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Why “Blue Like Jazz” Should Have Stayed Dead

A couple weeks ago I had the chance to see a pre-screening of  Blue Like Jazz and it elicited some strong feelings. And they weren’t positive. First, I want to say that, like everyone else, I read Blue Like Jazz at a critical point in my journey into Christianity, and it helped in ways I honestly don’t remember anymore. I do remember I thought it was profound and bought copies as gifts, but the reasoning behind all that has vanished. If your’e not familiar with the book or Don Miller, check out my friend Tim’s (much more positive) review and synopsis here .

Why is Blue Like Jazz a bad movie that I hope is not seen my a great number of people? I’ll start with my ideological/theological beef.

1.) This movie (and book) was maybe appropriate for the year 2000, but not 2012. Regardless of who you are or what you’re dealing with.

I should perhaps admit that for as long as I can remember after I started reading theology, I’ve had a problem with Donald Miller’s work (published and blog). This is because once I became aware of Miller’s actual theological framework, which wasn’t far removed (if at all) from fairly conservative evangelical orthodoxy, I began to view his work differently. I think the message of BLJ is totally disingenuous, and falls into line with so much of hipster Christianity that operates under the assumption that all we need to do as the Church is to change how we are the Church. In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with our theology, our assumptions about what church is, the real problem is the way in which we embody it. As far as I understand, this was a basic discrepancy in the early Emergent movement when everyone from Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Doug Paggitt, Mark Driscoll, Dan Kimball et al. were together talking about the future of the Church. While one group (the good guys) were adamant about learning from post modern and other novel insights and using these to critique what was accepted as orthodoxy while we reform our methods. For others, obviously Driscoll, postmodern culture was something to be countered with a traditional (Reformed) “Gospel” dressed up in tattoos, shirts with those buttoned strip things on the shoulders, and Francis Schaeffer-esque cultural literacy. Like the impression I get from BLJ, the problem with Christianity is not Christianity, it’s philandering youth pastors (in the most cringe-worthy plot device I’ve seen in a while, the douchey youth pastor impregnates the main character’s mother) and hypocrites of all sorts. If only people would…

2.) Believe. My second point is that the dichotomy of belief/unbelief in God  is painted as the crux of the existential crisis young Don has in the movie. In fact, a turning point comes in the film when Don attends a debate at the famous Powell’s book store where your standard Christian apologist is debating a nondescript atheist. Don hears the apologist accuse the atheist of not having any kind of framework to assign more value to human beings than animals, or argue for the aesthetic quality of butterflies over cow dung (or something absurd like that). After losing his “faith” after only a few weeks at Reed College, I suppose it is no surprise that it could be won back so easily. Don’s character isn’t the most reflective. No matter what stage of doubt one is having, I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to cure it with facile arguments for God or shallow emotional porn (like an alter call). Peter Rollins has done a fantastic job of showing why belief itself is problematic  in books like How Not to Speak of God and Insurrection, and in the wake of these insights (that Pete has marvelously bestowed on a Christian audience from people like Zizek and Lacan) we can never go back. Pete says:

I would love to see churches take seriously the idea that mystery, unknowing, brokenness, doubt, and mourning should be expressed in the very structure of the church itself. Religion is the system that gives us a sense of being right, of having answers and knowing how to stay on the right team. I want to see churches that break open religion open through sermons, music, and prayers; churches that bring us face to face with unknowing and pain. Not that we despair, but so that, in bringing it to light and sharing it, we can find healing and light… [the] highest principle is not some object we need to love, but rather the act of love itself.

What would have really made for a great indie movie would be a version of BLJ where we are shown how Don legitimately loses his “belief” in God but in the process of being amongst the diversity of Reed, discovers what love really is, but outside the Church and away from the influence of Christianity. (the quasi-love interest in the film happens to be the only other Christian at Reed and goes to a church full of nice white people). That’s challenging. Instead, what we get is a film that will no doubt meet praise from a Christian audience because it is self-congratulatory. Much like how Congress approval ratings are usually abysmal, something like 90% of people, when asked, approve of their representative, people are going to see this film as a call to arms to get people back to church, to get people to believe in God again, which is the “real” problem. It is re-submitting oneself to authority, unlike the heathens of Reed.

3.) This film is apparently going to be screened at Reed, and I will be shocked if they find is nuanced, introspective, or meaningful in any real way. My guess is they probably care less about however they’re portrayed in the film, but if they do, I doubt they will be happy with the intellectual facileness of nearly every character (except maybe the Russian dude… I liked him). These characters are more like teenage message board atheists that use the most crude justifications for their mockery of religion that would make Ditchkins blush (I have the Pope character in mind). Not only that, whether it’s intentional or not, perhaps the most offensive part of the movie is the portrayal of liberals, and particularly gay folks, as being that way because of “issues.” In the end, the characters that have the most antipathy toward religion are undercut by the relation of divorce, and even molestation at the hands of a priest. This, of course, is not to trivialize those reasons for viewing religion negatively, but not only is there no truly compelling and intelligent atheist character, there is not one whose issues we do not know about. In other words, there is no “normal” foil to nice Christian girl who inspires Don, there is the implication that the normative state of believer is only disrupted by childhood trauma or something. There is no nuance.

