“Blue Like Jazz”: Not Your Father’s Evangelical Movie

 “Blue Like Jazz” arrived at selected theaters this past week, an odd stepchild among usual movie fare of aliens, vampires, and things that go boom.  Derived from Donald Miller’s book by the same name, “Blue Like Jazz” is a story of life and faith during a young man’s first year of college.  Don, the main character, is son of a bible believing single mother who wants to protect her son and an atheist  father who is emotionally disconnected, mostly absent, and religiously hostile.

Donald’s Dad wangles an acceptance from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a school filled with intellectually brilliant and morally unfettered not-quite-adults.  After struggling with it, he heads to Reed and Portland instead of the Baptist college his mother wants him to attend.  Soon life is filled with Political Correctness, drugs, booze and moral haze.   The professors challenge every aspect of life, and students engage in protest and outrageousness as an extracurricular activity.

From that point we follow Don as he struggles with the pain of the life he has left behind but the faith that won’t leave him alone.  He is ashamed of that identity, and tries to fit in, but never really does.  The church is an ambiguous presence throughout the movie.  The childhood church that Don leaves behind is a stereotype of tacky children’s sermons and fear of the world.  The youth pastor is glib, a know-it-all, self-assured, and, it turns out, secretly sleeping with Don’s mother, which brings a crisis into his life later in the story. Continue reading ““Blue Like Jazz”: Not Your Father’s Evangelical Movie”

To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later

Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures.  You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry.  You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film.  When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence.  I was embarrassed.  So we’ve made some progress, I guess.  As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Continue reading “To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later”

Life Coaching with Napoleon–Dynamite, that is.

Napoleon Dynamite.  It’s been seven years and I still laugh at this movie.  I have it on DVR so I can speed through to favorite moments.  A friend and I were laughing as we sent quotes back and forth this week.

  • Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?
  • Farmer: Do they have what?
  • Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.
  • Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.
from Moviefone blogsite

His dialogue is so painfully true to life.  I knew kids just like him, and he talks like them.  The humor is not cruel, slapstick, humiliation or vulgarity–it’s recognition and insight into irony.  You feel the pain and wince because you’ve been there as one of the characters in that movie.

  • Napoleon Dynamite: Stay home and eat all the freakin’ chips, Kip.
  • Kip: Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to be a cage fighter.
  • Napoleon Dynamite: Since when, Kip? You have the worst reflexes of all time.
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  Well, nobody’s going to go out with me!
  • Pedro:  Have you asked anybody yet?
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  No, but who would? I don’t even have any good skills.
  • Pedro:  What do you mean?
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.

It’s the little details–Don the Jock, mocking and threatening but never actually doing anything but sneering and shaking his head; the bully who kicks Napoleon’s pants to mash his “tots” when he refuses to share them; the kids in the bus screaming when Lyle shoots a cow without thinking about who’s watching; the town rich girl who always wins everything because she was entitled from the get-go and the faceless mass of kids who never have a chance.  Then the principal—lecturing Pedro for his “cruelty” for mocking his opponent with a piñata and later leering at the Happy Hands dancers do their skit bare-footed at the assembly.  I could go on.

Napoleon grabs onto a new kid from Mexico in the desperate hope for a friend who might stick by him.    I winced.  I was that kid.  I spent most of my life as an outsider, since I moved throughout childhood.  I attended seven different school systems in five states before I graduated high school due to my father’s job.  I get “not belonging.”  I had to fit in and figure out a world others created, often obliviously, before I arrived.

I am actually grateful for these experiences.  Any capacity I have for empathy and compassion owes a lot to this experience in my life.  While America is throwing trillions around I think we ought to move everybody in the country at least once, some of us to a foreign country, for at least a year so we can grow up a little and have some informed opinions.  The lack of imagination, openness to others and real knowledge of what it means to be “dislocated” probably has a little to do with our trivial politics and fear-based anxieties about the rest of the world.  Once you’ve been the powerless, unimportant and an outsider, you never see life the same again.

I tell young couples pondering marriage that friendship is one of the most underestimated predictors of marital success.  As I approach 38 years with the same woman, I credit some of it to a sense of humor and the fact that we like each other.  Once when she dramatically said, “Sometimes I just want to RUN AWAY, I asked, “Can I go with you.”

My version of, “I caught you a delicious bass.”

Helping “The Help”

In the theater on Saturday to see “Tree of Life,” we watched the obligatory previews and saw with interest that a film version of “The Help” is coming in August.  Allison Janney was one of the actresses I recognized, and heard enough to know this would be another butchered movie attempt to capture Southern accents.  Anyone NOT from the South cannot hear the hundred subtleties in Southernspeak.  We do not all sound like Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah, SAY-uh, ah sey-uh Miss Priss-ay”).

In the case of Mississippi, parts of Alabama and south Georgia you would be pretty close, but a little off is worse than way off, the linguistic equivalent of losing a baseball game on a balk in the ninth.  You think, “they don’t know us, don’t know anything about where we live, who we are.  What’s the deal?  Most of ‘em still think we’re unchanged from the barking dogs and fire hoses and Atticus Finch.  It’s as though the South is invisible.

