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.

 
About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to Blue Like “Fireproof”

  1. Susan Minasian says:

    Thanks! I don’t like things labeled Christian anything. Why can’t it just BE. I have seen symbolism and theology in everything. I really don’t like the specific label. I think it limits the audience and most of the time it follows such a formula that it ceases to be meaningful or powerful.

  2. Tom says:

    I love Patrol and appreciate what you are doing BUT you, like Taylor and Miller, write what appears to be a progressive Christian magazine that tries to push the limits of Christian publishing. That sounds amazingly like what the creators of BLJ the Movie are attempting. Black pot…meet kettle.

  3. Ben says:

    Your article and I am assuming much like Miller’s movie represents this odd tension that Christians have in presenting viewpoints. It’s hard for us to be honest with our own crowd. We fear rejection or a complete and utter march on our character. As I have told people in the past Christians are the greatest spiritual cannibals on earth. We love to eat our own for our own self gratification.

    I think Miller, recognizing what his main base is probably had to take much of that into consideration and alas, here we are. I am sure some of that goes through your head when writing certain articles, I know it does mine (even though like 20 people on average read my blogs, ha).

    Thanks for sharing a well thought out post and at least attempting to bring an honest reflection to a current Christian celebrities achievement.

  4. Gary Horsman says:

    As much as it deserves to be derided, ‘Christian’ film is a legitimate genre, much like independent film, that generates a remarkable profit, enough to turn the heads of mainstream film studios. ‘Fireproof’ is a prime example of that.

    It is a genre in the same sense as horror or art house in that it appeals to a particular segment of the market with a certain amount of predictability. As long as these are financially viable, they will continue to exist.

    But like a horror film or a low-budget martial arts picture, they will likely garner little, if any, critical success. It’s the nature of this business. I don’t decry members of the evangelical community for producing such artistically lowbrow fare because it’s a matter of fact that everyone, with a few exceptions, is prone to making substandard art. It’s not that Christians are incapable of being great filmmakers. It’s just that it’s really, really hard to make a decent movie. Period.

    The barriers to entry are so high for film and television that it’s easy to see why there is such a seeming lack of talent or vision. With music or literature, it doesn’t take an army of people and a massive budget to get something made. And the level of excellence in these media is so much higher because there is a larger pool of talent to draw from without those higher barriers keeping them out.

    So, no. No one with sophisticated taste or intellectual integrity is going to appreciate a movie like ‘Blue Like Jazz’. But as long as the intended audience likes it and feels that there is something made specifically for them, I don’t see any more harm than what what Hollywood dishes out on a regular basis.

    I like my steak. But if my kids want a Big Mac, have at it.

  5. Doug Chu says:

    Today I learned that I don’t have sophisticated taste OR intellectual integrity!

  6. I think what Jonathan is really looking for is authentic, meaningful art from a Christian perspective that isn’t just made up of kitsch or camp aesthetics. There’s a big difference between cheeseburgers and gourmet food, and it’s very difficult for film as a medium to remain true to some artistic vision without being compromised by a producer or marketer’s need to placate the audience. That’s why the mainstream doesn’t watch arthouse films, it’s why some people consider “independent” a badge of integrity, and it’s also why Transformers was both horrifically terrible and tremendously popular.

    The problem with “Christian art” is that it -always- falls into this kitsch aesthetics, which anyone with more than a little taste (not to mention a perspective for the world outside their culture-bubble) instantly dismisses as irrelevant. The point is well taken that authentic artists wind up identifying as artists/filmmakers/musicians/writers first, and then Christians second. While people like William Blake could produce their work within the dominant paradigm of Christianity and contribute meaningfully to it, today Christians are reflexively so ostracized and ostracizing, they put themselves into the generas of “Christian music,” a “Christian movie,” etc. That genera is doomed to instantly forgettable, time-wasting works. Christians are so damned scared of doing anything but preaching to the choir that they make things like this, which everybody is already extremely bored with.

  7. joshspilker says:

    But *most* movies do tie up nicely at the end…i know a lot of ppl that haven’t seen a duplass/mumblecore movie…those aren’t making money. your larger questions about art vs. movies aren’t just confined to the christian market.

  8. I agree with JoshSpilker. The biggest problem I have with this review is that it presupposes that an arthouse sensibility to film is the most authentic “art”-y way to approach film, and that furthermore, the “art”-ness of something is the most desirable end for it.

    Believe me, I’m just as dissatisfied with the other extreme, where you have filmmakers, musicians and/or visual artists who make risk-free, lowest-common-denominator art that shamelessly panders with popular religious tropes and cliches. I get that there is a better way to do art.

    But who says that Blue Like Jazz appeals to only those within? I was at the Portland premiere at the Bagdad, and I’m certain there were plenty of people there who were NOT Christian, including several of the cast members who spoke afterward. And yeah, I know if they’re in the cast, they’re SUPPOSED to say good things about the film, but honestly… I believed them. I believed that they respected what Don Miller and Ben Pearson and Steve Taylor tried to do with the film.

    I guess, respectfully, I think you’re wrong. I think you’re wrong that only Christians would/should like this film, and I also think that you’re partially wrong in your critique of its resolution. The film does NOT tie up all that neatly. Yes, the main thrust of Don’s inner journey seems to come to a place of resolution, but there are plenty of things in his outer journey that are totally unresolved, and if I said more I would ruin it for people who haven’t seen it.

  9. toddh says:

    Mentioning Fireproof in the review title is the kiss of death. That movie was atrocious. But it sounds like blj is at least a small step up.

  10. […] Last night I watched the movie “Blue Like Jazz“, a semi-autobiographical movie about Don Miller, partially based on the bestseller book of the same name. I enjoyed the movie, yet something made me uneasy about it. One thing that made me uneasy was the fact that the movie departed so freely from the book, I couldn’t believe the story was true. I looked online for comments and found this one by Jonathan Fitzgerald in Patrol Magazine: […]

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