The new Christian film “Blue Like Jazz,” opening in theaters April 13, is already stirring up controversy. But I stand behind it. Here’s why. BLJ is about a young Christian man, Don Miller (Marshall Allman), who--for various reasons--is disgusted with his Christian faith, and opts for a wild, radically secular party college far from home where he hides his faith and tries to assimilate.
ALMOST RATED R
The movie is rated PG-13 but was almost rated R by the MPAA because of its "realness" with regard to campus life. I would say mature teens fifteen years old and up. (But of course, many parents are not monitoring--or don't really have control over, or are in denial about--what their teens are really watching, so I would definitely recommend it to these types!) Lots of language and mature themes. Director Steve Taylor won't let his own fifteen-year-old daughter see it yet, just so you know. In other words, there are teens who are already watching films like this—for better or for worse, and teens that are not—for better or for worse. (And let's not forget young people's unfettered access to digital porn 24/7.)
Although BLJ is made by Christians and examines issues of faith, it's extremely edgy and holds its own with any secular campus/coming-of-age film. The Christians portrayed are not perfect and they know it. The main character comes to realize that Jesus is perfect, and that he shouldn't be ashamed of Him just to fit in.
EVEN A DEAD SALMON CAN GO WITH THE FLOW
Which brings us around to the root cause of so many bad choices in life: bad peer pressure. The communal aspect of our lives. Humans are the most social beings on the planet. Yes, even moreso than bugs. There is a psychological term for those people to whom being original and being themselves and self-determination is MORE important than belonging to the crowd. I think they are about 1% of the population. Strangely enough, people’s obsession with being cool is a slavish obsession while they think it is an expression of freedom. As I go around presenting Theology of the Body to young people (and not so young people), I realize that even though they may come to agree with the truth of it and see the beauty of it, there is no Theology of the Body CULTURE to plug into, and so, barring being/joining the 1% (this has nothing to with the Occupy movement), they just slip into whatever culture IS around them. Thus the necessity of impacting CULTURE. I tell them “even a dead salmon can go with the flow,” and they laugh, but what we really need is hoards of salmon swimming upstream TOGETHER.
From a secular standpoint, this is the first truly honest college/campus/coming-of-age film that doesn’t pretend young people are NOT talking about God and religion! Catholics may be offended by the heavy use of Catholic imagery, but they shouldn’t be. It’s actually honoring Catholic symbols and bringing them to life, albeit in a very unorthodox way. To me, it shows the hunger young people (and our world in general) have for God, religion, ritual, etc.! (The pope and confessional are actual happenings on the real Reed College campus.) I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a big Catholic outcry against this film. Unfortunately.
(There's an unfortunate gross misstep right at the beginning where Don's dimwitted friend tries to say that Don's Mom is hot, but really crosses a line doing so. It's a false note, because I've checked with my guy friends and they assure me that guys do not talk about other guys' mothers like this--to the guy's face.)
HOW MIGHT BLJ HELP YOUNG PEOPLE?
At the screening I attended (with screenwriter/director Steve Taylor, actor Marshall Allman who played the main character, cinematographer/screenwriter Ben Pearson) there was a great Q and A session, and two points came up very strongly about why this is an important film that could actually help young people (I added #3).
#1.—PREPARATION. So many young Christians (and non-Christians) and their parents have no idea what these babes in the woods are in for regarding college life. If they watch the myriad silly, depraved, licentious, shallow campus life secular films constantly flooding the market, they will have an idea, but there’s nothing like being there yourself. BLJ takes a young Christian through that experience and raises lots of questions that would be good to get a handle on BEFORE heading off to college. Innocence is not ignorance. Ignorance is not innocence. There is a terrible expression which I’m afraid is all too true: “Too innocent to stay that way.” There is a misunderstanding by many adults that keeping kids in the dark will keep them innocent/good, and that if kids have knowledge it will automatically corrupt them. They also think that just by knowing something, it takes innocence away. What takes innocence away is doing/participating in evil OR thinking good is bad and bad is good (Isaiah 5:20). And kids WILL get muddled without the proper information IN CONTEXT (2 Corinthians 10:5). Young people need to “hear it first” in the Church!
