Donald Miller's "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality" gets a plot as it's guided to movie theaters by Christian musician-turned-director Steve Taylor. Will it be just as polarizing on the screen as it was in print?
There comes a time when all of us must make our faith our own. Believing out of habit doesn't cut it anymore. Adhering to a god we cut from Sunday school construction paper doesn't salve. When we stand alone and the hard questions come, that's when we discover who we are (really) and what we believe (really). That's when we truly hear the whispers of truth—the music in creation and eternity—that no one and nothing can make us forget.
The question is: Does Don Miller (really) learn all that?
Don was raised to be a good Southern Baptist. So when his tiny congregation prepares to send him off to a local Baptist college, he gamely straps on the plastic "armor of God" they've given him. But when he suspects that his mother is having an affair with his youth pastor, Don switches tracks—almost out of spite. Instead of enrolling at Trinity Baptist, he heads northwest to Portland's Reed College, a prestigious liberal arts institution and one of the most secular campuses in the country. It's a land of fake popes who burn books, lesbians who use urinals and bumper stickers that say, "Abstinence makes the church grow fondlers."
And Don's Christian faith? "You probably want to keep that quiet around here," advises Lauryn, his new urinal-using lesbian friend.
So he does. Before long, Don's religion is buried under booze and cynicism and snark. When a fellow student talks about how his grandfather was killed smuggling a religious icon out of communist Russia—trying to preserve a way of life—Don laconically says, "I think if it weren't for religion, Grampa Topa might've preserved his own life."
But what of Don's life? Is there enough deep down faith left to save his?
Make no mistake: Don is messed up. He's lost and insecure and pompous and shallow and phony—a guy who sheds his faith, in part, to fit in. He isn't all that likable, quite frankly—not for Christian audiences, anyway. But in Don's imperfection, I think we might all see echoes of our own stumbling journeys: our insecurities, our hypocrisies, our pain. We might even feel a little convicted.
Blue Like Jazz storms into the world of Christian faith and blasts away at it, showing Christians doing some pretty ungodly things. But it's a two-way street here. The most laudable, lovable characters are also Christians. An Episcopal priest shows Christ-like patience with the wayward Don. And Don's mother deeply loves her son.
Then there's Penny, Don's friend/love interest. She's Reed's hyper-progressive conscience—throwing herself into all manner of causes ranging from the evils of bottled water to the horrors of poverty in India. And all of her causes are, it's suggested, rooted in her faith. Sure, she can go a little overboard in her approach, but she clearly wants to be the hands and feet of Jesus by making the world a better place.
Blue Like Jazz is based on Donald Miller's bestselling collection of essays titled Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. And while the film (sometimes through sheer narrative necessity) makes massive changes to the book, it retains its spirit, import and inherent messiness.
Here's an excellent example of what that messiness-leading-to-import looks like: When we first meet Don (not wholly analogous to the real Don), he's working at a factory that produces individually packaged communion cups. After a buddy goads him into drinking a couple of them with him, his friend concludes his sip by spitting chewing tobacco into the cup and putting it back on the assembly line. We later hear that the tainted brew is quaffed by a nun, sickening her, and Don's friend loses his job. But instead of giving the finger to the man and marinating in marijuana for a week or two to "recuperate" (the way this scene would likely go down in movies like Superbad or Dude, Where's My Car?), the guy actually calls the nun to apologize. She responds by convincing him to come work with her, helping the less fortunate in Canada. And on his way there, he visits Don at Reed on Christmas Eve, encouraging him to go to a midnight Mass to say "happy birthday" to Jesus.
Don's mother has decorated her house with crosses and Bible verses. His vagabond teacher father, on the other hand, rejects faith—and teases Don about his. He secretly enrolls Don at Reed, encouraging him to explore the world and reject what he considers nonsensical dogma. "You only believe that stuff because you're too afraid to hang out with those who don't," his dad tells him.
Reed is home to a variety of comical-sounding spiritual groups (none of them Christian). But most of the student body feels either apathetic or antagonistic toward faith of any kind. Much of that antagonism is embodied in Reed's own "pope," who traverses the campus in white robe and miter, mocking faith at every turn and pushing around a cart of burning books.
"I'm the pope now," he tells Don by way of explanation. "I speak for God."
"God wants you to burn books?" Don asks.
"God doesn't exist."
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that this pretend pope's hostility toward faith has roots in a horrific experience he had at the hands of a priest when he was a boy. "How has God screwed you up?" we hear him ask those who come to his confessional booth. So it's a poignant scene when Don serves as the confessional priest—using his new "status" to apologize to the pope for how Christians often don't act very Christian at all. Then he says, "I'm ashamed of Jesus because I want you to like me. I'm tired of being a hypocrite and a coward."
Before that, though, Don, in the throes of his agnostic hedonism, assists the pope in putting a giant condom on a church steeple. And he storms into that same church, dumping his plastic "armor of God" in front of the priest during his homily and tossing his cellphone into the holy water.
And now we're back to that messy message: When Don is later trapped in a porta-potty after a wild, drunken party, he's rescued by the very same priest. The man reaches into the filthy box ("It's OK," he says, "just take my hand") and pulls him out—a clear metaphor for Don being yanked from his own prison of depravity into the bright world of faith.
