It’s an honest work if I can stand up on it
Maybe we’re not as far apart as it appears
– MUTEMATH, “Armistice”
On Monday I reserved my tickets to the advanced screening of the Blue Like Jazz movie, scheduled for March 21 in Fort Worth. I’m beyond excited, not only to see the movie but also to meet Donald Miller and Steve Taylor. (Note: I’ll be posting a review after I see it in a few weeks. Stay tuned.)
Recently I heard someone describe the film (based, of course on the Donald Miller book of the same name) as not being a Christian movie but rather a movie about a Christian. I thought that was an interesting way to put it, particularly since it’s geared toward a college-aged non-Christian audience. Constrast that description with movies like Facing the Giants and Courageous, which are overtly Christian movies with a distinct Christian message made especially for a Christian audience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; both are great movies, but they aren’t likely to attract a lot of young, non-churchgoing viewers. In that regard, I have to wonder if Blue Like Jazz could be described as sort of the anti-Courageous.
The Evangelical viewer is going to come face to face with some tough criticisms. However, the honest Christian is going to come away feeling refreshed. …Conservative Christians are going to have the hardest time with it – but it is a necessary affliction they need to feel. The postmodern crowd of Christianity is going to rave about it.
This was a movie, Lyons argued, meant to appeal to non-Christians (and liberal Christians), and if it happened to irk the Bible-thumpers in the audience, then, well, so be it. I wondered at the time if there was a specific social or political agenda at work, but now I’m not so sure, at least based on what I’ve seen of it so far. Rather, it may be a case of just presenting the same Christian message as Courageous but in a different format, one that appeals more to a younger crowd. This, as they say, is not your father’s Oldsmobile.
There’s no question this is new territory for the budding genre of Christian movies, but it happens all the time in the music industry. Once upon a time, Christian music was separate and distinct apart from mainstream rock and roll. But that began to change in the 1970s and early ’80s. Christian rock groups like Petra and Stryper challenged the notion of Christian music as being confined to hymns, gospel tunes, and ’70s-era “Jesus music”. Even though they sang songs with explicitly Christian lyrics, they were chastised for pairing those lyrics with hard rock melodies. By the late ‘80s, though, Contemporary Christian Music (or CCM) and Christian rock had become widely accepted, but although it had become a vibrant subculture within the music industry, it rarely ventured beyond the safety of traditional Christian lyrics or appealed to anyone outside of the niche Christian audience.
When Christian artists dared to “cross over” into the secular music world, they were harshly criticized. CCM legend Amy Grant released the sugary sweet pop hit “Baby Baby” in 1991, and many of her fans jumped all over her, wondering if she had abandoned her faith. Battle lines were drawn. Christian music industry elites debated whether “Christian music” even existed at all. Could Christians be free to create art that didn’t have an explicitly Christian message, or is the message all that matters? What about non-Christian musicians whose songs have a Christian message? What about U2, who claim to be Christians but then sing that they still haven’t found what they’re looking for? Somehow, some way, either Christian music must be clearly defined with black-and-white boundaries, or else it can’t survive and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.
Today, however, there is less argument over what constitutes “Christian music” and what doesn’t. Christian bands like Switchfoot and NEEDTOBREATHE have had success within both the Christian and mainstream music industries. Mainstream groups such as MUTEMATH and The Fray readily acknowledge their Christian faith, and it’s not uncommon for Christian artists to shift into the secular arena without being accused of losing their faith. The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams, for example, originally started out as a solo Christian artist, and Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine released a secular indie record as The Hawk In Paris. Further, Christian audiences are more willing to “mix and match” Christian and secular music, going from Chris Tomlin and MercyMe to Coldplay and Mumford & Sons without worrying about whether they’ve crossed some forbidden line. A couple of years ago, we went to a House of Heroes and Seabird concert (both Christian bands) at a bar in Dallas. And at a recent Christian concert at a Methodist church, the church played songs by The Killers beforehand, with no apparent outrage from the audience.
My point is, when it comes to music, few people today care whether a band is a “Christian band” or a “band made up of Christians”. The same may not be as true when it comes to movies, however. Movies like Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous are widely lauded by churches for their Christian themes, but what about Christian movies that threaten to “cross over” into the mainstream? Are we as willing to accept those? I don’t know. Some will quite easily, I’m sure, but what if Lyons is right that it causes other more conservative Christians some degree of “affliction”? It’s an interesting question, and only time will tell for sure.
Below is a blog post from Blue Like Jazz writer and producer Steve Taylor, which seems to echo my “anti-Courageous” theory:
The website BoxOfficeMojo.com is full of useless statistics that I check regularly. One of its most fascinating and terrifying features happens when you click on “Genres.”
Fascinating, because who knew that “Mother” was a genre (Mamma Mia!)? Or that The Matrix falls under the sub-genre “Action – Wire-Fu”?
