A few weeks ago, at The Justice Conference in Portland, I saw an early screening of Blue Like Jazz, the new film adaptation of Donald Miller’s best-selling autobiographical book, which opened across the country last weekend. The film follows Don from the small Texas town where he is steeped in an evangelical subculture to a liberal, secular college in Oregon where he rebels against the faith in which he was raised. Eventually, Don rediscovers his faith—or, at least, a faith, with some resemblance to and yet in many ways distinct from the faith of his childhood.
Blue Like Jazz is not a “Christian movie” of the sort that stars Kirk Cameron, is “safe for the whole family” (it earns its PG-13 rating, director Steve Taylor told us at our screening, almost proudly) and ends with the protagonist being led in a sinner’s prayer to accept Jesus. In fact, the film begins with a skewering depiction of Don’s Southern Baptist church subculture that, as someone who grew up in the church, made me cringe. The truth is, there are elements of American evangelicalism I find embarrassing (with which I don’t want to be associated). As an evangelical who claims that label, I felt like our dirty laundry was being aired in public: kitschy stunts, an insulated subculture which doesn’t realize how strange it looks to those outside and a few hypocritical individuals who practice something dramatically different than what they preach. I’d like to tell my non-Christian friends, whom I hope and pray will one day decide to follow Jesus and join the Church, that everything the film shows is fictional and unfair, but—while it’s not all there is of evangelical subculture by any means—a lot of what the film depicts is true. For example, as the church’s youth pastor feigns a Mexican accent to make a culturally insensitive (and theologically misguided) object lesson with a piñata, I was reminded of the “Rickshaw Rally” Vacation Bible School curriculum a few years ago that was filled with stereotypes of Asian cultures.
The film’s treatment of the Christian faith is certainly not one-sidedly critical, however. Though Don rejects this faith of his youth, it is ultimately a Christian who draws him back to faith in Jesus and to the Church. Penny, a classmate of Don’s, probably would not fit in very well at his home church, but she does love Jesus. It is her Christian faith which drives her concern for the vulnerable—in particular, for refugees.
Some Christian reviewers critiqued the film because it never explicitly communicates the gospel, which is true: Jesus is barely mentioned. I affirm the importance of proclaiming the gospel: I think the injunction (attributed, probably wrongly, to St. Francis) that we “preach the gospel… when necessary use words” is invoked too often by people who seem to think that people will understand and embrace the hope found uniquely in Jesus if we’re merely nice to them. However, I also think the film illustrates an important truth: gospel proclamation, though necessary, is usually not sufficient. Our proclamation of the gospel gains credibility when we actually obey Jesus’ commands, genuinely loving our neighbors as ourselves, including—perhaps especially—those who are marginalized by our society, as Penny illustrates in the film.
Particularly within my generation, I don’t think our primary problem in the United States is that people have never heard the gospel. My sense is that most have heard the gospel message at some point in their lives—a friend in high school took them to a youth group once, or someone handed them a tract on the street, or a particularly eager seatmate on an airplane drew them a diagram where Christ’s cross covers over the gulf between us and God that was created by our sin. As a small child, I once “evangelized” a friend by letting him decide which video we would watch in exchange for letting me explain the gospel to him and leading him in a prayer (he chose Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) For those who have heard the message before but remain unconvinced, it probably would not have won them over if a gospel message had been articulated in Blue Like Jazz (a film which, unfortunately, will probably be seen primarily by people who are already Christians anyway).
Despite having heard the message, many have been turned off by their perceived association of evangelical Christianity with an un-compassionate partisan agenda, because they perceive evangelicals to be gullible and prone to conspiracy theories (the persistent belief among a lot of evangelicals that Barack Obama is a Muslim, without any basis in fact, does not help), or simply because the Christians they knew weren’t particularly gracious or nice. People yearn to be loved and cared for, not to be “won,” which is why a singular focus on conversion divorced from the Great Commandment to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27) has not been particularly effective.
We—each local church and the individuals that compose her—should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope” that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). But we also need to live lives that beg those questions. We need to figure out how to stand out from our society as a whole, not because we’re uniquely angry or kooky or judgmental, but because we love people. One of the best ways that our local churches can do that today is to stand with immigrants—including the undocumented immigrants whom too many in our society, and in some of our churches, disdain—being faithful to Scripture’s many commands in that direction.
Blue Like Jazz ends with Don setting up a confession booth on his college campus—not to receive confessions, but to make them. He apologizes to his mostly-secular classmates for the many ways that the Church has not lived up to what Scripture call us to be. If we want to see revival in our country—particularly amongst “Millennials” like me, whom I think are uniquely cynical and craving of humility and authenticity—we may need to begin with repentance. Acknowledging American evangelicalism (as a whole) has come much too slowly to standing for justice for immigrants might be a good place to start.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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