Movie Review: "Blue Like Jazz"

Movie Review: "Blue Like Jazz"

"Blue Like Jazz" is a movie based on the New York Times bestselling book of the same name by Donald Miller (Thomas Nelson, 2003). The film is directed by Steve Taylor, one time authentic Christian music rock star known for brilliant solo CDs like "I Predict 1990" and "Squint" and work as the vocalist in Chagall Guevara, the short-lived but amazing band with one self-titled release. Taylor's full-length feature film credits include the 2006 release "Second Chance."

"Blue Like Jazz" reached a point where their finances were inadequate to complete the project, and funds were raised through a Kickstarter campaign to accept donations from fans of Taylor's music career and Miller's book. So "Blue Like Jazz" arrives at theaters April 13 with a bit of a built in audience.

That "Blue Like Jazz" became a very big book among many disaffected evangelical Christians who were unhappy in the locked down, faith-without-questions of their youth, and selling over a million copies, is best explained in the book's subtitle: "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality." Miller gave voice to the worries, questions and uncertainties of a generation that was increasingly becoming "spiritual but not religious."

Some have labeled Miller among a number of newer post-modern Christian writers and thinkers as "emergent" or "post-evangelical." While that term may fit the likes of Rob Bell, Donald Miller has more in common with folks like Rachel Held Evans and David Dark, who are trying to come to terms with the current culture, science and knowledge from what appears to be an evangelical perspective, as the term is defined these days (see reviews on books by Bell, Evans and Dark).

Although the paperback of "Blue Like Jazz" comes with a recommendation from Brian McLaren, a major voice among the so-called emergents, on the back, it's debatable where Miller would come down in any of those labels or theological definitions. But, it's clear he's upset some of the more conservative voices from the evangelical world, while still garnering a healthy readership largely made up of folk who are struggling to make sense of more conservative Christian teachings that are at odds with their experience in the world of science and culture.

In the book, Miller writes essays about his experiences moving from a conservative religious upbringing in Texas, raised by his single mom, to attending Reed College in Portland, Ore., an environment he describes as hostile to Christian faith. As Miller's previous indoctrination crashes into a world that distrusts all dogma and anything resembling "blind faith," Miller's understanding of the world and his faith are expanded by a host of characters, like Tony the Beat Poet and Andrew the Protester. In the course of his book, Miller weaves together cultural references from film, music and literature, learns to listen to the concerns and questions of others, and struggles to love himself, and make peace with both his family and religious history.

To make the movie, Miller, Taylor and Ben Pearson, who worked with Taylor on "Second Chance," took the general essays of "Blue Like Jazz," and forged them into a more formal narrative, if somewhat fictionalized story around a character named Don. Like his non-fiction author, Don, played with energy and playfulness by Marshall Allman (True Blood), abandons his Southern Baptist Texas church to attend Reed College, but there is a sense of betrayal and abandonment about his quest. At school, he come to terms with his hurts, his longing for love, affection and affirmation, and in the end affirms his faith. Miller wrote about the process of developing the narrative arc of the film in his book "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years."

"Blue Like Jazz," in this framework, is a coming of age movie, describing the struggles, setbacks and confusion of a college freshman rebounding from disillusionment forged from the betrayal of his mother and pastor back in Texas, and his desire to fit in at a secular university setting of Reed College. Unlike most religious films, Taylor manages to capture somewhat realistically the party atmosphere and creative chaos that many experience in their first year on a strange college campus, where their childhood religious teaching runs head-on into the philosophically curious and the skeptical thinking of academia, often drenched in an atmosphere of alcohol, sexual longing and identity anxiety.

In the film, Don's first, fast friend is Lauryn the Lesbian, his second, the anarchist Pope, and he's immediately develops a full-on crush on Penny the Girl Next Door, who it turns out is a closet Episcopalian. You can probably see where this is headed. Don gets swept up in the partying, drinks too much, makes stupid choices and has to learn to live with his mistakes that effect most of his relationships. Although the storyline feels undeveloped in some key areas, of course he comes to terms with the people in his life and his faith in God.

Given all that, saying that "Blue Like Jazz" is a Christian movie, is a bit like describing "Chagall Guevara" as a Christian rock album. It was made by a great rock band all of whom were definitely Christians, many of whom had made Christian rock albums for Christian record companies in the past, and it reflected a Christian worldview or mindset, but it was creative, aggressive and fun, and not aimed at a religious audience in any way shape or form. Sound like splitting hairs? Yes, of course.

That said, I have to say that "Blue Like Jazz" is the best film to come from a Christian movie company yet. Given so much of the competition (anyone see the Left Behind movies?) that may be interpreted as slim praise considering the limitations of that market, and it's a lot better than Taylor's last attempt at film. But by so authentically portraying the main character's confusion and partying - drinking and drugging, his longing for a sexual connection, and open acceptance of all those around him - they have made a movie that many more conservative churches may even refuse to show their youth, and some in that community are trying to limit its impact and success.

Now, I remember my early exposure to a "Christian movie," growing up as I did in a church culture that was very anxious about the outside, mainstream entertainments of "the world." On the continuum between fundamentalism and the evangelical worldview, my upbringing was closer to the former than the latter, so when Billy Graham Films established that one of their more outgoing features would appear only in regular movie theaters, there were long conversations whether it was appropriate to support these "dens of iniquity." And, while most "Christian movies" have an air of preachyness, a clear altar call like conclusion, "Blue Like Jazz" seems to be designed as a way to begin conversations, to open up dialogue rather than drive home a conclusion.

Now, theologically speaking, as a more progressive Christian I find the movie as limited as I found Miller's book. It may be that modern (as opposed to post-modern) mind of mine, but while Miller appears to want to ask big philosophical questions as he aspires to a sustainable, rational and credible faith, he rarely shows the kind of academic rigor of the authors I named above, Bell, Evans and Dark. Miller still operates in a dualistic universe, and the tenets of the Christian faith taught to him in his youth have remained unquestioned, as he writes in the book: "The decision was simple once I asked myself, Is Jesus the Son of God, are we being held captive in a world run by Satan, a world filled with brokenness, and do I believe Jesus can rescue me from this condition?"

In the two books of Millers' that I've read, he fails to deconstruct that kind of traditional, even dogmatic language he himself uses, much as progressive, post-modern and emerging theologians have been actively doing. He doesn't dissect the scholarship around the Christian scriptures, he doesn't account for the vast differences between say the conservative Baptist teaching of his childhood, and the progressive bent of Penny's Episcopal congregation, or that vast approaches to Christianity and theology that are inspiring current thinking, like process or liberation theologies. Which means, that while Miller in his book and "Don" in the movie reach many conclusions that many of us and our UCC youth might reach, he doesn't exhibit the kind of critical thinking, reflective self-awareness, or communal connection that are central values in our faith communities. Still, the film may offer an opportunity for more thoughtful dialogue with our older youth and young adults who are striving, as Don is, to make sense of faith in a challenging pluralistic world.

In the end, Taylor, Pearson and Miller have collaborated to produce a fun, engaging story, a believable narrative that is portrayed convincingly on the screen. It's funny and sad (when it's supposed to be, no small feat among Christian filmmakers), and in the end, it's a good conversation starter among churched youth and young adults, about what we believe and why it matters.

Read more about the movie.

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Barbara A. Powell
Associate Director of Publishing, Identity, and Communication
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115
216-736-2175
powellb@ucc.org