Moving Beyond “Christian Films”

The filmmakers and many of the defenders of Blue Like Jazz have gone out of their way to distance Jazz from the “Christian film” stigma. Understandably. Director Steve Taylor even stirred up what really amounts to a non-controversy by declaring that the “Christian Movie Establishment… is out to get us,” going so far as to say that Sherwood Baptist (the church behind Courageous and Fireproof) issued a “fatwa” against Blue Like Jazz. 

It’s easy to understand why Jazz felt the need to get defensive about the “Christian movie” thing. Jazz is made by Christians, based on a bestselling Christian book, and directed by a veteran of Christian rock (Steve Taylor).  And there is indeed a case to be made for Jazz not being part of the “Christian film” genre: it contains quite a few s-words, a good amount of drug use, lesbians, a dope-smoking Pope, book-burning, steeple-sized condoms, and so on… all things you don’t typically see in a “Christian” movie.

But the self-aware “Hey! We’re edgier than Courageous!” undertones in Jazz–which labors to create a quirky, indie, Garden State-esque ambience of coming-of-age rebelliousness–are precisely what end up sabotaging Jazz‘ claims of being something truly different. The film–like the book, to a lesser extent–feels deliberately constructed to be “edgy,” “non-religious,” and “controversial.” Jazz goes out of its way to usurp what people expect a story about faith to be, and in the process it loses its authenticity.

Rather than shunning all comparisons and attempting to just tell a truthful, believable story, Jazz fills its overlong run time with an array of extraneous episodes that serve to excessively hammer home the already-made points that faith can be messy, people are complicated, and Christianity isn’t at all “safe” or squeaky-clean. And for every real, human moment in the film (and there are definitely those moments, most of them thanks to lead actor Marshall Allman), there are even more cringe-worthy instances of zany preciousness (man in bear suit steals extra tall bike), over-the-top caricatures (“the hypocritical youth pastor,” “the grizzled drunk dad,” “the idealistic and sweet social justice Christian”), relentless indie soundtrack and “just, why?” superfluity (the poorly animated “busty carrot lady” transition sequence?).

Ultimately, Blue Like Jazz is more like a typical “Christian movie” than it is different, which is disappointing. As is widely, embarrassingly known, Christian movies are typically characterized by amateur-looking, low-budget, undisciplined  filmmaking. And Blue Like Jazz unfortunately fits that bill. Is Jazz better made than the Courageous-type Christian film? Yes, but not by much. It’s not preachy, saccharine, or “safe” in the way Courageous is, but it’s pretty much equally as minor, from a filmmaking point of view.

Talking about “Christian films” wears me out, partly because it’s such an obvious and easy target, and partly because I wonder why we are even still having this conversation. The Blue Like Jazz conversation didn’t have to be one about “Christian film,” but the filmmakers opened themselves up to it with the whole pre-release “us vs. the Christian Movie Establishment!” controversy. And sadly, Jazz falls into just as many Christian movie pitfalls as it avoids. In its own way, Jazz is just as didactic and message-heavy as Fireproof, albeit with a message that is more rough-edged, meandering and “nonreligious.” And like those other Christian movies, Jazz lacks a coherent stylistic vision and a genuine, infectious interest in beauty.

I long for the day when we will have moved on from  “Christian film” as a category. I long for the day when evangelicals will make excellent films that are beautiful, lasting, complex and true. I long for the day when Christian moviegoers will appreciate truly great films and encounter God through them, regardless of if they are made by Christians or pagans.

I know I’ve been hard on Blue Like Jazz here, but the truth is I’m glad it exists and I’m thankful for the step forward it represents. I’m glad it got made, and I’m glad people are seeing it. Even the most imperfect films can be used by God to reach someone’s heart.

That said, I hope the next generation of Christian filmmakers don’t make a Blue Like Jazz. I hope they make films like The Kid With a Bike, Of Gods & Men or The Tree of Lifefilms about faith, God, transcendence and beauty, made with subtlety and attention to craft.

The priority for Christian artists–filmmakers included–should be excellence: making work that is thoughtful, groundbreaking, beautiful, with the goal of pointing in the direction of God’s grace and glory. Christian artists should study the classics and learn from the best, so they can know what excellence looks like. And they should read a tiny little book by Hans Rookmaaker called Art Needs No Justification, from which the following is one of my favorite quotes:

Handel with his Messiah, Bach with his Matthew Passion, Rembrandt with his Denial of St. Peter, and the architects of those Cistercian churches were not evangelizing, nor making tools for evangelism; they worked to the glory of God. They did not compromise their art. They were not devising tools for religious propaganda or holy advertisement. And precisely because of that they were deep and important. Their works were not the means to an end, the winning of souls, but they were meaningful and an end in themselves, to God’s glory, and showing forth something of the love that makes things warm and real. Art has too often become insincere and second-rate in its very effort to speak to all people, and to communicate a message that art was not meant to communicate. In short, art has its own validity and meaning, certainly in the Christian framework.

We should definitely support Christian filmmakers. But we shouldn’t coddle them, and we shouldn’t encourage low-quality work. We should hold them to a higher standard, spurring them on to excellence so that what they produce truly does open viewers’ eyes to the magnificence of our gracious God.

13 responses to “Moving Beyond “Christian Films”

  1. Totally agree with you! Why the need to label everything!

  2. Sounds like if a Hipster Christian were a movie he/she would be this one.

  3. yeah, I felt the same way about the film but wasn’t able to articulate it as well.

  4. This problem is chronic, and not just in film. Christians ostensibly dissenting from the tired or unhelpful norm — even purporting to critique overstepping by one wing, usually the right, of faith — actually end up committing exactly the same errors they mobilized to oppose. Good thoughts, Brett.

  5. “The priority for Christian artists–filmmakers included–should be excellence: making work that is thoughtful, groundbreaking, beautiful, with the goal of pointing in the direction of God’s grace and glory.”

    I so want this to be realized.

  6. I appreciate your review muuuuuch more than the CT criticism that the fim received.

  7. I saw the pre-opening of Blue LIke Jazz at the Justice Conference in Portland and Donald Miller introduced the film. I agree that it seems that the producers of this film when out of their way to be provocative, edgy, and “non-christian.” Before the pre-showing they intentionally and proudly made us aware that this was a PG-13 film or more.
    It my opinion if they had stuck closer to the book and Donald Miller’s own whimsical, honest, struggles with faith it would have made for a better movie.

  8. Right on. I think films that deal with faith will have a much higher impact if they are legitimately good movies. I easily get frustrated with Christian culture and some people’s willingness to put aside matters of taste and talent as long they don’t have to deal with anything “secular”. This is especially true of Christian movies, and I hope there’s some revival of artistry in that industry soon.

  9. I enjoyed the review, but I do have a question for you Brett, do you financially support the Christian film industry in an effort to push it towards excellence?

  10. Brett, what are your thoughts on Seven Days in Utopia ( Netflix)? Would you say that it also was the stereotypical Christian film?

  11. Love to talk to you sometime when your in NYC! Hopefully see you soon.. Carl Lentz

  12. I was hoping for art.

    I’ll wait for the video, and I’ll get it out of the library…at no cost.
    Thanks for a thoughtful review.

    In May I’m covering the micro-story (what Miller addresses in his life-mapping formula Storyline conference) vs. the Macro-Story (canonical-linguist theology made simple. Narrowed to 4 themes).

    It seems like the films that hit the right pitch engage the latter well. I’m partial to the Shawshank Redemption…don’t think it made your 33 list.
    Great list btw

  13. thanks for the insights – i agree with you.

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