Saturday, March 31, 2012

Film Review: Blue Like Jazz

Me with Donald Miller after the movie.
By contributing a whopping $5 to last year's effort to fund the making of "Blue Like Jazz" via Kickstarter, I put myself in line to receive an invitation to the Fort Worth premiere on March 21. This showing was part of a 30-city tour in which the author of the book by the same name, Donald Miller, appeared in person, accompanied by director Steve Taylor and lead actor Marshall Allman.

I went in guessing that the movie probably would stray far from the "Safe for the family" boundaries that many Christian-themed films seem bound to. And as it turned out, I was right. The PG-13 rating was earned. Because the story in the movie (which only bears some resemblance to the book) is essentially about a young man who renounces his faith before rediscovering it in a fresh way, it necessitated the depiction of various sinful behaviors and attitudes. There are a few naughty words, multiple instances of substance abuse, and flat-out mockery of Christianity.  Plus, a giant condom placed on a church steeple as a prank. One character is a lesbian, which, now that I think about it, was the missing element in "Facing the Giants". (Relax. I kid.)

Actually, it should be noted that the creators of "Facing the Giants" were at the center of a blog post written by the director of Blue Like Jazz, Steve Taylor. In a bit of remarkable timing, this post appeared the morning of the same day I saw the premier. In it, he called out Sherwood Films, the makers and distributors of several Christian-themed movies including Facing the Giants, accusing them of blacklisting actors who had worked on Blue Like Jazz.

While that part of Taylor's post got the most attention in the press the next few days, I was drawn to the meat of what he wrote: He challenged Christian filmmakers to deliver more excellent work, and he challenged Christian audiences not to accept mediocre films simply because they contained the "Christian" label.

Back to the movie. Because "Blue Like Jazz" is a book of essays, a fictional story had to be created for the film. In it, a Baptist goody-two-shoes high school student named Donald Miller finishes high school, then heads to the most godless college campus in the nation, otherwise known as Reed College. Miller, upset by some hypocrisy he witnessed at his home church, begins to question, then reject his Christian faith. The more he tries to fit in at Reed, the more he distances himself from the Jesus he has known all his life. He befriends Lauren, who's not romantically interested in him because he's male, and Penny, an under-the-radar Christian. He also makes friends with The Pope, a student who's loudly irreligious, and who is hiding some hurts.

All the way through, the story was compelling, but we all knew that it was destined to culminate with the mythic Confession Booth. I didn't expect a lot out of that scene, simply because I was familiar with it, thanks to the book. It's very hard to move a viewer emotionally when they know what's going to happen, as the element of surprise is gone. Despite this, the scene blew me away, and I wasn't alone. The audience gave this film a very deserving standing ovation.

I have only a couple of  objections to this movie:

1. The lesbian character, Lauren, is a bit over the top in her open lusting toward other women. My objection is not based upon her same-sex attraction, either. I would have been bothered the same had it been a man ogling, and speaking graphically, about the various body parts that were getting his attention. It was a bit of a distraction, actually.

2. Evangelical Christians, as a group, are treated a bit harshly in this story. Someone mentioned this in the Q & A session after the movie, and Miller responded that anyone who makes that claim "isn't being objective", and he pointed out that only one character, a youth pastor, is portrayed negatively. But the truth is that, while there are no other characters like him, there is the idea, persistent throughout the film, that evangelicals are generally a clueless and heartless lot, unable to think for themselves. It's talked about by several characters at different places in the story, so Miller's defense that there's only one real bad evangelical character misses the point. Interestingly, Miller said that comment cards from previous tour stops also had a problem with treatment of  evangelicals. Rather than recognize that there is probably a good reason if several people are commenting on this same thing, he dismisses the complaint as unfounded.

After the credits began rolling, Taylor, Miller, and Allman appeared at the front and took questions. I was first, thanking Taylor for what he had written that morning, because someone needed to say it. I am speaking of the part about the need for quality movies with Christian themes, not the tiff with the Sherwood filmmakers. In fact, it's a bit unfair when Christians who object to "cheesy" films point to the makers of "Facing the Giants". The reality is that most of these films are made by organizations other than Sherwood. Think "Letters From God", "Soul Surfer", and the "Left Behind" series. Truth be told, credit should be given to Sherwood because "Courageous" is much better than their previous efforts.  Not as good as "Blue Like Jazz", but still.....

