Blue Like Jazz was a book that came at just the right moment. Donald Miller winsomely captured and voiced the sentiments of many Christians who grew up immersed in Christian culture. They felt disillusioned with hypocrisy, unconvinced by politics, and out of place in their churches. The cultural scorn from progressives and the parodies of evangelical life in movies like Saved and shows like The Simpsons rang all too true, and many young evangelicals (like Christians in generations past) wondered if they were a fish out of water, if perhaps there was an alternative from the enculturated Christianity of their parents in the post-9/11 world.
This, in many ways, was Don’s story, and Blue Like Jazz was a collection of essays and vignettes that reflected upon his journey. The book struck a deep chord and sold like hotcakes. Certainly, Miller’s fresh and humorous voice was an essential ingredient in his success, but his timeliness and cultural progressiveness gave the book momentum. Along with a host of “emergent” writers, he painted a picture of a different way of being a Christian in the world. Writers are commonly told, “Don’t tell me, show me.” This is the power of Miller’s work. Rather than yet another didactic how-to for the Christian life, he showed a way of being that readers found hip, compelling, and fresh.
In just one month, on April 13, the film based on Blue Like Jazz will premier in theaters nationwide. It’s far more inspired-by the book than based-upon it, telling a largely fictionalized version of Miller’s first year at Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. (Miller tells the story of writing the film’s screenplay in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which I actually think is his best work.)
Not everyone in the evangelical world was eager to embrace Miller’s books, and the criticism Blue Like Jazz elicited was often quite heated. In anticipation of the new film, it seems worth reflecting on a few of those surrounding issues.
Blue Like Jazz is a good little indie film starring Marshall Allman (True Blood) and Claire Holt (The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars), with a strong supporting performance from Tania Raymonde (Lost). It was written by Miller, photographer Ben Pearson, and Steve Taylor, a former CCM artist and record producer who made waves in the late 80s with his sharply satirical song “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” In the late 90s, Taylor wrote and produced hits with Sixpence None the Richer and The Newsboys.
The movie entertains, moving along at an occasionally hurried pace under solid direction, supported by believable dialogue, good acting, and a good soundtrack. It was made with a modest budget of about $1.2 million (for comparison, less than 1 percent of the cost of Hugo). As indies go, it’s a good movie. At times, it’s a bit too cute, occasionally preachy, and a bit too neatly tied up at the end—but most movies are guilty of similar crimes.
It’s rated PG-13, and it deserves the rating. The movie tells the story of a fictionalized Don who leaves behind his fundamentalist Texan roots for Reed College. Life at Reed is a realistic portrayal of life at many liberal arts colleges—full of drugs, sexual innuendo, binge drinking, and foul language. Don’s closest friends are an atheist who serves as the campus “pope,” and Lauryn, a recently out lesbian. This is not a Kirk Cameron-style Christian film. Debauchery abounds.
But these elements of the story are nothing if not realistic. Don’s story is like that of many young Christians who find themselves immersed in a post-Christian environment. He’s ashamed of his past, when he was an assistant youth minister, and he denies his faith in a class discussion. It’s a particularly poignant scene, cutting to Don lying awake in bed as an alarm sounds with a rooster’s crow. His sense of failure will feel emotionally familiar to many.
The Roots of Rootlessness
Like much of Miller’s writing, the movie brushes on themes of fatherlessness. In another classroom scene, it’s said that calling God “father” is a huge marketing mistake, given the wretched track record of earthly fathers. Don’s father in the story is a womanizing college professor, living in a trailer like a pathetic, past-his-prime slacker. A conversation with a friend reveals that their parents are bitterly divorced, to which Don responds, “Aren’t they all?”
News from home reveals the hypocrisy of both Don’s mother and his youth minister. His sense of rootlessness and despair grows deeper. He drives to a seaside park to reflect, standing in solitary contrast to a young girl throwing Frisbee with her father.
Miller is giving voice to a whole generation whose fathers failed them, whose churches rang hollow, and who found friendship in the liberal world they’d been taught to hate and distrust. The intellectual rigor of progressives and their inclusive sense of community stood in sharp contrast to a past that felt morally and intellectually vacuous. At one moment in the film, the campus pope is rounding up books to burn, purging the campus of unacceptable spiritual reading. In Don’s room, he snatches up Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, a gift from Don’s mother upon graduation from high school. “Would a loving God let that exist?” he asks before tossing it into a burning shopping cart.
Plausibility in a Post-Christian World
Eventually, Don finds his faith redeemed, but not through his own wrestling. Instead, it’s through a friend whose faith makes Christianity plausible for him in a new way. “Sometimes,” he says, “you’ve got to watch somebody love something so you can love it yourself.”
