Many Christians remain on the defensive in response to the culture around them, pointing out dangers and condemning anything that makes us uncomfortable. We find warning and condemnation to be a valid position, but not a valid default position. In order to demonstrate an alternative, we thought we’d demonstrate what it’s like to give popular culture the benefit of the doubt.All this week, the writers at Christ and Pop Culture will be playing the role of evangelist for some of the things we’re most excited about this year.
We’re not exactly recommending these things. Christians have different weaknesses and convictions, not to mention the unfinished or unrevealed nature of the concepts, releases, and artifacts we’re discussing. Nonetheless, this week we humbly present to you, the reader, a list of trends, films, television shows, albums, games, and books that we think you should give a chance.
The Road – Directed by John Hillcoat. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
The Road is a story about a father and son striving to survive after a cataclysmic event brings an end to civilization. Their goal is to head south along a main road in hopes that they will find warmer weather and, hopefully, other survivors. Along the way they are threatened by roaming tribes of cannibals, starvation, and the elements. The film adaptation is directed by John Hillcoat, whose previous work has mainly been band documentaries and music videos. The cast will feature Viggo Mortensen (as the father), Charlize Theron (as the wife), Guy Pearce, and Robert Duvall.
When they are not reduced to campy horror/thriller stories, apocalyptic tales force viewers to address issues that can easily be ignored in everyday life, yet are essential to how we define ourselves and understand the universe. In McCarthy’s novel, society is striped away almost entirely, leaving us with a man and his son. While there is nothing wrong with culture, society, and civilization as such (God did give us a cultural mandate in Genesis), their modern manifestations seem specifically designed to keep us from meditating on issues of substance, particularly issues which might directly demand us to change our morality, beliefs, or worldview. Our schools, stores, media, entertainment, and (though it pains me to say) churches are more often than not institutions which instill in us the belief that we are good as we are, we deserve to own nice things, and that we can be fulfilled and happy owning things, achieving success, and enjoying entertainment. In The Road, these influences are removed, and with them go their ability to validate the existence of the characters. The father is not justified in his existence by his successful career and the son does not gain his self-worth through his skillful integration into elementary school; the characters are forced to base their beliefs and values on foundations other than those society provides, which brings us to the second thematic aspect of the apocalyptic genre: in a world devoid of beauty, goodness, and pleasure, the question arises, why go on living? The question of the value of life permeates this story, and is particularly brought out by the father’s obligation to care for his son. If the man knows that there is a good chance cannibals will capture, rape, and eat his son, why should he continue to hope for safety in the south? While I know that the film adaptation will alter the novel in some ways, I am very hopeful that these two aspects of the story will carry over. In a society that is so horribly in love with ignoring fundamental issues, The Road forces readers (and soon, viewers) to set aside civilization and consider what makes life worth living and what standards we can appeal to to judge our actions.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – Directed by David Yates. Based on the book by J.K. Rowling.
The sixth film in the Harry Potter series deals with Voldemort’s rise to power and Dumbledore and Harry’s attempt to stop him (I will spare readers the details in case they, like me until a few months ago, have not read the books) Where the previous stories dealt with Voldemort’s slow return and acted as fairly self-contained story archs, the Half-Blood Prince introduces the series’s main conflict (launching Harry into the traditional hero role) and ends with the world in chaos. Unless Yates has butchered the book, this should be the darkest and saddest film in the series thus far.
Although I have always enjoyed the Harry Potter adaptations, the final two books, if adapted well, should introduce many more mature themes (death, betrayal, and faith) into the series. Certainly these themes have been important to the series from the first film, but they have always been secondary to the fantastic world of magic and the adventures Harry and his friends have. Not merely light entertainment, this story should challenge viewers as they face plot twists and ideas that are disturbing and dark. In addition, The Half-Blood Prince is the first film in the series where the Christian symbolism becomes increasingly central to the plot and characters. If I said any more on that subject it would spoil the plot, but my point is that this film will likely spark interesting conversations among believers and non-believers over the fairly overt Christian symbolism that Rowling starts to develop. I’ve never been a fan of trying to find Christian allegories in pop culture, but in this case the author has been quite open about the influence of her faith on the stories. Aside from the more mature theme and Christian symbolism, the reason I am excited about seeing The Half-Blood Prince is that the story is really good. Secrets are revealed, the plot is suspenseful, and Harry spends a lot of time with Dumbledore. July can hardly come fast enough.
Watchmen – Directed by Zack Snyder. Based on the Graphic Novel by Alan Moore
2008 was the year of meaningful superhero movies. The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Hancock all seemed to take a more introspective look at the inward lives of superheroes. In particular, these films struggled with the ethics or being a superhero, Dark Knight being the most blatant and beneficial of the three. Interestingly, the more serious the questioning of the superhero lifestyle, the better both the critical and box-office reception was for these films. If this is any indication, Watchmen very well may be one of the best-selling superhero movies of all time.
