The Dilemma of “Blue Like Jazz”

21 04 2012

The other night I went to see the film Blue Like Jazz, and I must say I was left with a myriad of emotions. I was super excited to see this film because I read the book back in 2005 when I was facing my own crisis of faith, much like the character in the film and real-life  author of the book. To say that this book changed my life is an understatement. I was at a point where I was ready to leave the faith altogether but this book helped restore my faith in God by letting me know that I was not alone in my doubts and trying to define or redefine what I believe about God and the bible.  And with the help of a new church home, I was able to confess to being a Christian again.

I was also excited about the film because of its grassroots approach to making the film. It’s really a great story how this film got made, and I’ve been following it for a couple of years now. If you don’t know the story I encourage you to read about it here.  So needless to say, I do feel some kind of connection to this film.

All that being said, I left the theater feeling excited, frustrated, and angry all at the same time. Here’s why:

  • The film got off to a very slow and kind of cheesy start. I mean come on, there’s a scene where the lead character busts a giant cross-shaped piñata and out comes what? Not candy but pre-packaged communion elements. I didn’t grow up Southern Baptist but even I had a hard time believing that one. Even the portrayals of Reed College seemed like a caricature and cartoonish. I don’t know, maybe they meant for it to be that way. The first half of the film just felt like every other Christian film, and only slightly better. Fifteen minutes into the film I thought to myself I have no idea why any non-believer would want to come see this movie or find it remotely interesting.  After  another 15 minutes I thought maybe I didn’t need Blue Like Jazz to be a movie after all. I would’ve been fine just keeping it a a book on my shelf and telling people how great it was. After about another 25 minutes I thought about walking out. But I’m so glad I didn’t.
  • Halfway through the film, things got a lot more interesting as we really started to see the ramifications of denying one’s faith and how that can affect a person emotionally and spiritually. I cried during the confession scene at the end, partially because I’m a wuss, and partially because I felt I needed to apologize for being a horrible example of a Christian too. That was one of my favorite parts of the book so I was really glad to see that they didn’t leave that out of the movie.
  • The film did not explicitly lay out the gospel; however, it did show a journey. A journey of a kid renouncing his faith and then reclaiming it as his own. A journey I’m all too familiar with. I read a couple of reviews that criticized the film for not presenting the gospel. While I understand the criticism, herein lies my anger with the film, which is my next point.
  • First of all, I can speak from my own experience that it’s very challenging to be a Christian filmmaker. Many of us want to make films that are not cheesy, that speak to reality even if it is not pretty. All of us know that one’s journey toward faith usually does not happen overnight and so we want to our films to reflect the complexity that leads to making this important decision to follow Christ. To wrap everything up in 90 minutes can dangerously cheapen the conversion experience, which, sadly, I believe is the problem with many existing Christian films. It took me 20 YEARS to realize that I wasn’t a Christian and then become one. It took almost 10 YEARS for me to then convince my best friend that the whole Christianity thing was worth her time. I think some Christians expect every Christian film to preach the gospel, when us filmmakers really just want to tell a good story that might be about an explicit faith journey, and it might not. Sometimes I think about changing my name in the credits so that Christians who know me won’t expect me to have a “come to Jesus” moment at the end of every film. The problem that I had with Blue Like Jazz was not that they didn’t take us through the Romans Road, it was that the church wasn’t there to do that. When I walked into the theater, there were all of six people sitting there, seven if you count the guy who was sleep before the trailers even started rolling, then woke up halfway through the movie, calmly gathered his belongings and exited the theater. By the end of the movie I couldn’t help thinking “Why isn’t someone here to talk to these people about what they just saw?” “Why aren’t churches here in full force to support this film and then have conversations afterward?” You could make the argument of individuals going to see the movie and sharing it with their friends. Very true. And I don’t know that those six people didn’t do that. But films like Blue Like Jazz and certainly my own films that aren’t as blatant, run the risk of people walking out raw, and missing the point in the message. Unfortunately, because of the underlying message of the cross,  I often feel like we can’t afford for people to miss the point. As Christians, we do have an important message that, according to our beliefs, is a life and death situation and we need to somehow make sure that some clarity and truth is brought to bear. You don’t know how badly I wanted to get up at the end of the movie and just say “Hey guys! What’d you think?”, just to get a conversation started among the six people that were there. Now that I think about it I probably should have.
  • I’m angry at Blue Like Jazz for not reaching out more to churches to have these conversations, and I’m mad at churches for not reaching out more to filmmakers and films like Blue Like Jazz. When will the church as a whole realize that films are sending a message to the world, whether or good or bad. As a body of believers, we have a lot more influence than we give ourselves credit for. With all these mega churches floating around, why aren’t more churches pooling their resources to help Christian filmmakers make and/or distribute their films? I also think more churches should embrace filmmaking as a not just an art form but as a messaging tool. Even “secular” films have a message that they are sending. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking how I would love to be part of an organization or even to start and organization that worked with churches to rent out movie theaters where people could be intentional about inviting their friends to the movies and then have discussions about it afterwards. I would love for this organization to also help churches to pool resources and create a network for financial and material support for Christian filmmakers. We all know how powerful films can be, it’s time for churches to start fully using this medium to our advantage.
  • I have much more to say about this film but this blog post has already gotten long enough. Maybe I will do a Part 2. In the meantime, PLEASE leave a comment! Did you see the film? If so, what were your thoughts about it? If not, do you plan on seeing it? Do you feel that the church as a whole embraces the arts? Let’s discuss!
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