A few days ago I got to see a sneak preview screening of the movie "Blue Like Jazz," and I have to say, I'm feeling it. The movie is directed by the amazing Nashville filmmaker and musician Steve Taylor, and based on the New York Times bestselling memoir by Donald Miller. The movie will make its world premier at Austin's South by Southwest film festival on March 13 and open in select cities on April 13. After the Raleigh screening I had a chance to meet the roving talented film crew including cinematographer, writer and producer Ben Pearson, and manager/booking agent Jim Chaffee of Chaffee Management Group. I don't know which was more enjoyable, the movie or spending time with this sharp and hospitable group but both made for a memorable night.
Miller's book, officially titled "Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality," is about the dips and turn of painfully exploring and renegotiating his Texas-bred evangelical faith tradition while attending Reed College in Portland, Ore. It has an impressive cult-like following among both Christians and spiritual seekers alike. No doubt there is the hope that the movie will have as much of an impact on both Christian and non-Christian audiences. The work it took to get the film made is a worthwhile story in itself. Creative partners Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson had spent years working with Miller on writing and rewriting the screen play while also securing funding. A month before filming was to begin the funding fell through. It seemed like years of creative work had suddenly spilled down the drain. Obviously dismayed, Taylor had to call off production. That's where the story would have ended if not for two idealistic fans who caught wind and were determined to help raise the quarter of a million dollars still needed for this much anticipated indie flick. Jonathan Frazier and Zach Prichard believed the answer was simple: use Kickstarter, a Web-based crowd funding site for creative projects. To the disbelief of Taylor and crew, the local Nashville fans galvanized fans across the nation and raised more than $345,000 in a month! So the movie "Blue Like Jazz" got resurrected.
Taylor and Pearson have done a wonderful job translating the book into an enjoyable and thoughtful screen adaptation. Throughout the film I was struck by how much the cinematography seemed to play its own character. The constant looming darkness always just a scene away and the foggy grey and blue hues whitewashing the background of conversations and activity seemed to fittingly mirror the cloudy and haunting faith of the young characters. Immersed in this are a few scenes in which the viewer is appropriately overloaded by sounds, raging colors and general collegiate mayhem. Taylor and Pearson offer a tangible feel of Reed College (whose unofficial motto is "Communism, Atheism, Free Love") without making the movie reminiscent of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" or other '80s flicks of coming-of-age exploration and debauchery.
And then there is the slew of characters themselves, the people we are supposed to like or dislike, identify with or find ourselves curious over or intrigued by. Some were funny, some were sideline caricatures, some were to be expected, and some were refreshing in unexpected ways. I was most drawn to two distinctly different characters. Jordan, hometown best friend to Miller's character, is a seemingly one-dimensional token Texan redneck who surprises viewers with hints of emotional and spiritual depth, with accent, chewing tobacco and all. I found myself wanting to both slap and hug him at different points in the movie. The other character was Lauryn, the "hot lesbian" as Miller's character calls her, who befriends him at college and helps him navigate the Christian-eating shark infested waters of the liberal college campus. Lauryn is beautiful, captivating and more than one-dimensional. It would have been easy to make her the token lesbian with all the cultural stereotypes. But Taylor does a good job of making Lauryn a bit more complex than the "college bi-curious turned lesbian" offering viewers multiple perspectives by which to reflect on the still taboo notion of homosexuality in evangelical circles. Regardless on one's views about LGBT issues Lauryn's character will hopefully provide much needed conversational fodder for faith-oriented youth groups and young adults about faith and sexuality in general, not just homosexuality.
After the screening the audience had a chance to respond. One youth pastor commented that she couldn't really see herself bringing her youth group to this movie "because the Bible was barely even opened." This comment, to me, is an unfortunate representation of one aspect of what might be wrong with youth ministry and Christianity in general, as it is practiced in so many churches. Guiding and encouraging our youth to living faithfully in the way of Christ is not about shielding them from the world. Nor is it by any means about suggesting that the ways of Christ can only be gleaned from an open Bible or that people of faith have nothing to learn from seemingly non-Christian environments. Rather, I imagine faithful guidance is about helping youth and young adults learn to discern God's movement in all spaces and contexts in the world, and helping them navigate and think critically and with humility about the various self-defining stories that are and will continue to made available to them outside of the Sunday school classroom. God speaks through and BEYOND the Bible, and this is one reason why the arts in their many forms are so important to our spiritual formation. If anything, the movie could be an excellent way to get growing Christians and maybe even people of other faiths or no faith to think about certain issues or experiences around faith formation. Here's my list of 10 discussion starters that could come out of watching this movie.
- What could it mean to openly explore deeply held religious views while allowing room for questions and doubt and trusting that God is present even there?
- How do we witness to the grace and mercy of God by openly owning our own failings and need of God's grace?
- What could it look like to approach people with respect and compassion even if we don't agree with their lifestyle or their beliefs?
- How can we practice hospitality and humility as we remember that everyone we meet has a story of which we've barely heard the surface?
- What role does friendship play in challenging our faith, calling us to self-honesty, inviting us to explore more aspects of who God has created us to be?
- How do we fail one another in friendship and what can we learn about spiritual development and growing relationship with God from these experiences?
- What role does confession play in our lives as people of faith?
- What do our family histories reveal to us about our understanding of faith and our expectations of God and other people?
- How has the church/your faith tradition failed you?
- How have you failed the church/your faith tradition?