FAITH OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARIES: Marshall Allman and Claire Holt bring Donald Miller's bestselling book to life in 'Blue Like Jazz.' (Image: Roadside Attractions)
“Jazz is the mother, and hip-hop’s the child / She died and revived, now her child’s running wild.” – Grits, “Jazz,” Mental Releases, 1994
The highly anticipated film adaptation of Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, which opens this weekend,accomplishes something rare and beautiful: it depicts an authentic faith journey in a bohemian, urban setting. Though the titular music is mentioned only a few times in passing — over the plaintive wails of vintage Coltrane — the movie pulses with many aspects of great jazz. It is alternately exuberant and melancholy, messy and chaotic but with a coalescing sense of order and progression.
Directed by former CCM artist and producer Steve Taylor (who also directed 2006’s The Second Chance starring Michael W. Smith) and starring Marshall Allman (HBO’s True Blood), Blue Like Jazz is a fictionalized account of Donald Miller’s crisis of belief at liberal Reed College, a stark contrast to his Baptist Texan upbringing.
Plenty of keystrokes have been expended dealing with the question of whether or not this is a Christian movie. In my book, motion pictures can be no more Christian than model trains or milkshakes, which are all products born of long, collaborative processes. What people really mean when they ask that question is, “Does this film espouse a Christian worldview?”
The answer there is a firm, “yes, but.” Yes, but not an exclusively conservative evangelical worldview. Yes, but only if your definition of a Christian includes those who struggle and doubt and make horrendous mistakes and occasionally [SPOILER ALERT] deface buildings with giant condoms. (Did I mention this is a PG-13 film?)
Marshall Allman plays the fictional Don Miller as an everyman-turned-iconoclast, who fled to Reed as an act of rebellion amidst personal turmoil in his personal life and at his fundamentalist Baptist church. Eventually, he ends up rebelling against the rebellion, slowly finding his way back to a place of forgiveness and reconnection after spending a school year “lost in a sea of individuality.” Viewing his journey, then, is a little bit like an ad hoc whitewater baptism. It’s full of confused, frightened thrashing about, but after it’s over, you walk away with a deep sense of peace and meaning.
Dramatizing a primarily internal conflict, a challenging task in any film, requires getting the details right. And as Don says in the film, if you’re going to have an existential crisis, you can’t do much better than winter in Portland. Despite its paucity of ethnic diversity, the city of Portland, home to Reed College and plenty of native weirdness, plays a significant support role, with many iconic Portland locales represented onscreen.
And though most of the screen time is carried by Allman’s Don alongside new friends Penny (Claire Holt), Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), and an enigmatic character known only as The Pope (played to the hilt by Justin Welborn), Don’s journey is encapsulated by an active disdain for his parents and an effort to run from the faith of his past.
MEN BEHIND THE STORY: Director Steve Taylor (from left), author Donald Miller, and star Marshall Allman during one of several tour stops this spring to screen 'Blue Like Jazz' for preview audiences.
Thus, the main source of the film’s God-centered outlook comes from the seemingly incomprehensible way that the people and events that comprise Don’s first year at Reed somehow lead him back to faith, rather than pushing him further away. Somehow, despite the copious amounts of alcohol, philosophical debates, activist stunts, and gender identity politics, Don begins to see with clarity who he really is, and in contrast, who God has been the whole time.
There’s something wonderfully symmetrical about a film that depicts a rediscovery of God among the godless being named after an art form initially rejected as vulgar and inferior. That sense of poetic justice is amplified further when you consider that the trio of producer Steve Taylor, cowriter and cinematographer Ben Pearson, and Don Miller himself, had given up on the project after four years of fundraising futility. They were only able to move forward after two fans emailed them with the idea of a crowdsourced Kickstarter campaign — one that eventually shattered all the previous fundraising records for films and turned thousands of financial supporters into de facto associate producers. So after witnessing the creative journey from memoir to screenplay to the big screen, Blue seems very much like, pardon the expression, a God thing.
