Blue Like Jazz: The Anti-Christianity Christian Film

by Gerardo Marti

The film Blue Like Jazz premieres nationwide next week on April 13th, a film based on the New York Times bestselling memoir by Donald Miller. True to the spirit of the book, which was subtitled, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” the film includes swear words, drinking, a lesbian character, and is open about the hypocrisy found in the Christian church. The adaptation is fun, poignant, and ultimately religious—and that’s what makes this new film so interesting.

Don Miller is one of the most prominent representatives of a messier modern Christianity, an open and more humanistic orientation toward being a follower of Jesus that avoids a distant “holier-than-thou” stance and relativizes the practices of the modern church. It makes any film based on the book a type of Christian film—more specifically, this new film, featuring an evangelical as the hero, is a new type of “Anti-Christianity” Christian film.

When the book Blue Like Jazz appeared in 2003, it was banned from many conservative Christian bookstores. Not only did it shun a straight-laced image of the faith, it also avoided more strident remarks on the evils of the world, refused to idealize conversion or discipleship, and conveyed stories that were far from the sentimental Sunday School portraits that would have won over the “family-friendly” crowd. Conservative Christians concluded the book did not represent orthodox Christian theology. To top it all off, the book seemed to espouse a more liberal political agenda.

Six years later, a film based on the book arrives—featuring a trailer with a voiceover that says, “I’m ashamed of Jesus”—and a discussion emerges on whether this is a “Christian” film or not.

Conservative Christians have tried to affect the moral content of films through boycotting, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the gay-themed Priest (1994), and the irreverent comedy Dogma (1999), but boycotting has fallen out of favor. Now the strategy is patronage. Patronage is the active support of films that are morally acceptable, and it is a shrewd strategy that addresses what is most important to movie studios: financial profit. The strategy of patronage succeeded in promoting films like The Omega Code (1999), Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), the adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), the retelling of the Christmas story in The Nativity (2006).

More on this dynamic can be found in my book Hollywood Faith. Some filmmakers believe “Christian” film should only be made by Christians and for explicitly Christian purposes. Only Christian films should be supported. But the world of Anti-Hollywood “Christian” filmmaking is a strikingly political one defined by a fairly tight orthodoxy. Correctness in doctrine and lifestyle are all-important in this realm. Should young children see it? Does it represent a “biblical” understanding of truth? Will “non-believers” be influenced toward the faith? Behind the designation of a properly Christian film is whether conservative churches endorse the film and whether Christian retailers will eventually sell it.

“Christian” filmmakers also struggle to attract the same financing and talent as major Hollywood studios. Low budgets and a tight ideology have soured the label “Christian” film to mean a “sloppy” film, a “cheesy” film, and one that is more interested in spouting a one dimensional propaganda in presenting a gospel message instead of telling a good story.

No surprise then that the lack of strict orthodoxy draws critics from the “Christian” realm for Miller’s new film. Rebecca Cusey writes that there is a virtual “Christian fatwa” against the film. As Paul O’Donnell writes, the film allows for more nuance in understanding evangelicalism, one that is in conversation with forms of secularism and eschews any tone of moral superiority. This is nothing like either Fireproof (2008) or Courageous (2011) which sought to encourage the faithful. Instead, Blue Like Jazz fails to fall into this recent genre of “Christian” film—to the great satisfaction of Don Miller and director Steve Taylor. The film addresses spiritual struggles in a forthright manner, one that is attuned to the complicated, cosmopolitan, and fiercely egoistic society we live in today.

The basic belief guiding the filmmakers of Blue Like Jazz is whoever controls the media controls the culture. If they are to engage with American culture, they must engage the entertainment industry because movies are considered to be the most important medium for shaping values in society. Alex Field in his book The Hollywood Project writes, “the truth is that every day, films are changing people’s minds, stirring up controversy, unearthing compassion for various causes, and inspiring people to make big decisions that ultimately change their lives.”

Filmmakers like Miller are seeking a different type of status: acceptance by mainstream audience. Miller is quoted as saying, “movies about the faith struggle that millions of Americans deal with don’t have to be cheesy.” Even more, such films “can compete with other films at the box office.” Resisting a fundamentalist segregation, Miller wants to attract people regardless of their faith commitments. They went to venues like the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, to find them.

