Steve Taylor on Blue Like Jazz and Christian Art

Josh Larsen

Something of an iconoclast in the Christian art scene – he first gained national attention in the 1980s as a satirical Christian pop singer – director Steve Taylor was a fitting choice to direct the film version of Don Miller’s essay collection Blue Like Jazz. Just as the book seeks a Christian identity that stands apart from the politicized stereotypes, so has Taylor sought to create art that’s quite different from most “faith-based” endeavors.

Fictionalized for the screen, Blue Like Jazz travels the faith journey of a dedicated young believer (Marshall Allman) who finds his assumptions challenged when he attends the liberal and hedonistic Reed College. Last year, while Taylor was in the midst of editing the movie, he sat down for an interview with Think Christian and our sister program, Under the Radar. Here’s what he had to say about Christian art in general and the movie in particular, which opens nationwide April 13.

What appealed to you about Miller’s book?

I was struck by the honesty, the communication, and I loved this setting of Don (in the book) auditing classes at this really kind of other world of Reed College. Frankly it reminded me a lot of growing up as the son of a Baptist pastor and going off to Colorado University in Boulder. The sense of displacement that I felt and yet still believing that Christianity was true, but wondering why there was such a gulf between the two. I just thought that this would make for a really interesting movie. There was a lot that was universal in this story, the sense of being a fish out of water, being in a world you’re not sure you belong in and how do you make your way in that world. It seemed like something people would respond to in a similar way that they responded to the book.

Funding was a challenge, despite the book’s popularity. What were some of the reasons for that?

We’re in this sort of strange age where faith-based filmmaking or filmmaking done by Christians is supposedly synonymous with family-friendly. I’m all in favor of family-friendly movies, but I don’t sit down and read my 13-year-old daughter Song of Solomon either. And the thought that those two are synonymous I think is bad and wrong. I thought that if there was a book that would have a chance to be outside of that framework, then Blue Like Jazz would be it. It’s well-known and well-loved and the movie would have a chance to tell a story that needed to be told. And you could do it in a way that was entertaining and hopefully set a different course for what people think of today as films with faith as part of the story.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

I think a lot of what inspired Don to write the book was, "Why am I ashamed of my Christian faith? If this is what I believe is true, why am I ashamed of it?" And I think what he discovered in being at Reed College is that Christianity has a bad reputation because in a lot of people’s minds it’s not about Jesus at all. It’s about political agendas or fundamentalist theology or things that are very tangential to what Jesus actually is. Or it’s kind of Americanized. One of the reasons the book speaks to us is because it brings us back to Jesus and reminds us that a lot of these trappings that we think of as Christianity really aren’t at all, they’re sort of an American culture version of what Christianity has become, almost by default in many cases. This book gave people a different - in some ways a new - language with which to discuss faith. For a lot of us it’s easier to give someone a book and say read this than it is to try to explain to them. It’s a good conversation starter. The goal has always been that the movie would make you feel what the book made you feel and in the same way be a conversation starter.

We’re in this sort of strange age where faith-based filmmaking or filmmaking done by Christians is supposedly synonymous with family-friendly.

How do you hope the movie might help chart a new course for Christian art?

A lot of the church’s art in the last 50 years has become very sentimental and very earnest. And of course there’s nothing wrong with being earnest, but I don’t see that as a particularly Biblical way of communicating. We certainly don’t see that in the stories of the parables of Christ and even in the Old Testament prophets and how they communicated. …I don’t know what it is. It’s almost like … we’re defenders of the faith, like Christianity is going to come falling down unless we’re careful with how we present it. That’s not really how it works, you know? In fact, that’s really kind of arrogant. So yeah, we can afford to create movies that ask questions and certainly don’t have all the answers and use satire and all the different communication tools at our disposal.

How have you come to bridge the gulf that some Christians feel exists between faith and film?

Early on I thought a gulf existed that I’m not sure exists. If we as Christians believe we know ultimate truth, then what we want to do is, fundamentally, tell the truth when we have a movie camera and we’re creating films. I think part of the challenge for Christians who want to be filmmakers is, we don’t necessarily want to tell the truth. We feel like, "Well, if I’m a Christian and I’m presenting a Christian character, or something like that, we have to be careful with how we present this to the world because we don’t want people to get the wrong idea." And we fool ourselves because they already have the wrong idea. …Music done by Christians in the last 20 years has progressed, I think the art form has gotten better and it’s gotten to a place where there are Christians who are making music who are as good as anybody out there. My hope is we can have that same kind of renaissance in filmmaking. There are certainly people out there who are doing well right now, we probably just need more of them.

What Do You Think?

  • Do we need a wider definition of Christian art? What does the term mean to you?
  • Are you ever tentative about identifying yourself as a Christian? Why?
  • If you’ve seen Blue Like Jazz, would you describe it as a faith-based film?

Topics: Movies