I remember when I was in college reading Blue Like Jazz. It was an important book for me to read, because it raised a lot of questions, of which I had not yet considered. There was a certain sincerity that was so refreshing, and though I don’t remember where Donald Miller landed on a lot of those questions, it was the asking that was so pivotal for me. The problem that could arise in only asking questions is that you are never satisfied with any answers, and begin to not care if there are any. At the point you have become a critic of everything, and could risk the possibility of standing for nothing. I am not arguing this is what Miller has done, but rather where I found myself in my own immaturity. I read his most recent book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and I found it to be his best book, which interestingly enough is somewhat about making this movie, Blue Like Jazz.
The movie has received some decent critical reviews along with some criticism, particularly from Christian circles. I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the movie until it was recently released on DVD, so I am somewhat behind the curve. I have, however, kept up with some of the reviews, both secular and Christian. What I gathered from those reviews is that Blue Like Jazz is an ambitious movie that seemed difficult to make in how it tried to combine many sensitive themes between Christianity and secularism. In the past, an explicit treatment of Christianity has tended to be presented as a caricature, whether demonized in the film, Easy A, or shown without flaws in films like, Facing the Giants. Blue Like Jazz attempts to give an honest look at the spiritual struggles of a college kid who is also trying to fit in. I sincerely applaud the effort and I don’t believe it was a fruitless endeavor.
The film is about Donald Miller, who is about to head off to college. He is the assistant to the youth pastor, participating in all the events of the church. Meanwhile, his estranged father, makes continual jabs at Miller’s faith and challenges him to go to a secular school of which he took the liberty of already enrolling his son. This is unlikely to happen as he is about to head off to a Christian school. Miller has a better relationship with his mom, who is also a member of the church, but an event happens with his family and the church that drives him far away from Christianity to the secular Reed College.
At Reed College, the students are trendy, bold, and surprisingly dress up in costumes a good bit. This is all a contrast with Miller and his background as he tries to fit in to his new surroundings. Much of his Christian upbringing and background he forsakes attempting to distance himself from his family even further. The rest of the movie Miller is plagued by the nagging question of whether God exists, the situation with his family, and where he fits into all of it.
Upon the first viewing of BLJ, I felt like Miller’s motivations and ponderings seemed murky throughout the film. He seemed to have no problem with Christianity until the situation with his family happens, and I am left wondering if he associates Christianity with his family and that is why he becomes hostile to his faith, or whether he starts questioning God because of the contrast of the crazy subculture of Southern Baptists with the crazy secular setting of Reed College. I am sure it could be both, but most of the time I had a hard time following what the main character was feeling and what motivated him. The confession helped clear up things at the end, but part of it was a surprising realization of what he had been feeling throughout the film. This could have been part of the artistic design of the presentation, but personally I feel it would have been more engaging to be privy to some of the thought process if only through some more dialogue.
The film was entertaining though did not descend into the realms of a simple college movie. There is drinking and several sophomoric exploits, but they are not the focus of the film but rather the setting. The dialogue is interesting, and I found the most intriguing character to be the Pope in his interactions with Miller. The last scene at the confession booth is compelling and there was part of me that simply longed for more of it.
Though there is a lot of drinking and some cursing in the film, I don’t think the director/producers would condone how it was abused in the film. I am sure this would frustrate many Christians who would have had different expectations for the film. If I watched this film without knowing any of the background (I did attempt this), I believe I would have walked away with a good message well told, specifically in the poignant confession booth scene at the end. Going into this film I felt like had to tell myself that this is not a “Christian” movie I was about to watch. At least it is not what one traditionally thinks of a Christian movie, like that of the Sherwood Pictures. But this really raises the question of what constitutes the term “Christian” being effectively used as an adjective. I don’t have the time here, but it would be a fruitful discussion in regard to movies or even music. I do believe, however, that it is a good movie with a good message done by believers in Christ. I am thankful for that.
What is beautiful about the movie that has been well translated from the book is the picture of an honest existential struggle with the Christian faith. There is an attempt to get beyond some of the mere cultural Christianity and get at the heart of true spirituality. I don’t think BLJ gives many answers to the questions raised, and I really don’t think it was its purpose. Where it succeeded most was in showing Christians as human beings with real struggles, including the struggle to understand their faith at times. I believe this is a worthy message; that believers in Christ are not perfect, nor are they always without doubt.
I resonate most with Paul when he says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
For some more resources check out the Blue Like Jazz page. Along with interviews with Donald Miller they have Bible Studies and Discussion outlines. Pretty cool.