Despite news of a changed ending, the upcoming film seems to be striving to adhere as closely to the original graphic novel as possible, even recreating individual frames in moving form. If this turns out to be true Watchmen will be a brilliant and subversive film that questions whether or not mankind can, in fact save himself – a question to which our culture often assumes the answer is yes.
Dollhouse, Fox (premieres February 13)
It’s Joss Whedon’s latest creation! Watch it before Fox cancels it! Yep, I’m still bitter about Firefly (even though I didn’t even start watching it until after I saw Serenity). Whedon has a knack for touching on our cultural fears–as I may have mentioned here before, my realization that both Serenity and Batman Begins (both released in 2005) dealt with how human attempts to eradicat sin ultimately backfire was a large part of what inspired me to start writing about Christ and pop culture. I hope that Dollhouse will be equally revelatory about what aspects of Christian truth are speaking to people right now. The “dolls” of Dollhouse are agents who can be programmed to do any task, to display any personality or skill, according to the whim of the client who hires them out. When that assignment is finished, they return, are wiped clean, and the process begins again. The main character is a “doll” who is beginning, for some unexplained reason, to develop a memory and become self-aware. It seems like the show will likely have something to say about identity .
Kings, NBC (premieres March 15)
It’s a modern re-telling of the early life of King David, brought to us by executive producer Michael Green (one of the guys behind Heroes, presumably back when it was actually hot stuff). The World War II-ish vibe is no doubt meant to convey totalitarianism in association with King Saul, played by Ian McShane. Our hero, subtly named David Shepherd, looks a lot like Ryan Philippe and will no doubt say many earnest lines. I have my doubts about whether Kings will actually be any good, but, if nothing else, it should provide ample conversational fodder. Maybe it’ll even get people to crack open those history books in the middle of their Bibles.
The Oscars, ABC (February 22)
I’m also looking forward to the Academy Awards telecast on February 22, because I actually feel like rooting for some of the nominees this year. I’ll miss Jon Stewart as host: he did such a good job of poking holes in Hollywood’s pompous balloons . . . at least Hugh Jackman will be pretty to look at, and he does have experience hosting the Tonys. Should Christians be hoping for a particular film to do well at the Oscars? Nope, say I. One of the great things about our faith is that, to paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christ plays in ten thousand places, and we may each catch a glimpse of him in a different film, a different performance.
Quite simply, television has me excited this year. With so many channels, the bad may abound but the good shines through as well. The proliferation of cable networks has given many writers the chance to make some amazing work freed from the worries of catching a certain audience level.
Yet what specifically do I look forward to in the new year?
Flight of the Conchords, HBO (premeired January 18)
Season One was witty, catchy, and unique across the television landscape. If you have ever seen “Spinal Tap,” it has a similar feel in comic timing and surprisingly melodious (if lyrically foolish) songs. I look forward to seeing where the two Aussies (I mean, New Zealanders) take this season. And from what I’ve seen, so far so good.
The Daily Show/The Colbert Report, Comedy Central
Most people in my age group and younger get most of their news from sources such as these shows, making them powerful vehicles for social commentary. Each in its own way does a fine job in viciously assaulting stories and persons in the news, especially if they are Republicans, which brings up an interesting point. Both rose to their lofty ratings during the Bush Administration. As the backbone of their reporting has been political, it will be interesting to see how they handle the Obama Presidency. Already Jon Stewart has done a very funny sketch on Obama’s Inaugural Address, showcasing its similar use of language with speeches by President Bush. I would not expect Obama to get the same treatment as our former President, so how these shows reinvent themselves will be fun to watch. Either way the tone of these shows, if approached prudently, will give a good viewpoint on how comically tragic and foolish a world so decimated by sin can be.
Big Bang Theory/Friday Night Lights
Big Bang Theory reminds me of a lesser version of NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks,” (a would-have-been classic if it had been given more than a half season to run). “Big Bang Theory” documents well the intellectual triumphs and social disasters of, well, nerds. If you know one or are one it would be worth watching. “Friday Night Lights” continues even though it has yet to build up a large audience. Good for NBC. It is a great show based on a very good movie and book about football, Texas style. It is a treat for its great characters and realistic portrayals of the quasi-religion of the high school gridiron. If you come from a small town, watch and remember. If you didn’t, watch and learn.
Turner Classic Movies in February
Last but not least, I recommend a little cinema history. If you have Turner Classic Movies and have ignored it, shame on you. To redeem yourself, you should start watching at the beginning of February, when the station will carry an entire month of Oscar winning films. From “Casablanca” to “Ben Hur” to “My Fair Lady,” this time of the year is really a treat to watch. In light of the exclusion of “The Dark Knight” for a Best Picture nomination, this channel will beat the Oscars hands-down.