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Legendary film director Orson Welles once said that “there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” Portraying the complexity of our spiritual lives in a visual medium like film is a daunting task. Most stay away from dealing with religion at all while others try and fail. While we’ve been blessed with some incredible exceptions (think Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick), many sub-par, exclusively message-driven efforts by evangelicals dominate the attention of the American public.
Enter Blue Like Jazz, the newly released film adaptation of Don Miller’s popular book. Longtime musician Steve Taylor directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Miller and Ben Pearson. Their goal is not to offer gospel proclamation or heroic moral triumph but tell an honest story about the conflict of faith in the modern world. The book’s autobiographical introspection has been condensed into a simpler, coming-of-age narrative.
The story begins with young Don in his Texan Southern Baptist church. A smarmy youth pastor leads a prayer circle that quickly devolves into bowling watermelons and group games. Don is warned to avoid brainwashing by the “liberals” at college. In the next scene his deadbeat, hippie dad inversely laments the loss of his mind to the church. Later, a cross-shaped piñata showers communion cups on disappointed kids as a gospel illustration. These scenes culminate with a revelation that the (very married) youth pastor has been sleeping with mom, something the trivial atmosphere of the church hasn’t equipped Don to handle. He quickly snaps and flees to his dad’s alma mater, the famously liberal, agnostic Reed College. Here he begins to openly mock his faith as he considers leaving it all behind.
Amidst the fun, anarchic campus life Don encounters a diverse array of new friends. There’s a lovesick lesbian, a militant atheist in full Papal garb, and a (sometimes naïve) activist with a heart for humanitarian issues. Even though the satire is heightened, there’s enough nuance to stomach the clichés and uneven filmmaking. Self-aware of caricature, the film even invites discussion on archetypes and stereotypes as students debate the definitions in literature class. At the Q&A session following a screening in Irvine, Miller actually pointed out that some of the most suspect extremes (Reed’s mocking ceremony that crowns a campus Pope, a girl using the co-ed urinal, an atheist purging dorm room of religious books) were all from real life.
The filmmakers have a clear affection for each character. No one is unfairly demonized and everyone is given a voice at the table. This is a very rare quality. We meet hypocritical Christians and gracious, faithful ones. Churchgoing Penny fights for social causes but later admits to abandoning her suffering mom in an hour of greatest need. Agnostics air their jabs at religion but aren’t given a free pass either. On campus we see the champions of “tolerance” being anything but. As Don’s dad mocks the church he’s reminded that the congregation paid for groceries when he ditched the family. Taylor juxtaposes banal Christian bumper stickers “Are you following Jesus this close?” with their mirror image, “Abstinence makes the heart grow fondlers.” I can’t think of another movie that has captured just how sloganeering and prejudicial current talk about religion is. Moving past the hysterical put-downs, we’re shown how personal experience and emotion is often more formative than a reasonable argument.
Steve Taylor’s comedic sensibilities help steer the story away from melodrama. The personality that characterizes his songwriting is also felt here. At times the humor falls flat or grows tedious (like a sequence where a bear-costumed thief destroys Don’s bike) but the consistent energy enables Taylor to portray an inner, spiritual struggle in a strong and unique way. Knowing where Don has really come from and what he’s wrestling with gives the college wackiness a striking dissonance. All the fun, partying, and prank “activism” are colored by the lingering question: what will he do with God? The contrast of the upbeat soundtrack echoes how our externally happy lives often distract from or mask underlying turmoil.
The second half of the film grows somewhat disappointing, which is a real shame given all it has going for it. It’s often hard to believe that Don (who months ago was happily serving his church) would go to the extremes that he does. He gets increasingly mixed up with the Pope and his anti-religious antics, even helping place a giant condom balloon on top of the local Episcopal church. When he begins to realize how his behavior is beginning to hurt Penny and affect others, we’re never quite clear why Christianity remains existentially powerful enough to keep him on the fence.
A theism debate hints at our need for truth, love, and meaning that the strict materialist can’t account for. Penny’s passion for social justice inspires him. But we don’t see what’s specifically Christian about any of it. Don’s voice-over tells us that “sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” Unfortunately, this is what we’re not quite shown. The best Penny can express is that she “likes Jesus” but we don’t really hear who he is or why she should. If Jesus is just one more guy who wants us to love each other, then what’s the big deal? Why not a thousand other prophets or self-help gurus, religious or secular, telling us the same thing?
In the end we hear Don describe how he tried to ditch God but can’t because “it’s like he’s following me around.” But some of the vagueness of Don’s wrestling with God undercuts the story. While it’s great that the movie doesn’t suddenly switch into sermon mode, a fear of being preachy or judgmental seems to hold it back from providing a more penetrating vision of Don’s journey or Christ himself. In interviews about the film, Taylor and Miller frequently talk about their intention to not be that kind of Christian movie. While I’m grateful they succeeded, I think this self-conscious defensiveness prevents the movie from rising to its full potential.
There also seems to be something of a generation gap going on. Younger generations are coming from a postmodern, pluralist context more than a fundamentalist one. At the evangelical college I attended, the common issue wasn’t judgmental ferocity but spiritual apathy and feeling-based mushiness. Throwing off the previous generation’s legalism sometimes led to biblical illiteracy and lack of serious discipleship. It was all “deeds not creeds” and “relationship not religion” but baby Jesus often got thrown out with the bathwater. After visiting a friend’s church where we took off our shoes and sang Coldplay for worship … I knew something had gone very wrong. Because of the changing landscape of evangelicalism, I feel Blue Like Jazz appeals to my generation but may do little to challenge it.
Still, it’s fantastic to watch a film about Christianity that’s characterized by grace and humility. The reverse confessional scene at the conclusion of the story is the film’s best. After a wild night where Don is crowned the new campus Pope, he finally stops wavering and comes out of the closet. Instead of hearing the student’s ironic confessions of sin, Don decides to apologize for himself and the ways fellow Christians have failed to be faithful witnesses for God. He takes the former Pope into the booth and admits to him that he believes in God, Jesus, “the whole deal.” He explains, “I came here to escape it because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that I’m not just ashamed of my strange church or its political views or all the hypocrites. I’m ashamed of Jesus. I’m ashamed of Jesus because I want you to like me.”
Taylor delicately directs the scene and both Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn give vulnerable performances. I was struck by how moving it was. You can feel that here is the heart of Don Miller and the moment rings with authenticity. Like many of us, his criticism of the church can often go hand in hand with trying to be relevant, likeable, and fit in. Here we see that the movie isn’t a cheap shot at conservatives or secularists or hypocrites. It’s a personal confession.
In the book, Miller writes of a moment where we stop “blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority” and start to face ourselves. He admits, “I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” Here is our age-old struggle to confess with the apostle Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of who I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
As someone who doesn’t much care for the book or Miller’s writings, I expected to be unimpressed by this movie. Instead, I found a decently entertaining two hours at the multiplex. Even with its flaws and hang-ups there’s a lot to appreciate. In a pop culture world filled with cynicism and bitterness, Blue Like Jazz manages to express humility and open an inviting space for conversation. It’s a rare and welcome sight to see.