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? ; )