Sometimes I joke with my wife (she doesn’t think it is funny) about going to school again to get a degree in Applied Anthropology. Now I don’t know much about Applied Anthropology other than I think it is the study of culture and how to apply that to business… I think. The point is that I love looking at groups of people and seeing how they interact with each other inside that group.
I’m also interested in how those groups achieve their goals. I’ve had the pleasure of working for a very large multinational corporation, a small business that got bought by a large tech giant, then a small non-profit, and now a large financial institution. Each of these companies had very distinct cultures and customs as far as how people interacted with each other. One company was like a family, the other was like an ant colony where drones moved around at the queen ant’s bidding. Another company was very staid and calm while the other was in your face and it was okay to yell at each other. All very different and all very fascinating to me. The one common thread through each company is that they were all different expressions of one goal: making money.
My faith experience (as far as the community aspect of it) has been very much the same thing. I grew up Catholic, then had a major encounter with Jesus at 18 and started going to a Baptist Church. I went to a Calvary Chapel Bible College, briefly looked at the Eastern Orthodox Church and later ended up going to a Calvary Chapel. Today I am going to a Nazarene Church. Each of these churches also have a different culture, very much like the characteristics I described above with the corporations. The overarching goal for churches, though, is that they are all different expressions of loving and worshiping Jesus.
What in the world does any of this have to do with the movie Blue Like Jazz? Well, I think the movie has a lot to do with the Christian and non-Christian cultures and their differences, but in the end culture means nothing. Let me explain.
The movie is very loosely based on the book by Donald Miller of the same title. It is about a young Christian man who becomes disenchanted with the church and goes to a liberal college instead of a Bible college. Once there, he realizes he has grown up in a bubble, or exclusively around Christians, and to fit in he starts bagging on Christianity. He meets more people at the college that need Jesus’ love, mercy, and grace than he can shake a stick at, but keeps putting on the ruse that he’s just like them. He later comes to terms with his faith and confesses that he should not have been ashamed of Jesus, but rather found a way of being who he really is: someone who loves Jesus.
The movie does a wonderful job of portraying the tension between the extremes of the Christian culture versus the extremes of the non-Christian culture. The scenes that come to mind regarding the Christian culture portray Christians as having their own strange language, being unintentionally and uncomfortably racially prejudiced, closed off to non-Chrisitans, nicely dressed and coiffed and very, very moral. This is then contrasted with the non-Christians at the liberal college who also have their own language, are intentionally and uncomfortably biased against Christians, closed off to Christians, randomly dressed and coiffed and very, very immoral. Sound familiar in an opposite sort of way?
Much is said, especially among Christians, about the “Culture Wars.” I always wonder what would happen if one side actually won! If the non-Christians won and there weren’t any more Christians on the planet, how many hospitals, relief organizations, and other helpful non-profits would no longer exist or stop being created? If Christians won, and everyone was moral, that might be great; but what about Jesus? Shouldn’t the focus be on Jesus rather than on morality?
The great thing about this film is that in the end neither culture matters, Christian or non-Christian; the only thing that matters is whether you love Jesus or not. There are many within the Christian culture that don’t, and there are many who refuse to be in the Christian culture (go to church) that do. I was pleasantly surprised to find out Penny was the hero of this film. Her character is one that is able to navigate the non-Christian culture at the liberal college, all while being who she is: someone who very much loves Jesus. She doesn’t adhere to the Christian culture by the way she dresses or does her hair or speaks, but she doesn’t adhere to the other culture either. She is completely separate. I think the Bible calls that Holy. All the while, she is hanging out with her lesbian friend as well as going on mission trips to India and falling in love with the people there. She goes to church but isn’t “churchy.” The point for Penny is loving Jesus and people; all the other stuff is just stuff.
The character of Donald Miller has a great line in the film, something like: “To fall in love with Jesus, sometimes you have to watch someone else love Him for a while first.” He fell in love with Jesus, because he watched Penny love him first. She never preached at him; he just watched her, and it changed him. She never preached to her other classmates either, but they saw something in her that was different than Christian or non-Christian culture. Penny’s classmates genuinely liked what they saw in her, especially when one went to her missions trip presentation and came away wondering how Penny could serve in such a way. The point being: Penny stuck to knowing and loving Jesus, because that was the most important goal she could have. Above fitting in, above controlling others, above anything!
This movie rocked my world. I have to be honest. As a Christian, in the Christian culture, I have to say that the potential cringe factor on this film is set to an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. It isn’t the best directed, photographed, acted, or sound-tracked film ever made, but it does a good job in those categories. The thing that first made me mad, and then made me wonder why it made me mad, and then made me reflect, was the story line about the cultures. The Christians infuriated me, the non-Christians infuriated me, and Steve Taylor (director and co-writer) infuriated me… because the cultures were so different but the same: both groups had individual human beings that needed to know and love Jesus.
Another great scene that has stuck with me is a scene where it is raining and everyone is walking around without an umbrella, except for the Donald Miller character. The other Portlandians are giving Donald crap for carrying an umbrella, and he asks Penny why. She answers very matter of factly, “Nobody in Portland uses an umbrella.” The look on newly-transplanted Texan Donald’s face is priceless, almost like, “Whose stupid rule is that?” That is just the culture of Portland!
We all have things like the umbrella that we do, because the culture tells us it is just the way things are done. Whatever your culture (Christian or non-Christian) is telling you to do with Jesus, question it. The Christian culture loves to replace the knowledge and love of Jesus with other things: language, moral living, dress codes, hairstyle, music style/content. The non-Christian culture, unfortunately, looks at the Christian culture, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus. I think this movie challenges us (Christian and non-Christian alike) to throw all that away and simply know and love Him and let your actions flow from that love.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. - Mark 12:28-34