Eugene Cho

What Blue Like Jazz teaches us about creating a better story.

Hello people. Eugene Cho the Reviewer is back. You hated my last review of Mark Driscoll’s book, Real Marriage, so I’m trying again with my endeavors to be a world class reviewer and thus, I am writing a review for the movie, Blue Like Jazz, based on Donald Miller‘s book…Blue Like Jazz. Love how those matching titles work.

Let me first say that I have yet to see the film but since we’re living in a day and age where people are inclined to write reviews about books they have yet to read, I say what the heck. As much as I want to say I’ll see the film very soon, I can’t make any promises. Why? I haven’t been to a movie theater in several years. I honestly think that the last movie I saw a movie in the theaters was The Lord of the Rings. Ages ago.

To my defense, I have read the book although it took me several months because my bad reading habit is to pick up at least a dozen books to read at the same time. To Donald’s credit, I mostly read dead people so it’s not to say that I want him to have a short life, it caught my attention enough to pick it up even though I know (and hope) he’s very healthy and in the middle of a long life.

Let me also say that I quasi-know Don Miller. Not super well by any means but we’ve exchanged tweets here and there and we actually had an intimate dinner together – along with 30 other people in Chicago. But we sat next to each other but both of us sat across Dr. John Perkins and let’s be honest, neither of us cared about sitting next to each other because we were sitting across Dr. Perkins and we were both ga-ga for Dr. Perkins. And if you’re wondering, we had Chicago pizza which was good but nothing compared to the nuggets of wisdom Dr. Perkins was dropping all night long.

So, I’ve got a few thoughts to share – not necessarily specifically about this film (since I haven’t seen the film) but just the general vibe of the film (and the various conversations I hear over the interwebs) and the general intersection between the spiritual and secular – if there is even such a distinction.

Here goes some random thoughts about what Blue Like Jazz teaches us about creating a better story:

First, two thumbs up:

In honor of the greatest movies critics the world has ever known (that would be Siskel & Ebert for you young folks), I am giving “two thumbs up” to this film just as I gave two thumbs up Rob Bell about his news of going Hollywood to help create a new TV show on ABC called Stronger.

Why? Because creating art, taking chances, stirring conversations…are all lost art. And it ought to be commended.

Knowing the Context of the Book

The criticism I’ve heard of the book (mostly and by default, the film, presumably) is that it’s not a very robust theological book. That would be an incredibly fair and pointed critique…if the book was meant to be a theological book or an offering under ‘biblical studies’. But, it’s not…it’s a novel in semi-quasi-autobiographical narrative form. I’m not saying it’s a devilish book but it’s not a theological book a la Calvin’s Institutes.

Context and intent are pretty apropos.

In doing an interview with a reporter several weeks ago for an article that was posted in various places including the Washington Post, I explained why I “liked” the book. It not only dealt with the “what” of the content but “how” the content was conveyed:

Eugene Cho, 41, the lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, understands the appeal.

“Even if you might not agree with everything, there’s something about how the author, Donald Miller, is really welcoming people into conversation and thought that really appeals to people,” he said.

Miller hopes the movie has similar impact as the book, showing people they aren’t alone in difficult spiritual struggles.

“There are other people who deal with these things: the space between the church and the world, the pulls from either side,” he said. “Not just the church and the world, between a mom and dad, between love and sex, between faith and doubt. All those places. More people than we know live in those spaces.”

Cho sees another message encouraging all Americans, not just religious people, to interact with groups different than themselves.

“We tend to live in this very polarized world and we’re seeing this more so in this election season,” he said. “Particularly from a religious point of view, we tend to eventually gather with those who think like us, look like us, feel like us. It doesn’t do us any good.”

There’s space for commas and question marks in good art:

Hmm. I’ve heard there’s sort of a quasi-war of words between various filmmakers behind your traditional, overt Christian movies and the creators of Blue Like Jazz – which is not your traditional, overt Christian movie.

This sort of stuff makes me wonder why some Christians are inclined to think that there’s only one way to communicate something; one way to do music; one perspective of theology; one way to do art; one way to understand Jesus; one way to do church; one way to write … and one way to do film making around Christian themes.

