Saturday, April 14, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

Soon after Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, came out in '03 or whenever it was, I read it and was captured by its honesty, humor, and gutsy message to Christians. Miller is a great writer and one of the funniest storytellers around.

Then a couple years ago I heard the book was going to be turned into a movie. That made absolutely no sense. How could a random collection of essays and reflections become a movie with any kind of plot? Well, the movie was just released and I saw it today. I wish I could recommend it as heartily as the book, but I can't. In the words of Randy Jackson, it was just alright for me.

It's an indie, low-budget movie, so I wasn't expecting a big Hollywood production. But the humor and creativity of the book just doesn't come through. In fact I suggest you not compare the movie to the book, and you'll probably like it better than I. Some of the same people (Don, the Pope, Penny, etc.) and the same place (Reed College) are there, along with the same bits of commentary on Christian smugness and self-righteousness. But IMHO the real Donald Miller's heart does not show up. On that score it was rather disappointing. The one scene that came close was at the end, when "Don" sits as Pope in the confessional booth and confesses his own sins. In the book, that's what an entire Portland church does at an outdoor Reed College festival. Church members take turns manning the confessional and asking people for forgiveness for the sins of Christians. (I want UPC to do that one of these days.)

On a personal level, I especially wanted to see Blue Like Jazz because I know the woman represented by the Penny character. Her real name is Penny, and she and I were in the same small group at a workshop I attended in 2009 at Seattle's Mars Hill Graduate School (now the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology). At the time I didn't know she was a friend of Donald Miller or the inspiration behind his spiritual breakthrough at Reed College. But she's a delightful person and every bit as compassionate and courageous as she is portrayed in the movie.

Even though I'm not crazy about the movie, it says things we in the church need to hear. The early scene where a pastor gives a stupid children's sermon while Don (wearing the "armor of God") splits open a cross-shaped pinata with the "sword of the Spirit" is very sad - because all too suggestive of the me-centered philosophy that drives many churches today. Also, the movie brings out how ill-equipped and unwilling most Christians are to take the gospel to places where it is unwelcome. Don's disappointment with the church is, unfortunately, something that is shared by countless young people today. I appreciated the positive portrayal of not only Penny but a Catholic priest and a Christian apologist, both of whom stay true to their convictions while being people of compassion.

So all in all, I find myself agreeing with the opinion of a Christianity Today reviewer, who writes:
"...the entire film builds toward a spiritual epiphany that is anything but satisfying. Christian moviegoers will find much to challenge them, to be sure—but those hoping Don's journey leads him to a clear understanding of the gospel might find 'Blue Like Jazz' a bit unsatisfying."

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