4.) The movie is boring. Not only is the lack of nuance and heavy handed plot painful to watch unfold (Good Christian goes to college, gets corrupted, meets pretty girl orthodox Christian who challenges him and makes him feel bad, ex-Christian who lost his faith regains it just as quickly and inexplicably) but the jokes mostly fall flat, and you never really feel for the characters. All characters are pretty much what you’d expect. Naive main character, rebellious tattooed students, and go figure, the Christian girl love interest is as clean cut and straight edge as it comes, the only character we don’t see with alcohol! Which of course leads to the point that some waves have been raised about this being a PG-13 movie, which is edgy for the market! All this means is that there may be a curse word or two and they show alcohol. Very boundary pushing.

5.)All of this leads to a final point that if this is supposed to be “Christian” art, then I lament the distinction. As Rob Bell has pointed out (among others I’m sure), all goodness is God’s goodness. We don’t need to make these distinctions. Even if BLJ does not consider itself “Christian,” that’s who it’s marketed towards. This is just a better-funded production of Christian subculture that has never, ever (ok, that I know of) made a piece of art that stands the test of time and quality. This shallow story of lost and found belief full of caricature that eclipses nuance and absurd scenes like when Don marches into the middle of the service of a church on his college campus and interupts the service by throwing pieces of plastic knight’s armor on the pulpit, “returning” it because he was given it to wear as “the armor of God” by his milf-loving youth pastor back at an evangelical Church in Texas. Who would do that? A 14 year old? I forgot to point out that along with the false dichotomy of belief/unbelief, all religious difference is pretty much glossed over.

Have I been too harsh? Have I not considered the needs of people who are at a different stage in their “spiritual journey” or something like that? Miller’s book came out before a lot of stuff happened. Before Emergent, before the digestion of a lot of important theory and reflection upon the norms of Christian practice and theology, and in the wake of these facts, I find this narrative unacceptable for anyone. This kind of hollow, plastic caricature (I know I already used that word) of religious life and belief can do nothing but harm the current landscape of religious progress and dialogue. This is a regression, not progress, and I hope only enough people see it to keep Don and Steve Taylor from losing a lot of money, because they’re nice guys and I like them. Now on to the movie adaptation of The Orthodox Heretic… or better yet, God Meets Girl or The Shack! Anyone use Kickstarter? ; )

Trailer

7 responses

  1. Ha – loved it! First time I’ve read your stuff – fantastic writing.
    You hit several of my frustrations too. I’ll post on that after the movie finishes its run but I hated the “youth pastor knocks up Don’s mom” thing too.
    Most of my frustrations are related to character development/resolutions and as Don writes in Million Miles, the inciting incidents and positive/negative turns.

    Appreciate your point 2 especially. Will think a bit more on your first point (but I don’t see Don as a Driscoll type of Christian).

    Hear what you’re saying about Reed. From what I got from our screening, Don and friends maybe nervous about that too.

    Didn’t see the movie being about getting people back to church, saw it more as Christians admitting that regardless of how they have presented themselves, they don’t have their act together (How can you not like that?).

    Is it a Christian movie? Yeah and no. Clearly majority of the fan base is Christian. So in some sense, they had to create a movie that would connect with the original audience and for all practical purposes, it’s a Christian book. But I do think the movie is much less “christian” as it hopes to bring an audience that is unfamiliar with Don, the book, and have a negative view of christians in general. I think we ought to extend some credit from where they had to start from.

    I’m glad I didn’t see it with you – lol.
    I think we had different expectations of what it could be.

    Appreciate your post though, looking forward to reading more.

    March 28, 2012 at 4:03 am

    • Thanks for reading! A couple things, yeah, I don’t think Don is like Driscoll, but his theology is not enough not like Driscoll. Miller is more Dan Kimball. My point here is just that I think that what the Church actually affirms in practice is somehow connected to what we consciously believe about God in our creeds, and those need to be seriously and critically thought about.

      As for getting people back to church, I may be reading something into the film there, but I think that the church is Portland (episcopal?) kind of was that beacon of a functional nice little church that people with their act together, like Penny, attend. That combined with the fact that the prescreenings are supposed to be for CHURCH leaders (like you… my girlfriend Amanda somehow got an invite, not me, and for good reason apparently!). So I don’t know, this for me ties back to even critiquing the “Christians admitting that regardless of how they have presented themselves, they don’t have their act together” message, I find in that an implicit message of “Christianity is fine, it is Christians who are messed up!” When in reality, almost everything about Christianity needs to be reformed (semper reformanda!) and rethought. Especially the theme of correct belief being worth a damn (or the opposite).

      What I was hoping most of all is a well-done, thoughtful film that engaged contemporary issues and thought that I could show to friends. I didn’t get that.