Thank God that art can’t be isolated into one box or one expression. Hopefully, whatever we do, there’s a commitment to not just ‘content’ but how we convey that content.

One could contend that “Christian art” demands for happy endings, clear storylines, order, and appropriate conclusions…and sometimes, I wonder if our marriage to such conclusions exclude us from the journey of compelling artmaking.

Commas and Questions Marks are sometimes okay rather than Periods and Exclamation Marks.

Or in other words,

do we have a finalized conclusion and then make art to help justify that conclusion? Is that good art?

From a preacher’s viewpoint: Do we have a conclusion and then look for a bible passage to help us make our point or conclusion or do we really allow the narrative of the Scriptures to speak, disturb, inform, and transform us?

We shouldn’t be asking if we’re artists or not. We’re all artists in some manner or another. To my point, stories are a form of art. We’re all creating, living, and communicating stories and thus, we’re all artists. So, a more compelling and accurate question would be: “What kind of art are we creating?” and “What kind of artists are we?”

Create. a. Better. Story.

We love to knock on Hollywood and all that “junk” it creates and blah blah blah. I certainly do. We criticize and then wonder why Christians can’t create compelling art blah blah blah.

Boom. Here’s an attempt. Just in the same manner I gave kudos to Rob Bell in helping create a different story, I’m giving props to Donald Miller and the director, Steve Taylor

It’s easy to criticize. We all do it. We criticize the moral decay and decline of society, art and culture. Or we get on our enlightened Christian horses and criticize cheezy Christian art and artists.

Been there and done that. Criticizing that is.

A great antidote to receiving criticism is not more criticism or returning criticsm. Rather, it’s to create something more beautiful and compelling. Don’t tell us what you’re against. Show us something different. Compel us. Create a better story. Invite us into that story.

Enough of my ramblings. Your thoughts?

  • Did you like the book?
  • Are you planning on watching the movie?
  • Is there such a thing as Christian art?

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20 Responses

  1. Sejin says:

    Some points you make highlight peoples’ thoughts about the secular vs. the spiritual. I’ve read and thus currently occupies my mind- that there should not really be a distinction between the two- that we can nudge people to find Christ in any work.

  2. Peter says:

    I have read the book and was blessed immensely as well as enjoying a new perspective on how others view Christianity and us… My favorite quote from the book is

    “The entire world is falling apart because nobody will admit they are wrong. But by asking God to forgive you, you are willing to own your own crap.”

    So true…

  3. Jill says:

    “There’s space for commas and question marks in good art.”

    I like that.

  4. Matt Simonsen says:

    Eugene, great post, thanks for helping me think about this.

    My $.02 is art anybody does gives Glory to the Creator. It’s all in a sense “His.” How sin and the fall impact this, well it gets muddy, but I think the principle still stands. For Christians, the goal should probably not be “Christian art”– if it was that would be as hard to define as what a Christian “really” is. Rather we should do work that honors the Creator.

    • Eugene Cho says:

      Another way to look at it is the bigger conversation about “culture” since art helps create culture. In my opinion, culture is never self-created…it emanates, ultimately, from the Creator since we are created in His image.

      It’s not to say that all culture is good but at the same time, not all expressions of culture that don’t directly bear the words “Jesus” or “Christ” are bad.

      Which goes back to your comment about creating art…and art that honors the Creator.

  5. My wife and I got a chance to see the film about a month ago because of an advanced screening in our city. Keep in mind that the film only follows the book very loosely. It was between surprised and shocked at how different the storyline was. In brief, in the film “Don” is a 21 year old jr college transfer instead of a late 20s Portlander auditing at Reed. That is only one of some major artistic liberties. But the film was great and I really encourage everyone to see it. You can’t even compare it to some of the Christian schlock films that have come out in recent years (e.g. anything involving Kirk Cameron). It is a solid film. It was funny, creative and I honestly think it will do okay. I would definitely take many friends who are all over the place spiritually.

