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, books, 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.
25 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 2
“An appropriate heroine for our time”
Although Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the imperfect yet empowering female protagonist heroized by middle school girls nationwide, is as weary of war as we are of The Hunger Games series, box office numbers have soared in this final installment. In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (PG-13, Nov. 2015), good finally defeats evil and love conquers all.
The second installment of the “trilogy” rounds up heart-throbbers Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and Finnick (Sam Claflin) with Katniss to unify the 13 districts of Panem to destroy the Capitol and the power-hungry President Snow.
The film’s fairy tale clichés are balanced out by a welcomed realism. No one actually wins during war, and the real injustice occurs when brother turns against brother while a larger, evil enemy lurks close by. Heroes are not flawless and often must suffer the consequences of their mistakes—or even their admirable sacrifices.
Katniss embodies an appropriate heroine for our time: a warrior for justice who must face her own demons in order to rescue her nation. —Kara Bettis
“A Christian game that’s different”
If a Christian creates a videogame, shouldn’t it be different?
The degree to and sense in which the answer to that question is yes is up for debate, but the answer is, probably, yes nonetheless.
That’s an uncomfortable idea, because an over-emphasis on Christian “difference” has ruined all sorts of artistic attempts, videogames included. A “Christian message” has been shoehorned in a sort of heavy-handed way into games where it simply doesn’t belong. Or mere artistic flourishes supposedly transform an otherwise rote and unimaginative match-three game into something supposedly divine. It’s been a painful journey for Christians looking to play something that reflects their specific beliefs in a convincing way.
But with Jay Tholen’s Dropsy, there are signs of hope. Many will be turned off by the jagged pixel art and off-kilter sound and animation. But that reflects the game’s central premise: Dropsy is despised and misunderstood, a gentle sojourner determined to love a world that hates him. Guys, that’s just like Jesus!
But this interpretation is not a stretch. Jesus’ sacrificial approach to humanity is the core conceit behind Dropsy and to experience the game on its own terms is to realize how unfortunate it is that we have learned to roll our eyes at the concept of the Christ figure in narrative art.
Dropsy turns that old trope into a powerful series of mundane moments and heartfelt conversations. We can’t exactly make out what people are saying to Dropsy, nor can we tell what Dropsy would like to say to them. Still, the player’s part in figuring out what each individual truly wants or needs and then going out of our way to give it to them, reorients our frame of mind. This videogame isn’t about saving the world, nor is it about giving ourselves a good time.
This game is different. —Richard Clark
23 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
“A timely ode to indestructible joy”
Netflix’s new original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a celebration of the power of cheer. The sitcom kicks off when police rescue 29-year-old Kimmy (played by The Office’s Ellie Kemper) from the underground bunker of a doomsday cult led by the charismatic Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. In the wake of her deliverance, she moves to New York City, where she meets a colorful cast of eccentrics who support her in her quixotic quest to reclaim her life.
Nearly everything in Kimmy Schmidt—from its bright palette to its infectious theme song to its spunky, indomitable, effervescent heroine—is designed to conjure the sheerest of delights. There is darkness here, to be sure; Kimmy is beset and besieged by both the theft of her past and the dangerous strangeness of her present. Against this sea of troubles, however, she bears mighty arms—namely, her own wide-eyed, sincere, indestructible delight. Faced with trials of every conceivable kind, she considers all pure joy, even as she exhibits the perseverance of a saint.
Twenty-fifteen was a year when a spiritual darkness seemed to envelop so much of our world. Under such a grim cloud, Kimmy Schmidt sung a timely ode to the joyful music that leads us sunward. —Adam Marshall
22 The Leftovers
“A world stripped of our current belief systems”
“Let the mystery be,” insists the opening theme of The Leftover’s second season. But how?
That’s the operative question for each of these characters, whether they live inside or outside of a small town called Miracle, the one place that was, from what the world can tell, spared from The Sudden Departure.
