Back in February, while addressing a group of supporters at the Americans for Prosperity forum in Michigan, Santorum quipped, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.” He then proceeded to rant about “liberal college professors” trying to “indoctrinate” students. His audience of acolytes gave him a standing ovation.
According to filmmaker Steve Taylor, a similar closed-minded crusade has been unleashed within the “calcified” Christian movie industry.
On March 21, Taylor wrote a blog post entitled “The Christian Movie Establishment vs. Blue Like Jazz,” which is the title of his upcoming film centering on an impressionable young evangelical who flees his Baptist community and enrolls in left-leaning Reed College. There, his experiences befriending gay and liberal college students open his mind, granting him a different perspective on his Christian faith. The independent film, which opens in theaters on April 13, is based on Donald Miller’s popular, semi-autobiographical tome of the same name that’s sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide.
In the post, Taylor rails against the artlessness and—as Captain Louis Renault would put it—rank sentimentality of the “Christian Movie” genre, such as the popular oeuvre of the Kendrick brothers, who are responsible for the Kirk Cameron-starring Christian film, Fireproof. Then, the bombshell: the irate filmmaker alleges that Jim McBride, the executive pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church, where the Kendrick Bros. films are distributed via his company, Sherwood Pictures, “issued what amounts to a fatwa against Blue Like Jazz when he made it known that nobody who worked on our movie would be allowed to work with them in the future.”
“There was an email that was seen by two people [from McBride], so I put the blog together very carefully and vetted it,” said Taylor, who is a Christian, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “When you’re doing something like that, people are afraid for their jobs and other people’s jobs, so they’re afraid to go on the record. But before I put it out there I confirmed it with the two witnesses.”
Furthermore, Taylor reprinted an email he obtained from Kris Fuhr, the vice president of Provident Films, which co-distributed each of the Kendrick Brothers’ movies, and is currently distributing the pro-life film October Baby. It read:
“I think exhibitors are going to try to play the Blue Like Jazz trailer with october baby this can not happen - the trailer actually has the words “I hate Jesus” in the voiceover along with a number of images that will be very offensive to catholics it is in the best interest of theaters to not run the trailer because they are going to have a lot of angry patrons if they do thanks for your help here.”
Fuhr confirmed the authenticity of the email to Christianity Today, claiming it was sent to Michael Silberman, co-president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which is distributing October Baby, and acknowledged she misquoted the voiceover in the trailer (the character actually says, “I’m ashamed of Jesus.”) Both Fuhr and McBride refused to comment to The Daily Beast.
For their part, Samuel Goldwyn Films released an exclusive statement to The Daily Beast through their representative, saying, “We believe from past experience that the faith-based audience is easily offended by trailers (playing ahead of our faith films) in which they find language and/or other scenes and expressions to be controversial. We have also been advised by our faith marketing partners that some audience members feel that placement of a trailer ahead of a faith film implies an endorsement of that film by the distributor and producer. In an attempt to avoid negative situations, we passed our concerns along to some of our exhibitors. The placement of trailers was and continues to be under the control of exhibitors. Compatibility of audiences is an important factor in trailer placement and it’s possible that for these two films, the audiences may not be compatible. The Blue Like Jazz trailer did in fact play ahead of October Baby in a number of theaters and we have been advised by some theater managers that they received complaints about the trailer from October Baby movie goers.”
Howard Cohen, the co-president of Roadside Attractions, which is distributing Blue Like Jazz, says he believes that Samuel Goldwyn Films is exaggerating the number of complaints received from October Baby filmgoers that prompted the distributor to allegedly remove the trailer from many of its prints.
“We heard about one or two complaints, literally,” Cohen told The Daily Beast, adding, “[Sherwood] movies are limited in their scope and hermetically sealed. They don’t really allow real life to enter into the story. The interesting thing about Blue Like Jazz is it doesn’t hew to a storyline that is purely instructional. Those movies are more dogmatic, but this one is more experiential.”
And it’s this lack of scope within the “Christian Movie” genre that seems to be the issue at the heart of the Blue Like Jazz controversy.
“It frankly infuriates me—the degree to which people who make media for fellow Christians assume the audience isn’t that smart,” says Taylor.
While Blue Like Jazz isn’t the most boundary-pushing entry in the “Christian Movie” genre—it’s rated PG-13 and is sex-free—the film also doesn’t shamelessly pander to Christians. It’s a bildungsroman that follows a young man who turns his back on his Baptist community when he discovers his mother is sleeping with a young, televangelist preacher. After enrolling at Reed College, he befriends a group of radical liberal protesters, including the most radical of them all—a young, drugged-out wild child who parades around in a Pope costume and, it’s later revealed, was molested by a priest as a youngster. The film’s climax is a 9-plus minute conversation between the protagonist and the wild one, where both characters make peace with their troubled pasts, as well as their faith.
October Baby, on the other hand, is a dogmatic film with an extreme pro-life agenda. It tells the story of an emotionally troubled 19-year-old who realizes she is adopted, and that her birth mother tried to abort her. She sets off on a journey to meet her birth mother, and when she does, she’s consumed by anger. However, after seeking consolation from a Catholic priest, she errs on the side of forgiveness.
“I think the difference between our movie and their movie is the climactic scene,” Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller told The Daily Beast. “From the Christian movies that I’ve seen, they don’t seem to be based in reality. They present this idea that Jesus makes everything better here and now. That’s not the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus is that if you’re a Christian, ‘life continues to be very hard, and I have hope that someday I’ll be reunited with Him.’”
According to Taylor, Blue Like Jazz doesn’t jive with other “Christian Movie” fare—like October Baby or the Kendrick Brothers’ films—because it’s not crafted like a sermon being preached to the choir, and forces Christian viewers to leave their comfort zones. By having it’s young protagonist not only befriend liberals and gays, but also be taught valuable life lessons from them, it also seems to clash with the political zeitgeist. Since, as Newsweek’s Andrew Sullivan so succinctly put it, “the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life,” by challenging certain tenets of conservative Christianity and embracing aspects of leftist politics, Taylor’s film may be seen by the Jim McBrides of the world as an affront to both evangelism and the GOP.
“It’s certainly reflective of a younger generation of evangelical Christians who just weren’t buying the menu that seemed to be going along with declaring yourself a Christian—particularly the fusion of Christianity with right-wing politics,” says Taylor, adding, “I think part of it was a rebellion against the fact that declaring yourself a Christian means you’re de facto declaring yourself a right-wing Republican.”