For those not familiar with the story of Thomas Nelson branded best-selling author Donald Miller, his second book Blue Like Jazz (2003) contains a series of essays that cover Miller's transformation from a fundamentalist Southern Baptist Texas boy to a rebel at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (Unofficial motto “Communism, Atheism, Free Love”) before settling into a more progressive form of evangelism. This book resonated with those evangelicals who grew up in similar repressive Christian settings. They found in the works of Miller along with Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne, and Pete Rollins a form of faith that on the surface seemed to be more affirming and welcoming.
Fast forward to 2012 and we find the film version of this book which releases in theaters on Friday, April 13th. When I saw in my press notes that this film would be previewed at the South by Southwest Film Festival, I confess I was perplexed. Somehow, Miller’s work seemed outdated when compared to the visionary and creative offerings presented throughout the rest of the festival.
The only other explicitly “religious” programming was “Bridging the Digital and the Divine,” a panel that had the distinction of attracting only about 25 people, making this by far the lowest attended panel I attended at SXSW Interactive. Also, with the notable exception of Adrienne Baker of Interfaith Youth Core, who shared how she as an atheist seeks to create authentic spaces for people to share their faith perspectives, the content struck me as God goo—affirming to all, but prophetic to none.
As documented on Believe Out Loud and elsewhere, one finds a definite shifting during this past year in the progressive landscape between evangelicals and those in largely mainline and spiritual, but not religious, circles. The former may talk about affirming their “gay friends” but a review of their funding streams, speaking gigs and book deals reveal they tone down their message so they can remain a player on the Christian author/speaker circuit. With the increasing acceptance of marriage equality in the general population and the rise of LGBT people assuming leadership roles in liberal church settings, these progressive seem stuck in the ‘90s era of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Meanwhile, the rest of the country marches forward to champion what has emerged as the civil rights issue of the early 21st century.
Hence, I dialed down my expectations when I decided to view this film. Upon entering the small 280-room theater, I noticed I had my pick from plenty of seats. Granted Austin is the blue dot in this red state but still, I’m here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. So, one would expect a sell-out crowd for a screening of a film based on a Texas son especially since the flick also stars an actor who hails from Austin.
Admittedly, the film wasn’t god-awful (aka the latest drek from Kirk Cameron). But overall, Blue Like Jazz had a feel that seemed more suited for ABC Family or the Hallmark channels, than an actual wide screen theatrical release. Yes, I know films often have very tight budgets but I’ve covered enough film festivals to know that filmmakers can produce kickass work without substantial “cha-ching.”
Setting aside the lackluster production values, the core message left me cold. (Spoiler alert-stop reading if you intend to see this movie and haven’t read the book). Yes, I’m grateful that in the end Donald Miller apologized for the sins committed by Christians. But I have yet to see the fruits of the spirit evident in the Christian circles where Miller plays. Simply put, Miller went from putting on the fundamentalist armor of God literally to attending Imago Dei, a moderate evangelical Portland based megachurch. He might be wearing cooler clothes but the mindset remains missional male at the core.
While this film had almost no buzz at SXSW, I later caught wind of a controversy brewing where according to Donald Miller, the Christian movie establishment “is out to get us.” This Christian Media v. Blue Like Jazz fight harkens back to the John Piper v. Rob Bell blog battles. Over at The Revealer, I offered my assessment of these oppositional marketing strategies that can be found in similar scenarios such as Mark Driscoll v. US Emergents or Glenn Beck v. Jim Wallis. Both parties need each other in order to bolster the claims that they are being “persecuted” for their beliefs; both benefit from heightened media profiles and respective book sales.
In another attempt to bolster this reformed v not-quite-so-reformed war, I got a press release announcing that Team Buzz Plant will be conducting the street team to promote this film. Fans are encouraged to participate in an act of “civil disobedience” by joining “A group of rebels, misfits and those who don’t belong, willing to take the phrase ‘Street Team’ to the next level.” By promoting this movie, fans can band together as a community and take a stand for what they believe in.”
This use of civil disobedience language utilized to promote a commercial film sounds eerily familiar to the incorporation of Occupy language into fundraising appeals issued by progressive faith-based organizations like Tikkun, Sojourners and Faith in Public Life. These Christians seem oblivious that we are at a juncture in history that demands table turning and even taking sides. So instead of funding these nefarious campaigns designed more for self-promotion than creating transformative justice, why not seek out secular and faith based grassroots groups who are working in solidarity to ensure that we all have equal access to the same rights and liturgical rites for all?