(Christian Courier column, Nov. 25th, 2013)
Blue Like Jazz is a new favourite. Based on Donald Miller’s memoir of his days as a floundering evangelical at a liberal college, the film is like a thick raspberry slushie on a sweltering afternoon, pink lava bubbling out of the straw, a heavenly treat that whacks you with brain freeze. Fresh. Disconcerting.
It’s a picaresque “boy meets world” romp. Inventive details punctuate the background, offering a subtext of visual fun — an automobile sticker proclaiming “No escaping ourselves,” a Bible remaining unobtrusively on the shelf while all the other books get tossed out the window. Director Steve Taylor indicts American evangelicalism, but the cheeky satire is girded by a sturdy allegiance to Christianity.
Taylor explains, “I think a lot of what inspired Don to write the book was, ‘Why am I ashamed of my Christian faith? If this is what I believe is true, why am I ashamed of it?’ And I think what he discovered in being at Reed College is that Christianity has a bad reputation because in a lot of people’s minds it’s not about Jesus at all. It’s about political agendas or fundamentalist theology or things that are very tangential to what Jesus actually is. Or it’s kind of Americanized. One of the reasons the book speaks to us is because it brings us back to Jesus and reminds us that a lot of these trappings that we think of as Christianity really aren’t at all, they’re sort of an American culture version of what Christianity has become, almost by default in many cases” (thinkchristian.net).
With vulgar language and sexual situations — a college prank features an enormous condom on a church steeple accompanied by a sign that says “Don’t let these people reproduce” — Blue Like Jazz is not family-friendly. It’s calculated offense, though, exposing both the shallowness and the angst of these 20-something students. They are desperate for substantive meaning and identity, but drowning in a “sea of individuality.”
‘Take my hand’
Don, too, is adrift. His friends keep pointing it out: “Miller, you look lost,” and “You just look like you don’t belong.” He shuns his mother, aghast at her affair with the youth pastor of his own church and her pregnancy. His relationship with his pot-head dad, who counsels him not to go to a Bible college, is also strained. “Go somewhere where they don’t hand you the script and tell you to copy it,” his father admonishes. “Improvise — write your own damn story!” He warns Don, “Life is like jazz. It never resolves.”
At the end of his first year, Don admits, “I feel lost.” In a comically symbolic scene, he gets stuck in a porta-potty. “Help me,” he cries out. “I’m trapped.” He is deep in it, so to speak, literally and figuratively. Unable to help himself. Who comes to his aid? The minister of the church that was pranked. “It’s OK,” says the pastor. “Take my hand.”
Don determines that he still likes Jesus. He discovers that “science can’t prove a sunset is more beautiful than camel dung.” He listens to jazz singer John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and hears what his father said didn’t exist — resolution. He wonders, “What if God is trying to compose something? What if all the stars are notes on a page of music swirling in the blue like jazz?”
Best line: “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” Don watches his friend Penny love Jesus. He watches his dad love jazz. In time he comes to love both Jesus and jazz for himself. His epiphany offers solace to beleaguered parents who miss their children in church, missionaries who toil for years without quantifiable results, or anyone, really, who takes seriously the command “Go ye and make disciples,” but finds it disheartening. Maybe all you are called to do is keep doing what you’re doing. Love God. Serve Jesus. Live the fruit of the Spirit. Maybe somebody’s watching and who knows what God might do?
Who knows indeed? God the jazz musician is still playing his staggeringly complex and exquisite composition. As Linda Siebenga’s poem, Word Made Flesh, expresses so wonderingly: “Only you God, / could put yourself into that space, / cramp your Godness inside a wall of skin / like a giant foot into a small shoe / yet fitting perfectly . . .” (Artful Eye, p.13).
He will reach out his hand to the lost and the trapped.
He will bring resolution.