Which is good, because this film is a significant departure from standard faith-based fare that takes more of an obvious approach to faith. It’s obvious that the film, like the book that spawned it, was intended to help spark honest conversations between members of competing faith communities, including those who have no faith at all. In this sense, Blue Like Jazz is clearly a bridge-building film, and it could very well serve as a notice to the rest of Hollywood that it’s possible to do faith-based filmmaking that is both spiritually honest and commercially viable. For that reason alone, people need to go out and see Blue Like Jazz as soon as possible.
My only remaining hope is that, if this film reaches a modicum of commercial success, the principal creators turn their attention to another intractable problem in need of cultural bridge-building — the racial divide in America. If that seems like too tall an order, they should take it as a compliment. I have plenty of faith in God expressing Himself through the talents of Donald Miller and Steve Taylor.
ON THE AIR JORDAN: Actor Michael B. Jordan's television work can be seen on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood.
Actor Michael B. Jordan’s compelling roles on two underappreciated TV dramas illustrate the need for biblical manhood and fatherly guidance in our society.
As an avid Portland Trail Blazer fan, I never thought I would enjoy saying this again, but I’ve been having a great time watching Michael Jordan in his prime. I’ve seen some amazing, compelling performances from him. He’s all over my TV. The only weird thing is, his dominant sport is football, not basketball.
I’m speaking, of course, of Michael B. Jordan, rising star in Hollywood. Early fans knew him as Wallace on HBO’s The Wire. Since then, he’s been on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Burn Notice, and Lie to Me, to name a few.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching him most recently on two shows in particular. In the fifth-and-final season of Friday Night Lights (currently on DirecTV, later to air on NBC), Jordan plays quarterback Vince Howard, a troubled kid who gradually becomes a team leader under the tutelage of legendary coach Eric Taylor. Jordan also plays Alex, the unlikely love interest to teenager Haddie on NBC’s Parenthood.
The most striking thing about both of these nuanced, three-dimensional portrayals is that they seem to typify the need that young Black men have for older male role models. Every time I watch his self-assured, vulnerable humility on-screen, I think to myself, ‘that guy needs better men in his life.’
I realize the last thing we need is another piece on Why Our Young Black Men Need Fathers. It’s obvious. If you don’t already believe that, you have bigger problems than this article can address.
It’s also obvious that impartations of manhood are not limited to fathers, and that they’re most necessary in situations where fathers aren’t doing their jobs. For most of Jordan’s run on FNL, Vince’s dad was in jail. Meanwhile on Parenthood, Alex’s dad was an alcoholic.
What’s not always obvious is that this impartation happens in ways that defy our expectations and preconceptions of manhood is supposed to look like.
One man to another
But before we can explore this, we have to define our expectations. Manhood is imparted when one man calls it out in another; when he recognizes it, validates it, and supports it. That’s how it’s shownmanytimesover in the Bible; that’s how it works. This is one of the lessons of To Own A Dragon by Donald Miller and his mentor John MacMurray. A great read, Dragon (which was recently revised and re-released under the title Father Fiction) is a window into the impact one man can have on another when he chooses to live as an open book. It’s a stunning portrait of discipleship, one interaction at a time.
It should go without saying that this impartation can only happen through men, because you can’t pass on to someone else something that you don’t have yourself. Unfortunately, this is no longer common knowledge. The Root recently featured an exploration of professional women considering single motherhood, which, considering the plight of today’s young Black male, is naïve at best and destructive at worst. Just because there have been many single Black women who have done a great job compensating for the lack of men in their sons’ lives, doesn’t mean that the need doesn’t exist.
FRIDAY NIGHT TRUTH: Michael B. Jordan portrays high school football player Vince Howard on NBC’s Friday Night Lights. He’s pictured here in a scene with his coach, Eric Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler).
