Almost twenty years ago, Steve Taylor wrote a song called “Sock Heaven” that made a lasting impression on me. It was at least partially about his experience in a Christian band called Chagall Guevera that wanted to make music non-Christians would listen to. And seriously, their stuff was awesome. But their music sort of fell through the cracks. Christians didn’t want to listen to it because it wasn’t praise music, and non-Christians didn’t want to listen to it because it got sold in Christian bookstores. The band produced only one album before they broke up, much to the disappointment of their small but loyal group of fans.
After Chagall Guevara disbanded, Steve Taylor wrote the song “Sock Heaven” to describe his experience of trying to live in-between the Christian and secular worlds:
One pile waits with their god in a box
The other pile nervously mocks heaven
Misfits lost in the dryer, take heart
Maybe there's a place up in sock heaven
The first time I heard that song, I broke down in tears, because it so perfectly described my own experience. And I was thinking about that song while watching Steve Taylor’s movie Blue Like Jazz, which opens today.
I suppose I need to start by saying that although I’ve been going to church all my life, and indeed spent six years studying theology, I don’t generally listen to Christian music, and I almost never watch Christian films. I find movies like Fireproof and Courageous practically unwatchable, despite the fact that I agree quite strongly with their underlying message. I’m a huge (huge) C. S. Lewis fan, but I didn’t really care for the three Narnia movies they’ve released so far. Their message is fine; the books were great; but as movies, they just don’t work. Flannery O’Connor believed that any work of art needed to start by being true to its own medium. If a novel doesn’t work as a novel, it’s not worth reading, even if you agree with the message. In the same way, if a film doesn’t work as a film, if it doesn’t have the requisite production values, if it doesn’t have good actors and a good story and engaging characters with believable challenges, it doesn’t really matter whether it encourages good morals or makes a strong argument for faith. The medium for preaching is a sermon; cinema can only be the medium for a good story, well told.
The next thing I need to say is that I don’t know how I can really be an impartial observer of the movie. I’ve been a fan of Steve Taylor’s music since his first album back in 1982 (there are two artists I listened to in high school that I can still enjoy: Steve Taylor and Daniel Amos). I thought Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz was quite good: it was well written, thoughtful, and made me want to be a better Christian. And I was one of the 4500 people who kicked in some cash to help it get made. So I can hardly go into the movie without any biases. Indeed, I was hoping beyond hope that it would be decent; but I was practically terrified that it wouldn’t be. And of course, the fact that the professional reviews have been mediocre at best added to my anxiety.
But all that said, after watching the movie, those same mediocre reviews have really got me scratching my head. Because here’s the thing: putting aside any bias as much as I can, I really think it’s an amazing little film. The production values are fine – you’d never guess that it was made for $1.3 MM – but more to the point, it has a funny, moving story to tell. It’s not perfect: one or two of the characters fall a bit flat, one or two of the scenes drag on a bit too long, and occasionally a line or two of dialogue will sound a bit wooden. But those are small faults, and within the context of a movie that is fresh, funny, tightly plotted, theologically sophisticated, and above all moving, they’re easy to forgive. Marshall Allman does a wonderful job as the young Don Miller, trying to walk a precarious line between his Southern Baptist childhood and his mind-expanding education at Reed College. Justin Welborn’s snarling and snarky turn as “The Pope” is spot-on. Ben Pearson’s cinematography is beautiful. And the last scene – especially the very last line – made the movie. Like reading the book, watching the movie made me want to be a better Christian.
So like I said, the mediocre reviews have had me puzzled. I know what a bad movie looks like, and I know that this isn’t one. So why don’t more of the professionals like it?
My best guess is that like Chagall Guevara, it’s stuck in sock heaven. It’s a misfit. It’s too earnest for folks who make their living as professional cynics. It may turn out to be too edgy for Christians who don’t like their movies to acknowledge that lesbians exist, let alone that they can be smart or funny or have their hearts broken. It’s a misfit, made for misfits. Neither those who prefer to keep their god in a box, nor those who nervously mock heaven, have been able to find much to appreciate in it. But those of us who know we don’t really fit anywhere, who know we are strangers and aliens, who know the Church is both an infernal bureaucracy and the Body of Christ, may end up falling just a little bit in love.
Didn't want a platform to build a new church
Didn't want a mansion in rock heaven
Didn't want more than to be understood
Maybe there's a place up in sock heaven