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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blue Like Jazz: Shock Treatment for Christians

As I drove up to the movie theater this sunny Sunday afternoon to view the new Donald Miller/Steve Taylor film, Blue Like Jazz, I had Christian rock playing in my car. This is the song that came on as I drove up to the theater:

When I left the theater, I skipped back to the beginning of the song, listened to it again, and cried my eyes out. Then I called some friends to tell them about the movie, and then I hopped on the Internet with my phone and streamed some John Coltrane (you'll know why when you see the movie), and I cried some more. (Leave it to musician-turned-filmmaker Steve Taylor to use a jazz album as a metaphor for Christ.)

But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. Blue Like Jazz is based on the bestselling Donald Miller book by the same name. I read the book several years ago, wound up a bit puzzled at the end, and enjoyed the experience enough that I sought out more of Miller's work. When I heard that he and Steve Taylor were teaming up to bring it to the big screen, I was excited and mystified. Excited because I'm a long-time fan of Steve Taylor and I really enjoyed Taylor's movie a few years ago called The Second Chance (which in my opinion did not receive the respect it deserved), and mystified because the book really is not a narrative at all. It's a series of essays, or maybe memoirs, that are based on some of Miller's experiences in college. I had no idea how they would turn it into something coherent on the movie screen.

Of course the way they did it was by creating a story that includes elements of the anecdotes Donald relates in the book, but stringing them together into a plot that makes sense. In an almost self-referential twist, the movie is structured around a mantra from a writing class: setting, conflict, climax, resolution - the four elements of a successful story. The screenwriters did a good job of taking the book, applying those elements, and turning it into a narrative that takes you to uncomfortable places where we, as Christians, desperately need to go.

I really hate to give away too much of the plot, because it's best if you take the journey with Don (the main character is based on the book's author, since the main character in the book is the author) without knowing too much of what's going to happen ahead of time. Suffice it to say that it's about a teenager who goes to college and has a crisis of faith - or, maybe more accurately, has a crisis of faith and then goes to college. His college is far from home, and far out of his Texas Baptist comfort zone. The movie is about his struggle to get a handle on his faith, and at the end he has discovered something important, something that every Christian needs to discover.

Sounds like a wonderful, cuddly Christian after-school special kind of movie, doesn't it? Well, hang on tight and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times, because this is probably not a movie you want to take your 10-year-old to. This movie depicts alcohol being happily consumed by the Christian protagonist, an instance or two of drug use on-screen, a lesbian who does not become a Christian at the end, a shocking case of an unwanted pregnancy occurring outside of marriage, more profanity than some Christians are going to be comfortable with, people talking about sex using street slang, condoms (real ones and some very large ones with happy faces painted on them), an older man who has just had a sexual liaison with a young intern, and a back-story of sexual abuse of a child by a member of the clergy. What it does not contain are: sex scenes, nudity, violence, and the Plan of Salvation. What? A "Christian" movie where nobody becomes a Christian at the end? Tragedy! Blasphemy! Apocalypse!

Well, nobody does become a Christian at the end, but becoming a Christian is not what the movie is about. The point is that Don-the-movie-character, like Don-the-book's-author, learns how to be a better Christian by the end of the movie. He learns the vital, obvious but seldom-lived-out point that Jesus came to Earth because he loved sinners, and if we consider ourselves followers of Jesus, we should be loving them, too. On one of the most liberal college campuses in the country, Don gets through to one of the most liberal people on campus by showing him the love of Christ. Not by debating him about the Bible, not by telling him what a sinner he is, but simply by loving him. And that's why the theater erupted with applause when the credits rolled on the showing I was in. Because the film ends with one Christian young man making a heart-to-heart connection with a hardened, liberal, damaged non-Christian young man by, paradoxically, not being ashamed to say "I'm sorry."

One thing I really appreciated about this movie is the metaphors of Jesus that keep showing up. I've already mentioned the jazz records that represent Christ. There is also a young lady who is a Christlike character, and a Christlike Catholic priest who, at one point, offers a compassionate hand and pulls Don out of an overturned latrine. Not every Christian character in the film is Christlike (I won't give away a major plot point, but you'll know the main hypocritical Christians when you see them), but as Don is exposed over and over to Christlike figures in the middle of some of the most Godless situations imaginable, he finds himself transformed into a more Christlike Christian.

I've read some people's comments online about this film, and I've seen both glowing recommendations (I guess you can count this one among those) and some pretty harsh criticisms. The criticisms are not about the cinematography or the writing or the acting, but about some of the things that are depicted in the film, the lesbians-and-condoms-and-booze kind of stuff. Sadly, I think a lot of Christians are going to find something in the film to be offended by. And that's a real shame, because by Hollywood standards, this movie is seriously tame fare. I mentioned before, and I'll mention again, that this isn't a movie for children; it's a movie for adults, and maybe for older teens who are able to take in the subject matter involved. But come on... if you've watched the advertisements during the Super Bowl, you've seen more suggestive and offensive stuff than there is in this movie. It's a crying shame that some Christians will miss out on the amazing, life-changing, redemptive message because they allow themselves to be offended by a depiction of sinners doing what sinners do: sinning. Without the Godless "setting", the impact of the emotional "climax" would be all but eliminated. Sure, it would have been a safer film, but Steve Taylor has never been known for playing it safe. I'm so glad he and Donald Miller (and the tons of fans of the book who donated via a Kickstarter campaign to get this thing off the ground) took a chance and made this movie. If it helps one person to love others the way Christ did, like the single character of Don does at the end of the movie, then it will be worth it.

And that's why I was crying in my car on the way home this afternoon. I'm hoping that maybe, just maybe, that one person will be me.

Visit and find out where it's showing in your area. You'll be glad you did.


Jeff Snell said...

What a wonderful and powerful review of a hard to review film. I saw it Saturday night and saw myself in it. Thanks for your review and your thoughts on it. I plan to try and follow your blog.

TulsaMJ said...

Thanks, Jeff! I certainly hope that word of mouth (or word of blog, or word of tweet, or whatever) brings lots of people to this movie, because it's got valuable things to say to Christians... and I'm guessing it's got a lot to say to people who aren't Christians, too. I might go to see it again with some Christian friends, and then go a third time with some atheist friends, just to see what they think of it. Might turn into an expensive few weeks for me. :)

It looks like you commented twice, saying roughly the same thing; I moderate my comments on the blog to reduce the chances of spam, and presumably you didn't realize that your comments "took" the first time. I only approved one of them rather than putting the same thing up there twice.