Last night, I watched “Blue Like Jazz”—a film adaptation of Donald Miller’s book with the same name directed by Steve Taylor. I’ve read Blue Like Jazz quite a few times, and I can say it’s nothing like the book, but in a good way. “Blue Like Jazz” tells the story of Donald Miller’s move from his home in Texas to Reed College in Portland, OR, and the journey of faith he found himself taking. The movie focuses on the Miller’s external journey while the book is the internal process of unpacking an anxiety ridden, inconsistent belief in Jesus. I think the movie well done. The difference between the book and the movie is explained in Donald Miller’s other book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Steve Taylor brought in Miller to consult. When Miller told Taylor there were some events in his movie that didn’t happen, Taylor told him, “I know, but I want to get to the heart of your book and tell your story.” The first time I saw this film, I immediately connected it with my own journey—especially in the Donald Miller character’s confession of spending his first year at Reed College trying to ditch God. He had a traumatic experience at his church, and wanted nothing to do with the people in his church, Christianity in general, and God. I also saw the constant theme of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” album through the character of Miller’s father who says “Life is like jazz—it never resolves.” His father passes on Coltrane to him, and then Miller finds “A Love Supreme” in the vinyl collection of his friend, Penny.
In the first few scenes, Donald Miller realizes the youth pastor at his church is cheating on his wife with Miller’s mom. Miller is enraged, vandalizes the youth pastor’s car before he speeds off to Portland. Miller’s anger is stirred again when his mother calls him to say she’s pregnant with the youth pastor’s baby. When the youth pastor gets on the phone, Miller shouts at the youth pastor calling him an asshole and a hypocrite. The youth pastor’s arrogance is unfazed as he tells Miller that Reed has improved his vocabulary. At this point, Miller hangs up, gather’s his church things, and goes to the church across the street. His phone is ringing on his way to the church. His mother is calling back, but Miller is done. In the middle of the sermon, before the pastor and the congregation, Miller dumps the church objects on the floor and tells everyone he is finished with Christianity. On his way out, Miller throws his ringing phone into the holy water. I probably would have done the same thing, but I would have said a few choice words to the youth pastor for his comment on my vocabulary, “Fuck you! You cheated on your wife and got my mom pregnant, and you’re going to judge me?! Look to the fucking plank in your own goddamned eye, asshole!” There is some anger and hurt still in me, but this particular scene hit home because I dealt with a pastor in a similar manner at Horizon Christian Fellowship.
Horizon Christian Fellowship is a church that came out of Calvary Chapel started by the late Chuck Smith in Costa Mesa California during the Jesus movement of the 1970s. The church holds to the cult of personality where the word of the pastor, in this case Bill Goodrich, is the word of God, and the other pastors repeat the same litany of submission pointing the people to the head of the church. The church loathes culture and holds to a mixed hermeneutic that takes the bible literally, but with the literalism that came out of the American frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. Calvary Chapel caters to the affluent middle class, and Horizon is no different. The church resembles a compound on the northeast tip of Indianapolis and borders on the wealthy suburb, Geist. That is most of the demographic of the church with some people coming from the North and East side. The church is predominantly white, and what I observed, willfully unread and ignorant. During one service, I sat behind a woman who said to her husband who said she hoped the rapture came before the tribulation because she didn’t want to go through torture and beheading. I rolled my eyes. For her and much of the church, they don’t want a faith that will cost them anything, but a faith that will get them all the cool toys if they say the right words to daddy.
I went to Horizon Christian Fellowship between 1996 and 1998 because I had many friends who went there—friends from my old punk rock crew. I found the church fun at first. I liked that the pastor went verse by verse, and explained how the bible “interprets itself.” But the church had a dark side to it that I saw first-hand and experienced myself. If people didn’t put the right toe on the right doctrinal line they were ostracized, and if they were in any kind of sin they were barred with gossip. For the most part this was true, but if a person were in Bill Goodrich’s good graces they could do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted without any consequences.
