’d probably expect the atheist to be portrayed as somewhat “normal” in a crowd of Christian buffoons and conformists, people intolerant of other points of view. The story would follow this sympathetic, exasperated atheist as he strives to endure the peer pressure applied by the Christians, who want him to surrender his intellect and convert to a cruel, authoritarian culture. He would eventually escape, perhaps convincing a few Christians to break free, give up their “intolerance,” and undo the church’s brainwashing. Ultimately, these skeptical filmmakers would make their claim that Religious People are the losing team, and everybody should join the winners.
Got that? Okay.
Now, imagine this: A bunch of Christians make a movie about a young Southern Baptist who finds himself attending one of the most liberal colleges in the U.S.
What would you expect to see? You’d probably expect to see the Christian character threatened, attacked, and discombobulated by the heathens. But prayer and Bible study would serve him well. In this culture of devils, seducers, deceivers, and reckless fools, he would win arguments, shame his enemies, and see his prayers answered in miraculous ways. He might even persuade a few of the “lost” to hear the call of the Gospel. In the end, these Christian filmmakers would demonstrate that “Christians” are the best team on the field, and anybody else is a loser, destined to be “left behind.”
In a culture that claims to value “tolerance,” both filmmaking teams would be at fault. Both films would oversimplify complicated matters. Both would be guilty of gross generalizations and mean-spirited caricature. While both teams of filmmakers would be somewhat successful in winning the approval of like-minded viewers, they would probably fail to encourage other viewers to rethink their assumptions and convictions. Moreover, both sets of artists would fail to craft works of art — rather, they would produce works of persuasion. Their films would be advertisements for their point of view, rather than invitations to an experience that inspires questions, thoughtfulness, and exploration.
Unfortunately, these two examples represent a lot of the entertainment and “art” that come from the various camps in what has come to be known as a “culture war” in America.
The author Marilynne Robinson told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that in matters of “religion versus science,” people pay attention to the “cultural gladiators” — extremists who shout at each other without any openness, respect, or capacity for dialogue with people of other perspectives.
Meanwhile, she said, there is a quiet but substantial society in the middle, where the lines between science and religion blur, and where scientists and believers are working together in dialogue, respect, and an openness to discovery.
As in matters of science and religion, so in matters of art and faith. Contrary to the extremists who craft entertainment to proclaim their superiority and condemn their perceived enemies, there is art out there that engages questions about faith without turning into a commercial for the filmmaker’s point of view, or an attack on their perceived enemies.
It’s true in all arenas. Most people could, if they looked around, find Christians who are thoughtful and admirable alongside the Christians who are judgmental and hypocritical. Likewise, it is fairly easy to find conscientious and compassionate agnostics and atheists alongside those who expend a great deal of energy sneering at, and condemning, those who are religious.
But thoughtful people who express themselves with integrity and dignity tend to end up ignored, lost in the clamor of battles between extremists. And, let’s face it — extremists get better ratings than those who are reasonable and insightful. Extremists seize our attention and hold on tight.
As a result, a movie like Blue Like Jazz is likely to fly under the radar of the average moviegoer. But those who seek it out, pay attention, and discuss it, may find themselves richly rewarded.
Blue Like Jazz is a film made by Christians about a Southern Baptist’s undergraduate adventures at a liberal college in Portland, Oregon — specifically, Reed College.
And yet… director and screenwriter Steve Taylor, his co-writer Ben Pearson, and the man whose memoir inspired their work — Donald Miller — are not interested in dividing the world into two teams, hosting a battle, and having one side emerge triumphant. Their movie is about something more interesting. It tells a story of human beings inside and outside the church — men, women, parents, children, believers, skeptics, seekers, fundamentalists — who are all blessed with moments of wisdom and moments of folly, capable of faith and doubt, stubbornness and change, hypocrisy and authenticity. As big-screen satires go, this one gives us a surprisingly complex and nuanced picture of humankind.
