[Ethan Hawke] belies the first impressions from his earliest roles and has mostly eclipsed the image Miller is frustrated with. 

In 2023 I finally read Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, twenty years after it was originally published. It felt like his version of a Jack Kerouac stream-of-consciousness memoir, albeit framed through the lens of “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality.” As such, it provides a snapshot of a very specific period in Christian culture, introducing characters like Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris while highlighting Ravi Zacharias’s writings. We view each of these men quite differently with the passage of time.

However, I’m particularly interested in one excerpt from Miller’s book. He talks about how his friend likes the actor and writer Ethan Hawke. It comes out that she likes him because he’s cool. Miller says:

I was in a cranky mood so I asked her if she knew what he believed…Believes about what? She asked. Believes about anything, I said. Well, she told me as she sat back in her chair, I don’t know. I don’t know what he believes. Do you think he’s cool? I asked her. Of course, he is cool, she said. And that is the thing that is so frustrating to me. I don’t know if we really like pop culture icons, follow them, buy into them because we resonate with what they believe or whether we buy into them because we think they are cool.

I wholeheartedly agree with Miller’s premise that our culture makes idols out of certain people based on their perceived image (and coolness). There’s something superficial about it even as right beliefs do not necessarily preclude other shortcomings. That’s no doubt fodder for a whole other essay on celebrity.

And while I resonate with what the author is saying, I would contend that Ethan Hawke’s career over the last twenty years has proved him to be one of the most fascinating actors in the industry. He belies the first impressions from his earliest roles and has mostly eclipsed the image Miller is frustrated with. If we do a close reading of his more recent creative choices and some of his selected interviews, we can begin to hone in on something more substantive.

Hawke speaks implicitly to Miller’s complaint by acknowledging in countless interviews that he hasn’t been able to make a first impression in twenty years. Whether it’s Reality Bites or Jesse from The Before Trilogy, people think they know him, and they have preconceived notions about who he is as a person. Casual fans who only see him as a celebrity either want to keep him in formaldehyde or to interact with someone who has been a part of the cultural zeitgeist once upon a time. It has nothing to do with interacting with another constantly changing human being.

In a different conversation, Hawke had a question posed to him about what he thought about being a “Hot young star” in the wake of his early success, and he comes at the question facetiously. Like any young man he probably thought he was cool, and yet he never put much weight on it. He has admitted that people have called him pretentious on any number of occasions, and yet Kris Kristofferson advised him not to worry because as you get older people will be nicer, and they’ll love you for it!

He seems to have grown into his pretension, and whether he’s perceived as cool or not at large, he’s remained passionate about the arts. Furthermore, his advice to younger creatives is to be pretentious with a sense of humor—you’re not taking yourself too seriously—while still aspiring to something more. It seems like a loftier endeavor beyond the Hollywood rat race. To this end, he’s put these aspirations into practice with some of his recent film roles.

“Religion is not a warm electric blanket—it’s the cross.”

In Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Hawke plays a pastor of a dwindling church who goes through an existential struggle in the wake of the death of a young man he was counseling, and in the face of the impending climate crisis. He noted in an interview that we often see religious figures portrayed as ignorant or evil without ever actually exploring deep issues of why we are born, why we die, and what we’re supposed to be doing within this mortal coil.

We live in a fallen world. To make it all nice and to make it all warm and fuzzy, you’re not really talking about faith.
~Hawke

The film evokes a desire to treat this subject matter seriously with true consideration. It really does feel like a higher calling, and it’s art and entertainment for the sake of exploring the deepest human questions. That’s a gift for an actor to be able to explore and a gift for an audience if an actor is willing to go there. However, by the same token, Hawke has some genuine reservations about certain religious thinking as reflected in Schrader’s film. He said in a different Q&A:

I don’t understand an evangelical community that doesn’t seem to have read the New Testament. My character is saying, “Why don’t you care about God’s earth? Why aren’t we caring for each other? Why are we not teaching, ‘My father’s rain falls equally on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45)?’ We’re all in this together,” and he’s feeling this very profoundly.

This is only one example of Hawke’s earnest consideration of Christian teaching. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Hawke gave an introduction to his leading role in James McBride’s Civil War-era miniseries on John Brown, The Good Lord Bird. His character was a staunch Calvinist and a very serious Christian who took God and the idea of the imago dei very seriously. After being a non-violent abolitionist, he decided he had to be willing to fight and shake people out of their apathy. 

