Blessed Are the Unsatisfied by Amy Simpson, Free for CAPC Members
Living unsatisfied is the reality we know deep down and no longer need to cover with a shiny veneer.
The Christ and Pop Culture 25 is a list of our favorite people, works of art, or cultural artifacts from the last year that we feel best represent God’s truth and grace in the world. The list is extremely weird, a meandering, whiplash-inducing product of the diverse perspectives of our writers. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The goal of our list is to illuminate and appreciate the good both in and outside of the church, to show the way God uses Christians to shine a light on the world, and the ways God’s common grace spills out into the most surprising places.
Each of our writers submitted their top five choices for the categories of film, television, music, games, books, internet, and people. We then used our magic algorithm to compile those choices into a tentative list of around thirty items. Finally, a panel of four Christ and Pop Culture writers, each representing various perspectives and expertise, met over the internet for three plus hours to hash out exactly how the list should look.
While our list is in no way meant to be authoritative or objective, it is a serious attempt at appreciating culture, a task that is at the forefront of Christ and Pop Culture’s purpose.
We’ll be publishing five selections every day this week. On Wednesday and Friday, we’ll run a two-part podcast in which you can hear exactly how the CAPC25 Council determined the order and make-up of our list.
More Installments: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
It’s not often when an album comes along that gives someone a reason to slow down, take a breath and pay attention, but The War on Drugs’ Lost in a Dream demands exactly this. What began as background music stopped me from multitasking as the ambient sounds found resonance with my general weariness. This refreshing album beckons us to pause for a period of time in our convoluted world.
These Philly natives have been around since 2005, and I feel slightly ashamed — though, also, grateful — that their latest effort was my first foray into their music. The War on Drugs creates soundscapes you can live in, inhabited by words: the lyrics and chameleon-like vocals of Adam Granduciel. There are moments throughout Lost in the Dream where it seems Granduciel is possessed by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Don Henley. It’s almost uncanny, at times, but also seems right at home within the spaces of sound that they create for his voice to move around in.
Unlike the rest of their work, Lost in the Dream strikes an almost dreamlike state. Sprawling six to nine minute songs reflect no rush of urgency. Yet it never feels as long as it is, a testament to how the album mesmerizes its listener. If Lost in the Dream is any indication, maybe rock ‘n’ roll isn’t completely dead, but in the process of being born again. – Blake I. Collier
Attentiveness is the gift Marilynne Robinson offers us in her latest novel, Lila. By worldly standards, the story’s title character deserves hardly a first, let alone a second, glance. Unwanted as a child, Lila ekes out what life she can from her orphaned childhood on. From field-to-field, town-to-town, job-to-job, Lila creeps through the world unnoticed, until arrested by the eye of respectable John Ames, venerable pastor of Gilead, Iowa.
While her seemingly insatiable desire for belonging and security struggles with the vulnerability she invites by acknowledging that desire, Lila accepts Ames’s kindnesses, little by little. And little by little, this grace changes her. In this way, and drawing from its central biblical allusion to Ezekiel, Lila tells the story of resurrection, of salvation through sacrifice, of the painful work of grace.
Though some have criticized Lila for poorly representing Christian soteriology, Robinson’s fiction offers insight into human nature and the human condition, not discursive theology. Few writers capture, as Robinson does, the fragility of relationships, the immensity of joy and pain, the difficulty of giving and receiving compassion. And fewer still do so with such beauty. Through her poetic prose, Robinson makes small delights luminous; in her fiction, even desolation has its graces.
Yet insight is not quite the right word; perhaps I should have said, Robinson’s fiction offers a glimpse into human nature and the human condition. For she definitively answers no questions. Rather, Lila invites us into the mystery of life, to more fully experience it for ourselves, to really contemplate our situation. Robinson’s story of this abandoned child reminds us of ourselves. We know not why Ames — or God — intervenes, the outcast to save. Any answers to this mystery are not for Robinson to give. They are for us to discover, and Lila beckons us to begin. – Marybeth Davis Baggett
In 2014 Hollywood discovered the evangelical market, flooding theaters with films like Son of God, Noah, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Financially, the strategy worked, netting studios over $330 million, but the cultural and spiritual effect of this trend is questionable at best. The increased attention on American evangelical cultural taste has revealed that — as a general rule — we don’t quite know how to evaluate, appreciate, or critique these productions. And so our voice in this media-driven, pluralistic world becomes muted, our message untranslatable to those most needing its truth.