Don Miller (Marshall Allman) is a fictional character inspired by some of the experiences and insights of the real-world Donald Miller. He’s a young man whose foundational beliefs are crumbling beneath him. As the film begins, he’s discovering the leaks in his ship. He thinks too much of Texas. He thinks too much of his church. He thinks too much of his “pothead father,” his churchgoing mother, and the leaders in his church. He thinks he’s been taught how to answer life’s toughest questions. But piece by piece, these things fail him. He’s shipwrecked, lost in a sea of questions, fumbling for some scrap of wreckage that will keep him afloat.
In short, it’s a film about trust. As Don considers going to a Baptist college, his church youth pastor (Jason Marsden) warns him that the school has become more liberal. “Don’t let them brainwash you, Donnie,” he says. Don’t miss the irony here — it’s this very youth pastor who then turns to a room full of children and says, “Who wants Kool-Aid?”
It won’t be long before Miller discovers that these church people who are so eager to save him from the lies of the world outside are perpetuating some lies of their own. Why fear the heathens of college when his fellow Christians are hypocrites? What makes one culture’s “brainwashing” better than another’s?
Slowly he begins to see that he’s been sold a shallow, superficial, happiness-based faith by people who are afraid of the world outside. In his Baptist congregation, a flimsy Christianity is appropriately represented by a plastic centurion costume, complete with a harmless sword and a ridiculous helmet. It’s an absurd spectacle, one you might expect from Saturday Night Live… but you won’t have trouble finding churchgoers who have seen embarrassing charades like this in their own churches. (The church in question seems to think that “the full armor of God” is something meant to shield us from the rest of the world, rather than to equip us to live within it and combat the sin within our own hearts.)
Don’s father (Eric Lange), a poor role model in almost every way, offers Don a flicker of wisdom: “Go somewhere where they don’t hand you the script and tell you to copy it.” So Don, eager to escape the charade and find some kind of authenticity, launches into the cosmos of liberal secularism, where “individualism” is championed above all else. He’s done going through the motions.
Christians are bound to describe this story as an attack on the church. But such responses betray an inability to distinguish between “mere Christianity” and the ways in which it has been distorted into tools of control by fearful “believers.” Taylor, Pearson, and Miller haven’t come to condemn religion. Like Christ himself, they’re challenging arrogant religious leaders who have turned religion into a system of control, legalism, hypocrisy, and fear. They’re setting fire to a Christianity that serves as a security blanket, one that promises happiness and safety rather than calling us to follow Christ into the wilderness and share his sufferings. They’re calling us back to true religion, to the promises, the courage, and the integrity of Christ. And in doing so, they’re equipping us with something better than a new set of answers — they’re giving us questions, questions that will challenge us to grow in wisdom and love.
Don Miller (the character) is not running into unbelief so much as he is running from the comfort zone of American evangelical fundamentalism into what author David Dark would call “the sacredness of questioning everything.” (Look up the book by that title, and be blessed.) He’s learning to use the mind God gave him to test all things, and to find God in the world, instead of quarantining himself with fearful pretenders. Like most who have encounters with Christ, his life becomes more difficult, and the trail becomes steeper.
Isn’t that how believers become stronger? Faith, like any muscle, must be exercised.
But Christians aren’t the only ones being challenged to look in the mirror. Blue Like Jazz is also about how skeptics who have appointed themselves judge and jury over Christians learn to recognize that while they have plenty of complaints — including some very valid complaints — against Christian culture, their objections have ballooned into prejudice and presumption. Taylor doesn’t make the mistake of making heroes out of church-bashers. They’re shown to be as prone to cruelty and intolerance as the Christians. Note the church sign that vandals have altered to say “Abstinence makes the church grow fondlers.” Those who champion “tolerance” are quick to abandon their principles when it comes to insulting the church. And Don’s father, who sees some things very clearly, conveniently ignores that it was the church who paid for the Miller family’s groceries when he abandoned his wife and child.
