Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
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, 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 Friday, we’ll run part two of our podcast in which you can hear exactly how the CAPC25 Council determined the order and make-up of our list. Listen to part one here.
For me, every Wes Anderson film has an “Aha” moment. At some point during each film, the shell of Anderson’s self-consciousness, formal artifice, and muted emotion cracks open to reveal the treasures hidden inside, gleaming and warm like a dragon’s hoard. The film blooms, and what seemed earlier to be annoyingly mannered filmmaking takes on new dimensions. So I was waiting for that transfiguring moment while watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. When the credits rolled, I was still waiting—not because the “Aha” moment failed but because the film had no need for one. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one long blooming, as it opens up before the audience into a gorgeous spray of humor, romance, and nostalgia.
Anderson sprinkles the film with standout shots and sequences throughout its running time, of course—a single black-and-white scene toward the end moved me more than anything else in his filmography. But the film is a symphony, not a series of solos. Everything harmonizes—the luscious cinematography and immaculate production design combine to create a setting that is half storybook, half history. This is the perfect tone to set for the film, in which the aging proprietor of the titular hotel tells a writer about how he came of age as its lobby boy. Most of us remember formative periods in our lives as some combination of actual fact and embellished perception. Anderson’s signature stylization fits this story like a lavender glove.
These elements are anchored by a brilliant performance from Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, the caddish concierge whose role in the young lobby boy’s life is a touching combination of mentor, best friend, and father. Gustave is self-possessed at all times, but his courtliness and sangfroid cannot fully mask his sorrow at the realization that he is an endangered species in a gradually coarsening world. The Grand Budapest Hotel fairly bursts at the seams with exuberance, but in the end it is an elegy. All people’s lives are contained in a breath, expiring once their story has been told. – Kevin McLenithan
True Detective, in its first season on HBO in 2014, is a slice of modern noir. Over the course of its eight episodes, various strands of tightly woven plot lines bring in all the classic elements of pulp fiction, from the thugs to the dames to the booze. The most memorable character is Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-bitten detective narrating his existential angst in a near-constant murmur, holding the whole world in contempt even as he is willing to die to save it.
In the show’s death match between good and evil, evil is winning, even in the hearts of our heroes—Rust and his partner, everyman Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), the prose to Cohle’s poetry. The detectives rack up an impressive list of vices and betrayals between them. The good guys are also the bad guys. And the real bad guys? They are very, very bad. Men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
And the deeds in True Detective are truly evil, all taking place in the southern gothic atmosphere of coastal Louisiana. But for all the hyper-articulate musings offered by Rust Cohle—no fan of religion, it’s safe to say—in the end the detectives’ trajectory follows the one found in Scripture itself. The darkness of John 3:20 is followed by John 3:21. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. In True Detective, Cohle and Hart press on, manifesting truth with the sort of bare knuckle determination that shows just how hard it can be to do good. And in true pulp fashion, Light shows up. Light shows up and spites the darkness, to the whole world’s eternal relief. – S. D. Kelly
Shot with the same actors over the course of twelve years, Boyhood surprised precisely because its long view of time gives way to no surprises. In a time when television and film thrive on cliffhangers, inconsequential catastrophe, and meaningless destruction, Boyhood’s exploration of the normal—mundane even—aspects of growing up is enlightening.
The film begins with six-year-old Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) lying in the grass staring into a clear sky in search for something meaningful. It ends much the same way, though Mason Jr. is then 18 and on the cusp of adulthood. In between we witness a summation of his entire adolescence. Supported by his single mother (Patricia Arquette), older sister (Lorelai Linklater), and sometimes present father (Ethan Hawke), Mason, Jr.’s journey through boyhood strikes with a subtle honesty regarding life, parenting, and growing up.
Throughout the film one may anticipate plot twists as if we’ve been conditioned to expect them. When major events occur, however, the film moves on a year or two before we can even begin to process what has happened. Divorce, domestic abuse, relocation, alcoholism—such trials appear insurmountable when in the throes of suffering, doubt, and despair. Boyhood removes us from the throes before we ever realize we’re there, and in so doing, it reorients our perspective of what’s important and meaningful.
