Why I’m Taking Teenagers To See Blue Like JazzFamily — By Dave Palmer on April 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm
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.