I read Blue Like Jazz a few years ago. To be honest, I don’t remember too many specifics about the book—a few of the people (especially the ones with memorable names like Tony the Beat Poet and the swearing pastor), a couple events. When I finished the book, I remember thinking, “This is an important book.” In the years since, I’ve noticed changes in my thinking which I can trace back to having read the book. So last night, when I was privileged to go to a preview screening of Blue Like Jazz: The Movie, I was pleased to find that my reaction to the movie matched my reaction to the book. In that sense, the movie is true to the book.
If you’ve read the book, though, you’ll know that it’s difficult at first to imagine Blue Like Jazz the book being made into a movie. The answer for “how” is that the movie is a highly fictionalized account of Bible-belt Baptist Don Miller’s time at Reed College in Portland, OR, which has been called, “the most godless campus in America.” It tells the story Don’s journey from going “underground” with his faith, to abandoning it entirely, to being drawn back toward Christ primarily through the example and influence of activist fellow student Penny.
If there’s anything—and I’m not convinced there is—the movie goes overboard on, it’s presenting churches and churchy people in their worst possible light. From the cringe-inducing piñata scene, references to priests sexually abusing young boys, adultery among church leadership, rampant hypocrisy, and the requisite clichéd references to the Crusades, the church and Christianity are presented much the same way as they are presented on the evening news. Don’s confessional then, becomes all the more powerful with all that baggage. Moviegoers expecting to see Christians and the church portrayed as pristine people will be somewhere between disappointed and upset; I’d argue, though, that people expecting Christians and the church to be pristine will be disappointed and upset as well. As Don Miller said in the Q&A after the screening, “God doesn’t have any problem presenting us as depraved; why should we?” Finally, some important balances are in place—note the pastor’s expression in the aforementioned piñata scene, Don’s statement regarding child support, the priest and the little girl.
Unlike so many, BLJ moves effortlessly among comedy, drama, and thought-provoking. Characters are complicated enough to feel real, not so complicated as to feel contrived. Bottom line, it’s a good story; realistic enough to be believable and unrealistic enough to be interesting.It’s an excellent film, and I’d highly recommend it to believers and unbelievers alike. You should be prepared to see it more than once (I’m sure Steve and Don would add, “opening weekend”), I’m a little frustrated that I have to wait another month to see it again.
Is it a Christian film?
This question will invariably be asked—and rightly so. Part of what makes the film so interesting is that it narrowly walks and intentionally blurs the line between the “Christian” and “secular” film. And, of course, whether or not it’s a “Christian” film will depend on how you define the term. If you mean that the movie is written by Christians for Christians to make Christians feel good about being Christians, no, it’s absolutely not. I’ll make my case, though, for why it is (1) a Christian film and (2) helpful for the Kindgom. And while I’m making up definitions, I should clarify that when I refer to “the church,” I’m talking about what we see of churches today, not either a specific local church or the true, universal church.
The following evidences are why I would define it as Christian:
- It was written and produced by Christians
- The resolution involves the protagonist (Don) coming back toward faith in Christ
- The deuteragonist* (Penny) is a sincere Christian, and the primary reason for his change
- The film is being promoted heavily to pastors and Christian influencers
* Yes, of COURSE I knew that word all along. I most certainly did NOT look at Wikipedia to find what the term was.
At first, it could be difficult to see how this can be helpful for the Kingdom. It does, after all, portray the church negatively. I see this as “tough love.” The current state of the church needs a bit of tearing down so it can be built up stronger. Movies, music, preaching, even 24-hour news channels that attempt to present or defend the church as being pristine can lull Christians into thinking, “I’m OK,” and further the perception that Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites. This movie says, “Yes, we have been hypocrites. That’s why we need Christ.”
Many Christians, too, will be concerned about the film’s content. It’s rated PG-13 because it contains some langauge (a***, s***, etc., and half of an f-bomb); talk and depiction of alcohol and drug use; talk of sex, adultery, condoms, and the like. Nothing was explicit or inserted for shock value. Spend some time hanging around the halls of any area high school or college (you might have to listen for the whispers if it’s a Christian high school or college) and you’ll see and hear worse. If you’re particularly sensitive to any of the above, though, you should be aware of that.