Blue Like Jazz has the courage to portray all participants in this “culture war” as similarly fallible. It dares to suggest a path through the confusion — relationship rather than shouting, respect rather than antagonism, and an openness to testing our assumptions, loving our neighbors, and growing alongside one another.
Doing so, the film is apparently scaring people… including other filmmaking Christians.
Blue Like Jazz the movie is quite different than Blue Like Jazz the book. The book is a series of meditations and anecdotes by Donald Miller, who really did grow up in a Baptist community, and really did end up rethinking matters of faith at Reed College. The movie is a fiction — a whimsical comedy that strains to contain some of the big ideas and epiphanies that Miller experienced. (It should be noted that Big Screen Mrs. Miller, Don’s mother, is a fabrication; Don’s real mother did not commit the sins that trigger Don’s launch into a new cosmos.)
It’s in Miller’s willingness to admit his confusion and his questions that Blue Like Jazz rises above so many so-called “Christian films.” Christian audiences tend to celebrate movies that serve as airbrushed visions of the Christian life, advertisements for a Jesus who promises happiness and who grants wishes for those who believe. Blue Like Jazz will be a hard pill for those audiences to swallow. That’s because it admits that the Christian life is full of hardship and questions that aren’t easily answered. And it suggests that we are as likely to encounter God at work outside the church as inside of it.
In doing so, it portrays life at a liberal college with surprising authenticity. You’ll see shocking behavior, hear harsh language, and have close encounters with people who have different ideas about politics, sexuality, and religion.
It’s no surprise that the filmmakers behind such “Christian movies” as Facing the Giants and Courageous told their collaborators that anybody who worked on Blue Like Jazz would be banished from ever working with them. Steve Taylor, on the film’s official blog, wrote:
The Executive Pastor of Sherwood Baptist (where the Kendricks Brothers movies are produced) issued what amounts to a fatwa against Blue Like Jazz when he made it known that nobody who worked on our movie would be allowed to work with them in the future. (This strikes me as disingenuous at best coming from a church whose movies are distributed by Sony Home Entertainment, home of the The DaVinci Code. And tellingly, the edict was issued before the movie had ever even been screened.)
What a conveniently bold illustration of the power-plays, the fear-mongering, and the condemnation that inspired Donald Miller to seek a bolder Gospel in the first place.
Isn’t Blue Like Jazz exactly the kind of film we should expect from Steve Taylor?
The director is better known for his years as a witty and observant singer and songwriter who was often controversial for asking Christians to examine their own hearts in the arena of “Christian rock.” (One of his sharpest satirical songs was called “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.”) Instead of striking poses as a cheerleader for Jesus, Taylor always challenged his listeners to be thoughtful, to test their assumptions, to truly exercise faith instead of just talking about it. And thus, when he did express his own faith, it was clearly a hard-won faith, a sincere and authentic statement from the head and the heart, instead of just an emotional parroting of the party line.
Here, Taylor’s likely to inspire the wrath of defensive Christians as he depicts a church characterized by cringe-worthy kiddie-sermons about having Jesus as your “amigo.” But you don’t have to visit many churches to find lazy substitutes for the Gospel like this one. And who hasn’t tried to keep a straight face as bizarrely misguided metaphors are delivered from the pulpit?
Taylor’s work continues to ring true, appealing to believers who, like Miller, have been frustrated by the shallowness of the Christianity they’ve been sold, and who desire deeper waters.
Count me among them. I’m still enduring a lifetime of embarrassing displays like that — and I’ve participated in plenty of them myself. (Old habits die hard. Even in this review, I struggle to resist the pull of arrogance, oversimplification, and judgmentalism.)
I’ve been moved and inspired by Christians who have been willing to call out their fellow believers for dishonest testimonies. I’ve been inspired by those who find God’s glory within and beyond the walls of the church, who have opened their eyes enough to see God at work outside the programs of evangelicalism. I’ve learned from those who have expressed that even though they have faith they “still haven’t found what they’re looking for.” My faith has been strengthened by artists like Taylor, who equipped me with healthy questions, helped me give up my “security blanket faith,” and wrestle my doubts instead of concealing or denying them.
