Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blue Like Jazz Battles the Christian Movie Industry

Steve Taylor is someone who does not back down from a fight. For the past few years, Taylor has been waging a campaign to bring Donald Miller’s bestselling autobiography, Blue Like Jazz, to the big screen. It’s been a battle to say the least. After initially securing funding for the film, the day before preproduction two major investors decided to pull out of the project. It seemed as if the film would never get made. But thanks to an aggressive campaign launched on, 4,000 people contributed over $350,000. Nobody had ever raised that amount of money on kickstarter for a feature film. It was a testament to the fan base and following that the book has created.

Now that Blue Like Jazz has become a reality, Steve Taylor who directed the film has taken issue with the Christian movie industry's response to Blue Like Jazz. Taylor, who is no stranger to controversy, was known as a cutting-edge contemporary Christian recording artist in the 1980s. Back then, there was an effort in the conservative, evangelical church to ban his music and boycott his concerts.

Taylor posted on the Internet a recent article, Christian Movie Establishment vs. Blue Like Jazz, in which he implies the Christian movie industry has taken issue with his new film. Taylor said the executive pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church, the producers of Fireproof and Courageous, sent out a statement in which he stated that anyone who worked on Blue Like Jazz would not be allowed to participate in any future projects for Sherwood Pictures.

Taylor went on to site a recent e-mail from Provident Films, the distributors of October Baby which debuted theatrically on March 23, in which Provident Films made it clear that they did not want the trailer for Blue Like Jazz appearing before their film. Provident distributes Christian-based content and, perhaps, the executives felt that Blue Like Jazz, which some identify as a Christian film, would not be appropriate for their audience.

So what’s all the fuss? Why is everybody so upset? What is it about Blue Like Jazz that has spoken to so many 20-something and 30-something Christians? And, at the same time, why do some in the conservative, evangelical circle find it so troubling? The film is essentially about a Texan teen who grew up in a conservative church and his struggles with faith and the hypocrisy that he faces in his home church.

He eventually enrolls in a secular, liberal college in the Northwest where he faces new ideals and philosophies that challenge his religious beliefs. The movie contains a fair amount of bad language and drinking and features a lesbian character. That alone would send many evangelicals to the exits. Some Christians feel it’s inappropriate for the church to air their bad laundry (as if the world didn’t know that often we do not live up to the standards set forth by our faith). I have not seen the film, but I have met Steve Taylor. He is a man who takes his faith and belief in God seriously. But he is also not fearful to question that faith when necessary. He is the real deal—a genuine Christian who is trying to live out his faith in a very difficult culture.

Taylor is quoted as saying, “A Christian movie genre has formed. Our first goal with this movie is that we didn’t fit into this genre.” It’s clear that Taylor wanted to put some distance between Blue Like Jazz and the Christian movie industry and maybe with good reason. You might remember Bella and The Spitfire Grill. Bella won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and The Spitfire Grill received a similar award at Sundance Film Festival. When both films were released theatrically, they were tied to and branded as Christian films. Both films had received critical acclaim, but because they had been branded as “Christian” films, neither film achieved or connected with mainstream audiences because the marketing put them clearly in the Christian camp. Steve Taylor is determined that will not happen to Blue Like Jazz.

The Book’s author, Donald Miller, makes the case for why Blue Like Jazz is important to many people who are asking legitimate questions about their faith as well as why many Christians may have an issue with the movie. He states, “The average Christian wants clean answers, clean characters…. I was bad when Jesus happened to me, now I became good. Not that I grew up in the church and saw a lot of hypocrisy, and I walked away, and I realized God exists outside the church.” Folks, that is a very profound statement.

If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you know there is a significant amount of hypocrisy. Perhaps, that’s what the whole fuss is about. Blue Like Jazz is willing to take a hard look at what it means to be a Christian in today’s complex world. How do we deal with our doubts? How do we interact with people who are different from us? How do we live out our faith in an authentic manner? I have a feeling that this movie is going to make a lot of people uneasy, and I think that’s a good thing.

The bottom line is there is plenty of room for filmmakers who want to make Christian movies to go do their thing. On the other hand, if Steve Taylor wants to make a different kind of film, why should the church, especially the evangelical world, push back on his efforts? And if it’s true about the policy that Sherwood Baptist instituted concerning people who worked on Blue Like Jazz, it’s nothing short of a travesty. I think we can all do better than acting like children. God expects more of us.

The good news for Blue Like Jazz is that it’s set for theatrical distribution on April 13, 2012. Roadside Attractions will distribute and market the film. They are known for such nonreligious films as Winter’s Bone and I Love You Phillip Morris. That alone will help distance Blue Like Jazz from the Christian movie establishment.

The early reviews have also been solid. Blue Like Jazz debuted on March 13 at South by Southwest Film and Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Audiences have embraced the film because of its honesty and its ability to reflect the world as it is—not as one that offers easy answers. Perhaps, that’s the heart of the issue. A lot of Christians just want a happy face—a movie that ties up all the loose ends in a neat bow with a perfect and predictable answer to every question in life. That’s not what you’re going to get in Blue Like Jazz. Life is messy! And just like the main character in Blue Like Jazz finds out, life’s also a journey into the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unexpected. It turns out that we all have to find our own way. But the good news is. God does exist outside the walls of the church, and he is active in the world in ways we can barely imagine.

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