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A Christian friend of mine is fond of saying that with regard to the church, he is willing to join a movement, but not a tribe. He likes the idea of an organization devoted to bearing the light of Christ into the world, but he gets nervous when Christians start congregating and building up the ramparts against all those heathen sinners Out There.

Watching the opening of Blue Like Jazz, you can sympathize with his fears. Don, a high-school senior who assists the Youth Pastor at his Southern Baptist Church in darkest Texas, quotes a little Scripture and then flat-out asks a bunch of kids if they have any sins they want to confess to the group. Healthy!

Later, the breaking of a cross-shaped piñata showers the kiddies with individually sealed cups of Christ’s cleansing blood. When the Youth Pastor warns Don not to let the folks at the local Christian college brainwash him with their newfangled ideas, it’s hard not to smile.

But at the same time, it’s had not to wince when Don reminds his enlightened and wandering dad that those same church folk showed up with groceries a lot more often than the old man’s child-support checks. What do you know, Christians are people, doing the unglamorous work of taking care of their own. Some of them, like Don, are even smart, which is why Dad wants him to go to Oregon and attend Reed College, hotbed of intellectual freedom (read: godless liberalism).

Don’s discovery of little old-fashioned sexual indiscretion within the flock is enough to send him fleeing north, even if it is, as he says, “just for the writing.” Of course, once he gets there, he finds out what Christ meant when the promised that the world would hate his followers. It turns out non-Christians are people, too, and they have a bone to pick with the dominant social paradigm.

The division is real and in some cases deep, but it’s all handled with a light, even deft touch by director Steve Taylor. Don’s first stop upon arriving on campus is the men’s room, only it isn’t just the men’s room, and he winds up standing next to a lesbian who prefers to use the urinal as she chats with her friend about the socio-politico-sexual dynamics of Tori Amos.

It almost reads as parody – look at these gender-hating hipsters – but Don’s reaction saves it. Okay, so this is what it’s like here. He is willing to go along for the ride, and so we are, too. Not surprisingly, all that intellectual diversity combines with Christianity’s bad reputation to do a number on Don’s faith. Plus, there’s, you know, beer.

Reed turns out to be a hotbed of quirky whimsy as much as anything else, and so along with Don’s putting away of childish beliefs, we’re treated to a robot invasion of a chain bookstore, some creative anti-corporate graffiti, and a mock-Pope who burns copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul in an effort to redeem religion-addled humanity.

Eventually, of course, the whimsy runs dry, and Don has to reckon with the question of who he is and what he believes. Like most people, he does this with the help of those around him – especially his friends. (A more pious soul might note that the very first line of the very first Psalm warns against keeping company with scoffers.) And along the way, he learns that not everybody who goes to college loses their faith; some people actually discover it there. Blue Like Jazz is a thoughtful portrait of collegiate self-exploration: not brilliant, but wise; not momentous, but worthwhile.

Reader rating: Two stars

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Colonna April 18, 2012 @ 2:41 a.m.

Bet this never sees the light of the film projector here in Fort Wayne - the seat of Allen County, IN that's 85% conservative Republicans. How did I end up here?

Will eagerly watch for its DVD release here.

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