This is a difficult review to write. There is so much opportunity for commentary on Blue Like Jazz, a film based on the semi-autobiographical book written by Donald Miller. The movie is not a success but the themes and topics it touches on stirred up in me a need to delve deeper.
Don is on the verge of going to college. His parents are divorced. His mom is a devout Southern Baptist Christian while his dad is a hippie professor who loves jazz, lives in a trailer and enjoys the company of his much younger female students. Don is close to his mom and heavily involved at their church. He works with the youth pastor in making sure the kids are drenched in an entertaining environment sprinkled with references to Jesus. Puppet shows, junior high all-nighters filled with wacky games, Don dressing up with the “armor of God” (i.e. plastic Roman soldier gear) and slicing open a pinata. In other words, it’s your typical, modern Christian church in the US these days. Whether the theology aligns with historical Christianity is hard to say, both in the film and real life. Theology is a dirty word. Good morals, strong effort and self-affirming words trump the stuffiness of theologians.
Don is all set to go to a local Baptist college with full approval from mom and complete disapproval from dad. Reed college is the school of choice for dad and he goes so far as to get Don in without his son’s agreement. Don is dead set against his dad’s plans, especially considering this is the same man who ditched child support payments (leaving the church to provide assistance for mother and son) but now goes all out and pays for Don to go to a far off liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. The thought is absurd until the unthinkable happens. Without spoiling a pretty good reveal in the film, Don discovers that two people he deeply trusts let him down in a very big way. Life makes an abrupt turn for the college bound Christian kid. In a fit of anger he takes the offer for Reed and doesn’t look back. In what becomes one of my favorite scenes in the film, a funny looking rabbit suited man zooms across America chasing after a cartoon carrot. The moment is surreal and funny.
Once Don arrives at Reed, he has not only changed but so has the world as he knows it. The liberal school policies and post-modern wannabe students provide a plethora of strange new experiences. Co-ed bathrooms, laissez faire attitudes towards pretty much everything except absolutes, free flowing alcohol and peculiar displays of new found freedom in students dressed in various costumes confront Don at every turn. Believing in God is a big no-no. Don is fine with it since he has no attachment to the past. The future for our scorned Christian is wide open and this means attaching himself to every wave he can possibly catch.
The life on display at Reed is over the top, which is fine had it been done in more of a satirical manner like Damsels in Distress. But we’re to believe the insanity is completely normal, it’s only Don’s world that has been flipped on its head. It doesn’t quite work. The more surreal the scenes get, the better. An already solid soundtrack improves with the madness. Standouts include when someone in a bear suit steals Don’s “tall bike” (a bike frame welded onto another bike) and then throws the welded monster off a bridge into the water. There is also a scene where college students dress in robot/space themed costumes and storm a bookstore. Had it not been for the stilted dialogue the scene would’ve been near perfect. And, aside from a messy story line which tries to turn a loose narrative into a film, it’s the dialogue and delivery which hurts the most. The actors are fine but everything feels incredibly stiff, forced or both.
The transformation Don makes from good Texas Southern Baptist to Portland post-modern renegade is believable if only because it’s generally a fairly common tale. The resolution of where the transformation leaves our wandering protagonist is less believable, not because it didn’t happen (it’s based on Donald Miller’s memoir of sorts) but because what Don latches onto in the end feels just as empty as what he ran away from in Texas and as wish-washy as what he embraced in Portland. There is very little soul in the film. The last attempt to provide deep meaning falls far short, as it’s not clear what Don has come to realize. Does he realize he’s gone from one crazed culture to the next? One culture is grounded in a way of life which looks superior on the outside but is no better once the facade is lifted, while the other wears its debauchery as a badge of honor. Neither attempts to approach God. One says it embraces him and the other denies him, yet neither have room for a creator who is in control, bigger than his creation and is the one lovingly redeeming his creation on his terms, not ours.
Don wasn’t really running away from Jesus when he went to Reed college. He was running away from a Christian sub-culture which is all too prevalent today in the US in particular. Rather than preaching the Gospel which is offensive to some, nonsense to others [1 Corinthians 1:23-25] and truly good news for those who repent and believe [Mark 1:15], we as Christians have put an emphasis on being relevant, hip and cool. We no longer trust God to do what he alone does through proclamation of the Gospel. Don found little to cling to in a church which ultimately had little to offer beyond what he could get elsewhere. A therapeutic deism sadly rules the day when it comes to much of what is labeled “Christian”. God wants you to be all that you can be, kind of like the US Army. He’ll lead you on this path if you’re willing to follow. He’ll speak to you in the quietness of your heart. Have a great life, believe in God, it’s all about you and me. Jesus loves you this much (picture Jesus’ arms spread out on the cross.) Not sure what to do in life? Just think, “What would Jesus do?” Not sure what to eat? Eat what Jesus ate, silly! Not sure why you’re so unhappy and feel life is letting you down, pray more and get involved! Pick yourself up by your bootstraps. God helps those who help themselves. Sigh…
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of evidence which proves the bizarre depictions of a modern day Christian church in Blue Like Jazz are not only accurate but they pale in comparison to reality. Below I provide some embarrassing exhibits. I wish these were big exceptions to the rule, kind of like I would write off televangelists of the ’80s as being outliers of their day. Unfortunately, these examples are commonplace in numerous churches all across the USA. Don didn’t know how good he had it with the puppet shows and youth group meetings!
Exhibit A: Ed Young Jr. (a Southern Baptist mega church pastor) is like Martin Luther of the year 2012, no?
Exhibit B: Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN celebrates 10 years of being a church…with pop songs.
Exhibit C: Every Easter service should open with some flame eating.
Exhibit D: After the flame eating, every Easter service should feature AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.
Exhibit D: The Vous is a church on the cutting edge of relevancy. Nothing communicates the grace of Jesus Christ like a parody of Girls Gone Wild.
Exhibit E: Exhausting. Here is a slideshow of more Christian ridiculousness.
If what we Christians have to offer is poorly regurgitated pop culture wrapped around cliches about Christ then we’ve failed. Don was right to run far, far away from that which he came. He may not have come to any meaningful conclusion, and Blue Like Jazz may not have been a very good film, but at least Don ended up around people who weren’t going to confuse their idolatry for Christianity. That’s a start.