Before the theatrical version of Blue Like Jazz ran a trailer for another movie about religion called The Perfect Family. A Kathleen Turner vehicle, The Perfect Family is about a self-righteous woman up for “Catholic Woman of the Year” at her local parish. Willing to stop at nothing for the coveted title, she browbeats her entire family (alcoholic husband, philandering son, homosexual daughter) into trying to be just what the title suggests: perfect. Or at least fake it long enough to pull the wool over the eyes of the church elders. One particular scene in the trailer stands out, in which Turner’s character chastises her daughter, played by Emily Deschanel:
“You’re living in sin!” Turner shouts.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t have to think! I’m a Catholic!”
The line is meant to be funny, but it could easily be the tagline for the way much of mainstream America views much of religious faith. In recent years, Christians have been portrayed in films like Saved and Easy A as a bunch of fundamentalist wackos who proclaim Jesus’ love with their lips but who are in reality much more hateful and hypocritical than their non-churched counterparts. On the flipside of the equation lies the Christian movie industry, in which squeaky-clean storylines with straightforward moral dilemmas exalt the name of Christ but have little to do with a faith lived “in the trenches” – that is, a faith that sustains through the real-world complexities of daily life.
Blue Like Jazz is an anomaly, because it attempts to straddle this ever-widening line between cynicism and optimism, the secular and the divine. It is a movie by Christians about Christians: writer Donald Miller, director Steve Taylor, and cinematographer Ben Pearson are all believers and co-wrote the screenplay together. It’s not pandering, nor preachy. There are no angels, burning bushes, or other signs from God. It doesn’t have the religious fervor of, say, The Passion of the Christ, and yet it treats religion much more seriously than Bruce Almighty. But can it be called a “Christian” film?
Come to that, what, exactly, makes a film a Christian film? A movie directed by Christians? Does it have to try to convert you to its way of thinking? Or can it simply be a good story with an undertone of Christian themes?
Based (very loosely) on a best-selling collection of essays by Miller, Blue Like Jazz is the story of 19-year-old Don’s escape from his evangelical Texas upbringing into the wider world of undergraduate liberalism. In the opening minutes of the film Don turns down a co-worker’s offer to hang out because of a “thing at church”, volunteering at an overnight youth group sleepover. On the morning of Don’s departure for Bible College, he stands in front of his congregation in a Roman centurion get-up and quotes the apostle Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.”
But Don’s father, a man he calls “the hobo” and who lives out of a trailer in the middle of nowhere, decries his son’s sheltered existence. “You only believe that stuff because you’re afraid to hang out with people who don’t,” he says before handing Don an acceptance letter from Reed college in Portland. Reed is famous for its magnanimous embrace of all backgrounds, sexual orientations, and beliefs (except, of course, Christianity). Don bristles at first, but after becoming fed up with the hypocrisy of his own church (namely by uncovering an affair between his mother and the church’s youth pastor), he decides to put his father’s accusation to the test.
At Reed, Don is a world away from everything he knows. Pretty soon after enrolling he befriends Lauryn, a lesbian who calls him “Baptist Boy” and tells him that his theological outlook is fine to have on his own but that he better get “back in the closet” if he wants to fit in on campus. It doesn’t take long for Don to follow her advice and embrace life at Reed the way other students do: with drugs, drinking and chasing girls. He even begins to ridicule others who profess faith in a higher power.
The one person in Don’s life who seems different than all the rest is Penny, a smart and pretty girl who catches Don’s eye on his first day. Penny became a Christian after reading through the Bible in a Lit class and deciding that she “really liked Jesus.” She goes to church near campus, and it is only after seeing how genuine her convictions are despite having baggage similar to his that Don is able to navigate his own issues about God. “Sometimes you have to watch someone else love something before you can love it yourself,” he says in one of the films finer truisms.
So, back to the question at hand: is it fair to dub it a “Christian” film? All in all, Blue Like Jazz is a surprisingly refreshing and grown-up attempt at sharing the realities of holding religious beliefs in a society that is largely antagonistic to your views. But Don’s narrative is less about coming to faith than it is about coming of age, and the film seems more interested in how one navigates the complicated waters of freshman year far from home than it does in dissecting the consequences of believing in something you can’t prove is ‘real.
Towards the end, Don is finally given the chance to share his faith with one of his more belligerent anti-church friends. “There’s some things you don’t know about me,” he begins, drawing on the irony of his “coming out” as a Christian to a campus that embraces all kinds of sexual freedom. “I’ve been trying to run away from God all year, but… I can’t. It’s like he’s following me around.”
The statement comes out of left field, because since leaving home Don has hardly talked about God at all. He never cracks open a Bible, attends church only to throw things at the pulpit, and spends a few long bus rides through rain-soaked Portland staring at posters that read “Does God Exist?” “If you’re having an existential crisis, Portland in winter can’t be beat,” Don’s voiceover says. By the time the end of the movie comes, it’s more believable that he’d renounce his faith than reconcile to it. The reason for this is that, while the film is daring, even being so bold as to mention Jesus by name a few times, the larger issues of Christianity – like who Jesus is, the struggle between sin and salvation – are watered down, if they are even addressed at all.
To the extent that church life is portrayed on screen, the mockery is as sharp as anything mainstream Hollywood could produce. One scene shows Kenny, the philandering youth pastor, speaking to the kids on Sunday morning. A piñata in the shape of a crucifix descends from the ceiling, and when it bursts open, out fall little cups of communion juice instead of candy. It’s like the filmmakers are winking at the audience, saying, “See? We get it. We know how ridiculous Christians can be too,” as if there’s some big joke they want us to know they’re in on. There’s nothing wrong with that – everyone can benefit from some self-inflicted satire now and again. But in trying to make Blue Like Jazz’s Christian sensibilities more palatable to non-Christian crowds, Jesus becomes less the moral of the story and more of an afterthought; a way for the filmmakers to tell Don’s story rather than the reason they’re telling the story in the first place.
C.S. Lewis once said “Aim at heaven and you get earth ‘thrown in,’ aim at earth and you get neither.” Lewis and his contemporary J.R.R Tolkien are both examples of authors whose works are master classes in how to blend Christian virtues with great feats of storytelling. Free from the burden of having to appeal to both secular and religious audiences, and unencumbered by the need to “share Jesus” outright in their stories, Lewis and Tolkien both understood that great art comes out of an interpretation of your beliefs, not necessarily an expression of them. In their worlds, there’s no such thing as a “Christian” vs. a “non-Christian” story, because for them, their faith makes no distinction, either.