This Departure, by the way, may be one of the most terrifying events ever conjured up by a creator. It’s not particularly violent or physically disruptive, but the metaphysics of it inflicts the kind of terror that must have gripped Job (heavily referenced throughout The Leftovers, by the way) when his life was struck so severely and acutely that it must have come from the hand of God.
Ultimately, the characters in The Leftovers are struggling with what it means to live in a universe that seems ultimately disinterested in them. If it’s interested in order at all, it’s a kind of order that is utterly inconceivable.
It’s a world in which existing religions are inconceivable; all of them. From Christianity to secular humanism, the slate of possible truths have been wiped clean and replaced with nothing more than a blank white space. As a result, The Leftovers provides us with a world where characters scramble to devise belief systems that align with the current reality. It turns out few, if any, are interested in letting the mystery be. —Richard Clark
21 Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks
“Bar-side prophecies and parables”
The end is nigh, and Josh Ritter is ushering it in with a “messianic oracular honkytonk.” Sermon on the Rocks is Ritter at his best, with this album of bar-side prophecies and parables wrestling with Christianity’s legacy in the United States. Saturated with biblical language and imagery, some of Ritter’s songs seem like caricatures at first, but upon further listening they paint a picture all too familiar.
This is exemplified most prominently in “Getting Ready to Get Down,” in which a young girl is sent off to Bible college due to her parents’ and pastor’s fear of her increasing carnality. Ritter sings, “The men of the country club / The ladies of the ‘xilliary / Talkin ’bout love / Like it’s apple pie and liberty / To really be a saint / You gotta really be a virgin / Dry as a page of the / King James Version.” (Spoiler: She learns all about sex at Bible school.)
Sermon on the Rocks taps into folk’s darker roots as well, juxtaposing celebrations of creation’s natural beauty with stories of alcoholism, revenge, and the sins of the father being visited upon his sons. Ritter said that the drive behind this album is the way in which religious persons use the language of the Bible in a two-faced manner. CaPC’s Blaine Grimes described Sermon of the Rocks as “convict[ing] in a manner reminiscent of the biblical Nathan’s confrontation of David. It tells stories that are about us even as we wish they weren’t.” Ritter’s sermon doesn’t teach about life that leads to the Kingdom, but it certainly confronts us with the lies and hurt we’ve left along the path. —Tyler Glodjo
20 Adele, 25
“Our generation’s Ella Fitzgerald”
“Hello… it’s me.” And with that aplomb, the powerhouse diva tromped back into the cultural landscape with her third numerically titled release. While 25 has upended the likes of Taylor Swift’s 1989 from the top of the sales charts, the two run a parallel course within the music business, singing about scorned love, broken relationships, and the malaise of first world problems. However, if Swift is the Tina Turner of our generation, then Adele is our generation’s Ella Fitzgerald. One with panache and sex-appeal, the other with the voice and quiet, understated power to last. Both powerhouses in their unique way.
25 is Adele’s Benjamin Button album, turning back the pages of time to “make-up” on what’s she’s missed. As she states, “I’m making up with myself. Making up for lost time. Making up for everything I ever did and never did. But I haven’t got time to hold on to the crumbs of my past like I used to. What’s done is done.” So, we go back to a woman who doesn’t want to be cheated on and scorned but wants to move on from past love to find new joys, romance, and pleasure. And even though it’s pop-candy for our ears, 25 is the luxurious gourmet chocolates we only get to enjoy every so often. —Jeremy Writebol
19 Key & Peele
“Deft cultural commentary”
If ever there was a comedic pair designed for social media, Key & Peele creators Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele would fit the bill. The duo used the power of YouTube videos and social media to leave audiences laughing, while often challenging presuppositions like all good humor does. They have dozens of memorable web sketches like the East-West Bowl Game starting lineup or fake aliens. Yet, the show always featured perceptive social commentary, particularly on the topic of race.
Humor has long been a minefield in cross-cultural friendships. The delicate nature of ethnic interaction can create an explosive collision of misunderstanding and insensitivity. Fully aware, the sketches and full-length show approached that danger naturally, achieving the elusive feat of educating the majority and providing catharsis for the minority without appearing inauthentic or forced.
