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REVIEW: Though offensive, ‘Blue Like Jazz’ creates conversations about faith

Donald Miller sets out to make a Christian movie different from the ones currently breaking box office records, namely “Fireproof” and “Courageous.”
He succeeds.
“Blue Like Jazz,” which premieres April 13, is based roughly on Miller’s same-named, semi-autobiographical bestseller from 2003.
“This was my story of walking away from faith and then coming back to faith in a very different way,” Miller said at a screening of the film in Oklahoma City.
“I wanted this story to be a real depiction of the struggle between the world and God, love and sex, as well as faith and doubt,” he said. “We’re not encouraging disobedience, but I didn’t want to water down sin, either.”
He doesn’t.
The film has a well-earned PG-13 rating. There’s a lot of foul language, plus a scene depicting a college prank that involves an oversized prophylactic and a church steeple.
This is a Christian movie that will offend a lot of Christians.
Miller’s book, subtitled “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” struck a chord with many, particularly those who came of age in the 80s and 90s — as Miller did. The book spent more than 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and gave voice to Christians who liked spirituality, but not religion.
The movie’s story differs some from the book. In the words of Miller, who took questions during a screening in Oklahoma City, the movie seeks to affect culture and open up a conversation.
One way Miller sets the movie apart from others in the Christian genre is by hiring accomplished actors, such as Marshall Sawyer, Claire Holt and Tania Raymonde, who have had significant roles in the TV shows “Prison Break,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “Lost.” Each does an exceptional job in their role. Only two members of the cast were believers, according to Miller.
The film already has stirred up controversy in the emerging Christian film industry, said director Steve Taylor, who also spoke at the screening.
“There’s a certain church in Georgia that created a movie called ‘Fireproof,'” Taylor said. “For some reason, they have said that if you work with “Blue Like Jazz,” you can’t work with that church’s next movie. I just don’t understand that.”
As the film opens, Miller’s character, played by Marshall Allman, is a leader in his Baptist church’s youth group and is preparing to attend a Christian university in the fall.
His dad, who walked out on the family early in Miller’s life, enrolls Miller at Reed College in Portland, Ore., referred to in the film as the most godless campus in America. His dad, a jazz aficionado, wants Miller to learn to be a great writer — and to quit being a part of a religion that, in his opinion, tells people how to think.
Miller has no intention of going to Reed College but changes his mind after discovering his churchgoing mom has been rather hypocritical in her life. In anger, Miller jumps in his car and drives from Houston to Portland. The rest of the film documents Miller’s change from a closeted Christian to a self-absorbed, faithless party-goer. By the film’s end, he has transformed back to a believer — although a changed one — made clear in the movie’s most powerful, yet muted, final scene.
For those who read the book, regularly read Relevant magazine and kickstarter.com, which was instrumental in the film’s production, “Blue Like Jazz” will resonate.
The film has more extremes in character stories than perhaps is believable — one of the most glaring differences between the movie and the book. However, “Blue Like Jazz” does work to create conversations with non-Christians about God.
As a professor at a private Christian university, I have observed a generation gap among Christians regarding cursing, drinking and a dissatisfaction with the mixing of faith and politics in this country. “Blue Like Jazz” has a lot of cursing and drinking. This is intentional, and probably not that uncomfortable for the younger audiences likely to enjoy the film. These individuals, often under the age of 30, are more interested in social justice than clean language.
The movie highlights hypocritical behavior by Christians that often turns people off to God while also demonstrating how those pushing God out of their lives are constantly seeking ways to fill a void they can’t quite explain.
By the end of the film, Miller comes to love his faith by watching it transform the life of one of his friends — something he never expected to see at Reed College.
Regardless of your opinion of the book or the film, recognizing the impact our behavior has on those around us is a lesson that more Christians should take to heart.
After seeing the movie, I can understand why some Christians won’t like “Blue Like Jazz,” especially if the church steeple scene is too offensive.
However, Miller feels people are missing the point by focusing too much on the accurate representations of sin in the film.
“That scene was pretty important because that church welcomes the main character when he returns to faith,” Miller said. “That church had no problem turning the other cheek. That’s still a pretty powerful message to the world.”
JOSHUA WATSON teaches communication at Oklahoma Christian University while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Oklahoma. He attends the Edmond Church of Christ.

  • Feedback
    I know my daughter will see this film. She is in the position of many Christians in her generation, in the world but not of it, hurting for friends in difficult situations because of their poor choices. But she does not forsake them; she loves them. My book, “Non-Prophet Murders” is an over-the-top, fictionalized version of some of her experiences.
    Becky Wooley
    Chattanooga, TN
    April, 19 2012

    Reed College really is a godless place, so the offensive scenes in the movie are probably accurate. But Don and his friends somehow held onto Christ anyway. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but look forward to it.
    Gina Shipley
    formerly Imago Dei Community
    Austin, TX
    April, 19 2012

    I love Don Miller’s work and have read all but his latest work–BLJ brought me closer to connecting with my kids than any other books besides C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkein. I can’t wait to see the movie and hope “Through Painted Deserts” is next . . .
    Jon Box
    Fairfax Church of Christ
    Fairfax, VA
    April, 19 2012

    I was part of Kickstarter and have been following the development of this movie for the past year. Was able to see the screening premiere last month. This book changed the way I was thinking about how Christians look at those ‘in sin’ and how we treat them. Loved the movie and praying that many will see its relevance. Don says these words in an interview: ” the truth of who God is and who Jesus is is relevant in any circumstance or any context”. Watch the movie!!
    Marilyn Holland
    The Hills
    Fort Worth, TX
    April, 13 2012

    Thanks for the informative review. I loved the book… I hope the film measures up.
    Jeff Slater
    Ashland Church of Christ
    Ashland, Ohio
    April, 13 2012

    We listened to the audio book BLJ and loved it. We saw a test screening early in 2012. We will see it in the theaters, too. The attraction and benefit of BLJ for us is that we experienced the story of people from different backgrounds as they grew in their appreciation for Jesus. It also gave us some insight into the spiritual environment that our kids have experienced. We are in our mid-forties and serving to strengthen the marriage relationships of people of all ages and backgrounds. BLJ — the book and what we saw at the test screening — empowered us to have some empathy for those who didn’t grow up with our 20th Century Bible-belt background; and to address their questions about Jesus with better understanding.
    Richard May
    Oklahoma City/Yukon
    Yukon, OK
    April, 13 2012

    Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, as well as, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years had huge spiritual impact on me. I find Miller to be a deep thinker, an excellent writer, and quite unafraid of embracing difficult questions about Christian faith in today’s culture. Many cannot blindly accept faith in Jesus and instead day after day ask heart wrenching questions about what being a true follower of Christ means. Living in that uncomfortable dissonance is not a bad nor sinful place to be. Rather, it allows one to be fully aware of their personal commitment to Christ and not simply engage or rely on group-think mentality.
    Christians need to stop attending church like it is a country club and start personally engaging the world as Christ did.
    Livonia Church of Christ
    Livonia, MI
    April, 13 2012

    Thanks for the review. The previews look great. I have enjoyed the actors’ work in other shows. I look forward to seeing Blue Like Jazz and hope it stirs lots of conversations about God. I appreciate that the review was not reactionary.
    John Dobbs
    Forsythe Church of Christ
    Monroe, LA
    April, 13 2012

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