There are lots of moments like those in this film—visual or contextual nods to spiritual themes. Indeed, almost every moment here deals with some aspect of belief or unbelief. More to the point: Don is a changed man by the time the credits roll. God has been following me, he admits. I can't run away from Him any more, and I have to make it real with Him. The sex, drugs and debauchery of this college existence aren't filling the holes in my heart.
But godly repentance of sin doesn't seem to be what does the trick here. It's more of a personal recommitment to do better, aim higher, be kinder. "Will you forgive me for misrepresenting God?" Don asks the pope at the very end—leaving hanging what a good representation of God actually is. And we're never confronted with the fact that Jesus is the only way. It's more about the idea that Christianity shouldn't be forcibly excluded from the list of the many experiences possible to you as you make your way through life.
"This is not family entertainment," director Steve Taylor said before an advance screening. And perhaps his assertion becomes particularly relevant here:
Lauryn has a fondness for big-bottomed girls, and Don overhears her and another girl talking about singer Tori Amos (referred to as the "dyke messiah") breastfeeding a pig. Lauryn shares a bed with Don after she learns her female crush is straight. Don asks her jokingly if she's planning on "putting out" for him, telling her that the male sexual organ has distinct advantages. "Genitals are overrated," Lauryn says.
Several campus organizations deal with sexuality, including a "gender-neutral donut society." Girls dress in sultry getups. During a party, Don is kissed on the lips by a huge, shirtless guy. We see sexually charged posters, slogans and props. Venereal diseases and sexual fetishes are referenced, as are prostitution, "human vaginas," a "nip slip" and erections. When Don first arrives on campus, the pope gives him a handful of condoms.
There are comments made about Don's father sleeping with interns. And when one coed emerges from his trailer home, Dad tells her she should "tutor" Don too. An old friend of Don's admits to being infatuated with Don's "hot and sex-starved" mother. We hear about how a boy was raped by a priest.
A 10-second vignette shows an on-campus group reenacting a clash from the Vietnam War.
Crude or Profane Language
Seven s-words and one not-quite-finished f-word. We hear "a‑‑" and "h‑‑‑" four or five times each, "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "p‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n" once or twice. God's name is misused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The opening line of the movie is "Do you know the difference between being free and being high?" And as it progresses, we see many, many college students drink and do drugs. The consumption of alcohol—beer mostly, but also a smattering of other beverages—is particularly pervasive, resulting in lots of young adults getting drunk and hung over. The pope gives Don a brownie that, we're left to assume, is laced with marijuana. He eats it and then chases it with an unnamed concoction that pushes him into high-as-a-kite territory. The pope also smokes a hookah. As mentioned, a friend of Don's chews tobacco.
Other Negative Elements
"Don't let these people reproduce." That's the message written on a huge banner Don and the pope leave at the church they outfit with the giant condom. We hear the pope quip, "Every steeple hides a sleeper cell." Other students lump "fundamentalist" Christianity in with racism.
Penny and Don vandalize a billboard—an advertisement for a bottled water company, which Penny believes mistreats workers in India. They're tossed in jail for the misdeed, but when a Reed official bails them out, students give Penny and Don a standing ovation. Protesting students run away from security guards. Others wear diapers as a gag.
Someone dressed as a bear steals Don's bicycle and dumps it off the side of a bridge. Don's friend calls the mentally handicapped kids he's decided to work with "retards."
Blue Like Jazz, the book, sold more than 1 million copies, cementing Donald Miller as one of Christianity's literary stars and becoming a touchstone for countless questioning Christians. And at its best it can serve as something of a reminder that Christianity is a far better, more beautiful thing than sometimes it's made to seem. It can challenge us to open our arms to the hurting and the human, the lost and the wandering.
Less kind to its contents are the equally cogent accusations that Miller shorts theology in favor of a more personal, relational and sometimes squishy take on faith. That it downplays the propositional truths of the Gospel and the revelation of Christ in Scripture in favor of warm, fuzzy personal experiences and the power of story.
The movie bears little resemblance to the nuts and bolts of the book. Taking a collection of essays and turning it into a cohesive narrative is no easy task. But its core comes through loud and clear, resulting in a sometimes disconcerting close-up of faith. Not faith as a whole, mind you, but rather one character's personal walk of faith.
That means the film will likely polarize moviegoers in the very same way the book polarized readers. And even folks who appreciated the book's intent may feel uneasy with what's onscreen—the sometimes foul content, the lack of clear spiritual direction, the anti-preachy preachiness of it all.
Maybe that's exactly how director Steve Taylor hopes we'll feel, saying that he doesn't want his movie to be pigeonholed as a "Christian" project. It won't be. At least it shouldn't be. Blue Like Jazz doesn't at all feel like a Christian movie. Not like Courageous. Not like Fireproof. Not like The Grace Card. It asks questions and only hints at answers. It doesn't present the plan of salvation. It doesn't march to the drumbeat of doctrine or dogma. Instead it chooses to let people see the small works of God's grace shining in between the misdeeds, misdirection and malcontentedness of a wayward college student.
Or maybe they won't see that at all. Because in illuminating those things, we're asked to "experience" a lot of bad behavior. We're asked to love sinners (as we should), but not really told what to do with sin, or even if there is such a thing. We're told that Christianity isn't about pointing fingers … even as the teller's fingers are pointing.