Ralph Winter is another prominent Christian producer and an active member of his Los Angeles Presbyterian church with an impressive string of credits including four of the Star Trek films, all three of the X-Men films, both Fantastic Four films, and a modern remake of Planet of the Apes. Although Winter struggled with whether he could work in the industry and be a loyal follower of God, he is now a prominent role model for many Hollywood Christian hopefuls. Blue Like Jazz seeks to be associated with this kind of quality filmmaking.

So: Is the film merely Don Miller’s personal story put on the screen? Likely not. So many people resonate with Don Miller and his story (and his subsequent speaking and his books) that the film may well be capturing a more recent type of religious orientation within evangelical Christianity today, one that is being legitimated by his film. And one that is threatening to some conservatives.

And the ability to portray this “Anti-Christianity” Christian could spur the production of even more creative work that puts religion and social change into a broader conversation.

In the era of Facebook, just what are congregations for?

What are congregations for? It’s a simple question at face value, but I think the answer to it is becoming less and less obvious in the West. You could reply with something like, “They’re for collective worship, as they have always been,” and quote me Hebrews 10:25 and be on your merry way to the next blog. But you’ll have oversimplified it and overlooked all the other things that people often hope or wish for, or benefit from, in a congregation. The frenzy of “church shopping” suggests people either don’t know what they want in a congregation, or else they don’t know what congregations are for.

Christian congregations do more than just get together to (produce) worship, obviously. Theoretically, people in congregations also socialize, form friendships, learn (via small groups or classes), support each other, and bear burdens and celebrate joys. Congregations often contain particular people that you want to (or hope your children) emulate or model, too.

But you don’t have to go to church to find this stuff. According to new nationally-representative data on 18-39-year-old Americans, however, 26 percent of men and 36 percent of women spend at least an hour a day using social networking. (That’s more than the share of Americans who spend an hour once a week in religious services.) So if churchgoing was once in part about social interaction with like-minded people, then very many people, including Christians, are getting plenty of that online today. In other words, people don’t need congregations for socialization as much as they might once have, because they can (and plenty do) get that online. Sure, virtual communities are different, but for many it’s close enough, and for some people I know it’s largely replaced the sociality of congregational life.

Facebook in particular seems particularly adept at fostering a mediated (although IMHO pathetic) form of social support: if you post something difficult about your life or circumstances, flocks of people seem to come out of the woodwork to post nice things in order to make you feel better. But caring classically involved a physical reality, so long as it was possible to be present. And yet plenty of people, [Read more...]

Pope Benedict in Cuba: There is No Fatherland Without Virtue

   In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana, Wednesday, March 28, 2012.   Part 1 in a seriesClick here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

Perhaps by now you have seen one of these images of two ideological opposites, Pope Benedict XVI and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who met for 30 minutes at the end of the Pope’s visit to Cuba in March. If you don’t know the history of Cuban communism or the main themes of Benedict’s writings on liberty, reason and truth, you may have missed the significance of his words to the Cuban people. For example, Benedict’s profound statement “No hay patria sin virtud (“there is no authentic fatherland without virtue”) seemed to be a play on the Cuban slogan “patria o muerte” (fatherland or death). As I’ve written before about the contradictions of Cuban communism, there is nothing virtuous in denying people liberty in order to achieve a real or supposed collective well being.

As a college student with great interest in development in Latin America, I made my first trip to Cuba (my mother’s homeland) in 1994. From 1994-2006, I traveled to Cuba 7 times. (In case you are wondering, although traveling to Cuba for tourism or business is prohibited, travel for Cuban-Americans like myself to the island is not prohibited by US law). During my many trips, I became close friends with a group of young Cubans in Santiago who are very active in the Catholic Church. This March, the Pope first visited Santiago. One friend in Santiago, an active Catholic and a member of the political group Christian Liberation Movement, who I will call Rodrigo, wrote to me,

“I’m exhausted but seeing the Pope has renewed my spirit. I was at the Mass and at his pilgrimage to Our Lady of Charity. His words words of hope echoed with the heart of all Cubans. It’s hard to express what is is like to have him so near; you can see goodness and purity incarnate in a human being.”