The Catholic Church has officially adopted the Media Literacy Education stance with regard to media (since the document “Aetatis Novae—Dawn of a New Era,” 1992). Ignorance is dangerous. Knowledge is power. We must develop and help young people develop media skills: ACCESS / EVALUATE / DECIDE / ACT. Which aren’t bad life skills, either. We are in a strange paradox today of the proverbial “prolonged adolescence” (and 45 year olds are considered “emerging adults”!) which makes 18 the new 13, but at the same time 18 year olds are suddenly given a kind of absolute freedom when they land on college campuses.
#2.—CHRISTIANS SHOWING THEIR “DARK SIDE.” I’m not sure when Christianity became all about saving face and not about saving grace, but repentance, humility, honesty and spiritual progress require that we be realistic (at least to ourselves) about our individual and communal failings as a Church. If we, as Christians, air these wounds and failings in our self-revealing and self-divulging, therapeutic culture, we may stand a better chance of being useful, relatable, approachable to our fellow sinners than by covering them up. And we Christians are the only ones that have the cure/solution to sin! The atonement, sacrifice, mercy and forgiveness of Christ—most especially in the Sacrament of Confession. And its FREE!
One thing I don't understand, however, is how much people LOVE when public religious holy people types show their ordinariness OR crude-er side. "CARDINAL DOLAN THROWS BACK A COLD ONE!" A Prince of the Church drinks beer! And likes it! "NUN 'FAVORITES' A YOUTUBE WITH THE WORD SH** IN IT!" (I had an immense response to this--I forgot about social media tracking and my one little click was broadcast, like, everywhere. And people told me I was their FAVORITE nun because of it! If only I had known that's all it took....) I just don't get it. Personally, I love when people RAISE the bar for me and challenge me to be/do something that isn't just ordinary or "naughty." Maybe it's just the supposed contrast involved that people get a bang out of. :] Ahhhhh! And even this is addressed in BLJ come to think of it. Don puts down Penny for doing good things because she makes everyone else feel less! Really?! I will never understand this mentality as long as I live.
#3.—FAITH AND REASON. I grew up in an idyllic little Enlightenment (in the best sense of that word) town in Massachusetts, and had a fantastic education in our public school system K-8 (before public school curriculums became all agenda-ized). The (religious) Jewish parents in particular RAN the school board and we all benefitted. We knew our rights and if our teachers started preaching to us from Mao’s Little Red Book (de rigueur for the Left in the 70’s) or putting down religion (our families were almost all practicing some kind of religion, with only two conspicuous atheist families), we would tell them: “You can’t say that!” and they’d back down, afraid we’d tell our parents. We must encourage our Christian young people to THINK! They must be “allowed” to ask the Big Questions so they can own the answers! My favorite encyclical of our philosopher-pope, BJP2G, is “Fides et Ratio—Faith and Reason.” I always encourage homeschool families to make it part of their high school curriculum: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html
Contemporary sexual issues are dealt with in a fragmentary way. They are more like a sad, true-to-life backdrop. Do not expect “resolution” on the sexual stuff. There’s also a kind of separation of Jesus from sexual morality. In reality, sexual morality is personal and societal at the same time. As much as today’s pundits want to pooh-pooh it--it all starts there. (Hey, if the recent HHS mandate says the Catholic Church is supposed to pay for birth control, I guess that makes “private sexual activity” a social issue after all!)
COME GO WITH ME
All life and love and beauty and goodness and truth start with the body, sex, love, the male-female relationship, the family. But this film is a kind of fundamental backing up to the “Does God Exist?” question, and so the sexual issues are present, but only dealt with peripherally. And the end of the film is just the very, very beginning for the main character, so I don’t think that raising, but not dealing with the sexual issues is a cop-out. However, as anyone who associates with young people knows, they will not automatically connect the dots (correctly) with regard to the sexual issues. BLJ is a very good/important DISCUSSION STARTER film.
