“blue like jazz” the movie :: thoughts and ponderings

August 15, 2012 — 12 Comments

Last night I watched “Blue Like Jazz” for the first time.  It would be accurate to say I am a fan of Donald Miller, although I have to qualify that statement.  I appreciate the ART of Donald Miller because it is honest and insightful.  I do not look to Donald Miller for theological profundity.  Likewise I found “Blue Like Jazz” the movie to be beautiful in some ways, because it was honest and insightful, but not because it was theologically profound.

So people are asking me what I thought.  I’m conflicted.

Here’s what I like…

“Blue Like Jazz” tells the truth.  “Christian” art (a label I am rapidly liking less and less) doesn’t always do that.  In fact, much art slapped with a “Christian Art” label tries to paint a picture (in some case, I mean this quite literally) representing a sanitized world, safe for church people to enter without feeling too threatened or having their feathers ruffled out of alignment.  Thomas Kinkade is perhaps the poster-boy for this kind of art, which looks one the one hand to be deemed “safe” for Christian consumption, but on the other hand, is actually very dangerous in its “sanitization” of our condition.  In a brilliant critique of Kinkade’s work (read the whole article here), Daniel A. Siedell writes:

“The Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden is get our lives in order. Kinkade’s much ballyhooed ‘light’ merely adds atmosphere and glow, a pleasant touch to an already charming scene. And because it makes us so comfortable, it is a very dark light indeed.

Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home.”

This is a problem.  Art has power to disrupt and challenge, but the Christian marketplace comes with its own set of rules designed to protect us from offense.  Therefore, “Christian” art is almost never provocative to the degree that it might lead to actual life-change.  It sooner leads us to be comfortable, while reaffirming our faith.  And we need encouragement, us church people.

But don’t we also need to be disturbed and broken-hearted?  God is in the business of redemption through the ongoing process of death and resurrection.  The death part… it doesn’t look like a Kinkade painting.

Neither does “Blue Like Jazz” the movie.

In fact, “Blue Like Jazz” shows us the yucky side of churchiness without the transformative power of a life rooted and abiding in Jesus Christ.  It shows the carnality and brokenness and narcissism of young adult lives given over to the pursuit of pleasure and identity and meaning when God has been rejected wholesale.  The movie is dark and sad and tragic if you consider the eternal ramifications of the sea of lives surrounding young Don Miller.  If you are planning to see this and expect it to have the feel-good (albeit disquietingly “safe”) vibe of “Facing the Giants” or “Soul-Surfer,” you might find “Blue Like Jazz” disturbing.  Reed College is full of substance abuse and profanity and emptiness and sex.  Lots of it.  “Blue Like Jazz” isn’t unnecessarily graphic, but neither does it pull many punches.

I’m sick of Kincade.  In this, “Blue Like Jazz” was a refreshing change.  It shows brokenness.  It made me hurt for the broken people, and hunger to be bolder as an image-bearer for Jesus.  Broken people need Jesus.  I have Jesus.

“Blue Like Jazz” wasn’t written for the “Church” market, so if you are looking for a movie that is, consider yourself warned.  Instead, Taylor and Miller seem to be telling a story for spiritually curious people who want to know if God is real when the world is such a mess and the churches in many neighborhoods look more like social clubs for hypocrites than beacons of light and hope.

Here’s what I didn’t like…

“Blue Like Jazz” embraces a metaphor, woven throughout the narrative.  “My dad says jazz is like life, because it doesn’t resolve…”  Like much of Donald Miller’s theo-philosophical ponderings, neither does “Blue Like Jazz.”  And I understand that we are works in process, and that art is often more effective when it leaves some questions unanswered.  This leaves room for the consumer to wonder, and think, and search.  But it is unsatisfying in a movie that asks out loud, “Where do we find meaning and purpose in life?”

There ARE clear answers to many of the questions Miller and Taylor are asking, but it is cooler to leave them unanswered.  It is cooler to leave us to ponder on our own.