The good news, though, is not just that you don’t need to be a father to impart manhood, but you don’t even have to be an official “father figure” … you don’t have to join a mentorship organization or program. You just have to keep your eyes open, and make a difference where you can.
You see this if you watch my man Mike B. in both of his recent roles. Men who were not his characters’ biological fathers were still able to make meaningful gestures to impart manhood. Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), Adam Braverman (Peter Krause), and Vernon Merriweather (Steve Harris) all made decisions and had conversations that served to affirm the character of Vince or Alex. None of them were particularly affectionate or emotional, yet all of their interactions were meaningful.
(I’d say more, but you know … spoilers.)
Great results, great expectations
In a recent interview, Michael B. Jordan admitted mild frustration at having such a famous namesake. On that level, I can sympathize. Yet, I believe it’s no coincidence that he’s turning out such impressive performances. With famous names come great expectations. And there’s something about high expectations that help young people respond well.
This is the main lesson we’ve learned from the Tiger Mother phenomenon, as documented by right here at Urban Faith by writer Kathy Khang. We do our young ones a disservice when we lower our expectations for fear of them crumbling under the pressure. As Cliff famously said to Theo, it’s the dumbest thing ever.
And yet, it’s not enough to have high expectations. We’ve got to be able to help our young men navigate the battery of hazards and pitfalls that accompany great talent and great expectations. My heart was heavy as I watched fictional quarterback Vince Howard’s father illegally negotiate with Division-I schools, knowing that real-life quarterback Cam Newton of the newly-crowned BCS champion Auburn Tigers, is still under investigation for the same thing. (And by the way… Newton’s father is a reverend. Lord, have mercy.)
Clearly, we need more men in our country who can and will continue to take the opportunities around them and make positive impacts in the lives of our youth.
Find a spot, and take it
That’s one thing I consistently saw from my own father, a reverend himself, growing up. If I had to pick only one positive attribute that I could take from him (trust me, there are dozens), that’s the one I would want to emulate. Even now that he’s retired, during outreach events, church services, or on afternoon bike rides, my father is always on the lookout for a young man who needs an impartation of hope and destiny. And when he sees an opportunity, he goes for it.
It’s for this reason that, as I’ve continued to grow as a musician, he implores me to continue doing hip-hop music that offers hope and models discipleship. And that’s why, if someone is feelin’ our material, they should just go ahead and take it.
Because whether it’s in the context of doing Christian hip-hop music, coaching football, leading a church ministry, or just talking straight with the young man who wants to date your daughter … every man has an opportunity to call out manhood in a young man who needs it.
And you don’t have to be Michael Jordan to make it happen.
The series finale of Friday Night Lights airs Wednesday, Feb. 9th, on DirecTV. NBC, which co-produces the series, will begin its broadcast of the final season on April 15th.
While working on the screenplay for the film version of his bestselling book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller decided to live his life like a good movie. The results were dramatic. (Photo: Jeremy Cowart Photography.)
I used to imagine a camera crew was following me around, secretly recording every bit of my life like The Truman Show. The crew would follow me to the Laundromat and record for hours as I separated the whites from the coloreds. Sometimes viewers at home would watch me reorganize my bookshelf or agonize over what kind of food to order for dinner on a Saturday night. Chinese or Italian … Chinese or Italian…? It was a pretty boring television show. When you think about it, real life is never as exciting as a movie.
But what if our lives were more like a good film, full of drama, action, romance and victory? What if we lived like we were lead characters in the midst of a compelling plotline, as opposed to bumbling through life in a series of random experiences? We might just find that the elements that make up a good story are the same elements that make for a good life.
When Donald Miller set out to edit his own life for a film based on his bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, he realized that by applying the principles of filmmaking he could actually cast himself as the lead in a more meaningful life. In his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, the popular author takes his personal journey out of what seemed to be a meaningless narrative and transforms it into a new story fit for the big screen.
We recently spoke with Donald Miller about his new book, the new narrative that’s shaping his life, and the status of the Jazz film his fans have been waiting years to see.