Terrifying, because somebody will eventually be categorizing Blue Like Jazz inside a genre box. And it won’t be me.
But the one box I don’t want to occupy (besides “talking animal”) is “Christian Movie.”
Why should this be? The movie was written and directed by Christians. And it’s based on a book with the subtitle “Non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality.”
But over the last five years or so, “Christian Movie” has calcified in the public consciousness into a genre where:
- Sentimentality trumps substance
- Good intentions trump artistry
- All conflict must be tidily resolved
- “Safe for the whole family” is a de facto requirement
- Or as writer David McFadzean summarized, Christian movies are like porn – poorly lit, poorly acted and you always know how they’re going to end.
I’m not saying this critique is always fair or justified. In the case of the best known movies in this genre – Facing The Giants, Fireproof, etc. by the Kendricks Brothers – I’ve given them props in the past for being good visual storytellers and actually getting movies made with the resources at hand. But they’ve also contributed to (and possibly cemented) the aforementioned stereotypes.
So maybe I should be flattered that, based on recent evidence, the Christian Movie Establishment they represent is out to get us.
Exhibit A: The Executive Pastor of Sherwood Baptist (where the Kendricks Brothers movies are produced) issued what amounts to a fatwa against Blue Like Jazz when he made it known that nobody who worked on our movie would be allowed to work with them in the future. (This strikes me as disingenuous at best coming from a church whose movies are distributed by Sony Home Entertainment, home of the The DaVinci Code. And tellingly, the edict was issued before the movie had ever even been screened.)
Exhibit B: Provident Films, a co-distributor on each of the Kendricks Brothers movies, is also distributing a movie called October Baby next weekend. I have friends who acted in this movie, and while I haven’t seen it, as a longtime pro-lifer I certainly support its message. So why would Provident’s Vice President go to the extraordinary measure of attempting to get the Blue Like Jazz trailer banned from running in front of their movie? (This email was passed along to me, and I’m copying it unedited below.)
i think exhibitors are going to try to play the Blue Like Jazz trailer with october baby
this can not happen – the trailer actually has the words “I hate Jesus” in the voiceover along with a number of images that will be very offensive to catholics
it is in the best interest of theaters to not run the trailer because they are going to have a lot of angry patrons if they do
thanks for your help here
Apparently Provident Films have no qualms when it comes to lying about the content of our trailer (“I hate Jesus”???). And though I don’t presume to speak for the Catholic community (unlike this Provident Films exec, who is also not a Catholic), I can tell you that the day I was forwarded this email, a Catholic nun who writes movie reviews for a Catholic publication told me after a Chicago screening that Blue Like Jazz was the best movie she’d seen in years, and that she’d be writing a glowingly positive review for her fellow Catholics. This follows other recent screenings where Catholic individuals and groups in attendance have been equally enthusiastic.
So what is it about Blue Like Jazz that the Christian Movie Establishment finds so threatening?
I’ve now sat in on over one hundred screenings of Blue Like Jazz, and I’m convinced that the reason it’s resonating so strongly with audiences across the country is because, like the book it’s based on, it reminds us of our own experiences. Don’s original story certainly resonated with me – I was a youth pastor at a Baptist church in Denver at the time I was attending the University of Colorado in Boulder. I wanted to make Blue Like Jazz because I felt I’d already lived it. Are there certain stories that we’re not allowed to tell, even if they’re not “safe for the whole family”? Wouldn’t the Bible be a much shorter book if we edited out the parts that weren’t family-friendly?
I recently spoke with one of our Kickstarter backers, and he was telling me how exciting it was to watch the “Save Blue Like Jazz” Kickstarter campaign turn into something historic.
He told me, “It seemed like it was even bigger than just this movie. It was a movement of a new generation of Christians who want to see us making better art. It seems like the Christian Media industry has become all about replicating culture. But we want to be creating culture.”
As Christians working in the creative arts, our job, first and foremost, is to tell the truth. Jesus himself said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
One of the most consistent criticisms I got as a recording artist came from fellow Christians saying, “Why do you do these songs criticizing the church? Why would you go airing our dirty laundry for the public to see?” And, of course, that same criticism had been leveled at Blue Like Jazz.
This perspective has always amused me, as if the public thinks we’ve got our act together perfectly, as if they don’t already see the hypocrisy in our midst. They just think we’re too dumb to see it ourselves.
Which is why the image of a guy in a confession booth finally confessing the truth started my six-year-long quest to make Blue Like Jazz.
When we tell the truth – even the uncomfortable truth – the truth sets people free.
I’m glad movies like Fireproof exist, and I wish its makers continued success. But most of my movie-going friends are ready for a different representation of their faith beyond what the Christian Movie Establishment is currently serving.
If you’re one of them, I hope you’ll cast your vote on April 13th.