Billy Brandle was one such individual. He was an associate pastor at Horizon Christian Fellowship who liked to go to different places with a maxi mouse speaking to passers-by “If you were to die tonight where would you go?” I found him to be condescending, judgmental, and a horse’s ass to people, including myself, who were struggling with their faith or questioning it—he was also an adulterer, and an unapologetic one, I might add. Brandle had been caught cheating on his wife four times. Not only did his wife keep taking him back, but Bill Goodrich never told him to step down from his position as pastor. The adultery part never bothered me per se. Cheating happens because there is an issue in the relationship that has not been dealt with, and it sucks when it happens regardless of the reason. There were clearly issues within his marriage, but what bothered me is that he could cheat on his wife knowing it was wrong, but still have enough temerity to pass judgment on me and others in the church. Brandle lived in a glass house constantly throwing rocks because he believed Goodrich’s word protected him from any blowback.
One Tuesday evening, I attended a weekly service put on by the worship leader, John David Webster. He called it Koinonia from the Greek meaning “communion.” The meeting was in a small room, maybe 750 sq feet, filled with people who wanted to worship John David Webster, er, I mean, Jesus. He had to have a PA system so the whole room would turn into a concert hall, and, as one who dated and eventually married, Bill Goodrich’s daughter, Webster could do whatever he pleased. The worship was highly emotional with voices and hands raised till shoulders were popped out of their sockets, and words were broken by sobs. I’ve never been one to express my emotions, and being in the same room flooded with tears and whimpers makes me uncomfortable—I don’t know how to relate to that. I have always had a capacity for the intellectual, and I found the expression of faith too flimsy and too capricious. I found myself going into Reformed Christianity because the Calvinists employed rational thought and faith simultaneously. At the time I needed something that was concrete, and I thought Reformed Christianity was the way to go.
People talk, and because I lived with a few guys from the church including John David Webster, people whispered about my new found Calvinism. I didn’t help the situation any. Two of my roommates were going in a similar theological direction, and we browbeat our other roommates with our superior intellect and high end words written by dead white guys from England and Germany. The leadership in particular did not like this at all. Reformed Christianity is dialectally opposed to the Christianity expressed by Calvary Chapel, and is met with hostility. During such events the church’s leadership would make a surprise visit, and this particular evening it was Billy Brandle. During the hour long session of repeating a chorus with sways and moans, I stood there with a couple friends talking. Billy decided to interrupt us, and told me, “You’re not worshipping God enough.” I looked at him in the eye as I cocked my head, “Really? You want to judge me? You want to go down that road with me?” Billy’s eyes widened and his mouth was slightly parted. I looked him up and down with a smirk and returned to my conversation as he walked away dumbfounded.
This is why I loathe religious bullies of any stripe, and this is why I often slip on my informal and formal education like brass knuckles to crack the proverbial jaw of bullies. Yes, I agree, to an extent, they have it coming, but there are better, loving ways to offer a rebuke. My behavior and attitude reveals an old bitterness from an old wound festering instead of healing. As I write this, I still feel the pangs of those painful experiences at Horizon Christian Fellowship, and the memories are almost twenty years old. That’s a long time to be holding on to a wound, and the memory may not even be that accurate. These memories are based on my interpretation of events, and over time, different spins and embellishments are added to keep the bitterness nice and juicy. The bitterness has no place and infects my future relationships, and the first step of healing begins with a willingness to forgive, and to move away from that old anger that keeps me and Billy Brandle limited to a specific period of time.
The 1998 Billy Brandle should have paid more attention keeping his dick in his pants and remembering his vows to his wife—who is still with him—instead of what level of emotion I should be expressing to Jesus in public worship. The 2017 Billy Brandle? I don’t know. I’ve a friend who is still friends with him, and tells me that Billy is a different person who takes his walk with God seriously nowadays. I don’t know about that either, but I do know it’s unfair for me to confine him to my past experience. We never stay the same. We’re either getting better or we’re getting worse, but we are by no means stagnant. This impermanence makes forgiveness simultaneously possible and difficult. Forgiveness frees us from the past, and frees us from living our past versions of ourselves. Forgiveness also frees the people in our lives to grow as we grow, and to have the faith that something larger than ourselves is at work in us constantly reshaping us and healing our wounds. We are all in process, and for me to condemn a man and a church who hurt me and insulted me twenty years ago is to deny the grace of God in their lives as well as my own. There is no resolution, only note changes, and if we follow the improvisations of the spirit the song will rise with Coltrane as we touch the face of God.