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‘Blue Like Jazz’ and other pressures of Christian entertainment

‘Blue Like Jazz’ and other pressures of Christian entertainment

Have you read Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz? If so, did you like it? Did you know it’s been adapted into a movie project whose funding was crowd-sourced by Christians eager to see it committed to film?

I read the book after I heard The (now) Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel of the Diocese of Olympia quote from it at a TENS conference a few years ago. Bishop Rickel, whom I then knew as Greg from Austin, talked about the quote on the first page of the book as illustrative of the Christian stewardship journey:

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing a saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.

So I read it. Liked it okay. Thought Miller was a cool guy with an interesting slant on faith who would probably be better appreciated by mainstream evangelicals than by – well, whatever it is I am. In short, I liked the opening quote just a hair better than the rest of the book.

And now I’m wondering whether I’ll have the fortitude to want to see the film, although I’m starting to see evidence of the same pressure to fund its box office as I felt among the Twitterati to donate to its Kickstarter project – by people breathlessly upholding Miller as somehow illustrating the substance of the Christian faith struggling to articulate itself and to continue to set us free in a postChristian era.

I like how Tony Jones expresses his ambivalence:

In spite of numerous invitations to see pre-screenings of the movie, I haven’t yet seen it. Many of my friends have. Some have loved it, and others have walked out because they found it to be horrible….

Now, my fellow Christians are beseeching me to see it. It’s not quite like when Christians proclaimed that The Passion was going to the be greatest evangelism opportunity since Peter’s sermon on Pentecost (Ed Young, Jr. said that). But the the pressure is on nevertheless. It seems likely, from what I’ve heard, that critics are going to pan this movie, or at least give it an overwhelming, “Meh.” Fearing this, many of my fellow Christians desperately want this movie to succeed commercially, because if it doesn’t, the thinking goes, they’ll never make another Christian movie again!

… until another film with resonances of faith makes another boatload of money. Whether these kinds of movies get made pretty much depends on the receipts, and if paying attention to Hollywood shows anything, it’s that American movie viewers can be fickle and unpredictable. But don’t buy into the logic that “Christian” films are only ever going to be made outside the main studios. If the audience is provably there to be entertained/enlightened, the products will come.

Those products will be overtly messaged to Christians with attendant marketing campaigns hitting churches. But that won’t make them documents of faith – it will simply mean that more widgets have been made, and some will perhaps be further motivated in their faith in Christ.

On the other hand, virtually nothing bearing an overtly Christian label that has come out of Hollywood has motivated me in my faith. I can think of a lot of films that were simply out there for mass consumption that helped me and my communities of faith than most any one explicitly “Christian movie.” (The Blind Side, a kind of Christian-values-driven, feel-good fest that worked for all kinds of people, being the sort of exception that proves the rule.)

And that’s why, despite the hearty endorsements by family and friends, I haven’t a stitch of interest in Fireproof or movies of that ilk, and won’t have the time for October Baby if it comes; and although I hope Don Miller does well, I will probably try to take a pass on Blue Like Jazz as well.

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If it has to see itself, or proclaim itself, as evangelism, it's missed the Faith - it's not evangelizing, just advertising a religion.

God is in everything, and everything speaks of God. If you have to write books about God, then you're missing the point.

Mark Brunson

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tgflux

"all my friends treated "Blue Like Jazz" as if it was the most important and profound expression of Christianity since CS Lewis. ... It was a land-mark book"

Somebody's been living in a really small world, and I honestly can't tell if it's you or me (which is to say I've never heard of it before. FWIW.)

JC Fisher

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Charles, having used BLJ a little in a class I taught a few years ago, I think that part that most resonated with everyone (and certainly with me) is the "confessional" scene you allude to. I hadn't thought of it like this until just now, but what the author and his friends do that night at Reed is something like Step Eight and Step Nine of the Twelve-Step recovery work.

Torey Lightcap

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Donald Schell

BBC isn't Hollywood, and "Rev." is TV rather than film, but my wife and I think it's one of the best, truest, funniest, real-life messiest pictures of a parish and a clergyperson (and his wife) that we've seen in public media. It's not available on Netflix (yet), but does seem to be available for purchase through the BBC store. Two six episode seasons out and another in the making. Real clergy consulted in a serious way making it.

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Charles Browning

Miller's "Searching for God Knows What" (his follow-up to "Blue Like Jazz") was instrumental in my faith-development and began my journey from evangelicalism to the Episcopal priesthood.

I went to an evangelical university in South Florida and all my friends treated "Blue Like Jazz" as if it was the most important and profound expression of Christianity since CS Lewis. I think that the film adaptation will serve the same function as the book, which is to reinforce/introduce particular ideas within (evangelical) Christianity. It was a land-mark book among the emerging church crowd and helped popularize the "religion-free" Christianity that was brought into the mainstream recently thanks to YouTube. So, for good or bad, if BLJ is popular, we'll have to have those conversations (again).

There's a part of the book that will be in the movie (based on trailers I've seen) that tended to really resonate with folks. At one point, while Don was at Reed College, he and some friends built confession booths during a drug-fueled, campus-wide party. But instead of taking confessions, they confessed Christianity's sins (the Crusades and whatnot) to anyone who'd enter the booth.

For a lot of folks I know, this part was the most poignant scene in the book. Do we need to confess our sins to a world that is effected by them? Is this cathartic to a world burned-out on Christianity? To us as Christians? Or is it a sort of smoke-screen, apologizing for sins committed centuries ago? Or sins committed by other people?

To be sure, this movie is being treated like no other "Christian movie" before it. I think it will be worthwhile for us to see it, if for no other reason than it has the potential to raise questions we might have to deal with.

Do I think it will be an effective evangelism tool? Probably not. But it will possibly cause folks in our churches to ask questions of the Church in general that we've not had to answer before...

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