** MINOR SPOILER ALERT **

Sure, by the end of the film the young, restless Don Miller comes to some kind of ambiguous belief that God is probably real, and this Jesus stuff… he buys it. But there is little power in his transformation, because it is very hard to see what this transformation actually looks like.  Except, of course, for a compulsion not only to ask forgiveness for his own hypocrisy and lack of courage, but also for the many failings of the Church, writ large.  That may be cool, and more palatable to the jaded (or wounded) spiritually-curious viewers.  But my heart aches for them to hear a better story.

A better story starts with an all-powerful and very present God Almighty, who is not only Sovereign and perfectly Holy, but full of mind-bending LOVE that obliterates our best attempts to understand it.  That perfectly pure One created every soul who ever lived to be in a mutually joy-giving relationship with Him.  But we, the creatures, spat in His face because we thought we knew better what would satisfy.  We died that day.  And every day since, man clamors to find identity and meaning and lasting pleasure, but none of it really satisfies us.  Reed College exhausts us, and we feel the shame of it.

A better story would speak the truth of the Bible, that JESUS CHRIST came to save SINNERS, even the very worst.  That He offers HOPE and JOY that really is lasting and satisfies our longing for identity, meaning, and pleasure free from guilt.  This is THE true story the world needs to hear.

I don’t mean to saddle “Blue Like Jazz” the movie with the calling of the Church.  God did not call Steve Taylor and Donald Miller to use this movie to make disciples.  He calls me to do that, and you, too, if you love Jesus.  But I sense a missed opportunity here.  That’s all I’m saying.

“Blue Like Jazz” is smartly written, well acted, and cleverly rendered.  It works.  I see the need for movies and more art in general to explore faith while looking honestly at brokenness, although I remember the words of Paul to focus our minds and hearts on “whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)  In order to focus on what is true – on the life-transforming power of the GOSPEL – allow “Blue Like Jazz” to do the work it is intended to do.  Let it disturb you and stir compassion in you for the brokenness we live in.

Then get in the Word, read the Gospel, and do something.

Watch the trailer here…

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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

12 responses to “blue like jazz” the movie :: thoughts and ponderings

  1. Well said Josh!

    • Thanks Heidi. Don Miller always inspires, and his story telling is engaging… and he leaves me wanting him to just state the GOSPEL outright. But he doesn’t. So, I remain a fan. But a conflicted fan. God bless you and your girl.

  2. Haven’t seen this yet but am looking forward to it! I do agree that “Christian” is an adjective that applies to people, not art (or cultural ‘artifacts’ of any kind)…

    • I agree. But the marketplace has co-opted a niche which is a painful mix for me of beauty and truth mixed with saccharine and schlock and kitsch… bad art.

      I appreciate Christians who are artists and are able to honor God with their craft while rejecting the box of the marketplace niche. Otherwise, the ART of the church will only ever speak to those already inside the box.

      God is a Redeemer. His artists are redeemers as we bear his image. NO MORE CRAPPY ART, church. Go surprise people with the truth.

      And, all that being said, I could have used a little more of the truth in my Don Miller fruit plate. Felt more like the parsley sometimes…

  3. Josh – well written response to the film. I agree we need more truth across the board – grit, hope and all of it in between.

    Frankly, I had some of the misgivings you wrote about, but I tried to temper those with the feeling that the movie could reach a larger audience than some “Christian art.” Growing up unchurched with some watered-down, safe, don’t-ask-me-for-too-much beliefs, I could envision the me I was then watching & questioning. I don’t know, however, whether the film would have prompted me to ask more, or maybe it would have left me with unanswered questions and a bad taste in my mouth for the hypocrisy I felt already kept my family from going all in.

    I’m certain it’s a very fine line Miller & Taylor were trying to walk to keep from tying it up in a neat Christian bow or adding too much, as you said, “saccharine” to the script. I agree we need to not just know Christ, but show Christ and let His work, work.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Mela. Hope you and your family are thriving. 🙂

      I realize that “Blue Like Jazz” is not the movie I would have made, because I highly value the power and authority of scripture, and I believe that the Gospel is the only hope of the world. I believe, from what little I know, that Don Miller will spend eternity in heaven, because he professes Jesus Christ as his Savior. However, as Wade talks about below, his theological wanderings have a decidedly postmodern feel.