If there’s some place young people know adults won’t go, they’re going to spend a lot of time there. Better we go there with them. Just a note about HOW young people (teens) process films: WAY differently than you and I. Take nothing for granted. Most of the teens I work with see plenty of R-rated films. If not in the theater, then on YouTube, Netflix, etc. A sweet fifteen year old who was tracking with everything I was saying about Theology of the Body sincerely sighed: “I love ‘No Strings Attached,’” as if this was a sweet romance! Eeeeeek! In a way, it’s all they have. It’s what they’ve been given by adults AS a sweet romance.
--“The most thought-provoking film of 2012! And 2011, and 2010….!”
--“Laugh-out -loud funny!”
--"Smart AND entertaining!"
--“The first honest college/campus/coming-of-age film!”
--“BLJ asks the hard questions! It goes there!”
--“BLJ makes you think, but first, it makes you laugh!”
--“BLJ makes you laugh AND think! In that order!”
--“Smart, but not intellectual!”
--“Smart, but not cerebral!”
--“Smart, but not a head-trip!”
--“Smart, but won’t make your head hurt!”
--“Quirky, but not too quirky.”
--“Existential, but not too existential.”
--“The first honest college/campus/coming-of-age film that doesn’t pretend young people are NOT talking about God and religion!”
--“The first hip Christian movie?!”
--"A love-letter to America's Northwest?!"
--“The thinking college student’s film.”
--“The thinking Christian’s film.”
--“The thinking Christian’s coming-of-age film.”
--“The first coming-of-age, coming-of-faith movie?!”
--“The most quotable film since ‘Napoleon Dynamite’”!
--“So much food for thought--you’ll be chewing for days!”
--“Independent bookstores everywhere love BLJ.”
--Is the crudeness in BLJ “lowering the bar” and capitulating to the corrupt culture? No. I think it’s rather going there to shed some light. If the racy “No Strings Attached,” “Back Up Plan,” “The Switch,” etc., were all rated PG-13, BLJ is there to “match” them. And not only is BLJ matching MOVIES about campus life today, it’s also, sadly, matching ACTUAL life on campuses today. And let’s not forget “Project X”—while rated R, it’s about high school students throwing a college-campus style debauched party (sex, drugs and massive destruction of property), and plenty of high schoolers are flocking to theaters to see it. And imitate it. (Project X parties are being held all over the country. One death so far as of this review.)
--I bemoan the coarseness of our culture and find it distasteful and depressing, but, as Blessed James Alberione said (www.MediaApostle.com) : “We must lead others to heaven. But we must lead those who live today, not those who lived ten or more centuries ago. We have to take the world and mankind as they are today in order to do good today.” “We are not called to save the people of centuries ago who had no radio, television or cinema.”
--Love how BLJ exposes how college life can be a whole new world for a young person.
--Love how BLJ shows that Christianity is thought of as “the enemy.”
--Love how BLJ show young people taking care of each other and trying to figure life out together.
--Love the challenge: “You only believe this stuff because you’re afraid to associate with people who don’t.” Faith is not a fragile thing—or it shouldn’t be. Faith, hope and love are as strong as death.
--Perfectly cast. I read the script before the movie came out and each actor was well-suited to their character.
--Parents everywhere hate speakerphone.
--BLJ ends before it should end. Which, of course, is the perfect ending.
--All this time I thought that the “music of the universe” was classical music (Sr. Helena cannot dig)—but it’s really orchestral jazz (Sr. Helena can totally dig)!
--I believe that BLJ is coming from a very good place. Why?
ABOUT STEVE TAYLOR (WRITER/DIRECTOR)
|Steve Taylor and moi. Pic taken by cinematographer, Ben Pearson!|
Steve has always critiqued the Church (meaning all of Christendom: he’s an equal opportunity critique-er), but he’s the loyal opposition, the court jester. And if what he’s saying is true, why get our noses out of joint? Steve is not at all self-righteous about it, and he critiques “the world” as well.
