why i’m taking teenagers to see Blue Like Jazz (guest post)

marko here: dave palmer has been my friend for a decade or so. we’re in a group of guys who meet once a year to dig into each others’ lives. and he worked with me at ys (as our vp of marketing) for a couple years. dave’s a buddy, and someone i really believe in. all that, and that i agree with what he’s written here, is why i agreed to have him guest post on my blog (something i rarely do). that, and, i’m on vacation, and this was a good post i didn’t have to write! Blue Like Jazz opens friday (or, with some midnight shows tomorrow night). here’s the website (where you can find showtimes), and here’s a section of the site with tons of free resources for ministry (and home).

Why I’m Taking Teenagers To See Blue Like Jazz
As the Blue Like Jazz team has screened the film for audiences across the country and across the spectrum of faith, one of the things that keeps coming up is the “appropriateness” of the film for high school age teens. The film’s PG-13 rating and depiction of collegiate parties and hijinx seems to give some people pause, and I understand that. I’ve been a volunteer youth worker for the better part of the past 20 years, and have scores of friends who are in the same position. And so aside from my obvious bias in the film’s favor that I have as part of the team that is promoting it, I’d like to express a few thoughts about why, as a youth worker, I am taking a group of teenagers to see Blue Like Jazz this weekend.

1) I’m taking those that I believe are ready for this conversation. Among the teens with whom I’m in regular contact, I know 13-year olds who will devour this movie and have their souls refreshed, and 18-year olds whose minds will be blown. I also know their families, and have taken steps to talk through the themes of the film with them to assure that we’re engaging the right kids, as well as offering to equip parents. That said, most of them have seen The Hunger Games, Transformers, The Social Network and other PG-13 films with content that is, in my estimation, equally as challenging, racy or mature as Blue Like Jazz, if not moreso in the racy department (Transformers & Megan Fox, I’m talking about you).

2) Teens are capable of more than we give them credit for. By the time our teens are in high school, many, if not most of them, are reading Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, The Brontes, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and others. It’s mind-boggling to me that teens that are eminently capable of tackling great works of literature can be treated with kid gloves when it comes to more conventionally faith-infused entertainment choices. If these teens are engaging with these great works of literature, then rest assured they are grappling with the meaning of existence, what they really believe and where they find truth. This really funny movie, Blue Like Jazz, that asks many of the same questions, is not above their heads or beyond their years, and it’s disingenuous of us as leaders to assume that that’s the case.

3) This is a huge opportunity for huge conversations. We know from the research done by Fuller Youth Institute and their Sticky Faith Project, as well as studies by the Lily Foundation, Barna, and Notre Dame youth scholar Christian Smith, that the ability to foster an atmosphere that allows for the articulation of questions and doubts about faith is one of the greatest factors in developing a faith that extends beyond high school. If we shut down those questions in faith communities, where do we think they’ll happen, if they happen at all? I’m not romanticizing doubt, as it is hard work, and often disorienting, but I also don’t think that we are serving our youth well if we shut down or shut out the ability to ask and wrestle with big questions, and this movie does just that.

4) The opportunity extends to parents. For parents, having big conversations about faith and doubt and questions and longing can be as nerve-wracking as conversations about sexuality, divorce or other tough topics. But the chance to have those conversations allows for a greater sense for teens to better know their parents, and vice versa. Mike Gaffney, VP of Young Life College, has this to say about the film: “When I first saw this movie, my hope was that every parent of a graduating senior and college freshman would see this with their child and that they would discuss it afterwards. This could make a huge difference in helping these students transition, and parents understand, the things their kids are struggling with. It would be great for those of us mentoring these students to see it and dialogue with them as well.” By letting the story of Blue Like Jazz be the template, conversations can be focused on that story first before parents and their teens weave their own stories and experiences into it.

5) It takes the taboo power out of doubt. When teens realize that their parents, friends, pastors and other adult influences may have had similar questions, doubts and seasons of struggle, it takes the taboo out of doubt and makes it something that can be addressed openly. It also lets teens know that they are not alone in this struggle, which can create a vacuum that is shut off from the real heart of the process – that we can go through this together.