      I keep in mind that the book that this movie was based on came early in Don’s writing career. He was working through a number of faith questions himself. I know he still is. We all are. But it seems to me that he has settled some of these questions since then. I would have liked to see more concrete answers on display here. But that is not the post-modern way. And I didn’t make this movie.

      As I look at it today, I am genuinely questioning the value of this film. It has me thinking, and it has moved me to love people with authenticity… but I’m wondering if the benefit comes wrapped in too much garbage.

  4. Thanks for the post, Josh. I have not seen the movie, but I have read the book. The core issue in the movie/book/message is the content- content that accepts then builds upon postmodern philosophy.The reason that it does not resolve is because it is philosophically prohibited from resolving, for postmodernism offers no resolution.

    The real danger of calling art “Christian” is that by doing so we dilute Christ and not the art itself. “Christian,” as one reader has mused quite correctly, is an adjective that applies to people, not objects. Art reflects the foundational beliefs of the artist holds- whether the artist realizes it or not.

    Thus, art in the hand of the postmodern artist becomes, as Gene Edward Veith said in his book “Postmodern Times,” “a repudiation of the human,” a fundamental rejection of the image of God in man.

    Miller’s passive-aggressive methodology comes off as Minnesota nice, but in it he establishes a theology that relegates truth to obscurity through hasty generalization and equivocation on crucial terms. In the words of one reviewer, “The film leaves the audience with a few lingering questions. What exactly is the true theology that replaces the religious clichés at the beginning of the film? Is this film merely about one man’s existential crisis, and how he finds friends who will accept him, in spite of his faith? Or does it, however subtly, point to something that transcends the “my truth, your truth, it’s all truth” attitude embraced by many of Donald Miller’s generation?” (Hannah Kaminer, World Magazine, April 7, 2012).

    But the most important point for the reader is this: You cannot separate art from philosophy, neither in its creation nor its consumption. No artist has ever made such a separation- indeed, it is impossible. But many artists ask their consumers to do just that.

    Thus, it is no surprise that Francis Schaeffer’s assessment has shown itself to be true once and again: While art and general culture once flowed from theology, now theology flows from our art and general culture. Today’s culture shouts down theology and philosophy, while allowing our art- whether in sing, cinema, or canvas- to do our theology and philosophy.

    As movies go, Blue Like Jazz may be innocuous fare. But if it leaves you wanting now you know why. My biggest fear for audience members who are genuine Christ-followers is that they will be so amused by the art that they will accept the flawed theology and philosophy of the artist.

    In that sense, may this movie- and most any other- leave you wanting, and- in response- fleeing to God’s Word, which always satisfies.
    WM

    Recommended read- Veith, Gene Edward. State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991.

    • Thanks Wade. GREAT thoughts. I agree that every piece of art expresses a philosophy – a pairing that no artist or consumer can escape. I also agree that Miller is mired in the Emerging Church/Postmodern quagmire.

      So, should I really expect anything more?

      The problem is, some of his writing has been truly inspiring for me – and important in my faith journey. He is an engaging writer, and he does express a more concrete faith in Jesus as Savior in other books. Whereas you have read the book and not seen the film, I have seen the film and never finished the book. I guess I was hoping the Don Miller that has inspired deeper love of God and people in me would show himself. The climactic moment of the film has young Don Miller realizing that he hasn’t only been ashamed of the church subculture he was raised in, he has been ashamed of JESUS. The implication is, “Well, no more. I do believe this stuff, and from now on, I’m going to say it out loud.”

      That’s not a bad point of self-realization to come to. But of course, the need runs far deeper, and the solution is far more substantial.

      This post was intended to draw readers who have an interest in the movie. For those people, I wanted to point to the better story, THE true story of our broken relationship with God (and desperate, hopeless condition on our own) and His solution by grace. Jesus blood shed for us.