Steve has always been too Christian for the world and too worldly for the Christians. Without even trying. This seems to be his vocation. It's a great place to be: in the RADICAL MIDDLE. Extremes just look radical, but they're not.
--Steve is really smart. Jon Stewart smart. We’re lucky to have him. :]
--I have a sneaky feeling this so-called "Evangelical film" just might leak out (word of mouth) to a much wider secular audience. BLJ is distributed by secular “Roadside Attractions,” which is simultaneously releasing the looks-pretty-dang-horrible “Friends With Kids.”
--Reed College is a REAL university in Portland, OR, which—true to its liberal ideals—not only gave permission for BLJ to film on campus, but also to use its real name! Good for them! “Renn Fayre” is a real campus tradition.
--Does BLJ make campus debauchery look like fun? Yes, but only IF campus debauchery—as it is—already appeals to you. Personally, ingesting unknown drugs with unknown effects, public drunkenness, being so out of control I can be taken advantage of or take advantage of others, STDs, getting arrested, vomit, mayhem and destruction, etc., never quite appealed to me. I don’t know why. And the film crew said the film only shows about 10% of what actually takes place. But the rave looked awesome.
--The “sacramental” Confession scene in BLJ beats every other Confession scene ever performed on screen. Better than “Third Miracle,” better than “Amadeus,” better than “Gran Torino,” etc. Why? ‘Cause it starts with JESUS. When my brother came home from his first year of college Psych class and declared to my mother: “My professor says that Catholics go to Confession because they feel guilty,” my simple-but-wise Irish Catholic mother instantly retorted: “I don’t go to Confession because I feel guilty, I go because I’ve hurt Someone I love.”
--The so-called “secular” world has often unknowingly retained more “sacredness” and “sacramentality” than the so-called “sacred,” “religious” world. Let us always remember that the “secular” was carved out of the “sacred,” not vice versa.
--From a filmmaking point of view, BLJ does what so few films today do. It MOVES ALONG, and every scene is MULTI-TASKING, giving you tons of information at many different levels--as it entertains. At film school you are taught that the characters should NOT be standing around talking to each other doing nothing else (unlike real life), and yet so many films do that. Boring! Lazy filmmaking! GIVE THE ACTORS SOMETHING TO DO. Like real life. Woody Allen does this with ad-libbing and improv (everybody talking at the same time), BLJ does it with a masterful , hard-working script.
--Why Does the Church Shoot Its Artists? Because they matter. We can’t preserve our artists from pain or they wouldn’t be able to say anything worth anything to us. I think of how much Larry Norman suffered (father of Christian rock and my favorite Christian rocker), and how that probably informed his art more than anything else.
--Is Penny too much of a serious, perfect do-gooder? Maybe. But she’s also very accepting of others and kinda classy. :]
--BLJ doesn’t present an easy “it’s bad to judge others” message, but rather: “stop thinking you know/understand other people so THAT you can judge them.”
--BLJ takes place in Portland, Oregon, a place very much ideologically like my neck of the woods in Massachusetts. And I recently found out why: the Boston Brahmins (Emerson’s gang) went to Oregon to spread their ideas.
--I just read an article in AMERICA magazine about how young Catholics on campuses feel too ashamed, too sinful to be fully in a relationship with Jesus or come to Him! Yikes! I work with youth/young adults a lot and would never have guessed this because of their supposed, apparent, overabundant confidence. But they have been told all their lives there's no such thing as sin, we're all good people, we're all winners, and yet they feel guilt (much of it perhaps because of choices/actions that they should feel guilty about), but don't know what to do with that guilt. The fake "Confession" in BLJ shows an incredibly deep "examination of conscience" and how we need to name, confess and be sorry for our sins. I wouldn't doubt that this last scene will really touch and convict many young people, and maybe even get them back to Jesus AND Confession!
--I think BLJ speaks to young people's hunger for God/religion. Yes, religion. (What else could explain their need for religion-tainted, revered rituals and traditions on campus?) Young people have put themselves "outside the pale" of religion, and make a lot of bad choices all on their own, which makes them "hypocrites," too. :]
--Don's parents are pretty horrible (as is the trend in so many films/TV), but there were other great adults in the film: his Black professor, the believing author and the minister with his little daughter.
