Boy, am I gonna get some hate for this one. Now, if you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve been reading “Reel Christianity” for a while, and I’m very grateful, and hopefully I’ve been able to build a sense of trust with you and all other readers of this blog. But I need to come out and say this: I did not like “Blue Like Jazz” the movie. It could have been much, much worse, but I was still not a huge fan. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read the book, I don’t know. I’ll even go so far as to say that hadn’t I known that this was a true story, I would have rejected the film altogether. But because it is, I’m very conflicted about it. And I feel like it’s an important film for me to discuss here on “Reel Christianity.”
So here we go. The book “Blue Like Jazz” followed the autobiographical adventures of a guy named Donald Miller, who grew up Baptist and for a time lost his faith at a secular college before returning to the faith. Again, I never read the book, so I’m going off the movie’s basic outline. The film was directed by a guy named Steve Taylor, who is best known as a Christian musician (look him up) but has recently started getting into faith-based filmmaking, as in 2006 he directed a film starring Michael W. Smith called “The Second Chance”, of which I also was not a huge fan. But please don’t get mad at me.
The film, from the very beginning, attempts to be a more honest faith-based film than many audiences have probably seen; it doesn’t shy away from talking about drinking, drugs, sex, or any of that stuff. And I will admit, it is honest in its portrayal of those things, and I definitely respect the film for that. And as we begin to see the conflicting life of Donald Miller (Marshall Allman), who is involved in his Baptist church but also sees his youth pastor hitting on his mom, we can identify with his internal struggle to break free of the religion that seems so hypocritical to him.
So he leaves his Texas home for Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which Donald says is one of the most godless universities in the nation. (On a side note, I have no idea what Reed College had to say about the book or the film, but I’d sure like to find out.) When he arrives at school, he is immediately exposed to lifestyles that are more controversial and yet more honest than his own. The primary person he meets that exemplifies this is Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), a young woman not afraid in the slightest to talk about her homosexuality. (I’ll get to my opinion about this in a minute.) He also meets a guy student who goes by the nickname “The Pope”—Reed College has its own self-proclaimed student pope, who at campus parties will be there to “absolve” the sins of students who come to him for help.
But another girl that Donald meets is Penny (Claire Holt), a girl who’s involved in activist groups at school as well as a nearby church. And unlike Don, she is not totally “in the closet” about her faith. Seriously, even Lauryn tells Don that:
LAURYN: Your private, religious, wacko beliefs are none of my business, but if you plan on sticking around… you probably want to keep that quiet around here.
DONALD: What's wrong with being a Christian?
LAURYN: Do you have any idea what your hateful, bullying tribe has been up to? ‘Cause around here, you represent a whole new category of despicable. So, if you plan on ever making friends… get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there.
So yeah, the majority of the movie follows Donald Miller going around campus and the surrounding area losing his faith. And this is the major problem I had with the movie: so much of this second act consists of Don just doing all these things, partying, doing drugs, even pulling a prank at the local cathedral. Now, again, I appreciate the film for being honest in its content—if you’re gonna make a movie about a kid losing his faith at school, shying away from content wouldn’t feel as authentic, and I appreciate the film for not doing that. But at the same time, there were so many times in the film where I was just thinking: “Get to the point!” It spent so much time focusing on the sin at school and so little time exploring Don’s actual crisis of faith that it seemed very unbalanced to me.
And on top of that, some of the characters that Don meets seemed like they were solely concerned with their own lives, or, as some might say, their own sin. Take Lauryn, for example. From the very first moment we meet her, she is talking to Don about another girl at school and how she wants to… you know, with her. And it’s like every other conversation we hear from her is about her lesbianism. Again, I appreciate the honesty, but it just didn’t lead anywhere for me.
But I’m sorry, I need to stop ranting and explain the film. Nearing the end, Don has found out his youth pastor got his mom pregnant, and it is as if he has had the last straw with Christianity. Eventually, he reconciles with Penny, and then goes to a party and gets stoned off his rocker. (Those events may be out of order, but I honestly can’t remember.) And one night, as he is named the new “Pope” on Reed College, he talks to the former “Pope” and apologizes to him. The student is confused, but Don explains:
DONALD: There’s a lot you don’t know about me. I come out of this… sub-culture… I came here to escape it, because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that… I’m ashamed of Jesus.
And Don apologizes to the student, and other students as the film closes, for not being the example of Jesus that he should have been. Yes, I acknowledge that this is a pretty nice ending, and it’s something that all believers need to take away, but I didn’t really see any point in Don’s character where he suddenly changed. He just went from being stoned to being Pope. However, I encourage you to watch the film, because it’s a great conversation starter nonetheless, and I would love to be proven wrong about my views toward “Blue Like Jazz”.
So again, even with some faults, “Blue Like Jazz” is still an encouragement for Christians to be Jesus in their world, even when everyone around us seems totally of the world in sin. I’ve referenced John 13 on this site before, but Jesus’ command to His disciples is incredibly relevant to the film’s message. Jesus tells them, “‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’” (13:34-35)
At times, it bothers me to be at a Christian university, because I find I have less chances to love on unbelievers. And I fear many times that if I were at a secular university, that I would either keep my faith silent, be a negative example of a Christian, or abandon my faith altogether. It’s a blessing to be at my school, but I also have to make myself think about how I am going to really impact the world. How can I be “in it, not of it”? I guess the biggest thing that I can do is to love people. Jesus tells us here that, as the hymn goes, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” My prayer for all of us is that we would follow Jesus’ commandment and love those around us, no matter the cost.