'Blue Like Jazz': The Sojourners Interview


Editor's Note: Earlier this week, our intrepid blogger/reporter/resident-God-Nerd Christian Piatt sat down with the makers of the highly-anticipated film Blue Like Jazz —  Donald Miller, director Steve Taylor and Marshall Allman, the actor who portrays protagonist "Don" in the screen adaptation of Miller's best-selling memoir — to talk about faith, film and ... fate.

Blue Like Jazz premiered at the SXSW Festival in Texas earlier this month and opens nationwide April 13. Piatt caught up with the filmmakers in a Colorado Springs theater where they were hosting a sneak-peek screening and persuaded the gents to unpack the story of the-little-film-that-could and the Spirit that buoyed them along the way.

The wide-ranging interview covers everything from John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and what Miller calls "dangerous theological ideas" to the astounding grace of God and peanut butter cups. Fascinating and funny, the conversation with the hearts and minds behind Blue Like Jazz is a humdinger.

Watch the interview in its entirety and read Piatt's reflections on the film and his conversation with its makers inside the blog ...

'The 33' Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve

The 33

Still from the movie 'The 33' / via The 33 Movie on Facebook

The 33, a dramatization of the 2010 San Jose mine collapse in Chile, has all the markings of a Hollywood tentpole film. Heartfelt, incredible true story: check. Touching human drama: check. Stirring score: check (it’s one of the last created by composer James Horner before his death in June, giving it extra poignancy). There are more lines about “not giving up” than there are tears in an Oscar acceptance speech. The 33 fits the end-of-year crowd-pleaser profile in every way.

The 33 tells the famous story of the collapse of the gold mine in Chile’s Atacama desert from three different perspectives. 

'99 Homes' Exposes the Pain of Foreclosure for (White) Americans

YouTube / Broad Green Pictures

Photo via YouTube / Broad Green Pictures

How do we measure our success? Matthew 6:19-21 warns us against putting our store in earthly things, which are temporary, but American capitalist culture informs us that the stuff we have — the size, the quality, and how much of it we can afford — is what determines our own worth. As Christians, we try to focus on serving God and loving our neighbors, but often it’s a moment of crisis that reveals where our values truly lie.

The film 99 Homes doesn’t include overtly religious elements, but it features that same battle at the heart of its story, a deal-with-the-devil tale set against the 2008 housing market crash. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani presents the film in an unstylized, utterly human way that explores this question from a dire perspective: how people react when everything they’ve worked hard to earn is yanked away, and they must suddenly re-evaluate their own measures of success.

Projecting Possibility


THE FIRST-EVER Movies and Meaning festival recently took place in New Mexico, bringing 250 people together to experience the possibilities of the most dream-like art form for making the world better. I was privileged to host the festival, which featured a huge screen, a contemplative audience, around a dozen films, and magnificent assistance from the voices of Richard Rohr and slam poet Jessica Helen Lopez. It was a dream come true after a lifetime of loving cinema and being compelled by the idea that art can create change.

Movies and Meaning wants to challenge how movies rarely get the chance to breathe in multiplexes or be engaged with rather than merely noticed, and to promote and facilitate better conversations about, and responses to, cinema—and all art, really. It was a happy surprise that the key word that emerged from the festival was “empathy,” a concept that Rohr told us didn’t even have a name until just about 100 years ago. There’s an intriguing irony there, because cinema itself isn’t much older, and one of cinema’s most important innovations is the experience of observing stories about strangers told in a way that maximized the possibilities of actually seeing them.

What we empathized with at Movies and Meaning was what happens when we reframe our stories as ones in which human beings are capable of cooperating to heal wounds and make life better.

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A Culture War Misfire

LEFT BEHIND may be a soft target, but once seen, you may realize that it’s a soft target for anyone who has ever been on an airplane, seen what Nicolas Cage is capable of in Leaving Las Vegas, met a Muslim, or not been cryogenically frozen since the era when it was socially acceptable to treat people with dwarfism as punchlines.

It really is worse than most theatrically released movies—shot and edited like a political attack ad/music video mashup, written like a child’s Sunday school lesson, and then strangely denuded of almost anything that would make it identifiably Christian (teasing those who already believe, yet scared of alienating people who just want to see a cheesy disaster movie without heavy proselytization).

