Last month I had the opportunity to see an advanced screening of the film “Blue Like Jazz.” I drove 45 minutes outside of Boston to an AMC Loews theater in Methuen, MA to join a modest crowd composed mostly of Christian youth workers. I collected my bag of “Blue Like Jazz” swag and found my seat. After a brief introduction, during which we were promised a Q&A session with the film’s director Steve Taylor and author Donald Miller, and a warning that the movie had “earned its PG-13 rating,” the wait was over, and the movie that almost wasn’t began.
Most readers will be familiar with the tumultuous journey of the film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz. It was the movie every young Christian who had read the book wanted made. It was rumored and then confirmed; it was on again, off again. When it seemed to be terminally off, a few young fans revived it via a Kickstarter campaign. And, after six years of drama, it is being released today nationwide.
I was one of those anxious young Christians looking forward to the film adaptation. I may have even contributed to the Kickstarter campaign – I can’t actually remember. But I’m also a critic, and I think that means I can’t just be a fan.
I was leery of Don Miller’s book back when it came out and every Christian I knew insisted I read it. But I finally did. “It’s like ‘Traveling Mercies’ Lite,” I concluded. But there was also a lot to like; it looked fresh and new against the backdrop of Christian publishing.
I was critical, too, of the trailer for the film version when it was released last June. In my Patheos column I wondered: Would the movie be good art, or just “Christian art”?
And as I watched the film last month, that remained the central question occupying my thoughts. But by the time the lights came up, it was clear: “Blue Like Jazz” is just another Christian movie.
As I noted in the Patheos column, it should go without saying that Christians can and do create good art, but they don’t call it Christian art because it is art first. That it was made by a Christian, that it may even in some way communicate something of Christianity, is secondary to its existence as a work of art. If this is not the case, if it is primarily didactic — or in the case of much Christian art, derivative — it cannot be good art.
“Blue Like Jazz” is not really derivative, at least no more than anything else: it’s a coming-of-age story in which young Don leaves his home and his church in Texas to attend the über-liberal Reed College. He loses some faith, hurts some feelings, and drinks some beers, but by the end, of course, he’s found his faith again.
But it is didactic. Do you remember Miller’s note at the beginning of the book? He first explains that he once disliked jazz music because it “doesn’t resolve” (apparently some jazz aficionados took issue with this), but then did come to like it, and concludes by applying the same assertion to God: “I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve.” What I liked best about his book was that he doesn’t go on to say, “God does resolve!” in the author’s note. Nor does he reach that conclusion at any point in the book. Miller didn’t feel the need to do that Christiany thing where all the loose ends are tied up and we are taught an easy-to-follow message in three simple steps.
The film version definitely resolves. Every loose end is tied up. Don gets his faith and he gets his girl…in the same scene, amazingly enough. The elements of narrative — setting, conflict, climax, resolution — act as an overly self-conscious guide through the movie (they play a part in the book as well). The result, though, is an ever-present awareness of the hands of the writers guiding a story not meant to resolve, to its inevitable resolution.
Sure, it pushes some of the limits of what can comfortably be called a Christian movie. There’s some cursing, drinking, a lesbian friend, and a giant condom, but even in this, the movie seems disturbingly aware of just how far you can get a young Christian audience to go. And, of course, this is because Miller himself pushed the limits in his book and arguably created the demographic for whom the movie was made.
During the Q&A session after the film screening, I asked the director Steve Taylor why he fought for six years, against all kinds of adversity and rejection, to make this film. He said he wanted to show that Christians could create better art than what was out there. He noted, remarkably, that Miller’s story felt real to him because it didn’t tie up at the end. (If I could have followed up, I might have asked why, then, his movie does tie up so neatly.)
Furthermore, Taylor remarked, he wanted to film the “confession scene,” in which Reed students enter a confession booth to hear a kind of reverse confession — a Christian confesses wrongs committed in the name of Jesus. He rightly noted the intense power of that scene in Miller’s book, and said it felt important to make because he wanted non-Christians to know Christians understand how they are perceived. I see two fundamental flaws with this reasoning, however: the scene already existed in the book, and, as a Christian film, it’s not likely many non-Christians will even see the film.
This, of course, is the problem with all so-called Christian art, be it film, music or books: it purports to carry a message for those outside Christianity, while appealing only to those within. Perhaps “Blue Like Jazz” will be the exception, but my guess is that today, and for however long the film is in theaters, it will be attended almost entirely by youth groups and Christian college students. I’m glad they will be exposed to a kind of Christian film that neither ignores nor bemoans the existence of gay people or alcoholic beverages, but I’m afraid pushing the limits of what Christian moviegoers find acceptable may be the film’s greatest accomplishment.
In the end, the movie does not supersede the genre of Christian film, and it doesn’t add anything to what Miller did in his book almost a decade ago. That said, go see it if it’s playing in a theater near you; decide for yourself. And then come on back here and let us know what you think. I’m not a film expert by any stretch, and thus there are a lot of aspects of the movie I haven’t touched upon.
As a parting note, it took me about a month to get up the courage to write this review. There is a part of me that wanted just to ignore the film, rather than offer a negative critique. I worry about a backlash of readers calling me a jerk, of course, but more than that, I worry about whether writing a critical review actually makes me one. But a good friend, a musician and a Christian who, if not actively, eschews the label of Christian artist, called me on this.
This is why Christians continue to make such subpar art, he told me, because we’ve decided it’s not nice for other Christians to critique it.
He’s right, and yet it is still difficult to do. I met Steve Taylor after the screening and thanked him for personally inviting me to the event. He sincerely hoped I liked the film and showed genuine appreciation for the work of Patrol. I was struck by his earnestness and inspired by his and Don Miller’s attempt to push the limits of Christian art, but I wish they could move beyond it entirely; I truly want to be both a fan and a critic.
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