Donald Miller’s best-selling collection of essays, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality has become a crowd-financed and lightly fictionalized film about a Texas teenager from a sheltered Baptist community who goes to the famously free-thinking Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
Marshall Allman of “True Blood” plays Miller, whose Alice in Wonderland-style immersion in a world where everything is questioned and debated is disturbing the way jazz music is disturbing — it never resolves. In Texas, the answers were always laid out in nice straight lines. Everything resolves. Miller’s estranged father, an intellectual who listens to jazz and lives in a trailer, tells him it is time to improvise, to challenge his ideas. His father has arranged for him to be admitted to Reed. When Miller begins to suspect for the first time that not everyone practices what they preach, even at church, he decides to give it a try.
“Forget everything you think you know,” he is told when he arrives. “Sexual identity is social construct,” explains a girl who is using the urinal next to him in the men’s room. One student is handing out free bottles of water and another is handing out literature explaining why bottled water is a scourge and a fraud. Students get credit for civil disobedience. Even his most mundane beliefs are challenged: no one in Oregon carries an umbrella when it rains. Why separate yourself from the elements?
The script by Miller, director Steve Taylor, and co-producer Ben Pearson, smooths out the story (the real Miller did not arrive at Reed until he was 30 and he audited some classes but did not enroll). They wisely avoid the easy and obvious “fish out of water” confrontations. Refreshingly, Miller and his classmate heretics are from the beginning almost always very tolerant of each other’s ways of approaching the world. Indeed, while Miller is warned that the other students may not accept his faith, the most intolerant behavior comes from Miller when he feels betrayed in a very personal way by his church (the film’s only disappointing departure from the real story for the sake of narrative tidiness).
This is a very strong movie in its own terms, a thoughtful, smart, sensitive coming-of-age story. Reedies will enjoy familiar sights from Powell’s bookstore (the site of a debate about the existence of God) to the scroungers’ table in the cafeteria. Most important is that just as Miller’s book explores an expansive, golden-rule-based version of Christianity, the film itself takes sincere, faith-based story-telling out of the narrow confines of what is currently classified as “Christian entertainment.” The real divide is not between believers and non-believers but between those who believe that questioning and tolerance bring them closer to God and those who prefer constant reinforcement of what they think they already know. The vocabulary of faith should not be the exclusive property of one small subset of believers, and it is heartening to watch a movie that makes that point with such grace.
Parents should know that this film includes close-to-R level content like a college bacchanal, sexuality, drugs, and drinking, as well as strong language.
Family discussion: Whose view of faith in this film is closest to yours? Whose surprised you the most?
If you like this, try: the Donald Miller book of essays that inspired the film and the documentary “Lord Save Us From Your Followers” with a real-life confession booth scene at Reed College’s Renn Fayre