6) It’s funny. Often lost amidst the loftiest conversations about Blue Like Jazz is that it is a comedy. It’s hilarious, pointed, sharp-witted and beautifully whimsical in places. I believe in the redemptive power of humor and how it allows us to open ourselves up in a way that feels safe and fun – no small challenge for anyone to create.

7) It’s real. As one of the 13 year olds in my Sunday School class asked rhetorically about the recent brouhaha over the rating of the documentary Bully, “are the ratings people afraid that we’ll see what we already experience at school every day?” Blue Like Jazz shows a real struggle of faith and doubt in an honest way, with the college experience captured in spirit, and an inspiring look at what happens when people take real risks by asking big questions and walking through that process together. It’s these risks that help us to know others and be known ourselves. It also helps us to model the search to know God and be known by God, which is perhaps what all of the struggle is really about.

As people who want our teens to be in relationship with a redemptive God, it’s natural that we can be afraid of big questions to which we may not have answers. But I am certain that these huge questions do not scare God. In fact, I think that God applauds us when we emulate Jacob, wrestling through the night and refusing to stop unless a blessing is given, a part of us is known and recognized, and the questions are given respect. I believe that the teens I’m taking will rise to the challenge of this movie and embrace it as something that affirms their search for truth and understanding. I invite you to join me along the way.

7 thoughts on “why i’m taking teenagers to see Blue Like Jazz (guest post)”

  1. “It’s mind-boggling to me that teens that are eminently capable of tackling great works of literature can be treated with kid gloves when it comes to more conventionally faith-infused entertainment choices.”

    Seriously? People are still having this conversation? Where in the world are the families that think their teenagers should only see plain vanilla Kirk Cameron schlock (not even French vanilla for you! – it’s too racy, and it’s got the word french in it and we know how bad they are!)?

    Let’s bubble-wrap our kids, why not?

    I know you’re arguing against this, but the fact that this post even needs to be written is a damning indictment of the state of wishful thinking in the cocooned Christian community today.

  2. dave – thanks for your comment – i appreciate it. i understand where you’re coming from, and wish i didn’t feel the need to write something like this, but i’ve had conversations about this so many times in the past 6 months as i’ve hosted screenings of the film. often times youth pastors express that they live in fear of any complaint from parents about things like this that are outside of their preconceived notion of christianity as behavior modifier. i also have to say that outside of the cocoon of christendom, as you put it, i know parents who don’t ascribe to any faith who are also bubble-wrapping their kids from anything challenging or potentially painful. it may be more aggravating within the context of faith, but it’s certainly not exclusive to that. i think marko’s journey with dr. robert epstein and his premise that we are infantilizing our youth as a culture is a larger version of this conversation. thanks again.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your identifying the issue with the infantilizing youth issue, but I think non-Christians do it by going to the other end of the spectrum – they end up being so laissez-faire that kids don’t even know boundaries exist.

    I believe there is a middle place where kids and youth have enough room to experiment and fail, but not so much that they crash and burn, and not so little that they learn absolutely nothing growing up and the real world is a rude awakening in their twenties.

  4. Nice blog post Dave!

    I was reading and reading and waiting to read what the actual issues are in the film, but didn’t get to find out. The raciness I get and the college atmosphere of the ‘godless’ I understand. Is the real concern here that the main character was raised in a Christian environment (maybe a slightly off kilter Christian environment) and rebelled against it only to be left with the fact that he’s not sure what to believe?

    I agree with you that doubts should be open and often and discussed and thought through. My own faith is immensely bolstered by my search for truth and finding answers to life’s “toughest” questions. I’m raising two children and I’ve expressed the worlds different views to them and I’ve given them my well thought out and honest thought processes for all the different possibilities. I’m not afraid in the slightest to give them questions.

    That being said, I don’t want to propagandize agnosticism or romanticize the ‘oneness’ of the universe etc. I myself was wondering if I should take my children to the movie. One site that I’ve looked to for insight into a particular movie is pluggedin.

    I just looked now and actually found a review for Blue Like Jazz! Here it is:

    http://www.pluggedin.com/movies/intheaters/blue-like-jazz.aspx

    Let me know if you think it is a fair analysis. After reading it, I think I’ll pass on having my children see it. Not for the subject of doubt, but I don’t want to expose them to the college scene so early in life. Knowing my children, this is the best route for me to take at this point in time, but I am interested in seeing it myself. If, after I see it, I feel differently then I will consider putting it before my kids.

