The Movie: Blue Like Jazz, directed by former Christian music artist Steve Taylor and based on Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir.
What the Critics Say:
Eleanor Barkhorn, The Atlantic:
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.
[. . .]
But more importantly, in a movie that’s supposed to depict an authentic walk of faith, it just doesn’t feel real. From what I’ve witnessed—in the Bible, in my own life, and in the lives of those around me—an encounter with God elicits a desire to share the good news, not to say sorry for it. This is something Miller himself seems to understand, or at least he did, at one point. Blue Like Jazz the book does not end with an apology. It ends with an exhortation. “I want you to know Jesus too,” Miller writes. That’s what knowing Jesus does—it makes you want other people to know him, as well. It’s a truth as old as the Bible itself, but it’s entirely absent from Blue Like Jazz the movie. Instead of “I want you to know Jesus,” we hear, “I want you to apologize for Jesus.” It’s a message that Hollywood itself could have delivered.
Jeffrey Overstreet, The Other Journal
Christians are bound to describe this story as an attack on the church. But such responses betray an inability to distinguish between “mere Christianity” and the ways in which it has been distorted into tools of control by fearful “believers.” Taylor, Pearson, and Miller haven’t come to condemn religion. Like Christ himself, they’re challenging arrogant religious leaders who have turned religion into a system of control, legalism, hypocrisy, and fear. They’re setting fire to a Christianity that serves as a security blanket, one that promises happiness and safety rather than calling us to follow Christ into the wilderness and share his sufferings. They’re calling us back to true religion, to the promises, the courage, and the integrity of Christ. And in doing so, they’re equipping us with something better than a new set of answers — they’re giving us questions, questions that will challenge us to grow in wisdom and love.
Don Miller (the character) is not running into unbelief so much as he is running from the comfort zone of American evangelical fundamentalism into what author David Dark would call “the sacredness of questioning everything.” (Look up the book by that title, and be blessed.) He’s learning to use the mind God gave him to test all things, and to find God in the world, instead of quarantining himself with fearful pretenders. Like most who have encounters with Christ, his life becomes more difficult, and the trail becomes steeper.
Isn’t that how believers become stronger? Faith, like any muscle, must be exercised.
Josh Hurst, Christianity Today:
For those who love Jesus and movies, the implications of that promise are decidedly mixed. On the plus side, much like the book it’s based upon, Blue Like Jazz is anything but a typical “Christian movie.” Besides, director Steve Taylor, a long-time rocker known for irreverent satire and his disdain of schmaltz, has rarely done anything typically “Christian.” Taylor brings this movie the kind of grit (read: off-color humor, some brutal satirizations of evangelical subculture, and even some four-letter words) that you won’t find in, say, Courageous. And he does a lot with a little, budget-wise; this film was financed largely via Kickstarter, and while the production values are not exactly high, it is nevertheless a quirky and genuinely funny indie. The acting is solid, if unremarkable, though Marshall Allman (who plays Don) deserves kudos for playing a character who is essentially a blank canvas, and making him someone we sympathize with and are engaged by.
The downside? Separating “Christian spirituality” from the fundamentals of the gospel message means, in the case of Miller’s book, an emphasis on feelings and experience, on social justice and an individual search for truth. Little traction is given to the mortification of sin, to the atoning significance of the Cross, and so forth. In the movie, it means we get a vivid portrait of where evangelical culture has gone wrong, but the alternative we’re given is a “Christian spirituality” that emphasizes all the wrong things (and pretty much excludes Christ himself).
David Roark, Christ and Pop Culture:
In a snarky promo video for Blue Like Jazz , a deadpan Donald Miller says of his film, which he and director Steve Taylor adapted from his best-selling book of the same name, “It’s not a normal Christian movie. It doesn’t have Kirk Cameron in it, and Jesus doesn’t come back.” Basically, he and Taylor have done everything in their power to convince us that Blue Like Jazz is not typical faith fare. By that, they’re trying to say it’s more than an immediately dated fixture in the church library.
The problem? It’s not. Ironically facing the same problem as nearly every other Christian movie to date,Blue Like Jazz boasts a good message—a more hip and liberal Christian message than all those films from Sherwood Pictures, of course—but a shoddy vehicle for that message. For that reason, it’s essentially another Christian movie—just a new kind of Christian movie. In fact, you could argue that, in terms of technical quality, films like Fireproof and Courageous actually better it. Sure, those films may be hokey and hackneyed, but at least they’re coherent. Blue Like Jazz fails to even be that. Uneven in story and tone, it’s a mess.
Related: Mike Cosper’s review for TGC