      Honestly, all of this discussion about art and the “Christian” label, Don Miller and the soundness (or lack thereof) of his theology, and the relative merits of “Blue Like Jazz” are interesting, but the point of my post is this:

      Everyone desperately needs Jesus. Don Miller doesn’t tell you that, but you need to know. You are sin-sick without Him, and your life will be a constant chase after meaning, purpose, identity, and pleasure that fades until you recognize your need for Him. The good news is this, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned…”

      If I can use this forum to make that better story more clear to more people, then I’ve done my part. And in providing me a springboard to draw more people to ponder the better story, Don Miller has done his. 🙂

      And so with you I echo your last line… may this movie leave you wanting, and in response fleeing to God’s Word, which ALWAYS satisfies. Amen and amen.

  5. I saw the movie when it came out and was wondering if you would weigh in on it (or anyone for that matter — more people talked about it pre-production than after the movie came out!). Anyway, I’m glad you did — I had some similar thoughts. There were times in the movie when I felt that the people who wrote it had something to prove… they were trying really hard to make it unpreachy, un-“christian.” The whole church scene was the christian stereotype played out to the fullest and the Reed College was the secular college scene played out to the fullest. And I was waiting and waiting for Penny to say SOMETHING — anything — about Christ, and it took forever. At the same time, I absolutely realize that this movie wasn’t made as an evangelism tool. It’s real, it’s artsy, it’s interesting and it does have depth. While I would never in a million years recommend Facing the Giants to my non-Christian friends, I would recommend this movie to them.

    So I understand the tension and I resonate with what you’re saying about a missed opportunity, cuz I totally felt that too. I wonder if what I’m looking for in these types of movies (movies that deal with the faith, or with the Gospel) is actually possible.

    • Hey friend of mine! Thanks for joining the discussion.

      I think the answer to the question in your last sentence is NO. I think that art can provoke, but it rarely completes. Especially with regards to our life of faith – which is dynamic and organic and living. Therefore, I think there IS an answer for your non-churchy friends whom you feel dis-inclined to invite over for a showing of “Facing the Giants.” The answer is LIZ JOHNSON.

      Like I said above, God isn’t calling Miller and Taylor to make disciples through this movie. That’s our job. Of course, I know you know this, too. But this movie can maybe start the discussion.

      Unfortunately, I’m really questioning whether this vehicle is one worth riding in. I do deeply appreciate the honesty of the writing. I understand that it is a story of a young man’s search for answers with regards to faith among a God-less subculture… it’s not intended to leave us will “all the answers.” But neither does it really point us to the Gospel, which is the only hope that really matters. Is it worth the wade through the mire to end up with our hero beginning a long list of apologies for the evils of organized Christianity through history? The personal apologies were powerful. But the rest… it lacked the hope-filled joy that a life truly transformed by the Gospel exhibits.

      Here’s what I think. You can invite those non-Christian friends to watch “Blue Like Jazz,” but if I were there, I’d watch with them. And then have a conversation that points to a better story. Your story is a better one, because Jesus is at the center of it.

      God bless you, Liz.

      • I love Liz’ thoughts there. The Giants was a bit hack for me, too, though I applaud their effort. That last line- “is it possible” to make films that avoid the scoffing of the skeptic yet retain the message? I’m not sure it is. Here’s why:
        *When sharing your testimony with a Christian, they get it.
        *When sharing your testimony with a non-Christian who is really considering the claims of Christ- they consider it (perhaps this should be our target audience for movies, etc.).
        *But when sharing your testimony with a skeptic- they scoff.
        Miller writes to the skeptic in a manner that limits their scoffing, but in order to do so he loses the substance of Christianity.
        So the skeptic is (somewhat) appeased, Christians are left feeling like something grand went unexplored, and the non-Christian who is giving Christ a fair shake gets horribly confused by the “Christian” film. And, sadly, many newer Christians hop on the confusion train with them.

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