  5. tony – thanks much – i get what you’re saying, and you know what J is up for (my 1st point – know who you’re taking and if it works for them). a few things i’d say about blue like jazz: It doesn’t propagandize agnosticism; it is very much rooted and grounded in a person’s struggle with their own faith tradition (christianity).

    as far as the pluggedin review – my struggle with their criteria is that, to me, it’s trying to quantify art for a specific, utilitarian purpose, and that takes the art out of it. they list a light hearted scene with toy guns and uniforms and label it as part of violence; they count each curse word; they place a label of “negative elements” on things that are part of a story, not a checklist. i guess i feel like they don’t look to put anything in context but make a list of things. it reminds me of a pastoral search committee looking at all of the qualities a church wants in a pastor, only to realize that no one person can do it all.

    also, it mentions the “propositional truth” of the gospel, which leads me to think that they want the film to make a proposition of some sort of spiritual transaction rather than being a story of one person’s faith journey. that’s probably more than you asked, but it’s late and i’m on an exhaustion roll:)

    what i think gets at the intent much more is an interview i was at with the director and author that’s here:

    they talk about their hopes for the film and are asked specifically about how it plays for youth. that, to me, captures the feel of the film more than the pluggedin review.

    anyway – as i said, i get that it’s likely not j’s movie quite yet. if you see it let me know and we can discuss over some ping pong:)

  6. Yes, your first point is key when deciding if and when you might want your child to see the film. Your first point is key in parenting in general!

    I’m glad that you feel that it doesn’t promote and propagandize agnosticism. I’ve had so many conversations with atheists and see a side that attacks Christianity and religion in general. Today’s youth get so many anti-Christian messages and the media and the militant atheists flood blogs with “Christian” fringe antics to make all of Christianity look bad. They also portray Christians as stupid people who believe in fairytales, and this type of messaging is not what I want to be showing to my children as I’m striving to show them the significance and magnificence of Christ’s sacrifice.

    It seems to me that it is a bit of a prodigal story which is good, but as the Pluggedin review said, “… we’re asked to “experience” a lot of bad behavior.” and that is probably the point of the storyteller to show the contrast in behavior but I don’t feel that I need to do this to convey that message. This would probably be great for those who may have already gone somewhat astray or those who are losing the allure of their faith.

    I know exactly what you are talking about when you mention an innocent scene of the movie was put under violence in the pluggedin review. I’ve experienced the same sort of thing watching a movie and reading a pluggedin review and thinking that it wasn’t that bad, etc. I appreciate the Pluggedin review on a few different levels however because although there are opinions expressed, there are also just factual observations such as the cuss words, etc. Some parents are very anti-gun, so any kid with a gun would be put under the violence category.

    With my kids, I’m keenly aware of the amount of sexual content and bad language they are exposed to, and look to those sections much more closely than the violence category. My children have read a lot of those books you mentioned and have seen many movies including the Hunger Games, etc. and I have a sixth sense of what would be beneficial and harmful to my children. When I’m no longer having to parent them and they are adults, these decisions of course are then laid at their feet. I know that whatever we put in front of our eyes is not always beneficial. Whether a point is being made or not, there are some things that you don’t have to hear or see in order to understand.

    The pluggedin people are unique that they review with many categories that others would not even consider. They know their audience is looking for these breakdowns so they deliver. I read them with a grain of salt but am happy to have them nonetheless.

    J and I saw Prom with the kids and thought it was appropriate and thought it was reminiscent of the John Hughes movies we saw as teens. We thought we would show them The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Mistake! The ratings were different then and it didn’t take long for all kinds of inappropriate language and themes to present themselves! We embarrassingly turned them off and moved on to other things.

    I appreciate your care and concern to even post such a blog entry. Whether anyone thinks that this type of conversation is akin to “bubble wrapping” their children or not, the beauty of it is that when we become parents we get to decide what to expose our children to and when. Every parent is different in their level of caution, tolerance, etcetera.

    I admit there is a balance between sheltering your children from, and exposing them to, various concepts and experiences that should be sought to raise well rounded children with common sense and intelligence. I’ll leave that to each parents discretion. So any and all reviews help me get a perspective of my own without actually seeing the movie first.

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