URBAN FAITH: In A Million Miles, you say that the elements of a good story are the same as those that make up a good life. What are the qualities of a good story?
DONALD MILLER: A good story is a character who wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it. But those are all conditional, so the kind of person that we are matters, and what we want in life actually matters. For instance, if our goals are to pay off the house (which I have nothing against — that’s a great goal) but that’s the whole of our story — all of our conflict and all of our work is about paying off the house — then we shouldn’t expect to feel any more meaning in our lives than if we were to watch a movie about a guy who worked really hard to pay off his house. We’re not going to be crying at the end of that film. It has to be about something more than that.
Now that you’ve discovered a more compelling narrative for your life, has the story of you as a writer come to an end?
The story of becoming a successful writer is a story that a lot of people are living. And once I had done that, I didn’t have a story anymore. If you don’t have a story to live within, life feels meaningless. That happened to me, so I had to figure out what was my next story and it involved The Mentoring Project and providing mentors for kids growing up without fathers. I’m still a writer of course — I will always write books. But I needed something more, and that was my something more.
Christians often feel plagued by the sense that we might not be living the life God has in mind for us. How do you know you’ve chosen the right story to live?
I don’t know that there is a right story. I think there are good stories and many that honestly are subjective. What you say is a good story might not be something I think is a good story. But I think what we’re getting into is as Christians, we feel like there is this thing that God wants me to do. And that may be true for some people, but I don’t think that’s true for all of us. When I pray, “God do you think I should do this?” often I think God is saying, “Well, what do you want to do?” And we would say, no, no, no. God is absolute; it’s black and white; it’s a mathematical system — you read the Bible and you figure this out.
But that’s not the way parents work. That’s sort of taking the life out of God and saying that God is not a being, He’s a computer. I don’t believe that. I think God interacts with us the way a father would interact with a child. In the sense that sometimes it would be a good story and sometimes it wouldn’t. But really God is saying what do you want and then we say what we want and He says well that’s not very wise, but I understand why you want it.
Wow. If that’s true, that is incredibly freeing.
Well, yeah! I think God just says, “What do you want?” And we say, “Well, I want this.” And He says, “Well, no you can’t have that. That’s sin. What else do you want?” And we say, “I want this.” And God says, “Well you know that’s not the best option but why don’t you go for it and figure some things out here.” And that’s exactly how we raise our kids. Why wouldn’t God be doing that with us if He has called Himself our Father?
You mentioned sin. What are some other things that keep us from living a more compelling story?
Fear. Characters do not like to change. They have to be forced to change. Something has to happen to propel them into changing. In story structure, we create something called an inciting incident — it’s something that happens from which the character can never go backward; they can only go forward. The reason we don’t want to change is because of fear. Even if we’re living in a terrible situation, at least we have control over that situation. I know what’s going on in my life, and if I try to do something different it may change and may get worse. So we stay in our terrible situation. In order to live a great story, we have to face our fears.
Throughout your career you’ve openly shared your pain from growing up without a father. Now that you’re embarking on a new story about mentoring young boys, what kinds of fears have you had to face?
I was afraid to mentor a kid. [Laughs.] I was afraid I’d mess this kid’s life up or I wouldn’t be there for something. Of course in the first three minutes of meeting this kid that I mentor, that was all gone out the window. When we were on the way to a baseball game and he asked me how fast my car went. And I just sank the pedal into the floor to show him and that was it–we bonded. We were buddies after that. But before that it was just a lot of fear. Guys don’t like being called into relational stuff. Of course, we love it once we’re in it. So the men and women who live amazing stories just walk into their fear and they make things happen.
We are resourcing and equipping the church to start mentoring programs within their own walls. The mentoring program actually belongs to the church, but we inspire them, we equip them, we train them, we give them materials that they need. We interact with a key leader in that church and we monitor the success of the program. We have seven programs in Portland. We have about 200 that are waiting to start our program. We’re mentoring 100 kids here, and we think we can mentor about 5,000 in a short period of time and then grow from there.
