The Christ and Pop Culture 25 is a list of our favorite people, works of art, or cultural artifacts from the past 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.
“Sadly relevant to contemporary American life”
Though Selma technically premiered at the end of 2014, its nationwide release and mass appeal were in the dawn of 2015. The film was so powerful and beautiful that twelve months later, we haven’t forgotten it.
Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, Selma articulates a pivotal moment in American history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had legally desegregated the South, but discrimination persisted. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played with strength and tenderness by David Oyelowo) and his followers, despite violent opposition, completed an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Their work pressured President Lyndon Johnson into signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Racial injustices in the USA repeatedly made headlines through 2015, and Selma proved to be prescient filmmaking, sadly relevant to contemporary American life. Selma reminds us that even in peaceful resistance, we have to be politically savvy, wise as serpents. And despite continuing injustice, we remain hopeful: as Sister Gertrude Morgan sings, we have a new world in our view. —Amy Peterson
4 Mad Max: Fury Road
“The loudest, most over-the-top film of 2015”
Where to begin with Mad Max: Fury Road? I could spend 200 words just describing action sequences so insane—a desert storm tossing cars and bodies across the sky, War Boy kamikaze attacks, the Doof Warrior and his flame-throwing guitar—it’s a miracle nobody died during filming. Or the film’s stunning visuals and practical effects, which make nearly every frame impossible to ignore. And don’t forget George Miller’s amazing direction and pacing, which grabs you from the very start and never lets go.
But equally impressive are the film’s quieter moments: scenes of bravery (when seemingly frail women resist the tyrant who stole their innocence) and compassion (when one of those same women extends kindness to an enemy and reawakens his humanity); glimpses of the film’s post-apocalyptic societies that fire the imagination and leave you curious about that cinematic wasteland; and perhaps most impressively, the myriad ways in which the film’s primary hero and heroine deal with each other as equals and challenge, complement, and save each other (which all felt so refreshing considering how male/female dynamics are frequently portrayed in film).
Put all of those together, and I love that arguably the loudest, most over-the-top film of 2015 was also one of its subtlest, most graceful and well-crafted films. —Jason Morehead
3 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
“A father-to-son warning against America’s oldest false religion”
If you’re reading this list, it’s very likely that Ta-Nehisi Coates disagrees with the validity of your Christian beliefs, and his work is infused with a skepticism of non-material claims. Read him anyway. Between the World and Me is an open letter to Coates’ teenaged son, Samori, functioning as a heartfelt guidance from father-to-son warning against America’s oldest false religion and all its vices.
His striking prose is reminiscent of James Baldwin at his best, undergirded with a keen understanding of racism’s place in American history. Sadly, Coates understanding of the past far exceeds those that consider themselves connected to an ancient faith. Poetic overtures about the nature of bigotry and how it perpetuates across generations reveal a more robust anthropology of sin’s scope than Evangelicalism’s sympathetic to pithy, empty sayings. Numerous correctives from Christian leaders, even those more sensitive to his sentiment, responded with correctives imploring Coates and his readers towards a vague notion of “hope.” However, Coates refuses to say “peace” where there is none and will not give his country the benefit of the doubt without an acknowledgement of his black body and all its scars. In this way, Coates offers forgiveness but expects policy in keeping with repentance and restitution.
Coates has no god, “no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals.” But he is remarkably clear about the worthless idols his country worships. I believe his capacity to see them because of his reverence for the dignity of the black body.
The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible— that is precisely why they are so precious… the spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden…secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
Christians ought to read Between the World and Me so they can learn to love black people like Coates does, especially because they know Whose image they bear. —Bradford William Davis
2 Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
“Pointing out the Macomb County within all of us”
The most anticipated, feared, and debated novel of the year is the one that Harper Lee never intended for us to read at all. Or maybe she did, it is too hard to tell. At this point the murky origins of the manuscript and its quick and profitable publication are well known. But the fact remains that Lee’s voice is as strong and as fine as we remembered, and the message of Go Set a Watchman is perhaps more timely than any of us could have realized.
2015 was a year of fact and fiction blurring together. Like a slow train coming, our surprise at ourselves continued to grow. Atticus Finch is a racist. Scout is a disillusioned young progressive. Trump is a viable political candidate. Black Lives Matter has become a chant in need of being repeated over and over again. We went back and reread the novel of our country, and it was so much more different than we remembered. We no longer felt quite as certain that we were on the right side of anything; we no longer could say for certain what did and did not lurk within our hearts. Lee became our watchman, pointing out the Macomb County within all of us. —D. L. Mayfield
1 Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
“A way forward rooted in the past”
Kendrick Lamar ascended to the top of hip hop in 2015, the artist’s artist who is top of mind for fans and critics alike when it comes to meaningful music. To Pimp a Butterfly, the album that inspired four Sunday Oldskool podcast episodes, is very much an album for our time, touching on police brutality, self-love and self-loathing for black America. But Lamar’s vision for a way forward is rooted in the past. With Tupac Shakur as his muse, Lamar’s voice sprawls out into older traditions and ideas, a dense concoction of R&B, American slavery, jazz, the legacy of economic and educational disparities in communities of color, and more.
Pulled in all different directions by forces he loves and hates, Lamar desperately seeks to settle life’s tensions in a way that Tupac never could. The spiritual anchor that holds down both the rapper and the album’s soaring hit (“Alright”) is Christian hope. As troubled as Lamar is by the internal and external turmoil he traces back to his hood and the Garden of Eden, he trusts in the faithfulness of God to prevail. At his most vulnerable—“at the preacher’s door…gun might blow”—he grips tightly to the promise of a God who has delivered his people before: “If God got us, then we got’ be alright.” —Cray Allred
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