A sincere question for conversation by Mike Rinaldi
“If the Bible had to be family-friendly, it would be a much shorter book.” Steve Taylor, in his typical dry wit, highlights an important realism about the Word of God that perhaps many of us haven’t given adequate consideration. The Bible describes graphic sexual situations, violent brutality, and in the original languages, uses occasional colorful colloquialisms often sanitized in the transliteration process to most English language versions. And this raises interesting questions about creating double standards. Is what’s good for our God not good for the gander? Or despite the negative connotation of the phrase, are double standards perhaps appropriate in some situations?
Taylor, director and co-writer of the movie “Blue Like Jazz” is no stranger to controversy. From his music career, in which he drew fire for songs like “I Want to Be a Clone” and “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,” to his debut feature film, “The Second Chance,” in which he tackled racism in the church, Taylor has always raised eyebrows. And now the PG-13 rated film adapted from Donald Miller’s New York Times bestseller, is no exception. Though the film releases in theaters this Friday, April 13, people have already boycotted the movie and churches have disassociated from its filmmakers-- often without screening the film for themselves. A recent article appearing on Christianity Today’s website illustrated just how far the controversy has reached in churches and Hollywood alike.
But controversy isn’t the only reason for all the attention. The book resonated with such a large audience, fans helped ensure the film was made. A significant portion of the production budget was raised on crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, setting a record for such a publicly funded project and landing the film on the radars of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Taylor, cinematographer/co-writer Ben Pearson and co-writer Miller recently took Blue Like Jazz on the road. In some cities, the filmmakers were joined by cast members, including Marshall Allman (True Blood, Justified) who portrays a fictionalized version of Don Miller. The film played at the SXSW Festival and screened in theaters across the country for media and church leaders and the film’s financial supporters. In the interest of full disclosure, I recently attended a Glendale screening as I fit all three of those categories. And having seen the movie, I’m sure of two things. So far, the audience response has been largely positive and the film’s controversy is only getting started.
Though many have rebuked “Blue Like Jazz” for its candid look at hypocrisy and author/speaker Donald Miller’s spiritual journey, many are also resonating and responding favorably to its themes. The movie certainly strikes while the cultural iron is hot. Presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama stir constant public debate about the definition of “Christian.” The current issue of Newsweek features a contemporary, hipster Jesus on its cover and provokes readers with “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.”
It seems that everywhere we look, we find religious and non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality. What is family-friendly or approved viewing will vary depending on the eye of the beholder. A vast array of content appears in movies of the last decade. “Soul Surfer” featured bikini-clad girls in its true life inspirational tale of surfer Bethany Hamilton who survived a shark attack. “To Save a Life” controversially depicted teenagers’ reckless behavior. Audiences worldwide embraced the graphically violent portrayal of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The Chronicles of Narnia series, beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” offers a Christian allegory utilizing magic and mysticism. These films were all received differently, as they should because they’re very different films. Likewise, books and movies are different mediums and arguably not all the same rules apply. We clearly don’t hold the Bible to the same family-friendly standards many of us have for movies. Is it possible that we shouldn’t apply a uniform criteria to all faith-based films?
Perhaps for everything, there is a season. A time for entertainment and a time for social commentary. A time for movies as art, a time for movies as ministry tools. A time to recognize the body is composed of different parts. A time to recognize there are different purposes for diverse films. A time for more honest questions than self-satisfying statements.
For every bridge a Christian builds to non-believers, must one be burned between churches? Is there a place for mature conversations in the media that sacrifice safety for realism? Perhaps a movie like “Blue Like Jazz” can be likened to Aslan the Lion, as C S Lewis put it, as simultaneously “good” but “not safe.” Perhaps it is more due to laziness than values that we demand a faith-based movie to be family-friendly by default. Perhaps the security of sanitization is a reasonable request in our entertainment. Especially if we’d prefer to trust a Dove stamp of approval than make the time to discuss with our kids the DVD that just babysat them for the last 90 minutes. Perhaps Taylor, Miller and Pearson didn’t make this film to entertain “us” but to take salt and light to “them.” Perhaps we’re the hypocrites who have failed to recognize ourselves?
Blue Like Jazz releases in select cities April 13. Theater listings are available at BlueLikeJazzTheMovie.com.
Mike Rinaldi is a screenwriter and script consultant; public relations manager; and one of over 1,600 associate producers of the movie Blue Like Jazz.