    • Eugene Cho says:

      Huh. I didn’t know that it only loosely follows the book.

      That says something that you’d feel comfortable about taking many friends that are all over the map spiritually – especially in NYC.

      Thus far, I think I’ve read or heard mixed reviews…

  6. Karl Helvig says:

    Good words. Hard words. Creating art is risky and demands a vulnerability I think many in our culture are not so familiar with. I am going to be taking this challenge to heart. Knowing a bit of your story (i.e. having read some of your stuff online and seen some of what Quest is doing) I hope you also continue to take your own message to heart, and I mean that in a “I hope to be in this with you brother” kind of way. Keep it up!

    • Eugene Cho says:

      Creating art is risky indeed and demands a vulnerability. As a larger society, I think we definitely have tiers of art makers but I would contend that pastors ought to be VERY high on that list.

      When you preach – you are composing words, thoughts, stories, narrative, etc…and preaching is a underappreciated and for that matter, an art form that is never acknowledged.

      How do I know it’s an art form?

      Because once you create it, one feels extreme vulnerable and the sermon is quickly to be judged, criticized, applauded, etc.

      You’re an artist, bro. Don’t forget that…Be a good one.

  7. TD says:

    That last thought you shared: ‘A great antidote to criticism is not more criticism. Rather, it’s to create something more beautiful and compelling. Don’t tell us what you’re against. Show us something different. Compel us. Create a better story.’, that was beautiful. Thanks.

  8. bhwelliver says:

    Not only ‘Don’t tell us what you’re against…’ but show us what you are FOR.

    Being a self confessed Bellaholic, the Nooma video “You” fairly asks the question ‘Are you the Good News?’ Are we able to suggest to the observing world that Jesus has risen from the dead?

    This of course suggests that each life is ripe with possible new ways to reflect creation. Yes, we should strive for something different, but there’s nothing insignificant in underlining the truths with constancy and honesty.

    I also agree with your comments and question marks making good art sentiment. Too often the world is in a hurry to form opinion without the benefit of work. If our seeking can make us humble, then we might not choose to feed our ego by definitive statements about life and its living. When we yearn to love learning, then we will let go of trying to teach others and be open to absorbing what is offered with humble appreciation.

    Many thanks for your thoughtful words.

  9. bcovyouth says:

    we have our students painting on certain Sunday mornings to get thinking and expressing scripture and faith artistically…they love it and it’s pretty cool to see what they envision when they look at scripture and artistically depict it. you should see some of their work…

  10. bcovyouth says:

    we now have the pictures hanging in the sanctuary, a cool way for them to participate in our worship together as a church…

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  12. Scott M says:

    Hey, look! Another “deep and meaningful” Christian book that’s more New Age than Biblical. This is EXACTLY what Christians today should be reading!


    I think we all need to pray for a spirit of discernment here, people.

    It’s books like this (and that of Rob Bell, Doug Paggitt, and Brian McLaren, etc) that promote some kind of pseudo-Christian progressive that in reality does not biblically exist.

    If you value your spiritual life and your walk with Christ, believing yourself to be a genuine follower of Christ then stay away from books like this. All books like this do tell people exactly what they want to hear, espousing dangerous and unsound doctrine and theology in sad effort to paint a New Age pseudo-Jesus that anyone can worship in anyway (even secularly) they see fit becase they do not agree with either the local church or the conservative values the Evangelical community holds today.

    Stay away from this book!

  13. Abbi says:

    As a college student who grew up in a fairly conservative church, Blue Like Jazz was a really refreshing movie to see. The way it confronts doubt, sin, hypocrisy, and love was very thought-provoking. I have felt and acted a lot like Don at numerous points in my life, and it’s nice to see that there are people striving to display Christianity as it really is: gritty, tough, and beautiful.