Key & Peele was certainly more than a show about race relations during its five-year run on Comedy Central. The stars were far more dynamic and diverse than one topic. Yet, it is hard to undersell how much the videos were a vehicle for conversation and interaction across typical dividing lines. The project provided classic laughs, deft cultural commentary, and the opportunity for friends to gather around a smartphone, closing the distance between us one laugh at a time. —Tyler Burns
18 D’Angelo & the Vanguard, Black Messiah
“Anthems that scream channeled fury and determined hope”
Neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo broke his 14-year musical silence this year with an inspiring collection of songs that triumph the sound of freedom. Black Messiah, his melodic response to the non-indictment in the Michael Brown case, caught his fans off-guard but soon reminded us of everything we loved about the legend. Backed by the brilliant instrumentation of The Vanguard, D’Angelo is better than ever with anthems that scream channeled fury and determined hope.
“All we wanted was a chance to talk/‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk,” he defiantly croons in “The Charade,” a standout selection with the steady beat of a non-violent march. Other songs like “1,000 Deaths” and “Betray My Heart” reflect the same combination of frenetic pace and social consciousness to jolt listeners awake to see the world around us. While his trademark musicality is on full display, what stands out most prominently is a spirit that snaps louder than Questlove’s signature snares.
Drenched with unmistakable influences from some of Gospel music’s greatest voices, D’Angelo blessed young activists with timeless reinforcements as they raised their voices for human dignity. “D’Angelo is singing freedom y’all,” one activist tweeted. They get it. This album is more than Grammy nominations and critical acclaim. It is cool water on a hot day of protest. —Tyler Burns
17 Master of None
“A refreshing step forward in television”
It’s a good thing when ethnic diversity is represented on television; it’s even better when shows are made by, and star, people of color. But better yet, how about a show, made by and starring people of color, that tackles issues of race head on with frankness, grace, and empathy?
To be clear, Master of None (created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang for Netflix) is not just a show about race. Ansari stars as Dez, a thirty-something son of Indian immigrants living in New York and trying to get his acting career off the ground. The show’s thirty-minute episodes — each themed and edited to play more like short films than traditional sitcom episodes — address a wide range of issues, from the fear of starting a family or being in a committed relationship, to growing up as a child of immigrants (endearingly, Ansari’s real-life parents appear as his character’s parents).
What makes Master of None worthwhile is that while it’s certainly not afraid to take on issues, it does so with whimsy and sensitivity — embodied by Ansari’s lovable, goofy on-screen charm. Master of None never preaches. It’s brave, but it’s also empathic both to its characters and its viewers. And it’s that particular combination that makes it such a refreshing step forward in the race conversation on television. —Ethan McCarthy
16 Christena Cleveland
“Embodies a work for justice that is tiresome and unrewarding”
The increase of ethnic tension in America has revealed the novice of most Christians in areas related to diversity. Following her award-winning 2013 book Disunity in Christ, writer and social psychologist Christena Cleveland has positioned herself as one of the most consistent voices helping the American Church’s ongoing discussion of racial reconciliation.
While 2015 was not her flashiest year, the true work of justice is often fought outside of headlines and book releases. Cleveland embodies a work for justice that is tiresome and often unrewarding, and she perseveres with a humble and prophetic resolve. Contrary to other evangelical voices on this issue, Cleveland addresses social harmony from a psychological perspective, seeking to reveal the root of what drives groups apart rather than reaching for the low-hanging fruit seen in most primetime television talking points. Her theories occupy the 30,000-foot view of the discussion, striving to change thought processes rather than just behavior. She is thorough and undeniably brilliant. Yet, the most refreshing element of her approach is found in her writing tone.
