Critiques of the “Blue Like Jazz” Movie and My Thoughts

Cover for our new Blue Like Jazz movie guide

I should recognize up front that I can hardly be considered a neutral party with respect to the Blue Like Jazz movie. First, I got to see a screening of a rough cut a few months ago, and then sit in on a podcast interview with Steve Taylor, the film’s director. I also got to meet Taylor, Don Miller and Marshall Allman at a screening in Colorado Springs, and I was invited with my wife, Amy, to write up the study guide that I posted earlier today.

When you get that close to a project, it’s hard to be objective. But people have been interested in my opinions both about the book and the film, so I thought I’d reflect on both a little bit.

The inspiration for this particular article came when Bo Eberle shared a blog post of his after seeing the movie.  He offers several valid and arguable criticisms of the film which he saw in advance of the release April 13th as well. Without making a point-counterpoint out of it (for one, you can read his if you want, and second, I agree with an umber of his points), I decided to generalize from his post and share a few other critiques I’ve heard from others, followed by my thoughts on them.

When I first read the book, I felt very torn. One the one hand, I identified so closely with so many things about Miller’s personal narrative. On the other hand, I took some significant issue with the language he used in talking about his theology. Although he considers the book “nonreligious,” the way he describes God in intimately human terms, and how he also talks about “Satan” and “The Devil” are strikingly familiar to me as a former evangelical.

In order to find comfort with the book, I told myself that Miller was employing this kind of language more as a literary device, particularly since much of that kind of imagery and language was notably absent from the movie. So I asked him about it when I sat down with him for the interview. I wondered if he saw his faith evolving – or at least changing, to be more neutral – from the book to the film. But he did not feel it had. In fact, he still uses the same kind of language as is found in the book when he talks about God, evil and the like.

So for Miller, the change was more a necessity of storytelling on screen. For whatever reason, I was glad to see the change. I dug a little deeper by asking about our personal constructs of God and how those might pose as false Gods in our own faith experience, and if those false Gods were at the heart of much division and even violence in the same of faith. Basically I was inviting him to join me on the postmodern bandwagon, but he was not interested. That’s not what he believe,s and for me, that’s fine. A little disappointing, but fine.

Do I agree with his theology? Definitely not. Do I think there are redeeming messages in both the book and film? Yes. Do I need someone’s theology to align with mine to find value in it? God, I hope not.

As for this being the same old Christian film, the creators have been explicit about this not being a Christian film, but rather that it’s a film that deals with some faith-related themes, some of them specifically Christian. Sure, some may call this a cop-out or convenient nuancing, and that’s fine. But personally I see one main difference between this movie and other “Christian films.”

At the heart of other Christian movies I’ve seen is an particular agenda. There is an undeniable feeling or message they want you to walk away with, and this message is consistent with the teaching in your typical evangelical Christian church. This message – what I would argue is actually propaganda – supersedes everything else in the story, including character development, plausibly storyline and even realistic dialogue.

To me, however, the core of the Blue Like Jazz movie is Don’s personal story. In fact, he and Steve Taylor were quite explicit that they had no agenda with respect to what they hoped viewers would learn, believe or walk away from the movie with. Rather, they felt it was a story worth sharing. It could be argued that the movie ultimately is pro-organized-religion, especially since we find Don Miller back in church, praying once he has his “a ha” moment. This is also where he comes back into relationship with Penny, who is unapologetically religious.

Neither Taylor or Miller are anti-church. Neither am I in all cases. Hell, I’ve worked for churches! But to suggest the movie is pro-church is too broad of a brush. It critiques religion as much as it holds it up. And Miller’s epiphanies don’t happen during a sermon or Bible study. They happen while “real life” is going on around him. And it also doesn’t ultimately place Miller back in the role of faithful churchgoer. One could assume he does, but we’re left to decide for ourselves.

As for the final main critique I’ve heard about the characters coming off as two-dimensional, I can see it, though I don’t entirely agree. Yes. there are some common themes employed to move the story along that some can consider cliche, such as the reason Miller leaves church in the first place, why the “Pope” character has such disdain for God and faith, and so on.

Yes, it would be nice to take a more existential approach to the subject matter, taking Blue Like Jazz into the the realm of films like “The Misison” or “Apocalypse Now.” But let’s not forget this film was done on a budget of just more than $1 million, and it was done by people who loved the project. That love shows through, in spite of some technical imperfections in plot and characters. In fact, while the cliches do exist, I actually noted to Taylor that I felt even the non-Christian characters generally were treated with even-handed respect and care.

This could be argued all day long, as it is more opinion rather than fact. But I did learn something recently from my brother-in-law, Mateo, who is a filmmaker, that may be at play here without viewers being very aware of it. Mateo just finished a movie with a similarly small budget, and he described to me the challenge of creating depth of character when on such a tight filming schedule.

