With all the hype surrounding the movie Blue Like Jazz, I found myself willing to go as far as driving two hours (one way) Saturday afternoon to the closest theater showing it. It was a fairly good movie, as far as movies go, but I found myself rather disappointed. I had hoped the film would be a good catalyst to help create a dialogue about the nature of faith, but I fear it will mostly serve to add fuel to the “culture wars” fire.
This movie has already been reviewed here on Hollywood Jesus several times (see this link: Blue Like Jazz), so what I have to say is not intended as a review as much as an attempt to get us to think about the issues involved. You probably won’t completely agree with my perspective, but there wouldn’t be much of a dialogue if you did. Unfortunately, we too often have replaced dialogue with sniping at each other. Whether it’s Sara Palin talking about the “lamestream media,” Pro-Choice demonstrators carrying banners with clothes hangers implying what will happen if Pro-Lifers have their way, or both extremes comparing George W. Bush or Barack Obama to Hitler, these verbal or visual jabs don’t really do much toward a meaningful exchange of ideas.
Blue Like Jazz provides such jabs aplenty. If the point was to show the absurdity of such things, I doubt the audience will get it. There is at least one incident—the giant condom on the Episcopalian church steeple—which seemed designed to show how such things can be hurtful, but it is blown off too much as a humorous prank to make much impact on the viewer. Even Penny’s reaction doesn’t make much impact after the billboard stunt she and Don pulls. There is really no reason given why the two “pranks” are much different.
So, what should we be talking about, and how? Let me make a couple suggestions for your consideration.
First of all, a big deal has been made about the fact that the Donald Miller character was from a Southern Baptist church. As a member of a SB church myself, I understand there is hypocrisy in the ranks, so I don’t mind the SBC being made the whipping boy of Christianity. But it is also true that the SBC, and Christians in general, have made many wonderful contributions to this world—even if you look at it from a purely secular perspective. I subscribe to Baptist Global Response email newsletter, and I usually post a link to the online version on Facebook whenever I receive an update. I want people to know: This is what Christianity looks like. None of us are perfect, but by and large Christians who are serious about their faith genuinely care about people. Don admits he has done nothing to help the poor. That’s not because his church doesn’t care.
Secondly, I’d like to talk a bit about language. It’s true many Southern Baptists have a high standard for the language they use. I personally happen to have an aversion to the “big seven.” It’s not that I think anyone who has ever used one of those words is inherently evil. I was just raised not use them. They still make me uncomfortable when I hear them, but I don’t condemn those who use them. (Interestingly enough, Kenneth Taylor used the phrase “son of a bitch” in translating 1 Samuel 20:30 in The Living Bible, popular in the 1970s. Conservative Christians have been debating the appropriateness of this ever since.)
Language is about more than the specific words used. Slander and gossip are far more damaging than using a “dirty word” as an adjective. However, there is a certain wisdom in weighing the choice of our words with the sensibilities of the hearer—especially if you are at all interested in engaging in constructive dialogue. Of course, this would also include using emotionally-charged words and phrases, not just “dirty” words.
The Apostle Paul wrote about a good kind of “salty” language: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6 NIV). The Message translation puts it this way: “Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.”
Unfortunately, I think Blue Like Jazz does more toward putting people down and cutting them out of the conversation than it does toward starting real dialogue. While it may be a step in the right direction, it still has a long way to go.