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.
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.