Basically, given more money, scenes are lit, re-lit, shot, re-shot and massaged in post-production to add dimension to what is being said with nonverbal texture. But in a movie made with so little money, it is generally shot more like a TV show. Each scene is lit once, maybe twice, and three shots at most are done of the same segment. So you end up with a close-up, medium and wide shot to choose from, all with basically the same blocking and lighting. And sometimes, regardless of the dioalgue or acting skill, the lack of subtlety in cinematography tends to violate the “fourth wall,” making you more aware that you’re watching a movie, rather than getting lost in it.

My concern is that I’m coming across an an apologist, and I respect the criticisms I’ve heard, most of which are valid. But considering the original story, the modest resources to get that story to screen and the genre of Christian film-making on the whole, I consider Blue Like Jazz to be welcome progress. It’s hardly perfect, and it’s not the movie I would have made. But I’m glad it finally got done, and I think a lot of people will be positively surprised as well.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Bo Eberle

    I can’t take issue with any of your points, and in fact I didn’t quite take all of these factors into consideration when considering the film.Perhaps the most inaccurate thing I have said (or most speculative or misunderstood… not sure which one) is that the movie was saying that the movei was too “pro-church” in a pejorative sense. Hey, I’m in seminary, I’d love to work for a church one day, I have nothing against churches. What I meant with that critique is not that the movie is pro church qua church, but pro church as is, just with genuine people in it, not hypocrites. Someone said that “it’s more about Christians admitting that they don’t have their acts together no matter how we present ourselves, and who wouldn’t like that?” Well, sure. But that’s not the only problem. Like Diana Butler Bass says in her new book “Christianity After Religion,” the climate for “the Church” is changing for the worse, and for issues that I don’t think are reducible to Christians not having their act together. No one does (even if Christians have a harder time admitting it). Religion is ending (and certainly not for Jefferson Bethke reasons). The Church is sick because of inherent issues with the way we’ve been doing church and the message we’ve been giving people. Like I said, this to me is the Emergent/Origins project divide, there are those who want radical reform, and those who want to do some tinkering. In light of everything that has happened in the last 10 years, I just don’t think BLJ is relevant anymore. It was a conversation starter. I hope this movie is a conversation starter (well, look at us), but I think these questions have since been left behind for new questions (that I think people like McLaren and Pete Rollins are addressing, big surprise coming from my position, I know). So again, I’m glad we’re having this conversation, and I do like the study guide, those are questions that have potential for great dialogues. And hey, I think Don Miller and Steve Taylor should ask what kind of movie I could put together on that budget! Armchair critic over here!

    • http://www.christianpiatt.com/ Christian Piatt

       absolutely! And yeah, my guess is the film made out of a Rollins/Caputo book would be sparsely attended, aside from you and me, of course :)

    • http://www.blackcoffeereflections.com/ Tim Ghali

      Bo, glad to see that you want to serve in the Church one day. I think that’s a very good thing and the church needs more minds like yours.

  • http://www.blackcoffeereflections.com/ Tim Ghali

    Christian, appreciate your post here. First time on you’re blog, will need to click around but I do recognize the Banned Questions book.  

    I’m with you in the it’s good progress thought.  I’m saving my critiques for after the theater run but as much as I liked the movie, there were a couple of character and plot glitches that I would have liked to have seen turn out different (like one major character has no resolve at all).    

    Still, I think it’s a fine movie and I hope it does very well.

  • Katie M

    Hi – I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your post.  In case your readers haven’t seen it, here’s a link to the trailer: href=”http://youtu.be/GOglQgyxYkI” target=”_blank”>http://youtu.be/GOglQgyxYkI

  • Thin-ice

    Miller’s book was one of the last Christian books I read, when at the age of 60 and after 46 years as an evangelical christian (including a Bachelor of Theology and several years as a missionary), I could no longer rationally believe in the claims of christianity and it’s scriptures. I thought there might be a refuge in a liberal (read “emergent”) brand of evangelicalism like we see in “Blue Like Jazz”, but when I read the Bible, I wasn’t going to cherry-pick, it was either all or nothing. And since so much of it was absurd in the extreme (if you believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible), I chose to reject it all.

    Since I live only 2 miles from Reed College, and know people who go to Miller’s church, I found the story more engaging than it might have been otherwise. But it wasn’t enough to keep me in the fold. I challenge others who are uncomfortable with their evangelical faith to unflinchingly question everything in their faith worldview. If you need your faith to help you through life’s dark times, I respect that. But don’t try to pretend that it’s the “only true way” and get others to believe it too. Society and cultures that are bound to religion will never progress.


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