“I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened…Jazz is like life because it doesn’t resolve. But what if we’re not alone? What if all these stars are notes on a page of music swirling in the blue like jazz?”
I came across Donald Miller as a group at my church were studying his memoir, and then as my brother introduced me to him. Donald Miller’s memoir of reflective essays, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is a book that is refreshingly honest, complexly painful, and creatively provocative. It successfully reaches both Christians and non-Christians as an audience.
Miller, who grew up without a strong father figure, had a crisis of faith and enrolled in Reed College, one of the most notoriously liberal schools in the U.S. If you want to know where many twenty-something, cynical “Millenial Christians” are both coming from, floating in, and headed toward, you should read the memoir and see the film based on it (both if you can). A lot of Christians seem to either grow up to attend a private Christian or state school, where they become who they will be for the rest of their lives. Some keep the faith, and those that do often change how they handle their faith. Those that do not have many reasons.
What helped me in Miller’s writing is that he shows us a very personal look at these struggles in a way that is both familiar and revealing of the unfamiliar. I believe it helps both young people swallowed by a new world of atheism and older generations left scratching their heads. It’s also for people like me, who both attended a private Christian school and a liberal arts program at a state school, and dealt with many similar struggles of heart, mind, and soul.
Miller’s memoir recounts how he left God’s story only to become obsessed with his own story. He was ashamed of his religion and began searching for something to fill it. “I think every conscious person,” he says, “has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” His story is about facing his story,which is why after he wrote his story he wrote about writing about his story, in another book called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, the memoir of how he rewrote his memoir for a screenplay that became the movie, and what it meant to him to reflect on his reflection of his reflection.
Miller confesses, “its cumbersome to believe in anything.” You have to defend what you believe. You have to count the cost and live it. You have to be judged for it. It’s easier to deconstruct what others have believed before you. There’s no responsibility to be had in mocking the whole world and just having a party doing it. This is the conceit of the world that he becomes enamored with and disgusted with at the same time. But he maintains that no church is relevant unless it believes in Jesus. But do get to that affirmation, he had to fall back in love with Jesus. And to fall back in love with Jesus, he had to see others in love with Jesus as if discovering that kingdom for the first time.
The film tells the story of Don’s foray into the liberal land of Reed College, how it changes him, and how he changes after it begins to change him, while taking quite a few fictional licenses on the way. If this is a Christian movie, you wouldn’t know it by the looks of it. It isn’t preachy, has a few nasty words, and doesn’t follow a predictable plot line. And it’s not because Christian cinema has to follow that formula, but because we’re used to it following that formula. Okay, so maybe the no cuss words thing is nice, but when you want to document people who use cuss words on film, you don’t have many other options than portraying them doing what they do.
Two things that really drive the movie are the relationships Don has with his crush, Penny, and with a fiery student notoriously named the Pope (because he dresses like the Pope, to mock religion in all its manifestations) who takes him under his wing. The film is a study of faith as a story of setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. And it does get a little weird. But it is a testament to the struggles of twenty-somethings, and the resolutions they seek.
The end of the film did produce tears for me, and I tell you that because if you sit through the film, even if you’re disgusted by it, you will find in Don’s confessional moment a beautiful thing that you would stand and applaud were you in a theater. You will say to yourself, “This is what I want to tell the world! That I believe Jesus and that he is real and that I am sorry for every time myself and anyone else told the wrong story of Jesus!” Or something to that effect. To many millennial, the idea of Christian Apologetics essentially has to come with, quite literally, an apology, not so much a defense, but a forgiveness of offense. This film does that, while also giving that other kind of defense, for Miller will tell you that though he wandered from God, he yearned to make his way back.