Blue Like Jazz: the Movie

This week I attended a screening of Steve Taylor’s new movie, “Blue Like Jazz” with students and staff from Nebraska Christian College. This is an adaptation of Donald Miller’s popular book of the same title that appeared in 2003, recognized by some as an accurate expression of the faith situation of emergent, millennial generation Christianity. Miller’s book, brilliant at times and rambling near-incoherence at others, is still worth a read even as it approaches a decade of shelf life. It articulates the love/hate relationship the millennial generation has with the church: acceptance of the core message of Jesus to love, forgive, and serve while hating the hypocrisy and posturing found in the church of their parents. I enjoyed Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, so I looked forward to this movie.

I wasn’t sure how it would be possible to translate Miller’s book into a movie. It reads almost like a personal diary, a documenting of Miller’s spiritual journey somewhat in the style of the interiorly focused “Confessions” books (like that of Augustine). Steve Taylor, the director and co-author of the screenplay, is well known in Christian entertainment circles. He has a resume that includes the Wittenberg Door, the Continentals, Veggie Tales, production of music videos for bands such as Newsboys, as well as a career as a Christian rocker. Taylor has a reputation for taking satirical shots at the church and its foibles, so he would seem to be the perfect director for this project.

The movie itself is organized around a literary structure: SCCR for Setting, Conflict, Climax. Resolution. The initial setting is Miller’s Texas Southern Baptist background with divorced parents. His mother postures as an ardent fundamentalist while his father is an aging hippie, apparently some type of academic who pulls strings for Miller to be able to enroll at Reed College. The first crisis comes when Miller realizes that his mother is having an affair with the youth minister of his church. This causes him to drive his beatermobile from Texas to Oregon and become a student at Reed. (This crisis becomes deeper in the movie when Miller learns his mother is pregnant and the youth minister is the father.)

The primary setting for the movie (which covers only a slice of the book) is Portland’s Reed College. Watching this movie made me remember that I considered attending Reed when I graduated from high school. It was the “egghead” school of the Pacific Northwest, an elite school that appealed to me. If my memory serves me correctly, Reed was crossed off my list because it lacked a good music/strings program, and that was my primary interest at the time. The movie portrays Reed’s excesses in sometimes-lurid detail, and I think there is more accuracy in this than some would believe. (The movie has an occasional four-letter word and mild sensuality, so be forewarned.)

Miller’s crisis of faith is somewhat resolved in the end when he owns the hypocrisy of the church and asks his secular friends for forgiveness. We are left to wonder what type of faith he really has, though. Is it trust in a Jesus who died for human sins and was raised from the dead on the third day? It is a Jesus who he has accepted as Lord of his life? Or is it the more selective, personalized version of Jesus that many are now adopting, what Ross Douthat calls the “choose-your-own-Jesus-mentality.” Not quite sure, but we can take heart that Miller made it through the dark night of the soul and emerged to find his way in a Christianity independent of his mother and his Texas church background.

Here are a couple of reviews of “Blue Like Jazz” that you might be interested in:

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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