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The Conformity of Nonconformity

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Thomas Hibbs on the film version of “Blue Like Jazz”: [2]

 As depicted in the film, Reed [College] is the paradigm of the university as envisaged by populist right-wing Christians—a place of unrelenting animosity toward God, tradition, and the South.  “Get in the closet, Baptist boy,” a lesbian girl tells him.  He claims he’s floating in a sea of individuality and while that may be true on the level of personality, Miller’s Reed is a sea of intellectual uniformity.

In one sense, Miller does at Reed what he did in church: he fits in.  He admits as much toward the end when he confides in another student that he hid his faith because he wanted to be liked.  Miller wants to widen the circle of likability, to include liberals.  But when he proceeds to confess that he’s tired of being a hypocrite and a coward, the testimony rings a bit hollow.  Miller has shown no signs of internal conflict or deep struggle.  The period of his play-acting at Reed comes off as gentle farce and it is, in its way, entertaining.  But it is not the set-up for tragic tension.

What is also striking about the film is how utterly absent from Miller’s Reed is the notion of college as an arena of the serious exploration of ideas.  Moving from the Baptist world of Texas to the liberal, even atheistic, world of Reed does force Miller to confront opinions alien to his initial views.  But these are articulated as nothing more than slogans.  In the seminar discussion of Homer, an author in Reed’s famous core curriculum, students do indeed engage in a lively exchange.  But they have precious little to say about the book itself and the professor seems quite content to let the students go around the room opining their views of religion and politics.  There is disagreement here but it’s not informed by the assigned text or by much of anything other than personal testimony.  In this respect, Reed is the mirror image of personality-drenched Christianity, rooted in individual testimony, that Miller left behind in Texas.

This brings to mind William James’s ace line: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

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12 Comments To "The Conformity of Nonconformity"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On May 21, 2012 @ 11:35 am

Rod, you are late to the dinner party on this.  Mad Magazine parodied the conformity of the non-comformists back in late 60s.

#2 Comment By Tyro On May 21, 2012 @ 11:46 am

I thought that this was some kind of documentary. It is actually a fictional movie by a “Christian director”– ie, it’s a fictional genre film, which inevitably will conform to the conventions of its genre.

I did not attend Reed, but the people I know from there are/were some of the most creative-thinking and smart people I have met, and the school is one of the most academically rigorous liberal arts colleges, particularly given its free-form atmosphere, comparable to University of Chicago in its commitment to intellectual development.

My

#3 Comment By Tyro On May 21, 2012 @ 11:53 am

To continue, my experience in such an environment was to sort of become a more extreme version of myself. Insofar as when you’re 18-22 and trying on different it leftism experiences and outlooks, I became that person coming home from college explaining to y parents everything they got wrong and weren’t paying attention to in our family’s religion. And of course there was the juvenile flirtation with libertarianism. But the experience does change you, just as it would change an actual protagonist. How do you get along with and socialize with and make friends with people who have a completely different background and worldview than you do, and is that even possible? It actually is, and the differences you think matter greatly (outward trappings of religious upbringing and background) actually matter less than you think for certain things, particularly the things important to you in college, namely things like intellectual temperament and professional goals.

#4 Comment By MWorrell On May 21, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

I went to see the film opening weekend and left feeling discouraged. The carrot dangled by the filmmakers (both of whom I have read and listened to and enjoy) was that we’d get a Christian film without the syrupy sweet neatness and decorum of “Fireproof”, etc. But I found the film to be very self-conscious, deliberate and manipulative. I should have known that, because the promotion leading up to the release of the film was very self-conscious, deliberate and manipulative.

It is interesting to see the utter contempt for films like “Fireproof” and “Courageous” that certain Christians have (I hesitate to identify which Christians, but mostly Emergents and liberals, honestly). The complaint is that they are sanitized and irrelevant to the lives of real people. But this is a true story: we have good friends who are devoutly Catholic, who were close to separating. In fact, a priest had suggested that perhaps they should (and not for reasons of unfaithfulness, abuse, addiction etc… just personal fulfillment)! We suggested that they rent “Fireproof”, and by the end of the film any discussion of separation was off the table. I’m not suggesting that a movie changed everything, but it was a very relevant reminder. What’s to hate?

#5 Comment By Raskolnik On May 21, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

My younger brother–who is unchurched, and very progressive in his outlook–went to Reed. He received a fantastic education, but had to give up on discussions past a certain point because “they’re too liberal.”

#6 Comment By ms_mm On May 21, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

Taking MWorrell’s critique further, it’s impossible to extract deep philisophical conclusions about religion from the perspective of an immature faith (as opposed to the perspective of a bond-slave to Christ).

That’s why Blue Like Jazz has limited appeal in the world of Christian films.  It’s over-critical to call his agony shallow, but Donald Miller lacks a strong message to the world beyond his ongoing diaries of self-discovery – and I say this as someone who has read his books and liked them (and him!) very much. 
It’s no surprise he got lost in translation. 

#7 Comment By SecularMisanthropist On May 21, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

One of the few perks of being a nerd is your low social skills prevent you from understanding nonconformist conformity. Your major goal is just trying to match colors because they don’t make garanimals in adult sizes. I was 26 before I understood there was such a thing as hipsters, that I was not one, and I would never be.

So the conflict of the film is pretty alien to my life experience.

#8 Comment By SiarlysJenkins On May 21, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

“You individuals are all alike.”

#9 Comment By Sean Nelson On May 22, 2012 @ 6:31 pm


In the seminar discussion of Homer, an author in Reed’s famous core curriculum, students do indeed engage in a lively exchange.  But they have precious little to say about the book itself and the professor seems quite content to let the students go around the room opining their views of religion and politics.  There is disagreement here but it’s not informed by the assigned text or by much of anything other than personal testimony.

Boy am I glad I went to St. John’s instead of Reed. Our Seminars were nothing like this: if your comment wasn’t directly grounded in the text, a fellow student would call you out on it, if not the Tutor. General opining wasn’t just discouraged, it was a major faux-pas. It sounds like the faculty at Reed isn’t doing a very good job of guiding the discussion; which is a shame, because the issues brought up in Homer are echoed throughout the rest of the canon. The students are the ones who suffer.

#10 Comment By Tyro On May 22, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

I don’t think it is fair to judge the quality of a college’s teaching by how it is depicted in a fictional genre film. Though St. John’s is an environment unlike any other, so I can imagine that the reality of Reed, whatever it is like, is much different than what you experienced at St. John’s.

#11 Comment By Sean Nelson On May 22, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

True, but Mad parodied everything worth mocking in the 60’s. Any blogger who limited himself to saying things that Mad didn’t already say better 40 years ago would be left without much material. 😉 

#12 Comment By Sean Nelson On May 23, 2012 @ 1:20 am

Tyro, I thought it was some kind of documentary at first, too. If I’d read your comment before I posted, I probably would have mentioned that fact. 🙂