Brown failed to incite a revolution and was ultimately executed, but what he did accomplish was to wake up the White Christians in the North. If there’s a common thread here, we see two men who have an incisive, ardent sense of what Christian faith is. It’s not cheap, but it costs something to pick up your cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24).

Ethan Hawke and his daughter Maya also share a mutual appreciation for the Southern Gothic writings of Flannery O’Connor. He has spoken about her short stories from “Parker’s Back” to “Revelation,” which all feature the author’s scandalizing depictions of grace. The question she always seems to be asking is what do we do in response to these moments? This is one of the elements that became the bedrock of the Hawkes’s soon-to-be-released film on O’Connor called Wildcat.

In their conversation with Bishop Robert Barron, Ethan talks at length about how his parents introduced him to writers like O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day—writers who informed his worldview as a young man. His understanding of religious faith is quite remarkable given his following statement. He said:

Religion is not a warm electric blanket, it’s the cross, and the cross holds the suffering of the world. This is a very profound symbol of human suffering and failure of community, that they can be presented with the child of God and crucify him. We live in a fallen world. To make it all nice and to make it all warm and fuzzy, you’re not really talking about faith.

Hawke continues to shirk the desire to be perceived as cool, and it’s evident he continues to grow and stay curious. These words represent a man who has continued to progress a long way from Miller’s perception of him in Blue Like Jazz because they suggest an artist with deeply-held beliefs. Interestingly enough, Miller himself did offer up someone else who seems worthy of further consideration as part of this conversation.

The Cool Christian & Christ Crucified

While Miller was rightfully miffed by the masses who follow pop idols because they are cool without any consideration of their beliefs, he also highlights an alternative idea he had once to make Christianity cool. He thought he could use art to give the faith more credibility. It would make people come to terms with their predilection toward sin, and it could change the world. He goes on to say:

My fashionable Christian was deep. Deep water. A poet. He studied [Hunter S.] Thompson during his drug years, during the prostitute years…[Allen] Ginsberg’s “I watched the greatest minds of my generation descend into madness…” was to him, about sin nature. Part of him was about social justice.

Christianity itself does not require us to be cool. It requires faith, humility, and an acknowledgment of our need for grace—a grace that cuts through hypocrisy and fanaticism.

On a cursory level, Ethan Hawke shares much in common with the exterior life of Miller’s idealized Christian nicknamed Tom Toppins. He did an entire TedTalk on Ginsberg and the artist’s calling to play the fool and shake humanity out of their everyday lives. If it’s not evident already, he’s an avid reader, a lover of music, and issues of faith and social justice permeate many of the interviews he gives. 

But his candor often feels more sincere than any Gen-Xer pastiche to make Christianity more appealing. And yet in honing in on the irony of Ethan Hawke being quite close to Miller’s evocation of the Cool Christian who holds genuine beliefs, it’s important to not commit another distortion. 

Christianity itself does not require us to be cool. It requires faith, humility, and an acknowledgment of our need for grace—a grace that cuts through hypocrisy and fanaticism. Is this cool? I suppose it depends on whom you ask, although it doesn’t seem like it should matter. We don’t need Christianity to be cool just as Christ does not need us. We need Christ. It’s that simple. 

Giving Miller the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is what he began to recognize implicitly within the pages of Blue Like Jazz. His idealized Christian ultimately feels superfluous. As Hawke mentions, “religion is not a warm electric blanket, it’s the cross.” Nothing can change the bottom line: Our sinfulness led Jesus Christ to die for us. Period. 

Immediately my mind goes to Paul’s words to the Corinthians. He’s talking to an audience of Jews and Greeks, and it could just as easily be said to more modern listeners, both legalistic Christians and those who lean more antinomian. He says, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). 

What’s encouraging about Hawke’s story is not that he has a disinterest in fame or subjective coolness or even that he’s intrigued by spiritual things per se, though this can all be lauded. Fundamentally, he has an intuitive understanding of scripture that is humbling. It cuts through the glut of Christian culture, getting at the heart of what it means to consider the creator God and the implications of the scandal of grace found in His Son’s death on the cross. There’s more that Christians can quibble over, but as I don’t know Ethan Hawke, this is all I can say: I would do well to learn from him in humility.  

Blue Like Jazz feels very much of its time and for a specific audience. That doesn’t mean it’s not still instructive, even meaningful. However, Christianity is rightfully timeless and universal. It provides a narrative to make sense of the broken world we live in. May God be with Ethan Hawke and all of us as we grapple with life’s important questions by faith and through beautifully creative works of art. Still, more imperatively, let us throw off coolness and cling to the cross and Christ crucified.