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Swirling in the Blue Like Jazz

Jake Slaughter

After being invited to a preview showing of Blue Like Jazz: The Movie in New York City, intern Jake Slaughter considers the movie's role in culture.

A lot of people read Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz when it was published in 2003, but somehow I managed not to. The book was in my periphery though; it’s not every day that a non-fiction book concerned with Christianity is a New York Times bestseller.

Nine years later with the theatrical release of the Blue Like Jazz film about to happen on April 13, it seems like there is another opportunity for an even larger audience to interact with Miller’s story, and I got a chance to see the film early.

In New York on Thursday, April 8, a friend and I were given a tour of part of the News Corporation portion of Rockefeller Center, during which we got to meet Don Miller and director Steve Taylor. We sat in on an interview (and my friend Garrett got to ask some very insightful questions) between Don, Steve, and Fox News host Todd Starnes. After the interview I was invited to see a preview showing of the film in Manhattan as part of a month-long tour across the country in order to promote awareness of the film.

Weeks later, and the film is still on my mind. I would prefer to watch it again before I give a full review, but I feel comfortable enough describing my initial reactions to what has already been a very polarizing movie.

In the interview I was a part of and before the screening of the movie, the team was very upfront about their opinions about the current state of “Christian” film. In a recent blog post Steve Taylor lists five things that the public believes about “Christian Movies.”

1. Sentimentality trumps substance

2. Good intentions trump artistry

3. All conflict must be tidily resolved

4. “Safe for the whole family” is a de facto requirement

5. Or as writer David McFadzean summarized, Christian movies are like porn – poorly lit, poorly acted and you always know how they’re going to end.

Indeed, the Blue Like Jazz movie actively fights falling into these traps. As a piece of film, I thought it was impressively done, especially considering the estimated $1.25 million budget, raised partially through Kickstarter donations. The cinematography was elegant, the soundtrack was impressive, the acting was certainly not cheesy, and the screenplay was clever.

But most importantly to those involved in the film’s creation, they avoided the clichés of a “Christian Movie.” The film is PG-13, and it certainly earns it. With most of the plot taking place at Reed College, know for its partying, anything less than a PG-13 rating would have been awkward and forced. Anyways, the movie’s “mature themes, sexuality, drug and alcohol content, and strong language” are all central to the narrative being told.

In brief, the movie is the story of a slightly fictionalized Donald Miller’s attempts to run way from his Christian faith by indulging in all the typical worldly pleasures available at a secular university. Ultimately (spoiler alerts!) Don finds himself drawn back to his faith, and confesses to all the individuals he wronged that “he misrepresented Jesus to them.” The resolution isn’t neat and tidy though, and Don still admits that he is unsure of the validity of all the religious trappings of his past.

I’ll admit I have some qualms with the movie. While I appreciate the attention to the avoidance of clichés, I think the makers are perhaps too cautious in sharing the full meaning and implications of the gospel. Don’s confession that “he misrepresented Jesus” is very effectively done, but I was still left wondering “What does it mean to properly represent Jesus?” It seems that between transitioning from the page to the screen, Miller and those involved decided to hold back part of Christ's message, possibly because of their effort to avoid the aforementioned cliches.

Ultimately, I think that this movie has the potential to be a means through which we can begin some very important conversations with Christian and secular friends who may see it. I like that the film shows that Christians aren’t perfect, and that any attempt on our part to pretend to be is damaging to both us and others.

Throughout this month of preview showings the response has been fascinating. Steve Taylor’s post I linked to earlier describes how some Christians are writing off the film as offensive or damaging to the public’s perceptions of Christianity, to which he responds (accurately, I might add), “as if the public thinks we’ve got our act together perfectly, as if they don’t already see the hypocrisy in our midst. They just think we’re too dumb to see it ourselves.”

While secular audience may have some problems with the film, I am curiously awaiting to see how Christians respond. I think Mike Cosper explains it well in his review on the Gospel Coalition website:

“It's testimonial; or as I said earlier, he's a witness, not an authority. Miller shows a plausible way of trusting in Jesus in a post-Christian world… If it's prescriptive, then Miller has advocated homosexuality, drug abuse, and more. If it's descriptive, then it's actually an encouraging message that even here, in the heart of progressive, post-Christian America, God is at work, and hope for the transformative effects of the gospel isn't lost.”

Blue Like Jazz: The Movie opens in theaters April 13, and we at Relief want to hear your opinions. Post in the comments section with your thoughts.

Jake Slaughter is an editorial intern with Relief and will graduate from Trinity International University with a degree in English and English/Communications this spring.