Taylor has made a movie for people who seek to live life in a faith that engages the world around us instead of a faith that withdraws and judges. His purpose is not to make converts, but to give voice to questions that lead us toward lives of authenticity, honesty, and whole-hearted courage.
Now, this raises the question: Can a guy who made a career in rock remake himself into a director of great films?
Is Blue Like Jazz a great work of art? No. At times, the movie feels like a film-school project. Granted, these filmmakers are new to the art. They’re still learning about the art of screenplays, editing, and craft. Thus, the characters do feel a bit cartoonish at times, even for a satire. And Reed College comes across more as a playground for wild and crazy behavior than a place for actual scholarship. I would have preferred a more balanced portrayal of college life.
A bigger problem is the film’s clunky style, which betrays its budgetary limitations. This is especially obvious when it comes to connective tissue, like awkwardly animated transition sequences that look like they might have been added at the last minute.
Still, it’s tough to be too hard on artists who were doing the best they could with very limited resources. Despite its flaws, I found the film to be consistently entertaining, enjoyable, and thought-provoking. I don’t know about you, but if I must choose between a clunky but thoughtful indie and a slick but empty-headed blockbuster, I’ll take the indie every time. Blue Like Jazz playfully serves up more food for thought than most comedies we’ve seen so far this decade.
The cast performs impressively. Allman makes for an endearingly wide-eyed spiritual pilgrim. You can’t help but root for him to “come out of the closet” about his faith around so may presumptuous nay-sayers and skeptics. As Don’s atheist friend who dresses like the Pope and aims to misbehave, Justin Welborn creates a clown with a broken heart. As Lauryn, the lesbian who serves as Don’s tour guide into Reed’s wonderland, Tania Raymonde made me care about something more than a stereotype. As Penny — a social activist with a secret — Claire Holt is a warm presence, even if her character feels contrived to keep moviegoers engaged with a romantic subplot.
The imaginative set design, the film’s evocative grasp of Portland’s character, its lively soundtrack (featuring the Portland alt-rock band Menomena; my favorite band in the world, Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine; and Steve Taylor himself in an end-credits anthem)… the film has plenty to recommend it. If mainstream critics write it off for wrestling with questions about religion, they maybe revealing more about themselves than the movie. And if Christians think the film is being mean-spirited toward Christianity, they should revisit some of the things Jesus said about religious people who make religion an excuse to avoid examining themselves.
In its comedy, it’s amusing, engaging, and poignant. Taylor, Pearson, and Miller are especially good with finding just the right metaphors to reinforce the film’s themes. (Penny is on a campaign to expose bottled water as a fraudulent product, and to inform people that free, natural tap water is better than what they’ve been “sold.”) Scenes that emphasize the superficiality and shallowness of contemporary evangelicalism contain the sharpest satire, and produce the biggest laughs. (Wait until you see the most inappropriate piñata the big screen has ever seen!) But the scenes that highlight the hypocrisy of the “enlightened” are also sharply drawn, showing that those who champion “tolerance” and “free thinking” are capable of turning around and transgressing their own standards, scorning and bullying a Baptist.
So, the strengths of Blue Like Jazz far outweigh its weaknesses. To this believer, it rings true.
It rings true to my experience that church communities can foster a fear and distrust of the world beyond the church. Such fear-mongering is harmful not because the world is trustworthy (it isn’t), but because it suggests that those problems don’t exist within the church (they do).
