Why 'Blue Like Jazz' Won't Save Christian Cinema

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The Kickstarter sensation tries to show an authentic struggle with belief in God but can't commit.

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Religious people rarely get a fair shake at the movies. Mainstream films usually seem bent on portraying faithful people as joyless hypocrites: Think of the shrill Hilary Faye in Saved or the stern principal/nun in Doubt. Movies produced by overtly Christian companies are no more nuanced. Films like Courageous and Fireproof show firemen and police officers in straightforward moral dilemmas with straightforward Biblical solutions, while the pro-life subgenre is filled with stories that distort and oversimplify the way a woman decides whether or not to keep an unwanted baby.

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A year and a half ago, a project emerged that seemed like it could be a solution to this problem: Blue Like Jazz, the movie version of Donald Miller's bestselling memoir about his struggles with the conservative evangelical church. By affirming rather than mocking faith, the script departed from typical Hollywood cynicism. But it also broke with Christian film's pious status quo: The characters in Blue Like Jazz curse, put an oversized condom on a church steeple, and drink and do drugs with cheerful abandon.

The promise of an authentic, unsanitized Christian film resonated with people. When Blue Like Jazz ran into budget trouble in fall 2010, it raised $345,992 on Kickstarter—then a record for the crowdfunding site. The 4,000-plus backers believed the movie could offer a still better way: a heartfelt depiction of the Christian life as lived not by a heroic fireman or abortion survivor but a real, flawed human being.

"Most of my movie-going friends are ready for a different representation of their faith beyond what the Christian Movie Establishment is currently serving," Blue Like Jazz director Steve Taylor wrote recently. This film, which was released last week in selected cities, was supposed to change that.

The impulse to apologize for the church reflects a misguided understanding of what skeptics want to hear.

Unfortunately, in its attempt to be a more honest voice of evangelical Christianity, Blue Like Jazz the movie ends up saying barely anything at all. It tries to navigate a middle course between mainstream Hollywood and mainstream evangelical movie-making, and in the process loses everyone. The film doesn't show skeptics anything distinctive about Christianity. And it tells believers not to share what they know, but instead to apologize for it.

Blue Like Jazz follows a year in the life of a young man named Don—a fictionalized version of Miller himself—who grew up in Bible-belt Texas and ends up at Portland's ultra-progressive Reed for college. The catalyst for Don's flight to the Northwest? He discovers his mother is having an affair with a married pastor at his church (tired religious stereotype No. 1: Evangelicals are deeply hypocritical about sex).

It doesn't take Don more than a few hours at Reed to realize he's not in Texas anymore. Extracurricular activities include Malaysian cocktail tennis and Jews for Jihad. The bathrooms are co-ed. There's a guy who roams around campus in an ecclesiastical robe, calling himself the Pope and burning books that profess an imperialist or religious worldview.

In other words, the Reed of Blue Like Jazz is a place where every orientation and every philosophy, no matter how outlandish, is accepted, except religion. Though Don retains some of his Texas trappings, at least at the beginning—his perfectly combed hair, his tucked-in shirts—he ditches his faith almost immediately.

"Get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there," a friend warns Don early on, after telling him about her Mormon ex-roommate who lasted just two days at Reed.

And he does. Don spends the rest of his freshman year drinking, cracking jokes about religion, and pursuing the ultimate in Reed College cool: presidency of the Tall Bike Club. When a friend from home who has kept the faith shows up unexpectedly for a visit, Don shoos him away as quickly as possible, for fear his cover will be blown. All this—the cartoonishly liberal college, Don's swift denial of his faith and subsequent embarrassment at any reminder of his upbringing—also recycles a tired storyline, one that shows up all the time in religious books and movies: that the godless university will turn the faithful servant into a prodigal son.

The movie's lone out-of-the-closet Christian is a girl named Penny, who goes to church and spends her vacations in India serving the poor. Though Penny, too, embodies a stereotype (evangelicals are goody-goodies!), she represents the movie's greatest hope for an articulate message of what it means to be a Christian in a secular society. But the film squanders the opportunity to let Penny say something meaningful about what she believes. When a classmate asks her how she can trust God when there's so much suffering in the world, Penny precedes her reply with a disclaimer: "Not to go all Mother Theresa on you..." Then she rattles off a quote about the perils of Western material excess. Her riff on the oppressiveness of wealth could have just as easily come from a Buddhist or a Marxist or a subscriber to Good magazine. There's nothing distinctively Christian about it.

Blue Like Jazz makes another quasi-attempt at a statement of faith later in the movie, in the middle of Reed's drug-fueled annual festival, Renn Fayre. After a wild night that ends with Don sleeping in an overturned Porta-Potty, he declares: "I spent the school year trying to ditch God, but I can't. It's like he's following me around." It's a rather simplistic explanation of who God is, and again, it's not exclusively Christian—plenty of other religions worship an omnipresent god. Plus, it's not even clear how wholeheartedly Don buys into it. When a friend asks him if he really believes "all this stuff," Don replies, "I think...I do."

The movie's hesitant embrace of Christianity continues to the end. In the last scene, Don decides that the best way to respond to his renewed belief in God is to apologize to the Reed student body for everything bad Christianity has ever done. "Maybe I'll start with the Crusades and then work my way to U.S. foreign policy," he says. (Another stereotype: Evangelicals are war-mongers!) The impulse reflects a specific, possibly misguided understanding of what skeptics want to hear. Is a college student apologizing for the Catholic sex-abuse scandals a meaningful stand-in for a heartfelt apology from the Catholic Church itself? Probably not.

But more importantly, in a movie that's supposed to depict an authentic walk of faith, it just doesn't feel real. From what I've witnessed—in the Bible, in my own life, and in the lives of those around me—an encounter with God elicits a desire to share the good news, not to say sorry for it. This is something Miller himself seems to understand, or at least he did, at one point. Blue Like Jazz the book does not end with an apology. It ends with an exhortation. "I want you to know Jesus too," Miller writes. That's what knowing Jesus does—it makes you want other people to know him, as well. It's a truth as old as the Bible itself, but it's entirely absent from Blue Like Jazz the movie. Instead of "I want you to know Jesus," we hear, "I want you to apologize for Jesus." It's a message that Hollywood itself could have delivered.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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