For the record, I loved Blue Like Jazz. On a 5-star scale, I give it 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review-Mark & Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage-DVD Study

This DVD-based study kit is meant to accompany Mark and Grace Driscoll's book "Real Marriage-The Truth About Sex, Friendship, & Life Together". The kit includes a leader's guide, a study guide for non-leading participants, and a DVD of short (15-20 minute) discussion-starters featuring the two authors.

It starts out in an amusing way: Mark and Grace Driscoll are sitting in the church building where they exchanged vows nearly two decades ago. Interspersed with their commentary are clips of their actual wedding. Both are recognizable, but very different. Seeing a 20-year-old Mark Driscoll is a bit jarring.

As for the content, it's a good mix of the two talking about their own experiences, struggles, and memories, as well as the lessons learned, which can be applied to most any marriage.

I like it. The clips are interesting, the questions insightful, and the material challenging. One potential issue is the frank talk about sex. While it's good for a couple to discuss together, I'm not sure how it would work in a small group setting.

Disclaimer: My copy was given to me by the publisher for review purposes.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Stuff

I've decided to create a new blog dedicated solely to bible study. I am now going through the seemingly un-sexy book of Joshua, but getting some great things out of it. I have written several, but only posted an intro and then two posts. Check out Ch. 1:

Friday, March 09, 2012

Check out this new book: A Silence of Mockingbirds

It's almost April, and that means a new book release I'm really looking forward to: "A Silence of Mockingbirds," by Karen Zacharias, who wrote a book I fell in love with a couple of years ago: "Will Jesus Buy Me Doublewide?".

"Silence" is a tragic story of the short life of three-year old Karly Sheehan. It will be released in April to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention month.

I have to be honest: I don't look forward to reading a story about a child's murder any more than you do. But while I had been under the impression that child abuse was pretty much licked in the US, I was recently shocked to find that, in the US, 5 kids are murdered every day. As an American, I am ashamed of this. The author believes that this book can empower and educate a nation that has been reluctant to admit that it has the highest rate of child abuse of any industrialized country in the world.

I am reprinting an interview with the author that should give you more insights into the book.


"A Silence of Mockingbirds is beautifully written by a very talented investigative journalist. But, even more, this is Karen Zacharias’s  own story too, one of trust betrayed. A tragic book that we should all take to heart. We cannot change the past but we can save children who are in peril now. Karen has given us Karly’s legacy, that of a small, bright spirit who loved and was loved. And yet destroyed by heedless caretakers. A must read. Compelling and heartbreaking."
Ann Rule – New York Times Bestselling Author

Karen Spears Zacharias is an author and investigative journalist who teaches First Amendment Rights at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. In her upcoming book, A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder, Karen turns her investigative eye to the murder of three-year-old Karly Sheehan of Corvallis, Oregon. At one time, Karly’s mother, Sarah Sheehan, lived in the Zacharias home and was embraced as a daughter by the family.   

What happened to Karly? What was Sarah’s involvement? And how did Karly’s father, an Irish immigrant, end up as the state’s primary suspect in the abuse investigation? A Silence of Mockingbirds is not a simple love story – it is the troubling tale of a father’s love for the daughter he was unable to protect.
Question: How did you meet Sarah Brill Sheehan? 
Karen: As a young teenager Sarah Brill was assigned to an in-school detention class that I was supervising. Sarah possessed the jaw-dropping beauty of Halle Berry, and the reckless nature of Casey Anthony. She embodied a certain dangerous vulnerability that I recognized, so I reached out to her in a mentoring way that teachers often do.

Question: How was it Sarah came to live with your family?

Karen: At age 19, Sarah got pregnant. She asked my husband and me to adopt that child. For a variety of reasons we didn’t, but after Sarah gave birth she came to live with us. We considered Sarah our “adopted daughter.”

Question: So Karly wasn’t her first child?

Karen: No. She adopted her first daughter out to someone I introduced to her. Karly was the daughter she had with David Sheehan. A native of Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland. David met Sarah in Corvallis, Oregon, home to Oregon State University. David was an engineer in town for training at Hewlett-Packard’s Corvallis campus, when the two met. They married in a Reno rush, lived in Ireland for a short time, and eventually settled in Corvallis, where Karly was born in January 2002.
Question: What happened to Karly?

Karen: She was murdered on June 3, 2005.

Question: This book is true crime memoir. Can you discuss what that means?

Karen:  I worked the cop beat as a reporter in Oregon for many years, so I knew all too well the inherent dangers of writing true crime. Fortunately, I had the benefit of being a known commodity in my community. Our local police trusted me to get it right. I didn’t have that advantage with A Silence of Mockingbirds. Although I am an OSU alum, I knew no one in law-enforcement in Oregon’s Benton-County when I began my research. It took me years to gain the trust of some of the law enforcement and attorneys on this case.