I see that the infrastructure of the church is already there. The manpower is there to mentor an entire generation of Americans. We could literally shut down a significant percentage of our prisons if the church did this. We could turn back the abortion rate. We could turn back the divorce rate. You know there is so much that could be done if we invest relationally in fatherless boys — not because they are more important than girls, but because boys are the ones who are going to cause trouble. Ninety-four percent of the people in prison are men.
But what’s amazing are the values of the church — the pro-family values of the church, the pro-ethics, pro-morality values. They could all be met with this vision. But it’s a hard vision because it calls us into relational exchanges. It calls us into sacrifice. But if you just grumble and complain about the government or our problems, it’s such a much easier way to focus your energy than to actually get off your butt and do anything. But we believe the church has it in them to actually get off their butts and do something, so we’re challenging the church to mentor the next generation of fatherless boys.
What’s the latest on the Blue Like Jazz film?
We’re probably 50 percent there in terms of having the money we need before we can shoot the film, and they’re actually saying we might have it by the end of the [summer]. But at the same time, that puts us on a weird schedule because we needed to shoot in the summer because we want to shoot on location at a college and obviously colleges have people in them. We wanted to shoot it here at Reed College. That may still happen but it may have to wait until next year. But the script is done. It’s a very fun movie, and I’m looking forward to having it out there.
Win a FREE Copy of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, compliments of UrbanFaith.com and Thomas Nelson Publishers.
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Justice as an Act of Worship: Christian anti-poverty advocates joined together to pray, praise, and lobby for social justice during Sojourner's Mobilization to End Poverty last month in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ryanrodrickbeiler.com)
Jennifer Otterbein is a first year Master of Divinity student at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York. In late April she did something she’d never done before; she went to Washington D.C. to lobby her congressman and senators on behalf of the poor.
Otterbein traveled from her home in New Jersey to attend the Mobilization to End Poverty (MEP) event hosted by Sojourners at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For three days, some 1,153 people assembled to rally against poverty and hear a lineup of prominent speakers that included Congressman John Lewis, TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, World Vision president Richard Stearns, evangelist John Perkins, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Dallas pastor Freddy Haynes, and urban ministry activist Alexie Torres-Fleming.
Organizers made appointments with hundreds of legislators so that activists could advance three action items designed to “protect and defend budget priorities that will reduce poverty.” These items included: 1) A call for congress to cut poverty in half by 2020; 2) to fully fund President Obama’s foreign affairs budget; and 3) to support passage of health care reform that protects the most vulnerable citizens.
Although Otterbein was nervous the night before her first foray into activism, she received support and training from the Sojourners organization and was energized by the experience. She says it was “a great way to see how advocacy works” and to see that “we do have a voice and can express it.” Now Otterbein is trying to figure out how her gifting and passions can lead to service in the care of her neighbor.
Not all MEP attendees were new to activism or to Sojourners. Sensing a deeper call on his life, Mike Kennedy came from Bradenton, Florida, to his second Sojourners conference looking for inspiration and direction. What this local Habitat for Humanity board member found was worship and fiery preaching, activism, instruction and camaraderie — and that was just on day one! By 9 p.m., he was still searching for direction, but not for inspiration.
Kennedy was one of a couple hundred young people who attended a Monday night session with bestselling author Donald Miller. Miller, best known for Blue Like Jazz, said he was there because he likes to surround himself with “people doing cool things.” He is founder of The Mentoring Project, whose goal is to provide aid to single mothers and role models for boys growing up without fathers. Miller also prayed the benediction at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He talked about growing bored with his literary success and deciding to write a new story for his life. He encouraged his audience to do the same. Good stories, according to Miller, are those in which a noble character overcomes conflict. The more conflict there is, the better the story is going to be. He said good stories adjust our moral compass. He concluded: “Your life, your story must not be one of compromise. It’s that important.”