Alissa Wilkinson has been prepared for such a time as this. As chief film critic for Christianity Today, Wilkinson models and encourages graceful, insightful cultural analysis, chock-full of gems that remind us the gospel truth overspills its scriptural boundaries and shows up in unexpected places.
For those not familiar with her CT column, Watch This Way, here Wilkinson covers the big and small screen, and her essays range from reviews of individual stories, to thematic or topical surveys, to big-picture arguments about the nature of Christian cultural criticism, storytelling, and art. Her take is often nontraditional, yet always orthodox; check out “Lessons from the Church of Satan” for this surprising combination. Even still it is an accessible column, filled with anecdotes and callbacks that reward the regular reader. In each of these endeavors, Wilkinson brings illumination, substance, humor, and courage. (Lest you doubt courage is necessary, check out the comment section of this piece).
Wilkinson’s work is driven by her conviction that for Christians cultural engagement is not optional. Sharing the gospel requires understanding it, recognizing it at work in this world, and communicating its importance to ourselves and others. Again and again, Wilkinson shows us how to do just that. – Marybeth Davis Baggett
If you were looking for smart, funny women in 2014, you didn’t have to look far. Memoirs by Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler hit the bestseller list. “Jane the Virgin” debuted to acclaim, starring Gina Rodrigez and created by Venezualen director Perla Farias. Anne Helen Petersen finished her PhD and took a job writing accessible, intelligent longform pieces for — of all places — Buzzfeed.
But the true breakout star in the smart women genre this year was The Toast, a website started just eighteen months ago by Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe. First of all, it’s funny: take a look at their Dad Magazine covers, or these Texts from Emily Dickinson. Second, it’s inclusive: Nicole and Mallory consistently offer their platform to voices that can be harder to hear in our culture. They run pieces they expect their audience to disagree with.
Perhaps most importantly, Mallory and Nicole (and the other contributors) write about things like sex, politics, and religion without resorting to jargon, cliché, or equivocating. (Even effectively satirizing such cliché from time to time.) In the recurring series “Gabbin’ about God,” for example, Mallory answers Nicole’s questions about Christianity — sometimes bringing in her dad (pastor John Ortberg) to explain things.
As American culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, it’s this kind of voice — free of technical terms, down to earth, non-confrontational, like Francis Spufford in Unapologetic — that we need to learn how to use. The Toast gives us a great place to start. – Amy Peterson
Film critic Manny Farber coined the phrase “termite art” to describe a very specific kind of film that is unconcerned with boundaries or conventional good taste. It is concerned only with moving forward, constantly establishing new boundaries by eating away at the old ones. Like a termite burrowing through a block of wood, this kind of film makes its own path, even if it goes against the grain to do so.
Members of the Academy, for your consideration I give you Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the termite-iest example of termite art to hit cinemas this year.
Everything about this movie is bonkers, from the squint-and-cock-your-head sci-fi premise (humanity escapes a new ice age by building and boarding a planet-spanning freight train) to Tilda Swinton’s blackly hilarious performance as a schoolmarmish authority figure with a heart of obsidian. As the protagonists move from the back of the train to the front in a quest to overthrow their dystopian oppressors, each train car presents us with a fantastically strange new environment. Which is your favorite — the car that houses a 24/7 rave club or the car that’s basically a giant fish aquarium?
All of this is spellbinding, inventive, and utterly mad — the best blockbuster of the year, for my money. There is a purpose behind it, though, that goes beyond a mere desire to entertain. Because Bong Joon-ho disregards common storytelling conventions, he bypasses the defenses that audiences have built over time, slipping past the jaded watchmen of our imaginations to make us think in new, perhaps uncomfortable ways about stratified societies; human nature; and the bizarre things that can happen when technology, politics, and religion come together and kiss. Long live the termites. – Kevin McLenithan
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