According to Wikipedia: the movie “The Help” is about Aibileen, an African-American maid living in Mississippi in the early 1960s who cleans houses and cares for the young children of various white families.”   There is a storyline about a campaign to get the white residents of Jackson to build separate bathrooms in their garage or carport for the use of the “colored” help.   Characters with odd Southern names like Hilly and Skeeter are here, as well as Aibileen, another maid who has been through 19 jobs because she speaks out too much.  A lot more develops, but pick up the book or see the film.

I started thinking about real life versions of “The Help” many times.  As a minister you go and sit in people’s homes a lot, especially when things are going badly.  Death, divorce, children run amuck, that sort of thing.  You go as a holy man or woman and sit there, listening, trying to lend some presence to some terrifying absence.  It can be anywhere:  in nursing homes, assisted living or elegant suburban homes.  The help, especially down south, some long-time worker for the family, inevitably comes in and brings me a glass of tea or says hello or dusts around us.

When my wife worked in welfare reform she got to know a lot of women who worked as domestics—cooks, maids, caretakers for the elderly, sitters and raisers of babies.  Often they worked for more than one family to put food on the table.  And if you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, talk to these women.  It helps explain reality television, I think.  Often I think, “Why on earth would you say that with cameras rolling?  How can you be sincere and still know your being taped?”  I suppose you just forget after a while and then, out it comes.

My wife Vickie used to say, “People forget and talk in front of their maids like they’re not there, and don’t realize that everything in their house is known.”  Another way to put it is that these people become invisible.  We stop seeing them, being aware of them, taking account of their presence.

I wondered recently as I thought about a really BAD immigration law passed by the Alabama legislature:  “WHAT were they thinking?”  At first I focused on the legal, financial and constitutional issues—how will we enforce it, who will pay for it, and so on.  My question was, “Am I my brother’s Big Brother?”  Absurdities occurred—will we build a wall like the Israelis to keep the Floridians and Mississippians out?  But there were also somber thoughts—a lot of law enforcement may ignore it, but some might abuse it on people too scared and vulnerable to speak up.  And also frustration that the federal government, whose real job it is, has failed to do their job.  This is not a state issue.  But let’s not go there.

Mainly I have been thinking about the help.  The help are people who clean toilets and wash dishes and dig gardens and mow lawns and help build houses.  They mop hospital halls and work long hours without complaining.  And when they work their fingers to the bone for subsistence wages, we’re only too glad to let them do it.  Then, when the bottom drops out of the Dow and we’re scared, we started passing laws that have a nice, authoritative sound to them.  “Let’s stand up and do something.”

I called the governor’s office before this became law and told his staff I strongly opposed this law—unaffordable, unconstitutional, unenforceable.  But mostly, if truth be told, I was thinking about the Old Testament and Jesus and all those passages in the Bible about the way we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst.  There isn’t one passage in the Bible that says, “When they’re down and out, draw the line and shove ‘em out.”  Find it if you can.  No, it says, “You were strangers in Egypt.  Don’t forget it.  Don’t oppress widows and foreigners and orphans.”  In other words, “Don’t tread harshly on people who can’t fight back.”

I am embarrassed by this law.  We can do better.  Nothing in it about the people already here or treating them with respect and hospitality or how to go from where we are to where we could be or even a mere way to authorize those already here to stay as guest workers.  We didn’t even offer them a ride home.  Just jails, fines, and, worse, the rest of us being tattlers to pull it off.  It’s not that hard, it seems to me, to figure out.  But that didn’t seem to get in this law.

A lot of our newcomers pretty soon become business owners and contractors themselves.  They work hard and pull themselves up.  I’ve met people who were doctors or dentists in their former country but work in menial jobs here because they are not “qualified” and they don’t complain.  It’s a familiar story—like the 24 million immigrants who came into this country between 1860 and the 1920s—some of whose descendants sit in nice homes griping about immigrants.

Most of all, I feel like we got in the living room and made a decision affecting our maids and yard workers and day laborers and restaurant workers and lots of women and children.  Many of them are legal and sometimes their families are not.  It’s a mess, I admit.  But we got in the living room and came up with a half-baked solution that, like those bathrooms in the garages in The Help will look absurd a few years down the line.

We committed the two great sins for Southern Christians.  We were rude to strangers  and we talked about things that affected the help’s lives as though they weren’t even there.  And now our teachers and law enforcement folks and business owners are asked to fix it by becoming an enforcement bureau, ratting out first graders who don’t know anything about why they are here.

I’m for homeland security—career criminals don’t belong here, terrorists need to be stopped.  I hate the ocean of drugs pouring over our borders as much as Mexico hates the avalanche of guns pouring over theirs.  But maybe if we stopped talking about our help like they aren’t even there we could make distinctions between people who make us better and those who don’t.

We had the wrong kind of discussion and we ended up with a Rube Goldberg law.  We can do better.  We should do better.  I pray we will.