Taking It to the Beltway: During the conference, attendees took part in meetings with Washington legislators to encourage them to make social justice and outreach to the poor a priority. (Photo: ryanrodrickbeiler.com)
Rudy Carassco is a World Vision board member and, through July, executive director of the Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, California. Carrasco was in town with Harambee teacher Glory Okeke to hear what the Obama administration is planning for its Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and to network with friends and benefactors in the urban ministry community.
Joshua DuBois, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was one of three Obama administration officials to offer Carrasco insight. Dubois outlined three goals President Obama has for the office. First, to “get the economy back on track and address domestic poverty”; second, to “encourage responsible fatherhood”; third, to “support maternal health, support adoption, reduce abortions, and find areas of common ground”; and fourth, to “increase inter-religious dialogue and action.”
Carrasco says, “It’s good to hear people like Josh DuBois and [special advisor to the president] Van Jones who represent the administration, just to hear how they describe the initiatives. … It’s important just to get a feel for things.” He likes what he hears so far. “Having areas of focus seems really practical and pragmatic in a good way. I think the equal access emphasis that the prior administration had was critical. … That’s something that can be leveraged now. …I know a number of people on the faith counsel. I trust them.”
For organizations like Carrasco’s that don’t solicit government funding, networking is vital. He says, “A lot of it [MEP] for us is the relationships with the people we know. … We have a lot of relationships because of the work I do, but also because of our past directors of Harambee [John and Vera Mae Perkins], so we maintain those relationships.”
Urban Strategies president Lisa Cummins served in the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based initiatives. She says events like MEP inspire and energize workers because “a lot of folks in the trenches feel like they’re doing it themselves. Coming together is a reminder that they’re not by themselves.” Cummins thinks great things were accomplished over the previous eight years by the Bush office, but that the work isn’t finished. She’s excited about what the new administration is doing and is supportive of its “monumental commitment” to objective goals.
There were over a thousand dedicated and enthusiastic attendees like these at MEP. Faces of every age and hue filled the downtown convention center. UrbanFaith briefly chatted with a couple Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth, Kansas, who had been reading Sojourners newsletters since the 1970s. These senior citizens said they’d heard a lot of voices since then and the ones at this year’s event were especially inspiring. A young, hip Mennonite from Pennsylvania said he felt as if this was a transformational moment in our nation’s history. He wanted to be “part of the changing wind and broader agenda in the political arena.” MEP surpassed his expectations. His friend, a Lutheran pastor, was interested in “speaking into existence a new American dream,” one for a “post capitalist” society. Still another young man, this one a youth pastor from Florida, was at MEP in search of ideas to expand his affluent teenagers’ vision beyond themselves. When UrbanFaith talked with him, he was toying with the idea of creating a tutoring program for the children of migrant farm workers.
Not only were attendees pumped, but Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, was moved to tears by what he sees as a new political climate. In his inaugural address Wallis said, “More than any time in my lifetime, this is movement time.” He rejoiced at the fact that “poverty is now on the agenda of churches” and said that although we may not agree about theology, we can agree about the need to eradicate malaria and hunger. Wallis also rejoiced in his new found position as advisor to the president. (It was this opportunity that had brought him to tears.) He reminded attendees, however, that “access doesn’t make change by itself.” He said, “This town is known for giving access without results. As long as 30,000 kids die every day due to hunger and poverty, access doesn’t mean a thing.”
Whether someone was a student, an unknown urban worker, or an activist with friends in high places, they were at the Mobilization to End Poverty event to make a difference on behalf of their fellow citizens and that is something to celebrate.
In the neo-beatnik classic Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller extols the virtues of the titular great American music (I’m referring to jazz itself, for those who don’t know what titular means) by saying that it, like life, doesn’t resolve.
I’m curious, then, about what he would feel about the latest Will Smith vehicle, Seven Pounds, for many of its qualities share a commonality with jazz. It’s mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic. And it, too, refuses to resolve. (more…)
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