'Blue Like Jazz': The Quest to Get Christians to Laugh at Themselves


Blue Like Jazz

Donald Miller worked for two years to turn his bestselling memoir, Blue Like Jazz, into a movie. First there was the task of wrestling the book—a series of reflections on his struggles with the conservative evangelical church—into a screenplay with a traditional plot structure. It was an undertaking so arduous it became the subject of another book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

When the screenplay was complete, there was the problem of finding financial backers for the movie—a double challenge considering the tough economic climate and the book's difficult-to-categorize subject matter. After a year of fundraising, Miller—who's written a total of five Christian-themed books and is part of an Obama task force on absentee fathers—was still $125,000 short. He decided to give up. Last month, he wrote a post on his blog declaring the project dead. Blue Like Jazz would not be made into a movie.

But it didn't stay dead for long. Two 24-year-old Miller fans launched a page on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to solicit donations, and within a week and a half, they'd raised enough money to make the movie. Miller and his supporters then set a new fundraising goal: $200,642, so the film would beat wannabe Facebook-killer Diaspora as the highest-grossing project in the history of Kickstarter. Late this week, with just three days to go before fundraising ends and filming begins, the movie surpassed this milestone—as of Friday morning, backers had given a total of more than $203,000.

"It felt like a validation that people love this story, but that both the system in Hollywood and the system in the evangelical church is never going to support it," Miller says.

The point of Save Blue Like Jazz, then, is about more than just making a movie out of a popular book. It's a mission to prove there's a market for a different kind of film that explores the Christian faith: one that expresses doubt but falls eventually on the side of belief.

Movies that focus on Christianity tend to fall into two categories. Films in the first—which includes mainstream blockbusters like the Chronicles of Narnia series as well as movies targeted specifically at Christians like Facing the Giants and Fireproof—tell a straightforward, upbeat, Sunday School-approved story: a hero encounters an obstacle and, with the assistance of a higher power, overcomes it. The best examples are overly simplistic portraits of the faithful life—Jesus does not usually appear in the form of a kindly lion, the way he does in Narnia, and the process of repairing a broken marriage is rarely as easy as Fireproof's prescription of a month and a half of prayer and kind gestures. The worst are just bad movies—hastily made films with, as Alyssa Rosenberg put it in an Entertainment channel post last month, "tacky production values, terrible writing, and massive characterization holes."

To Miller, the biggest problem with these explicitly Christian movies is their humorlessness.

"In Jewish culture, Jewish people can criticize themselves and it's endearing," he says. "They do it all the time—Woody Allen's a great example. In Catholic culture, it's sort of the same thing—you can make a major motion picture and have some priest be a bad guy. And for some reason, those communities don't rise up and get angry."

But that's not the case in the evangelical community, according to Miller: "There's an incredible sensitivity to self-criticism...It's a community that's unable to be balanced and have an objective view of itself, which is extremely unhealthy."

But films that grapple with the more challenging aspects of faith run into their own problems. They tend to be so critical of religion and religious people—think of the shrill hypocrite Hilary Faye in Saved or the morally questionable clergy members in Doubt—that they become polemics against all belief rather than constructive warnings about the dangers of extremism. Slant magazine's dismissal of Saved could be applied to any number of mainstream movies with Christian characters (including, as New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer points out on his blog, the recently released comedy Easy A): "[the film] makes absolutely no distinction between the good Christian and the...nut... and the spectacle of Hilary's un-Christian behavior exists not to promote kindness among the masses, but to mock a belief system." **

Blue Like Jazz doesn't fit either of those molds. Set in Nashville and Portland and focused on a relationship between a Christian man and a non-believing woman, it presents a more complicated view of religion than its explicitly religious counterparts. "This movie doesn't have a very pie-in-the-sky view of life," Miller says. "It deals with the crap that goes on in a lot of churches." (It also involves, according to Miller's blog, strong "language, drug use and a scene where the protagonists put a giant condom on a steeple.") Miller says one of the biggest points of tension between him and the film's director is over whether the last scene of the movie should take place in a church.

"Nothing against the church, but the whole point of the film is that he's finding faith outside of the traditional methodology," he says.

But it's not a takedown of Christianity, either. The people in charge of the film are evangelicals: Miller, plus the director—Christian rocker Steve Taylor—and the lead actor, True Blood's Marshall Almann. The book's closing paragraph includes the exhortation, "I want you to know Jesus too." Though the film will diverge significantly from its source material—Miller says "the whole movie is fiction," based on real characters from the book—this embrace of faith will remain the same.

The movie's inability to fit into a pre-existing category helps explain why Miller and his collaborators had so much trouble coming up with the money to make the film. "You're sort of pissing off both sides," Miller says. "Hollywood hates it because we don't have our head up our ass, and the church hates it because we don't have our head up our ass."

But, of course, Blue Like Jazz's unconventional approach to faith also explains why more than a million people bought the book and more than 2,500 supporters have given money to see it turned into a film: it's filling a need that's not currently being met by either Hollywood or the evangelical church. "There's a certain underground groundswell of people, people who don't identify with traditional Christian movies, but they struggle, and they have things they want to overcome," says Zach Pritchard, who started the Save Blue Like Jazz campaign with his friend from church, Jonathan Frazier. "They haven't had a real, honest voice in the media."

And that, ultimately, is Miller's goal in making the movie—to change the way Christianity is represented in pop culture.

"I hope that years from now—a few years from now, even—Christians can be self-deprecating," he says. "That would be the biggest thing: that major Christian figures could make fun of themselves, and even make fun of their culture. That would mean we'd accomplished something."

** Of course there are some movies that fall outside of these two categories. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the highest-grossing Christian film ever, is neither simplistic nor upbeat. And M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (which stars Gibson) and the 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose feature characters who express doubts about Christianity but end up keeping (or finding) their faith.