I suppose it was natural for me to approach this story as a crime reporter – it’s what I knew. I had years of experience in courtrooms and courthouses. I spent three years writing and rewriting  
A Silence of Mockingbirds as straight true crime. When I sent the manuscript to my agent, Alanna Ramirez at Trident Media in New York, she read it and then called me early the next day. Alanna told me that while she thought I had written a very compelling true crime story, there was a problem with the manuscript. “What interests me in this story is your relationship with this family and you’ve told us very little about that,” Alanna said. “You need to rewrite it as memoir.”

I knew the moment Alanna said it that she was right. It’s the same sort of knowing you get whenever you hear truth. You can almost feel your bones shift and right themselves, but the knowledge of it sickened me. I went straight to my office, where a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. For six weeks, the then 435-page manuscript set on my desk staring at me like a flame-eyed demon. I had no idea, none at all, how I would deconstruct this book and start again, but I was determined to do so. Then one day I was cleaning up my desk (which is what writers do when they can’t figure out what to write) and I came across some of the letters I had written to Inmate Shawn Field, the man convicted of killing Karly Sheehan. It was one of those Ah-ha moments that Oprah speaks about so frequently. My Ah-ha moment came when I realized those letters were the opening for the true crime memoir, and I began to write. A year later, I had an entirely new manuscript.
Question: How does true crime differ from memoir?

Karen: Having authored three memoirs now, it’s not the differences between true crime and memoir I notice but the many ways in which they are similar.

Are you familiar with The AdversaryA True Story of Monstrous Deceptionby Emmanuel Carrere?  It’s a deeply disturbing account of Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who is serving a life sentence for killing his wife, his children, and his parents in 1993. Romand was France’s Bernie Madoff. For years he lived a fictionalized life, reportedly working as a medical researcher for the World Health Organization, while bilking friends and family of funds to support his lies and lifestyle.

Carrere, who struck up a relationship with Romand after he was imprisoned, weaves his own personal narrative into the murderous account. The book opens:"On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent teacher meeting.”

It does seem that the most compelling true crime stories are those in which the writer finds themselves entangled in personal narrative. That has certainly been the case for the beloved crime writer Ann Rule whose long-career started with her relationship with serial-killer Ted Bundy.

I met and interviewed Ann during my reporting years. She had suggested at the time that I turn my eye toward writing true crime. When I told her about Karly’s death, Ann said, “This is your Ted Bundy story.” I’m humbled and overwhelmed that Ann Rule has given such a resounding endorsement to this work, calling it “a must read”.

In my opinion, the pitfall for any memoirist is the temptation to cling to one’s own mythology. Unfortunately, some memoirists write as if they are elementary school boys trying to out-wee each other. Such writing isn’t about honesty as much as it is about trying to crank up the shock value. But when the writing is about the discovery of truth, it matters not whether one is writing true crime or memoir or fiction.

Question: Does the book contain specific recommendations for individuals and society in preventing child abuse?

Karen: Yes. Absolutely. The book is being released in April to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention month. I have partnered with national advocacy groups such as Childhelp (, Child Abuse Intervention Centers, the National Children’s Alliance (NationalChildrensAllianceorg) and Fathers and Families ( to help raise awareness about our nation’s child abuse epidemic.

Flannery O’Connor said it best: “The truth doesn’t change based upon our ability to stomach it.”

Abused children don’t need us to feel sorry for them. They need us to act on their behalf – as family, as friends, as neighbors, as teachers, as doctors, as law enforcement officers, as reporters, as pastors, and as legislators. That is the only way we are going to curb this crisis. We cannot fix this world but we can change it.

But we can’t even do that until we educate ourselves on what we are failing to do and what we need to do better. A Silence of Mockingbirds provides practical insights into the subtle, and sometimes glaringly obvious things we overlook, the multitudes of ways in which abuse insinuates itself into our neighborhoods, and our communities, and our families. Everyone in Karly Sheehan’s life was college-educated. Many of them were trained professionals who were supposed to be able to identify and prevent child abuse. Yet, Karly’s abuse had been ongoing for months prior to her death. These people should have known better. Why didn’t they?  

Question: Will you write another true crime?

Karen: I try to use my voice as a writer to speak for those whose voices have been marginalized and/or muted. So while I don’t think of myself as a true crime writer, dead people often play heavily into my work, so I suppose it’s entirely possible. 

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