Despite the fact that nearly the entire plot of Blue Like Jazz is preoccupied with its main character’s loss and eventual recovery of his Christian faith, its director, Steve Taylor, insists that it is not a Christian movie. In distinguishing Blue Like Jazz—based on Donald Miller’s best-selling semi-autobiographical novel—from Christian films, Taylor has in mind overtly religious films such as Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous. Unlike these films, Blue Like Jazz contains more humor, is less intent on evangelization, and makes an attempt at engaging secular culture. In another, less welcome way, in terms of box office receipts, Blue Like Jazz has also distinguished itself from explicitly Christian films. Whereas these films have seen long and lucrative runs in theaters, Blue Like Jazz nearly disappeared after a modest opening weekend. Part of the problem with Blue Like Jazz is that it is not complex or subtle enough to appeal to a secular audience, so it ends up appealing to a sub-sub-culture, liberal Christians disaffected from what they take to be the constraints of Southern Evangelicalism.
Blue Like Jazz is the coming of age story of Donald Miller, a smart but sheltered Texas Southern Baptist, who becomes disillusioned with his faith after he discovers that his own mother is having an affair with his church’s married youth minister. Prodded by his secular father, who supplies him with a collection of jazz albums, the most notable of which is John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, he heads off to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a bastion of academic liberalism. Surrounded by stridently secular students, Miller casts aside his Christian commitment and becomes immersed in a culture that celebrates all the things Miller’s boyhood church warned him against.
The gap between Miller’s former and new life comes to the fore late in the film and resolves itself with a confession of faith that involves mostly apologies for how Christians have behaved. Some Christian critics have objected that while Texas-style Christianity comes under severe criticism in the film, the liberalism at Reed does not receive anything like the same treatment. That’s true in a way; for example, liberalism is not subjected to the sort of mockery that Miller bestows upon the liturgical kitsch of the church of his youth. An early scene in which a pastor uses a prop (a piñata in the form of a cross) to make a point about Jesus is amusing. He has the kids come up and gather round the altar, beneath the piñata; when it shatters, candy comes flowing out. He draws out the lesson for the children: just as the piñata had to be broken so that the kids could get the candy, so Jesus had to be broken for us to receive his blessings.
Although there is some truth to critics’ objections, what is striking about the film is its isomorphic depiction of Texas religion and Northwest liberalism. In a comical way, Miller juxtaposes Christian bumper stickers with liberal bumper stickers. Both groups enthusiastically paste stickers all over their cars as a reflection of an in-your-face effort at evangelization. One Texas bumper sticker asks, “Are you following Jesus this close?” and another observes, “Stop, Drop, and Roll Won’t Work in Hell.” But the liberals are as devout and dogmatic as the Christians they disdain. One car at Reed sports the quip, “Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers” and another mocks “I Found Jesus, Drunk in my Backseat.” Clichés supporting environmentalism and alternative lifestyles abound: “Gashole” is scribbled in the dirty window of an old, gas-guzzling car.
Miller-the-author’s attention to these rival sound bites, comfortably pronounced in communities utterly immune to self-criticism, is astute and humorous. Yet, Miller-the-character is not nearly so witty or self-aware. The film wants to be all about tension and resolution. But the main character is all surface. For most of the film he seems a sort of Zelig-like character, settling unobtrusively into whatever environment he happens to find himself. Miller’s early faith seems mainly a matter of following the conventions of his local church. Of course that is shattered when he finds himself in a very different sort of community. So he learns to join the crowd in making moderately clever put-downs of religion. At one point, he glibly and falsely tells other students, “My dad’s partner is in rehab.” As depicted in the film, Reed is the paradigm of the university as envisaged by populist right-wing Christians—a place of unrelenting animosity toward God, tradition, and the South. “Get in the closet, Baptist boy,” a lesbian girl tells him. He claims he’s floating in a sea of individuality and while that may be true on the level of personality, Miller’s Reed is a sea of intellectual uniformity.
In one sense, Miller does at Reed what he did in church: he fits in. He admits as much toward the end when he confides in another student that he hid his faith because he wanted to be liked. Miller wants to widen the circle of likability, to include liberals. But when he proceeds to confess that he’s tired of being a hypocrite and a coward, the testimony rings a bit hollow. Miller has shown no signs of internal conflict or deep struggle. The period of his play-acting at Reed comes off as gentle farce and it is, in its way, entertaining. But it is not the set-up for tragic tension.
What is also striking about the film is how utterly absent from Miller’s Reed is the notion of college as an arena of the serious exploration of ideas. Moving from the Baptist world of Texas to the liberal, even atheistic, world of Reed does force Miller to confront opinions alien to his initial views. But these are articulated as nothing more than slogans. In the seminar discussion of Homer, an author in Reed’s famous core curriculum, students do indeed engage in a lively exchange. But they have precious little to say about the book itself and the professor seems quite content to let the students go around the room opining their views of religion and politics. There is disagreement here but it’s not informed by the assigned text or by much of anything other than personal testimony. In this respect, Reed is the mirror image of personality-drenched Christianity, rooted in individual testimony, that Miller left behind in Texas.
The repeated allusions to jazz and, in particular, to John Coltrane’s Love Supreme do nothing to enhance the complexity of the film. Indeed, Miller seems to spend most of the film supposing that this album, the greatest religious jazz album ever made, represents secular complexity, despite the fact that its religious nature is palpable in the very title of the album and even more explicit in the sub-titles of its four parts: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.”
The filmmakers see the need for something more than what passes as Christian film these days, yet it is not clear that films such as Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous deserve utter dismissal. Their popularity indicates a longing among the movie-going public for something more and other than what mainstream Hollywood provides in the way of entertainment. It is true that these films are often artistically crude, and not just in the sense that their low budgets preclude the possibility of expensive sets, sophisticated camera work, and top-notch editing. The story lines themselves are flat and predictable, with plots that seem less the result of genuine imaginative vision than they are extended illustrations of Christian preaching. Even as they play upon emotions in saccharine ways, they forget that the peculiar role of art, particularly in a visual medium like film, is to move by showing, not just by saying. It sometimes seems as if Christian filmmakers think that if they simply invoke Jesus endlessly and weave that into a story, they have done their job.
Miller knows this is not enough. He knows that art needs humor. He also understands that Christian art must engage, encompass, and transform rival worldviews and alternate artistic visions. But, like his Christian counterparts, he suffers from impoverished theological and artistic sources. The film begins with a caricature of the Gospel, moves on to the farcical liberalism of an elite university, and ends by proposing a kind of mediation. The result for the film is the opposite of what Miller had hoped. Instead of reaching a wider audience, the film seems to have reached only a sub-culture of a sub-culture. Blue Like Jazz is not nearly blue enough and it’s actually nothing like jazz.