    In reply to Scott, I have not finished the book yet, but the reasons Donald Miller gives for moving away from mainstream Christianity seem very legitimate to me so far. He rails against the idea of changing your beliefs to be “cool” in the book, and the kind of Christian Spirituality (as he calls it) that he advocates is not “cool” by any standard in this world. Rather it is a genuine response to the hurt caused by so many people claiming to follow Christ and using his name for their own glory. Every person is different and therefore the way that we worship God is different. There is no pattern or template for the “right way”. God doesn’t want a show, he wants our hearts! And it seems to me that if you are following God and allowing him to use you as the person he created you to be, then there will be many different and beautiful expressions of who Christ is and what he has done to redeem us. Instead of insulting or discounting alternative views of Christianity, perhaps we should strive to love one another in the way that Christ has called us to. We are the body of Christ, and should be united as such.

  14. […] Why I give two thumbs up to Blue Like Jazz even though I have yet to see the movie. ( […]

  15. […] Why I give two thumbs up to Blue Like Jazz even though I have yet to see the movie. ( […]

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One Day’s Wages

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Grateful for a very full weekend of ministry and preaching in Toronto, Canada (GTA). Such a privilege to partner with @worldvisioncan @wvcollective to advocate for the most vulnerable around the world. God is so gracious. A true honor to meet and encourage local pastors, lecture at Tyndale University & Seminary (photo), and preach at Richmond Hills Community Church, Compass Point Bible Church, and New City Church. Thank you, Lord, that you use broken and imperfect people like me to speak of Your love. Today, Minhee and I dropped off our eldest child at her college. We have been thinking and praying about this day for many years. On some days, we hoped it would never come. On other days, we couldn't wait for it to come. On some days, we prayed for time to stop and other days, we prayed with anticipation. 
After an entire summer of laughing it off, it hit us...hard...this week. Seeing all of her stuff laid out on the basement floor was the catalyst to a load of emotions.

After unloading the car and taking her stuff to her new home for this year and mindful that she might never live with us again; helping sort out her stuff, saying hello to her roommates...I wasn't sure what to do or say.

A flood of thoughts rushed my mind.

Is she ready?
Have we done enough?
Have we taught her enough? 
What if this? What if that?

And so we shared what we have shared with her the moment she began to understand words: "Remember who you are. Remember WHO you belong to. Remember what you're about. God loves you so much. Please hold God's Word and His promises close and dear to your heart. We love you so much and we are so proud of you." And with that, we said goodbye. Even if she may not be thousands of miles away, this is a new chapter for her and even for us. I kept it composed. Her roommate was staring at me. I didn't want to be that father. I have street cred to uphold. Another final hug. 
And I came home.
And I wept.
Forget my street cred.
I miss her. I love her.
She will always be my little baby.

I'm no parenting guru. I just laughed as I wrote that line. No, I'm stumbling and bumbling along but I'd love to share an ephiphany I learned not that long ago. Coming to this realization was incredibly painful but simultaneously, liberating. To be honest, it was the ultimate game-changer in my understanding as a parent seeking after the heart of God.

While there are many methods, tools, philosophies, and biblical principles to parenting, there is – in my opinion – only one purpose or destination.

Our purpose as parents is to eventually…release them. Send forth. For His glory. Met a friend and fellow pastor who I haven't seen in over 20 years. In him, I saw a glimpse of my future. While only 10 years older, his kids are married and he's now a grandfather of 3. His love for his wife and family were so evident and his passion for the Gospel has not wavered. It was so good to see someone a bit older still passionately serving the Lord with such joy and faithfulness. Lord, help me to keep running the race for your Glory. Happy wife.
Happy life. - Eugenius 3:16

I still remember that time, many years ago, when Minhee was pregnant with our first child. She had left her family and friends in Korea just two years before. Her morning sickness was horrible and when she finally had an appetite, she craved her favorite Korean food from certain restaurants in her neighborhood in Seoul, Korea. I had no way of getting that food from those restaurants so I actually said, "How about a Whopper? Big Mac?" Sorry honey. Eat away. You deserve it. I don't care if it sounds mushy but sunsets are one of my love languages. Seoul, Korea was amazing but WOW...what a breathtaking welcome back sunset by Seattle. Not ready to let go of summer. Seattle. 7:00pm. Desperately holding on to summer. #goldengardenpark #nofilter

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