There’s a lot of buzz about Blue Like Jazz, the soon-to-be released film adaptation of Donald Miller’s best-seller. I’ve never read the book in its entirety, only parts. I’ve followed Miller’s website and watched several interviews with him. He seems like a very likeable, humble, guy. The “message” of the book seems awfully relevant. And the film snippets I’ve seen look great. (I’ve embedded the trailer at the end of this post, if you’re interested.)
So why am I conflicted about seeing “Blue Like Jazz.”
Many saw the book as a pretty fair look at the state of evangelicalism in the States and the tone of conversation between professing Christians and the culture. That sentiment helped Blue Like Jazz, the book, become an early catalyst of a growing movement of young American evangelical Christians who were distancing themselves from the excesses of organized religion, calling for a return to Christianity’s true meaning, and initiating a more open-ended, diplomatic, affable tone to cultural engagement. Some have labeled this approach as neo-apologetic and this, they assert, builds the bridges that our rhetorical rancor have burned.
I’ve been a bit suspicious of this trend to criticize Christianity, especially as a means of apologetic. This is not because I think that Christians aren’t screwed up or that American evangelicals aren’t often a parody of the real thing, but because the neo-apologists tend to two extremes. One, they focus on the worst elements of the Church and ignore the good. And Two, they tend to compromise Absolutes (i.e. Scripture) along the way. So most everything becomes “unresolved,” or blue… like jazz.
One of the most memorable images of the book is when Miller tells the fascinating story about how a handful of Christians at uber-liberal Reed College set up a “Confession Booth” during a week of campus pagan partying and excess. The booth, however, wasn’t for students to confess their sins, but for Christians to repent to the Reed students. Donned as monks, Miller and company asked Reed students for forgiveness regarding their lack of love and Christ-likeness, apologizing, as it were, for the Church. (I believe this is one of the lead images throughout the movie trailer.)
And this is what leaves me conflicted. Specifically, the concept of confessing our sins — or the sins of the Church — to non-Christians.
Yes, we need to approach the lost, not with a sense of superiority and condemnation, but with gentleness and mercy. Frankly, less finger-pointing and fire-and-brimstone would be refreshing. But evangelism by apology seems fraught with danger. Yes, our conduct and character are intrinsic to our message. But the truth is, no “messenger” ever perfectly embodies their “message.” Christians will always have something to apologize for because they aren’t perfect. So where do we stop?
And what happens after we apologize? Do we then begin to tip-toe into a presentation of the Gospel, holding our breath lest we offend those who’ve (hopefully) absolved us? At some point, even the “apologetic” Christian will have to stand for something — and just like Jesus, that “something” just might rankle and infuriate others. Besides, who said the Church should be loved by everyone? Last I checked, Jesus promised His followers that they would be, um, rather hated (John 15:18-20).
In light of this, maybe we should be more thankful for the cultural “persecution” and less worried about our PR image.
Yes, films (and books) like Blue Like Jazz remind us about our need to look in the mirror, identify the disconnect, and be more humble, gracious, and Christlike in our approach. But at some point, this conversation has to shift away from how screwed up Christians are to how merciful and powerful the Lord Jesus Christ is. There will always be bigots, buffoons, legalists, and hypocrites in the Church. But God has shown, throughout history, that the Gospel can survive just fine without my apology.
And that’s why I’m conflicted about seeing Blue Like Jazz. I love the idea of building a bridge to our culture, showing Christians in a real light. But must we do so by… groveling?