Watching Pope Benedict celebrate Mass on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012, I was struck by several themes in his homily, all themes of his extensive writings, but which take on particular significance in Cuba. Those themes are: trust in God, truth, reason, religious freedom, and reconciliation. The text of the homily can be read in Spanish or English on the Vatican’s website, and if you speak Spanish, I strongly encourage you to listen to the Vatican’s video recording of the homily to hear how Benedict emphasizes words like authentic liberty and the innate desire to search for truth.

Referring to the first reading from Daniel 3:32, Pope Benedict said, “Truly, God never abandons his children, he never forgets them.” One of the worst elements of the Cuban revolution has been how it has isolated people from their families, their church and the outside world. In the name of a putative national community, in other words, they have destroyed many actual communities. I have met many people in Cuba who feel abandoned–abandoned by their family who left Cuba never to return, abandoned by the church which was decimated after the 1959 revolution, and abandoned by all the people in the world who look the other way as their suffering continues.

As the deacon chanted the Gospel in Spanish, I thought of Rodrigo, who wrote me the above words. The Gospel  reading (from John, Chapter Eight) recounts Jesus discussing the nature of the truth with the Pharisees. This back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees reminded me of Rodrigo who had numerous encounters with Cuban police about his political activity. Those who have called for political change in Cuba are often dismissed as imperialists, trying to impose Western or American ideals. But the Christian Liberation Movement can’t be charged with imperialism, as its purpose is to educate the Cuban people about their current constitution and ask the Cuban government why it doesn’t follow its own laws. Where does the Cuban Constitution say it’s prohibited to read certain books? Where does it justify Cubans’ inability to travel outside of Cuba? And how does Cuban law decide that those who emigrate elsewhere become “desertores” (deserters), more commonly called “gusanos” (worms) or “vendepatrias” (traitors to the fatherland)?

Benedict’s words help explain why many of the most vocal political dissidents in Cuba, like Rodrigo, also are practicing Catholics. As Benedict explained, “The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom.” Those Cubans like Rodrigo who have embraced the Catholic faith despite the innumerable impediments and penalties also yearn for greater political and economic freedom. Although Pope Benedict read in clear Spanish from prepared remarks, he slowed considerably on the word “authentic” before freedom. Why? Because Cubans are told all the time they have freedom. But what kind of freedom is it? Freedom to go to school for free? Freedom to visit the doctor at no charge? As a Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, told me, health and education are means to the end of freedom, but those means lose their connection to authentic freedom if people are denied basic freedoms like reading newspapers and the internet. What kind of religious freedom is it that won’t let the church assist  in education or taking care of the sick, activities which Benedict later made clear are part of the essential mission of the church and and an essential (Benedict’s emphasis) part of religious liberty?

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Benedict further explained, “The truth which stands above humanity is an unavoidable condition for attaining freedom, since in it we discover the foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person. This ethical patrimony can bring together different cultures, peoples and religions, authorities and citizens, citizens among themselves, and believers in Christ and non-believers. Christianity, in highlighting those values which sustain ethics, does not impose, but rather proposes Christ’s invitation to know the truth which sets us free. The believer is called to offer that truth to his contemporaries, as did the Lord, even before the ominous shadow of rejection and the Cross. The personal encounter with the one who is Truth in person compels us to share this treasure with others, especially by our witness. Dear friends, do not hesitate to follow Jesus Christ. In him we find the truth about God and about mankind. He helps us to overcome our selfishness, to rise above our vain struggles and to conquer all that oppresses us. The one who does evil, who sins, becomes its slave and will never attain freedom (cf. Jn 8:34). Only by renouncing hatred and our hard and blind hearts will we be free and a new life will well up in us.”

What does this authentic search for freedom, this desire to share one’s faith look like? Benedict closed his homily by recalling the exemplary life and work of Father Felix Varela, born at the end of the 18th century in Cuba and renowned for his work in education and human rights.

Benedict explained how “Father Varela offers us a path to a true transformation of society: to form virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation, for this transformation depends on the spiritual, in as much as “there is no authentic (Benedict’s emphasis) fatherland without virtue” (Letters to Elpidio, Letter 6, Madrid 1836, 220). Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.”

My friend Rodrigo suffered great persecution going door to door getting signatures for the Varela Project, inspired by Father Felix Varela’s legacy, which asked the Cuban government to follow its own promises of human rights for his people. Rodrigo’s backpack containing signatures for the Varela Project was confiscated, and his mother-in-law was harassed until he moved out with his wife and three children to protect her. When I met Rodrigo, many of his friends from the Christian Liberation Movement were in jail or exiled. But he won’t stop proclaiming the truth–both in his work teaching the Catholic faith in the parishes and mountain communities around Santiago and in proclaiming his right to economic and political liberty.