      March 28, 2012 at 4:15 am

  2. Pingback: Critiques of the “Blue Like Jazz” Movie and My Thoughts | Christian Piatt

  3. The movie to show to your friends … hmmm …. that’s a tough one. First, can I assume you mean your non-Christian friends? Because it’s you (or what I think of you), I’ll spare you the “we can’t have an apologetic type that acts like it’s not an apologetic but really is one” lecture. One day, we’ll sit down and we’ll share our thoughts on the pop-culture, mainstream culture, subculture and the intersection of faith and practice.

    I think the best movies for discussing faith are simply the better movies, like Inception, Shawshank, Fight Club, etc. With the exceptions of gratuitous violence and sex, I think they are gospel friendly in theme (what is reality, redemption and forgiveness, freedom, status quo, life, etc.).

    Can’t speak for everyone else regarding the who was invited to the advanced screening but my invite came through Kickstarter. Buddy, you’re talking to an Executive Producer (I have the t-shirt to prove it :)

    March 29, 2012 at 9:09 pm

  4. The movie to show to your friends … hmmm …. that’s a tough one. First, can I assume you mean your non-Christian friends? Because it’s you (or what I think of you), I’ll spare you the “we can’t have an apologetic type that acts like it’s not an apologetic but really is one” lecture. One day, we’ll sit down and we’ll share our thoughts on the pop-culture, mainstream culture, subculture and the intersection of faith and practice.

    I think the best movies for discussing faith are simply the better movies, like Inception, Shawshank, Fight Club, etc. With the exceptions of gratuitous violence and sex, I think they are gospel friendly in theme (what is reality, redemption and forgiveness, freedom, status quo, life, etc.).

    Can’t speak for everyone else regarding the who was invited to the advanced screening but my invite came through Kickstarter. Buddy, you’re talking to an Executive Producer (I have the t-shirt to prove it :)

    March 29, 2012 at 9:10 pm

  5. Anne

    I find your comment that the book and the movie are not relevant in 2012 disappointing. I am not familiar with you or your writing, except this post, but I can tell that you value your intellect. You say that it’s message is disingenuous. You suggest that the book and movie say that there’s nothing wrong with the church, it’s just how we do church, and all we need to do is just believe. And you say that it’s not relevant today because we are way beyond that emergent church faddish thinking.

    I disagree with your take on the book/movie’s message and relevance, though I do not disagree with you on the disingenuousness of emergent church thinking. I think it would be more accurate for you to say that the book/movie is not relevant to you today, that you have moved beyond whatever it was that drew you to it back then when you liked it so much that you bought it as gifts for people. I think that it is a little arrogant for you to say that the book is not relevant to anyone else at this moment in time. I’m sorry, but that is just how it comes across to me.

    There are those out there who have been taught to never question anything – especially their church, their Christian beliefs, and their God. There are those who are not as spiritually enlightened as you obviously are, who have never dialogued about emerging anything because they’re still talking about fire and brimstone. They haven’t digested a lot of important theory and been able to reflect on the norms of Christian practice and theology. Unless you are prepared to argue that those people don’t exist in 2012, I think this book/movie has relevance as a starting point for those less fortunate than yourself, who haven’t been able to progress as far in their “spiritual journey” as you obviously have.

    It is not about the practices of the church. It’s about questioning what you believe. Which is why I can appreciate the Peter Rollins quote, though from a different perspective.

    I agree with your critique of some aspects of the movie. But overall, I think you are overly harsh, yes. Your harshness towards the movie doesn’t concern me. The movie is what it is, a low budget film that is entertaining. But your harshness in you complete disregard for other peoples’ experiences as evidenced in your post is just another example of what disgusts me about Chrisitans.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm

  6. Hi Anne, thanks for the feedback.

    A couple things. First, I do not find “emergent church thinking disingenuous.” Donald Miller has no association with the Emergent Church whatsoever and as far as I know has never called himself “emergening.” Miller is quite the orthodox evangelical, which is where my critique of his work and this movie begin.

    I am confortable saying that this film/book should not be relevant to anyone, as I said before, in light of what has happened and been written since 2003. The irrelevance does not stem from a disavowal of the message of BLJ necessarily, but for anyone to find this story “profound” is disconcerting given the shallowness of the questions it asks and the answers it may give.

    For example, “questioning what you believe” still operates under the pretense that “belief” itself is important, e.g. that we “believe” in God in order to satisfy our desires etc. The does not give the space for any kind of real doubt, it is all very superficial which of course leads to the conclusion of regained “belief.” What we believe (orthodox theology) is of course problematic and borderline evil,but how we hold such beliefs also must be rethought. Putting an end to “therapeutic” Christianity must begin, which is elucidated in this awesome blog post by Tripp Fuller: http://pomomusings.com/2012/03/30/tripp-fuller-on-reimagining-christianity/

    Blue Like Jazz is like putting a band aid on cancer. It is like telling someone who knows nothing about quantum physics to read Newton. If one needs to ask serious questions about their life and beliefs, Donald Miller leads down circular, shallow path that ultimately preserves the very system that is killing us all. If Donald Miller is being too gentle, then perhaps I am overcorrecting by being overly harsh. And I’m ok with that.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm

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