By refusing us the time to agonize over divorce, fear, abuse, despair, or brokenness, we are afforded the opportunity to step outside of time to see how single events can pale in comparison to the whole—no matter how big they may seem in the here and now.
Life goes on. This too shall pass. The long view of Boyhood does not encourage one to disengage from life’s sufferings with a despondent fatalism, but to meet them in expectation of the good for which we’ve already been promised they’ll produce. – Tyler Glodjo
The June 2014 issue of The Atlantic is one of the only magazines I have ever purchased at a newsstand for full price. I bought it for a single article: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” with which Coates single-handedly got the engine to turn on a new conversation about race in this country.
If you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to read it now. Coates documents a sordid history of racial injustice—de jure in the early days, and then de facto—in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the US. He writes about black families being forced to buy homes under contract, families who were denied the equity that comes from a proper mortgage, who were forced to pay steep prices for homes that predatory speculators had bought on the cheap after inducing white panic. During a time when home ownership was becoming “an emblem of American citizenship,” black people were systematically being denied access to the American dream. God knows, they were hardly being permitted an American wistful thought.
These aren’t distant sins in American history. The involved parties are still alive, and the crimes and indignities suffered didn’t stop with legislation in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, or aughts. Coates ends his piece with the 2008 financial crisis, wherein lenders at Wells Fargo targeted black communities for subprime products referred to, Coates tells us, as “ghetto loans” for “mud people.”
The actual case for reparations is largely implied. Reparations boils down to giving back something you stole. Coates doesn’t call for specific programmatic measures apart from voicing support for HR 40, a bill to establish a governmental commission to study reparations. However, he knows very well what has been stolen and articulates enough of it that we might get the picture, too.
This one article hardly summarizes Coates’ output over the past twelve months. Endearingly nerdy, an ace with Twitter, and a vocal fan of Dragon Age and other games, Coates has developed a sizable platform and a following as eclectic as the American public.
But, too, his career as a public intellectual has taken on a prophetic cast in 2015. He is like Nathan making the appeal to David to recognize the sin of the man who has much, and who yet still takes more from someone else who is powerless to stop him. David condemns the evil man in the story, not realizing that Nathan was allegorizing David’s own actions all along.
We are not Nathan in this scenario. My hope is that Coates will help us to see and recognize the depths of our sin, so that we might repent of it and finally have our reckoning with the horror that props up the history of this nation. – Martyn Wendell Jones
What better way to sum up 2014 than with Serial, the breakout podcast which seems to personify both the good and the bad of the year? Serial, for the few of you left who haven’t been listening, follows a single journalistic story over a series of months and episodes, the facts unspooling in non-linear and dramatic ways. For its first season, Serial focused on the case of Adnan Syed, a boy who was convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
People are bananas for the show, hosting communal listening parties, discussing the newest episode with fervor and glee, everybody making pronouncements on the innocence or guilt of Adnan.
We tour the tragedy and misery and proclamations of injustice with the help of narrator Sarah Koenig, a masterful producer and somewhat untrustworthy narrator (making the show an all the more compelling listening). Koenig is too close to the story, her emotions veering wildly from shock to outrage to confusion to doubt. We’re all there with her, listening in every week, because we can’t quite believe that the justice system could so spectacularly fail someone—a person of color, a religious minority—and also because deep down we were created to crave justice and righteousness.
But if 2014 has taught us anything, it is that it is not enough to be shocked and surprised and intrigued that things could go so horribly wrong in our country and in our world. We can’t simply listen to and ingest the stories of pain and injustice. As 1 Corinthians 4 declares, the kingdom of God comes not through talk, but through power. It’s time for us to consider our attraction to such stories and to assess where we are in pursuing righteousness in our everyday lives.
In the end, Serial does not answer any of our questions. Instead, it points to the heartbreaking reality that so much of our grasping at certainty leaves us empty-handed, lost in a world of ambiguity, in a place where there still is no real justice for Hae.
But there still remains real power in listening to someone like Adnan, who may or may not be innocent, strive to take back the narrative that the judicial system sentenced onto him. These voices, pleading to be heard and acknowledged at the edges of the empire, are all around us. For those of us just tuning in, listening to them is the only way to move towards a more just and righteous world. – D. L. Mayfield
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