I finally took the time to watch “Blue Like Jazz,” a 2012 independent film based on a book by Donald Miller. My reason for watching this film? The issues in the movie are relevant to my life: it talks about Christian subculture and how Jesus is portrayed, accepted, or rejected in secular liberal arts colleges. (Disclaimer: I did not watch the movie in mindless absorption but rather with a critical mindset. In other words, the language and adult themes of the movie were not drawing points.)
I was expecting to hate it. Or at least be offended.
So I would like to discuss the movie a bit here.
One of the reasons I wanted to see the film is because I am somewhat familiar with the work of writer Donald Miller. I’ve read a few of his books (though it’s been quite awhile), and I heard him speak in Wichita, Kansas. So I’m somewhat familiar with his worldview, some of his life goals, and ministry to fatherless boys. I feel like this background knowledge helped me to overlook things in the film which would normally greatly offend me as a Christian viewer. I know that the main character is based on Donald Miller himself, and I understand how the experiences at Reed College greatly changed him for the better. So it was like I was cheering for Don through the whole movie. (Also, I heard him talk about this movie way before it was even a possibility to film it. He joked that if a film was ever made, the he certainly wouldn’t be “played by Kirk Cameron.”) My first point: Don’t watch the movie unless you’ve read some of Miller’s books. The work will be greatly misunderstood by you, and you’ll probably be offended.
We have to be so careful when it comes to separating someone’s words from their actions. There are many things written by Donald Miller that I disagree with, perhaps things that sound nice but are not theologically correct. However, taking someone’s words alone isn’t always the best idea. We have to look at someone’s words followed up by their life. A person’s actions give more weight to their words.
Because I’ve heard him in person, and because I’ve heard about The Mentoring Project, I’m more inclined to give his movie a little more credit. Christians who haven’t had this opportunity (to understand his character) might totally misunderstand him.
I was reminded of this truth of combining character and words by a teacher/pastor from Kansas last weekend when I attended a teacher’s conference. He emphasized (in a most cosmologically Anabaptist way) that our words should not be separated from our actions. He also indicated that we should not put much stock into words that ARE separated from actions or from true lives lived. (So, he was saying: take books with a grain of salt. And facebook posts. And blogs.) So the second point is: This movie should not be separated from the writer who wrote the work and from his post-college ministry.
I say all this because there are plenty of things in the movie to offend Christian audiences, including language, sex jokes, and homosexual characters. Certainly, it could be argued that the movie makers could have produced a Clorox-clean version of a freshman year in college, but they made a different artistic choice. This is always a difficult choice. How will you present sinful realities without reveling in them? There is always a fine line here in the arts. The one thing I would say is that the movie makers, I thought, were sensitive in some areas. They could have over-sexualized the Renn Fayre. But they didn’t. There could have been more reverie, but they were careful to make it peripheral.
One thing I want to discuss is a rather abrupt shift in topic, but here goes. Um, so this is me getting all English major-y and everything, but I couldn’t help but notice the homosexual metaphors in the movie. A female college student demands that Don keeps his Christianity “in the closet.” (Ironcially, the student is a lesbian. I could go on for a while here about how this movie speaks into some of the latent hypocrisies of LGBTQ agendas of tolerance and diversity, but I won’t.) Also, Don’s best friend Penny, when describing her new-found faith in Jesus (which did not come from her childhood subculture but rather from her personal study of the Bible in college), declares, “I wasn’t born this way.” Now the metaphor “born this way” does not have to refer to homosexuality, but one cannot miss its significance, especially in a movie filled to the brim with pop philosophy. Curiously, the idea of “coming out” is essential to the movie. I argue that that’s a strange metaphor choice for talking about Christian believers. Why was this metaphor chosen? And what is its effect? I could wax academic and ask if this metaphor is working to build inclusivity for the LGBTQ community within Christian cosmologies, but I’m not really ready to do that. And I doubt that’s what Miller was going for. (Or was it? I mean, he’s not stupid. He was an English major, too.) Maybe I’m reading too much into the movie. I mean, I’m not an expert in Queer Theory or anything (managed to skip that one in college). I’m just wondering why the “coming out” metaphor was chosen. Or borrowed. (Because, I mean, the LGBTQs borrowed “coming out” from the patriarchal American South whose young, upper-class women formally presented themselves to society at a “coming-out ball.”) I would welcome your feedback on this minor observation.
Q: Who would I recommend to watch this movie?
A: Christian college students
On one level, it’s just enjoyable to identify so much with the main character. Watching the movie makes you remember those first college days: of walking around in a fog of architecture and ideas… and then that first know-it-all student who makes you feel so stupid and sheltered… and the first person who hands you condoms on the sidewalk… My favorite scene is when Don is checking out his college campus, all the while rocking his tucked in polo shirt. Hilarious for those of us in church subculture.
On another level, this movie strikes a chord with Christian college students trying to make sense of a world of conflict. We identify with the antagonism that Don experiences. During college – a time of intense personal growth – we experience many competing philosophies, ideas, and worldviews, and we encounter so many hurting people that we sometimes begin to doubt many things: ourselves, the church, and God himself. But Don’s character doesn’t descend into the blame game. His tearful apology at the end of the movie is humble and vulnerable. His two-fold realization and admission goes something like this: “I’m ashamed of Jesus.” And: “He’s not like me. I’m sorry.” It’s moving to watch Don admit that his spiritual discontentment has to do with his own shortcomings.
Finally, I also enjoyed seeing how Don interacted with unbelievers. His personality and wit allowed him to get along with a lot of different people. He wasn’t judgmental in his friendships.
Have you watched “Blue Like Jazz”? What did you think?