One of my favorite books is Donald Miller‘s Blue Like Jazz. While I’ll admit that it’s been awhile since I last read it, I still clearly remember the impact it had on me. In short, Don shares his account of his early adulthood – a struggle to make sense of his childhood Baptist upbringing in light of real-world experiences that seem so incredibly different. While it could be considered simply one person’s story, it is easily relatable for many. Don tells his story with authenticity and candor.
This past weekend, Blue Like Jazz made it to the big screen. Friday night, I had the joy of seeing it on opening weekend. While quite different from the book (or at least what I remember of it), the film version of the story retained the elements that made the book so successful. Struggle. Doubt. Honesty, though at times quite brutal. What makes Blue Like Jazz so popular, I think, is that Don Miller’s story resonates so well with the stories of so many others.
Most of the negative press I’ve heard about the movie (and, for what it’s worth, I’ve heard far more positive than negative) is that it isn’t “Christian” enough (take Christianity Today‘s review, for example). It seems to me that CT simply wants Blue Like Jazz to be like every other Christian movie out there. The problem is, I think that’s the point. In Blue Like Jazz, Miller ultimately realizes that his “typical” evangelical upbringing has failed him. At first, it causes him to reject the church entirely, but he ultimately realizes that while he can run from his past, he can’t run from God. While his childhood has turned out to be filled with deception and even lies, God is still Truth. What I love so much about the story is that Don doesn’t become an atheist or something like that; despite his pain and disappointment, he concludes that God is still real and true despite it all.
As we left the theater on Friday, we encountered at least two separate groups of what I like to call “Bible thumpers” on our way out. In case you don’t know what I mean, they were the typical fundamentalist Christians: waving Bibles, telling people to repent, and so on. My encounter with them went something like this.
I shook my head and looked at the ground, audibly mumbling, “Please stop.”
They asked: “Are you a believer?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and you are embarrassing me.”
“You’re embarrassing me,” one of them said. “Preach the word!”
We quickly walked away. Seeing another couple about our age by the parking garage elevator and not knowing which movie they came to see, my wife sheepishly said, “Christians aren’t all like those street preachers, you know.” As it turns out, they were also Christians who came to see Blue Like Jazz and could also relate to Don’s story. We were relieved.
It’s sad – pathetic really – that we felt relieved to know this. What is so ironic is that those trying to “take a stand for Christ” (or so I would assume, by their comments to me) were the very ones for whom Don felt compelled to apologize in the movie.
I just don’t get it. Why do some Christians feel the need to do more harm than good? Why are so many Christians, for lack of a better term, so embarrassing?
Recently, I’ve read about several people who have had struggles with the church. Just yesterday I read the story of Kim Van Brunt and her decision to leave the church. Perhaps the most unfortunate part is the bashing she received in the comments section of the page. While some of the comments were positive, most were chiding her for her decision and warning her of the consequences to come. While I’m sure they were well-intended, they likely inflicted additional hurt onto an existing wound and reinforced her decision.
Here’s the thing. The church is the bride of Christ. If I’ve learned anything from my just-short-of-a-year of married life, it’s this: a marriage works the best when the husband and wife are on the same page. The times Lindsay and I have found ourselves at odds are all rooted in some sort of disagreement. Sometimes we’ve had different ideas about how to do something, and other times one of us made a mistake. Either way, though, the root of the problem was some sort of fundamental difference about something. And if the church is to be the bride of Christ, that means that the church needs to be on the same page as Jesus. Stories like Don’s and Kim’s are examples of times when this isn’t the case.
There’s one difference between Christ’s relationship with the church and all other marriages, however. It’s this: the church has a spouse that doesn’t mess up. So when the church isn’t on the same page as Christ, it’s the church that’s in the wrong. Though I still (hopefully) still have much of my life ahead of me, I’ve already seen far too many examples of this firsthand in my short past. I was the youth pastor at a church where most of the youth left before worship because they didn’t feel like they were welcome. I’ve been a worship pastor at a church immersed in a war over musical style. I’ve heard a guest speaker come and preach a “sermon” that was really more of a fundamentalist treatise on who to hate and why. I’ve visited churches whose pastors regularly spew out a misconstrued “gospel” that is in fact more of an arrogant brag on why they have been chosen as elect while most others in the world have not. I’ve experienced the cheesy Christian subculture – the awful bumper stickers, the copycat t-shirts, the zombified music detectable within milliseconds (justified in its existence for its “family-friendly” benefits). As a child, I even once visited a church in which a girl pointed at my sister and me and exclaimed, “Who are those people?” as if our mere presence in the room deserved explanation.
It’s easy for me to see why so many feel the need to give up on church completely. It’s not necessarily because there’s something wrong with those who are leaving; it’s because, more often than not, the church looks nothing like the bride it’s intended to be. It’s because, far too often, the church is driven by selfishness, greed, control, and fear of change. I’m so thankful that I’m currently a part of a church that appears to be none of these things. I have a feeling that Donald Miller and Kim Van Brunt might really like my church. I’m absolutely sure that my church is trying to be the church that people like Don and Kim are looking for. But for all the other churches out there, maybe they can take a hint from Don and Kim: instead of badgering others to conform to what you think church ought to be, try actually being the bride of Christ that we’re called to be. I think (non-zombified) Christian songwriter Shaun Groves says it best: “This world is not what’s wrong with me / I’m what’s wrong with this world.” I truly believe the biblical model for church is far more appealing than what we’ve made it out to be, but we must change our ways and stop the bleeding before we can truly advance the Kingdom of God.