Don’s restored faith comes just as he’s declared the campus pope for the next year, and Don must now decide whether to follow the lead of the previous pope—eliminating any spiritual or moral inhibitions—or to set a different tone. This leads to a scene with Don presiding as the campus pope in a confessional booth, a moment he turns on its head by seizing the opportunity to apologize for all the ways he and other Christians have misrepresented Jesus to the world.
It’s a throwback to the book, where Miller describes setting up a confession booth on a sidewalk, apologizing to all who enter for a myriad of Christians’ sins, from ordinary hypocrisy to the Crusades. It’s his way of acknowledging a different way of being in the world—connected to Christ without having to take responsibility for the sins of our fathers. This, again, is what makes Miller resonate with his readers.
Blue Like Jazz and the Critics
Personally, I’m not much of a culture warrior. With Blue Like Jazz (the book), I never saw the cause for alarm that many others saw. Similarly, I anticipate that as this film releases, there will be many minute-by-minute, point-for-point critiques of the film’s content, theology, and worldview. I’m not entirely interested in engaging it on that level. Instead, I want to talk about the film’s (and Miller’s) place in Christian culture.
When the book released there were several months of chatter and debate surrounding it. Many in my city identified Miller as a reactionary liberal trying to make Christianity cool and marketable. The book was sliced open and picked apart; every questionable glimpse of doctrine, every ethical grey area, every shady interaction with an unbeliever was dissected and deconstructed.
But I think this kind of critique misses the point. In the book and in his subsequent works, Miller has never claimed to be a theologian. He doesn’t labor at making precise theological statements; he labors at telling compelling stories, at being truthful about life. He’s a storyteller whose gift takes us into the uncomfortable world of Christians living in exile. I don’t get the sense that his stories are prescriptive; they describe his life and experience, and the success of the book demonstrates that something about his life resonates with readers.
One persistent critique of Miller is that he, like many emergent writers, is at pains to make Christianity something “hip” and “cool.” In the case of someone like Rob Bell, who has worked particularly hard at reframing doctrine and softening hard truths, that critique is fair. For Miller, though, I’m not sure it is.
If anything, Miller’s stories and this movie both demonstrate that Christianity is irreversibly uncool. When movie Don talks about his rediscovered faith to the campus pope, he apologizes for trying to make people think he was cool and smart. The conversation seems resonant with the apostle Paul, when he tells us that the gospel is foolish in the eyes of the perishing world. Miller’s own self-effacing nature and style reveal a personality who seems to be very comfortable in his own, uncool skin. In a world of blustering megachurch pastors and triumphalist Christian bravado, Miller strikes me as earthy and refreshing.
The Real Issue
The challenge with a movie and book like Blue Like Jazz centers on its singularity in the Christian world. There isn’t really an established market for this kind of Christian literature and storytelling. Yes, Christian fiction exists, but Miller’s work is more free-ranging: essays, vignettes, short stories, all weaved together thematically. It has far more in common with Jack Kerouac than Tim LaHaye or Bodie Thoene.
As a result, his marketers were presented with a challenge. How do you sell someone like this?
Miller ended up on the shelves and the conference tour with pastors and theologians. Miller was presented to the world as an authority on the Christian life as opposed to being a witness to the Christian life. So the pastors and theologians of the world had to respond to him as such, instead of allowing his book to simply be a testimony.
Miller, of course, isn’t innocent here. He’s jumped into the fray on a variety of arguments (like his much-debated blog post on who should run the church), and he has willingly served the marketing machine’s efforts to present him as an expert. This, to me, is unfortunate because it clouds what’s most valuable about Miller’s work. It’s testimonial; or as I said earlier, he’s a witness, not an authority. Miller shows a plausible way of trusting in Jesus in a post-Christian world. For people who are drawn to the gospel and repulsed by Republicanism, Miller shows another way.
I’m not saying that he should get a free pass on the issues. I’m curious why the film isn’t explicit about the gospel (unlike the book, which talks very directly about the cross). I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t a bit of a compromise. But on the whole, I think we should address the issues at an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story and the stories around him. Descriptive, not prescriptive. Witness, not authority. I tend to believe that Miller would agree with those categories, and I’d be interested to hear him speak about it.
Without such a distinction, the evangelical world is going to freak out when they see this movie. How else would we expect them to respond to a “Christian” film featuring lesbians, atheists, adulterous youth ministers, vandalizing Christian activists, and a sexy carrot?
If it’s prescriptive, then Miller has advocated homosexuality, drug abuse, and more. If it’s descriptive, then it’s actually an encouraging message that even here, in the heart of progressive, post-Christian America, God is at work, and hope for the transformative effects of the gospel isn’t lost.