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…