It is distinctly gracious, measured and patient, even with those who strongly question the core of her premise. Her articles in Christianity Today reflect this irenic yet unflinching standard. Academia has taken notice, leading to her addition to the Duke University faculty as the director of the school’s Center for Reconciliation. In many ways, Christena Cleveland is a premier example of what this conversation can truly be: civil, humble, bold, and prophetic. —Tyler Burns
“Game over and everybody loses”
When ESPN announced it was shutting down Grantland at the end of October, no one was surprised. It was easy to see the signs – Bill Simmons, Grantland’s founder, left ESPN earlier in the year for HBO, and four of the site’s top editors departed in September to join him. The closure seemed inevitable and then, seemingly overnight, it happened. Even so, when news about the closure came, I didn’t know how to feel. Popular websites aren’t supposed to just, you know, stop. What made the shutdown truly sting is that Grantland was the place where you’d find high-level sports journalism mixed with some of the oddest, finest, and flat-out most interesting pop culture writing on the internet. Nothing was off-limits: for every oral history of the worst moment in NBA history, we could revel in the glorious geekdom of Jurassic Park’s Blu-ray release. For every glimpse into a coach’s former life, we were given devastatingly beautiful film essays. It was a place where attention was paid equally to lumberjack sports and to rappers with cookbooks. Now that ESPN has declared it’s “getting out of the pop culture business,” it’s the Foster Wallace-esque mixture of unexpected and brilliant glimpses of humanity we’ll miss the most. We only had four years with Grantland, but we’ll always remember. —Nathan Valle
14 The Blue/Gold Dress
“When it comes to a dress, we want absolute truth”
The Internet offered all of us a mid-winter distraction back in February, one The Washington Post described as the “drama that divided a planet.” What could cause such a raucous? No, it wasn’t the horrors of human trafficking or fear of climate change or atrocities of genocide—it was the color of a dress.
It all began when a woman posted a photograph of the dress she planned to wear to an upcoming wedding. Some people thought it looked blue and black; others thought it looked white and gold. And some people saw the colors morph the longer they looked at it. Debates raged for days as the photo was shared millions of times.
Although the dress truly was blue and black in real life, the lighting and exposure of the photo was the root of all the trouble. In the end, we learned about color blindness, color perception, and chromatic adaptation. But we still wanted someone in authority to pronounce winners and losers. And we wanted to be in the right.
If anything, the dress kerfuffle of 2015 was proof that absolute truth still has a place in society, as long as it serves our own purposes. —Erin Straza
13 Russell Moore
“A powerful gospel voice in American society”
In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Russell Moore noted: “Christians are becoming aware that there’s a large portion of society who would be relieved if all the evangelicals were raptured.”
While this sentiment is certainly striking, especially from the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, it’s not surprising if you know anything about Moore. Since becoming the head of the ERLC in 2013—an entity of the SBC dedicated to engaging public policy—Moore hasn’t seemed alarmed at Christianity’s “falling stock.” He has, however, tried to keep it from happening for all of the wrong reasons.
2015 saw Moore take a stand on a number of controversial issues often ignored by evangelicals. He made a case against the Confederate flag (which quickly went viral), spoke out about racial reconciliation, and called for Christians to love their Syrian refugee neighbors. His work landed him on the cover of Christianity Today’s September issue, as well as the Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year award for his work Onward.
Moore’s influence hasn’t been confined to the corridors of the SBC either. In the last year, adherents from across various denominations and fellowships (including this Assemblies of God minister) looked to Moore as a powerful gospel voice in an American society that badly needs it.
Sure, the church might be losing political steam, but maybe, as Moore has illustrated in 2015, this just could be the opportunity God’s been planning all along. —Wade Bearden
12 Hamilton, An American Musical
“Our hip-hop founding father”
You know something’s up when the original cast recording of a Broadway musical hits #1 on Billboard’s Rap Chart—especially when that musical is the story of America’s very white, very patriarchal colonial history. But that’s exactly what happened in November of this year.
Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also plays the lead), Hamilton tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, who—to quote the show’s opening lines—was a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore/ And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot/ In the Caribbean by Providence.” Despite his lack of credentials, Hamilton capitalizes on his street savvy, his natural ability with language, and an almost insatiable ambition to become a key player in the founding of the United States. And suddenly you begin to understand why Miranda chose hip-hop to tell his story.
But Miranda pushes his audience even further by casting minorities in the roles of the founding fathers. As he puts it, Hamilton is “today’s America telling the story of yesterday’s America.” And it couldn’t have come at a better time. In a year that has seen the United States more divided than ever, when debates about immigration and race and merit dominate the headlines, Hamilton is an ounce of common grace. Hearing “today’s America” sing of the freedom, courage, and hard work of “yesterday’s America” reminds us that the founding fathers’ ideals extend beyond themselves to all the citizens of these United States. —Hannah Anderson
11 The Families of the Charleston Shooting Victims
“A brief but striking hiatus from the rage”
Let’s be honest, the dominant feelings of 2015 were strongly, and deservedly, negative after a year filled with explosive numbers of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, college protests and homophobic or racist conversations.
A brief but striking hiatus from the rage was the reaction by the families of the nine victims of the likely racially-motivated Charleston, S.C. mass shooting. After 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a mid-week Bible study in June with a gun, firing indiscriminately, relatives of those killed forgave.
Despite the alleged racist murder of Ethel Lance, 70, her daughter Nadine Collier told Roof in the courtroom: “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Alana Simmons lost her grandfather to Roof’s bullets. “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions. And that is what we want to get out to the world,” she said.
Bethane Middleton-Brown lost her sister. “I acknowledge that I am very angry,” she said. But her sister taught her “that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”
10 Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship
“A rich font of spiritual blessing for everyone”
When the New York Times and the Atlantic are talking about people who aren’t relatives buying homes together, you know something has changed. It may be the way secular modernity has tended to grind people into atomized individual serving sizes, ideal for have-it-your-way sexual consumption. Conservative Christianity, meanwhile, has responded with an overzealous focus on the nuclear family, erasing any historical or theological appreciation for the meaning of other relationships. This leaves out anyone who doesn’t fit either script—especially gay Christians like Wesley Hill, whose 2010 book Washed and Waiting told his personal story of coming out and finding solace in Christ as he pursues faithfulness.
In Spiritual Friendship, Wes takes on the neglected historical and cultural aspects of friendship, expanding his personal story to our communal relationships, even as he focuses on the most intimate—even vowed—same-sex friendships. Drawing on Aelred of Rievaulx (a 12th-century monk whose book On Spiritual Friendship inspired this book’s title), he raises the possibility of deeper friendships being not just as a bulwark against corrosive individualism or a solution to the “problem” of gay Christians, but also a rich font of spiritual blessing for everyone. (See this review for more details.) This short book is desperately needed in our cultural context, raising questions we shouldn’t keep to ourselves. —Matthew Loftus
9 Daredevil and Jessica Jones
“Characters struggling to behave heroically”
2015 saw the release of two shows on Netflix featuring characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil was released in the early in the year, followed by Jessica Jones just last month. It was fitting that they book-ended the summer—a carefree time when everyone is outside soaking up Vitamin D and eating ice cream—because Daredevil and Jessica Jones are not summertime shows. They are dark shows, featuring characters struggling to behave heroically in spite of the impulse to do otherwise. All the usual tropes are there: villains with bizarre personalities, sidekicks with hearts of gold, hopeless cases, and so on. Yet both series took the genre in a different direction, offering viewers superheroes for the rest of us—regular people gifted with irregular skills.
Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) are similar in some ways: both live in Hell’s Kitchen (the pre-gentrified version), both are able to transcend the limitations of the human body, and both have a strong sense of right and wrong. But for both of them, the ethics of being a hero prove to be murky: Is it ever okay to do what’s wrong in order to do what is right? Is it ever okay to do nothing at all? Watching Murdock and Jones struggle with questions like these makes their superhero status secondary to the problems they have as people—problems many of us have as we strive to do what’s right, even when it hurts. —S.D. Kelly
8 Stephen Colbert
“Comedy infused with conscience”
Was there another professing Christian in 2015 who had a broader platform in American pop culture than Stephen Colbert? Maybe Pope Francis did, but he’s…you know, the pope; being a representative of Christianity to the world is in his job description. Colbert, on the other hand, could easily take a safer road in his job as an entertainer. There’s plenty of money and job security in producing explicitly Christian media—just look at the Kendrick brothers. Likewise, Colbert could just keep his head down as a secular comedian, maintaining a separation between his faith and his work. But with his move to The Late Show this year, Colbert has chosen a third path: a philosophy of entertainment that openly integrates his Catholic faith with his brainy comedy.
Examples of his gutsy Christian witness abound. How about this profile in GQ, where he quotes the catechism (“I am here to know God, love God, serve God”)? Or how about when he chastised anti-refugee politicians by quoting Matthew 25:35 to his studio audience? And it’s not every day that you see a comedian frankly discussing a Christian ethic of grief with a sitting American vice president on late-night television.
Pop culture–savvy Christians, take note: this is what it looks like to be salt and light in the world. On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert has the attention of millions of sinners, Christian and non-Christian alike, and he offers them comedy infused with conscience, entertainment infused with love. May his tribe increase. —Kevin McLenithan
7 Inside Out
“A painful, awkward, true look at emotional pain”
Throughout the first half of Inside Out—an animated film in which the central characters are anthropomorphizations of the various emotions in a young girl’s head—the main character, Joy, continually repeats the same mantra: “Riley needs to be happy!”
I confess that I took for granted that this was true—that making the central human happy must indeed have been the ultimate MacGuffin of the film. Why shouldn’t I have? The idea that everyone needs—deserves—to be happy is ingrained so deeply in our broken culture that most of us don’t even think about it, let alone question it. Inside Out, however, sharply and rudely yanked this rug out from under me, shaking me to the core in the process.
At the heart of Inside Out is a truth so deep that even many of us who struggle with depression are only dimly aware of it: the darkest pit of emotional pain isn’t feeling sad—it’s feeling nothing at all. While sorrow might be less pleasant than joy, it’s in our moments of emotional weakness that we’re the most human.
Even Pixar’s most anemic films, like The Good Dinosaur, still manage to jerk tears simply through manipulative editing and scoring. But Inside Out did so by connecting me to my own soul in a way that was painful, and awkward—and true. —Luke T. Harrington
6 Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
“A heart-wrenching, honest exposé”
Relationships aren’t always the easiest to capture in music, but emotions are. The gritty, raw, sad, happy, whimsical and every feeling in between can be carried in the weight of rhythm, melody and harmony. Even poor musicians can manage, in some fashion or another, to endow their music with some emotion, even if it is just candy pop.
Sufjan Stevens, however, is no poor musician; in fact, he’s a master of subduing and taming the most raw and extreme of emotions and musically taming them to do his bidding.Yet with his latest album Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan doesn’t do much taming. Instead, his life, refracted particularly through the death of his estranged mother and his love for her, is laid bare for all to see.
Carrie & Lowell may sound like classic Sufjan Stevens, with pared down guitars, harps, and keys. But this is a grown-up Sufjan, writing about grief-induced self-destruction, the desire for intimacy with someone he can no longer know, and the raw experience of life under the sun. His transparency and struggle moves us beyond the pop-candy of emotional strangulation to give us a heart-wrenching, honest exposé of our own hearts’ desires and passions for love. Carrie & Lowell feels like a modern wrestle through Ecclesiastes—one that leads its creator to conclude that “there’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” —Jeremy Writebol
“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
Have you enjoyed the content at Christ and Pop Culture this year? The continuation of this site and the insightful cultural analysis our writers produce is only possible through your generous support. Consider becoming a member for as little as $5 per month. You’ll get free stuff each month, access to CAPC Magazine, entrance to our exclusive members group on Facebook—and you’ll help us keep the lights on. Join now.