The people who made it aren’t bad people, of course. (I’m not sure anyone is, with the line between good and evil running through each human heart and all—although that’s another argument that wouldn’t make it into this film.) The producers are ideologically committed to advancing a message that they were indoctrinated into by an unthinking system—let’s call it the Christian Industrial Entertainment Complex. They’ve stumbled upon the money and basic skill to make movies. They think that what they’re doing is changing the world for the better, but that’s doubtful—it’s more likely just reinforcing the closed-set worldview of the CIEC’s pre-committed adherents. This isn’t new, so I’m not too concerned about one more example of bad art masquerading as religious experience.

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Frustration With 'Exodus' All-White Lead Cast Turns Into #BoycottExodusMovie

This is not the first time that biblical films have been criticized for "whitewashing." In an op-ed for Sojourners last year, Ryan Herring noted that his initial excitement for "Noah" and "Exodus" turned to "disdain" after realizing that "not a single one of the leading roles in either movie was given to a person of Middle Eastern descent." "Some things never change. In Hollywood, whitewashing, also known as racebending, is one of many longstanding tradition...Historically, this practice was used to discriminate against actors, both male and female, of color," wrote Herring. "The most common examples of this in the past were white actors dressing up in what is known as blackface, redface, and yellowface. While maybe not as controversial or blatant today, the practice of whitewashing still continues in Hollywood...[where] roles from scripts that clearly call for a person of color are given to white actors."

A Noah State of Mind

AS THIS IS written, the big, fat Hollywood blockbuster Noah is opening amid condemnation from some Muslims and evangelical Christians and praise from most film critics.

Today, any product that touches the Bible is bound to be perceived as another entry in the culture wars. But that doesn’t seem to be what the producers and filmmakers had in mind with Noah. After all, it’s time-tested public domain material that presents great opportunities for computer-generated imagery (CGI) special effects. Paramount, the studio that put up the $125 million production cost, mostly wanted to peel off a slice of the Christian audience that flocked to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the History Channel’s Bible series.

But Noah was a culture war surrogate long before Russell Crowe donned his biblical robes. That’s because the creationist organization Answers in Genesis (AiG), which runs an anti-evolution Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, has for the past few years been trying to raise money to build a theme park anchored by a Bible-sized replica of Noah’s Ark. The Creation Museum is famous for such attractions as exhibits that depict humans and dinosaurs as neighbors. You may have heard it described as the museum for people who think The Flintstones was reality TV.

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Humor Makes 'Heaven' Accessible

A wide-eyed 4-year-old makes a fairly convincing case for the existence of an afterlife in Heaven Is for Real. But it’s Greg Kinnear, with his characteristic affability, who just about seals the deal.

Humor infuses the film (rated PG), which opens nationwide Wednesday (April 16) and is based on the best-selling book. By focusing on the bond between father and son, the movie avoids being heavy-handed or preachy, a wise choice for a film that asserts heaven exists, based on the earnest insistence of a precocious preschooler.

Video courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube

Why I Am Troubled by 'God's Not Dead'

Courtesy Pure Flix Entertainment

Courtesy Pure Flix Entertainment

From the opening scene to its closing postscript, God’s Not Dead tells a story of persecution and courage, focusing on a young white man named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper). “Mr. Wheaton,” as he is referred to in various parts of the movie, finds himself in a predicament on the first day of his Philosophy 150 course. In a scene that echoes Rome’s historic persecution of Christians, the powerful intellectual Professor Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) stands before his class of impressionable students and tells them they can skip the section of the course that discusses the existence of god, if each of them signs a piece of paper that says “god is dead.” The professor makes it clear that this proposal is more of a threat when he slowly and emphatically informs his students that the section on god’s existence is where “students have traditionally received their lowest grades of the semester.” This is Mr. Wheaton’s unexpected predicament: can he sign a piece of paper that proclaims god, as a philosophical category and concept, is dead? And if he decides not to sign that paper, can he have the courage to face the consequences?

'Noah:' Deeply, Passionately Biblical

© MMXIV Paramount Pictures Corporation

by Niko Tavernise: Russell Crowe in NOAH, from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises © MMXIV Paramount Pictures Corporation

I’ll begin by cutting to the chase: Forget most of what you’ve read about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah. It opens Friday. Go see it and decide for yourself.

Having said that, in my opinion Aronofksy’s Noah is a beautiful, powerful, difficult film worthy of the “epic” label. A vivid, visually spectacular reimagining of an ancient story held as sacred by all three Abrahamic religious traditions, it also is the most spiritually nuanced, exquisitely articulated exploration of the ideas of justice and mercy I’ve ever seen on a movie screen.

And despite what you may have heard elsewhere, Noah is deeply, passionately biblical.