Blue Like Jazz


the book

In college I was assigned the book Blue Like Jazz: Non-religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality for an internship that I was doing at my local church. This book was life-changing on so many levels. The way that Don wrote about his ever shifting views of faith and religion and relating to religous people was exactly what I needed during that time of my life. It felt so real, expressing so many things that I had felt, but hadn’t been able to put into words. Characters said things like:

“And I found Jesus very disturbing, very straightforward. He wasn’t diplomatic, and yet I felt like if I met Him, He would really like me. Don, I can’t explain how freeing that was, to realize that if I met Jesus, He would like me. I never felt like that about some of the Christians on the radio. I always thought if I met those people they would yell at me. But it wasn’t like that with Jesus.”

And that was radical and true and made me feel like I wasn’t crazy in this whole trying to relate to God and The Church and Christians and the fucked-upness of so much of my fundamentalist brainwashing that took place as a child/teenager.

And it wasn’t just about the topic of spirituality, it was the way in which Don wrote about his life, weaving childhood stories in with random musings, current happenings, and future speculations. I heard, a few years after the book was popular, that some people who had loved the book were suddenly very angry with Don because they learned that his “memoir” wasn’t 100% fact, that he had, in fact, taken some creative license with his storytelling. But that made it all the more beautiful to me. That there can be truth in a story even if it’s not 100% historically accurate (which, coincidentally, is how I now view The Bible). Don’s way of writing truth, without it being historically dry facts was life-giving and has, to this day, still influenced my own writing style (at least, in my mind it has). Like, it made this whole concept of blogging for the world okay.

 

So, when I saw, on Netflix, that Blue Like Jazz had been made into an indie movie I jumped at the chance to watch it. I was really curious about how they would translate random life stories and musings into a cohesive plotline. I was excited to see the characters (Don, and Penny, and Tony the Beat Poet) all on screen. While some people go into movies with a critical eye, trying to always compare the book version to the movie, I mostly went in as a curious individual, wanting to feel connected to something larger. I haven’t read the book since 2004, so I have mostly forgotten the actual words, and am left with how the book made me feel. I guess I wanted to feel something, and so I picked this movie.

And, sadly, I was disappointed. You knew that was coming, right? I know it was a hard storyline to make into a movie, though I think there were things that could have been added, and things that could have been left out, that would have made it better. I almost think titling it Blue Like Jazz made this pressure for it to live up to a bestselling book, and this pressure for it to follow a storyline from the book, rather than trying to get to the essence of the feeling or big takeaways that people felt from reading the book. I think it got close, a couple of times, but didn’t do it justice.

For example, the character of Penny becomes a Christian in the book, and is really transformational to a lot of people simply because they see her being a loving, kind, compassionate person. She loves God and people see it. In the movie Penny’s character is good and compassionate, but there’s something about her delivery that seems like she’s just trying to be a good person, and while it’s nice, it’s not inspirational. It almost comes off as a little goody-two-shoes, which was not how the character was in the book. I think they tried in the movie, but I think it didn’t quite measure up. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t inspiring.

There were other aspects, like trying to make Don’s family life more chaotic than it appeared in the book, or focusing on other, in my opinion, more trivial details, which made me think…if Donald Miller had simply set out to create a film on non-religous thoughts on Christians spirituality (the subtitle to his book), what would it have looked like? Even if nothing but the theme had been the same, would the film have done something more for my heart?

After watching the film I started reading the book again. It read like an old friend, and I found myself laughing and nodding in parts. But I also noticed that time had done something strange to my memory. Maybe it’s because I’m in a different place, now, but I didn’t find myself as moved by it as before. I’m hoping it means that the words have just sunk into my soul and aren’t life-changing radical as before, but I’m mostly worried that I’m jaded and cynical and curmudgeony. I stopped halfway and wonder, maybe it’s better if I just leave the memory in the past? It also made me wonder…what am I searching for, longing for, that isn’t being filled by re-visiting old spiritual favorites or new indie films on the same topics? What am I looking for?

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