--The Church is seen as a helper to all in need: the Church helped Don and his mother when they were abandoned by Don’s father. The minister helps Don out of his, er, “predicament.” Mother Teresa is held up as a paragon of charity. As a matter of fact, one of Mother Teresa’s “hard sayings” (not her easy “take care of the poor” message that everybody loves) is quoted: “The spiritual poverty of the West is more terrible than the physical poverty of other parts of the world.”
--Is Jesus really the “geek in the cafeteria” that we Christians are ashamed of? Only for those ruled by the tyranny of the cool. If He IS that geek, then we’d better fix our eyes on Him (Hebrews 12:2), because one day He is going to rise up—not on a shooting rampage—but in majesty and glory and love and beauty with His recompense in hand (Isaiah 40:10).
--The whole part about not being ashamed of Jesus, even though we may be ashamed of churches, individual Christians, etc., is good (kind of an answer to the "I Hate Religion-I Love Jesus" YouTube). Of course, BLJ could ALSO seem to be IN FAVOR of said YouTube because of its non-Catholic understanding of Church as a free association of believers (and only spiritually “the Body of Christ”). Separating Jesus out from His Church can make Jesus “the good guy,” and the Church the purely human “bad guy.” But the Church is not just purely human ‘cause its intertwined with and grafted onto Jesus.
“Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” Hebrews 2:11
“If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13
Jesus cannot be separated from his organic Mystical Body. (And the definition of “mystical” is not “spiritual,” but “most real”: including spirit and matter.) However, Don is asked if he believes in “all that stuff” which obviously includes more than just Jesus. :] But, as Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) would say: “On the other hand…” here’s the problem with separating Jesus from ANYTHING: Most people simply do not have a problem with Jesus. At all. He’s a nice, long-haired guru who preached love, right? What’s not to like? This is not what Jesus said he was. He said He was God. And that makes him (as C. S. Lewis says in “Mere Christianity”) one of three things: a liar, insane, or God. And if He’s God, we gotta worship and obey him. Which kind of changes everything. And we gotta figure out if He told us HOW to worship Him, like, did He found a Church or something while He was here? Oooooooh. Now that REALLY changes everything.
--Steve Taylor has this awesome song called “Jesus Is for Losers” that will mess with your mind. First you’ll say: “Yeah, Jesus came for the losers. He loves losers.” Then you’ll say: “Wait! That makes me a loser! I’m not a loser!” And then you’ll say: “Oh, wait, I guess I should be humble and admit that if I’m a sinner, that makes me kind of a loser.” And then you’ll say: “But we have victory in Christ! I’m forgiven! I’m not a loser! And if Jesus is for losers, doesn’t that make Him a loser?” Perhaps BLJ is made to mess with your mind in a similar way.
--BLJ is extremely “sacramental.” Why? Because filmmaking HAS to be: it’s visual! Protestant filmmaker Craig Detweiler once stood up at an ecumenical Christian film festival and said: “I need to be more Catholic…(he let everyone gasp, for effect, and then continued)…in my filmmaking.” :]
--Some Catholics are going to find BLJ offensive. But they shouldn’t! The pope character wants to "do good" and sees the pope costume as a sign of "hope" for others. It's about “Catholic” (which means “universal”) visuals, signs and symbols that our world is starving for. Note how the object thrown in the holy water becomes an instrument of redemption and reconciliation! Open your eyes, Catholics! Learn how to read/watch films!
--I’m a nun and I’m NOT offended by the nun thing. Again, note how the incident becomes a moment of conversion! I’m way more offended by some real nuns in the media who claim to represent me. :]
--THREE CATHOLIC INACCURACIES (that I counted):
• The “pope” is called “Your Eminence” instead of “Your Holiness.”
• World Youth Day is not really an ecumenical event. (Hey, everyone is welcome, but it seems only Catholic youth show up. :] )
• Catholics do not use them little disposable communion cups. Like, ever.