Although I haven’t seen Rodrigo since 2006, we have maintained contact through occasional emails and a mutual friends who visit Cuba. Unable to work for the government (the sole employer in Cuba until very recently) because of his known political opposition, Rodrigo asked me to send him a professional camera so he can try to make money through photography. When the Cuban government announced last year it would let the Catholic Church train small-scale entrepreneurs and give them micro-loans, we connected Rodrigo to that program. In his email to me last week, Rodrigo promised to send me pictures of the Pope’s visit. After the Pope’s departure the Cuban government announced that Good Friday will be a holiday for the first time since the 50-year old revolution.

These baby steps towards religious and economic freedom go a long way towards opening spaces for people like Rodrigo to live their aspirations to authentic freedom. As I could tell from Rodrigo’s hopeful email, the Pope’s visit may not change everything overnight, but his visit reminds him that God does not abandon his people. And Rodrigo’s struggle for truth remind us that the Cuban people will not abandon their hope for greater changes. Those changes, Benedict concluded in his homily, must be based on truth, not “tinieblas de error” (the darkness of error), and without rancor.

Benedict’s meeting with Fidel Castro by no means indicates agreement between the two on most issues, but in extending his hand to the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Benedict was putting into practice his own advice to “respond to evil with good.”  His visit and his wise words are all examples of proposing the truth to undo error and treating one’s ideological opposite with humanity, not rancor. Father Felix Varela, Pope Benedict XVI, and Rodrigo are all tough examples to follow, but they inspire my own hope for a free and virtuous Cuba–the virtuous “fatherland” that so many dear friends on the island and those forced into exile have been longing for during the last 50 years.

Trayvon Martin and the implicit prejudice of faith

By now many readers of this blog are probably at least slightly aware of the Trayvon Martin killing. As the news reports continue to come in, certain characteristics of the incident remain stable: George Zimmerman, a 20-something half-white, half-Latino neighborhood watch member in the gated community of Sanford, FL, identified Trayvon, a 17-year-old unarmed African American teenager who was visiting relatives in the same community. Zimmerman put a bullet in him after calling police (who told him not to pursue Trayvon) and reporting Trayvon as a suspicious-looking individual. Some disagreement is now in the newsfeed over whether there was physical conflict or not between Zimmerman and Martin, but it’s clear that most of the organized voices have sided with Trayvon’s family who are asking for justice. Part of the complication here is that Zimmerman has not been arrested for this shooting. And part of the defense for Zimmerman’s innocence rests on responding to Trayvon’s manner of dress, particularly donning a hoodie with the hood covering his head. This has sparked national-level concern over well-worn territory that we’re familiar with: was Trayvon killed because Zimmerman made an association between racial blackness and criminal behavior when he saw Trayvon with his hood covering his head? Could racism have somehow played a subtle or overt role in Zimmerman’s decision to pull that trigger? If so, our President’s comment that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon has a sad and chilling ring; we still harbor a reflexive animosity toward black Americans.  In a split second a young teen’s life is lost, a family is forever changed, and those of us who identify as black are left wondering if this can happen again, especially if one is a young man[Read more...]

Religion and Class: From Harvard to the Quick Stop

by John Schmalzbauer, Missouri State University

Conservatives have long extolled the virtues of the American working class. In an oft-repeated statement, William F. Buckley said he would rather “entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” The author of God and Man at Yale, Buckley saw higher education as a threat to religious faith. Forced to choose between Harvard Yard and South Boston, he chose Southie.

Had Buckley lived long enough to read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, he might have reconsidered his choice.  More than any other conservative tome, it challenges the myth of proletarian piety. Chronicling the decline of marriage, work, and church attendance among blue collar whites, it presents an American working class that looks more like Jay and Silent Bob than Ralph Kramden (Jay and Silent Bob are recurring characters in the films of director Kevin Smith, including a 1994 feature set in a New Jersey convenience store. Despite Buckley’s support for drug legalization, it’s hard to imagine him patronizing the Quick Stop).

Throughout the book, Murray compares [Read more...]


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