It rings true to my own experience that good things can happen, good friendships can exist, even (and especially) among those who believe differently. I’ve certainly found that to be true. It suggests that even among the sexually reckless, the foul-mouthed, the drunken, and the drugged, a professing Christian can be the most misguided person of all — through arrogance, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and dishonesty. Jesus himself cautioned us that “Many will come in my name and deceive many.” And he promised us that some would say, “Lord, look at the things we have done in your name!” … only to be cast from the Lord’s presence. Those are terrifying prophecies. I don’t want to learn he was speaking of me.
It rings true to my experience that Christian faith is about more than finding Jesus. It’s about following him out of our comfort zones and into places where we don’t always know what to do, where we’re mocked and abused, where we make mistakes, and where our compasses (moral and otherwise) seem to go haywire.
It rings true in that it portrays the “freedom” celebrated on college campuses across the country as being freedom to behave without restrictions, rather than the freedom that leads to the rewards of responsibility, humility, service, and relationship. (Don describes life at Reed as being “lost in a sea of individuality.” The blessings of community come from communion, communication, and commitment to something larger than oneself.) As Don’s new friends protest corporate control, like the gang in Fight Club, it becomes clear that they are building their own equally rigid system of control, and if somebody steps out of their line, they turn against him.
It rings true to my experience that most people’s objections to Christianity are, at the root, objections to the ways they’ve been mistreated, judged, and disappointed by people who misrepresent Jesus’ name.
It rings true to my experience that we can serve by doing more than “good deeds” and sermonizing, but also by humbly seeking forgiveness for our wrongs… and by having the courage to recognize and face those wrongs in the first place.
Some Spoiler-Free Thoughts on the Conclusion
The film’s conclusion is likely to prove unsatisfying for many. But it’s worth asking whether that is because audience expectations are misguided, or whether the filmmakers failed to provide the “resolution” that Don Miller so often mentions in the movie. (Blue Like Jazz frequently brings up the basic elements of storytelling: Setting, Crisis, Climax, Resolution.)
Those who expect the film to conclude with some ultimate rebuke of the church, or some declaration of the Gospel, are misunderstanding what Miller and Taylor mean to accomplish. This isn’t a film about choosing the right side of anything. It does resolve, but its resolution is about learning to love questions and proceed with grace. That doesn’t pack the punch of an “Answer.” It’s better for us than that. It’s a film about learning to exercise real faith — that is to say, learning to ask difficult questions, courageously explore, and escape the poisonous influence of cultural dualism. It’s about becoming a conscientious objector in the culture wars, and doing so with humility, leading by example — attending to one’s own heart, mind, and integrity rather than attacking someone else’s.
While we should be honest about the film’s flaws as we are about its strengths, we should ultimately give Steve Taylor and Donald Miller — and the hundreds of generous donors who brought this vision to the screen — due credit for boldly going into territory too volatile for most “Christian filmmakers,” and yet wrestling with questions that will probably drive away those with an allergy to conversations about religion.
It’s about time that a film about faith didn’t conclude with the implication that Jesus will solve all of your problems or make you happy. This film points to something true — that real faith leads to a contrite spirit, humility, and love for neighbors who are as capable of foolishness, arrogance, and intolerance as we are. Miller ends up giving us a rare example of a Christian with a humble and contrite spirit, a Christian who is honest and compassionate, a Christian who acknowledges the stick in his own eye rather than picking at splinters in the eyes of others. What’s exciting about Don’s story is how it has led him not to the end of a journey, but instead to a beginning.
So while that conclusion, with all of its loose ends and questions, is sure to unsettle those who want movies to end with answers, happy endings, a resounding rebuke of religion, or an enthusiastic declaration of the Gospel (Christianity Today’s review says the film “builds toward a spiritual epiphany that is anything but satisfying”), I’m grateful for how the film ends. It feels like an honest “To Be Continued.” And that’s just the right conclusion for a story about a man who, after years of fear and conformity, found the courage to set out on his own journey into authentic faith.
But don’t take my word for it. Don’t let anybody tell you what to think. Do like Don Miller. Get out there, and see it for yourself.
[UPDATE: My interview with director Steve Taylor is published at Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine.]