Each year, the Christ and Pop Culture team develops a list of the Top 25 cultural artifacts of the past 12 months. The list covers everything from film and TV to internet memes to notable events and people to music and games. But the past 12 months have been unusual, as you already know. The entertainment industry has slowed to a crawl. Gatherings are impossible. News has revolved around a certain global monster.
Because nothing is the same, our team decided to forego our usual ranked list of 25 artifacts for this past year. Instead, each writer submitted items from 2020 that managed to break through the dark days and deliver a bit of goodness. Stop by each day this week to see the roundup for the pop culture categories of film, TV, music & podcasts, books & games, and happenings & people. We hope these provide a bit of hope and a few new artifacts to enjoy.
Who could have foreseen a massive insurrection and attempted coup on the Capitol building of the “world’s greatest nation” by its own citizens? If you read Caste—a comprehensive best-selling work by Isabel Wilkerson that provides a “masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America”—the reality of what we witnessed at the beginning of 2021 was not so unthinkable. In fact, the destruction, looting, and storming of the United States Senate and House of Representatives was inevitable.
Such a vicious and reprehensible act was bound to take place in the “temple of democracy,” because the idea of a caste system that Wilkerson explores in her book has weakened our nation from its very inception. Caste is not a new idea. It has just been reinvented into what we now call racism. Wilkerson uncovers the insanity of America’s ugly creation and how it continues to live on. In fact, Wilkerson uncovers in her research that the Nazi Party of Germany actually studied racism in America as a method for its genocide of Jews. Yet even the Nazis found some of the treatments of African Americans too barbaric to replicate.
So it’s no wonder scores of mostly white individuals, incited by the president, could feel comfortable enough to march into the Capitol Building with weapons, vandalize it, steal classified documents, and hunt down elected officials and legislators who would not give them what they want. Wilkerson calls this, “The Euphoria of Hate,” and it is embedded within all of us:
“Germany bears witness to an uncomfortable truth—that evil is not one person but can be easily activated in more people than we would like to believe when the right conditions congeal… It is much harder to look into the darkness in the hearts of ordinary people with unquiet minds, needing someone to feel better than, whose cheers and votes allow despots anywhere in the world to rise to power in the first place… Because it means the enemy, the threat, is not one man, it is us, all of us, lurking in humanity itself.”
Caste is essential reading.
New Zealand author H. G. Parry rocketed to the top of my list of favorite contemporary novelists with her debut release, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep (2019), a brilliant and highly imaginative literary fantasy. This year she impressed me all over again with her new novel. This one is a historical fantasy that posits a world where participants in the French and Haitian revolutions struggle for their freedom, even as they’re being manipulated by powerful magical forces—a world where aristocrats are free to practice magic, commoners are restricted from it, and slaves are controlled by it. Parry engages with profound moral questions at the same time she’s deftly weaving together historical events and fantasy elements, in a manner that’s earned comparisons to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you need a book where Toussaint L’Ouverture controls the weather, Robespierre raises an army of the undead, William Pitt the Younger is a reserved and abstemious vampire whose secret is known only to William Wilberforce, and nearly everyone talks in rapid-fire witty banter—and trust me, you do—then you need this book. (And you need it now, because the sequel, A Radical Act of Free Magic, is coming in summer 2021!)
For the past decade, remakes and remasters have dominated the gaming landscape. From critical darlings like Shadow of the Colossus to late-90s nostalgia trips like the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon trilogies, developers have devoted countless man-hours and production dollars to rebuilding the gaming touchstones of yore for new and familiar players alike. Many of these remakes are, admittedly, simple cash-grabs, while others are driven by more practical concerns, such as improving graphical fidelity or preserving a work from a now-obsolete console.
Within this context, it’d be easy to assume that Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII Remake does the same, providing a safe and serviceable update of the 1997 role-playing epic. However, director Tetsuya Nomura, producer Yoshinori Kitase, and crew far exceed these expectations. As I wrote back in May, Final Fantasy VII Remake displays a deep and enduring love of the original game without being a slave to the source material. Every frame, character model, and line of dialogue show respect to what came before, but the game stands on its own merits, as well. Without giving away too much, Nomura and Kitase marry the old and new in their reimagining of the plot, and in doing so, they’ve managed to carve a middle path that offers excitement to both newcomers and veterans.
In a way, Final Fantasy VII Remake is liturgical; it asks us to rehearse the stories of our past for the sake of cultural transmission, community, and revelation. And for that reason, playing through it was one of my brightest moments in the complicated mess that was 2020.
When novelist Maggie O’Farrell was a student at Cambridge, studying Shakespeare, she learned about his only son, Hamnet, who died at age 11 of unknown causes. This simple, tragic fact was enough to set O’Farrell’s imagination stirring, especially when she discovered that few others among her circle of acquaintances knew—or cared—about Hamnet. She began to ponder what Shakespeare’s family life was like, what his wife was like, how it must have crushed these parents to lose their son—even in an age where child mortality was high—and what it meant that one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters came so close to sharing a name with that son. And the result was this searing novel, written in hauntingly beautiful prose. The main character is Agnes (also known as Anne), gifted with visions and drawn to a young Latin tutor who will one day become the greatest playwright of the English-speaking world, while she raises their three children largely on her own. The joys, griefs, separations, and reunions of the Shakespeare family will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. With this deservedly successful novel, O’Farrell has accomplished something more than just writing a great story, although that in itself would have been a worthy goal. She’s ensured that, going forward, readers and scholars of Shakespeare will have a new understanding of and respect for the impact of one little boy’s life and death.
In unassuming fashion, Molly McCully Brown had one of the more remarkable literary years in recent memory.
With pen pal/soulmate Susannah Nevison, she co-wrote In the Field Between Us, a series of epistolary poems—with the occasional unison—that address God and one another, challenging conventions about disability, chronic pain, and how we learn to live in our bodies.
Brown and Nevison embrace each other with language, affirming the other’s path to self-acceptance, offering a rare sort of recognition. Together, they grope for something like Eden, then recover a portion of what was lost there—the ability to be fully known and fully loved.
“Let’s go back to wherever it is we were made for first,” Brown writes in one address. “…We’d miss it here eventually. The boat that brought us, I believe in it. But having found you I am seeking out the channel where we came from. Sister, take my hand.”
In her second book of 2020, the essay collection Places I’ve Taken My Body, Brown cuts a narrative path to the same concerns. Loosely taking the shape of a spiritual and physical travelogue, Brown’s prose muses on the implications of occupying space and moving through it, of knowing the backs of our hands—and legs and torsos. “I know the map of who I am and how I move by instinct, like home,” she writes.
In all her words, Brown casts the shadow of greater truths, albeit complicated ones: Our bodies matter, if anything matters. And our labor to accept and appreciate them echoes our desire to be accepted by God. Coming home to ourselves, we unlock the door to a more encompassing peace.
To be human is to be contingent. Though most of us are prone to believe the modern myth of hyper-individualism, our lives and choices are often the result of the cycles we’re born into: families, beliefs, societies, and systems that existed long before we took our first breaths. At their best, these contexts give us meaning and purpose. As a Christian, my faith tradition allows me to see that my life isn’t merely a chaotic and meaningless blip on the spectrum of time; I’m crafted to seek truth and beauty in a world of divine grandeur. My family history shapes my personality, imbuing me with the wisdom and joy of those who came before me. The cycles and contexts we are born into can be horizons of significance that help us to embrace the goodness of our earthly existence.
However, in a world poisoned by the evils of the human heart and the horrors of a fractured world, we are also victims of cycles of injustice, abuse, and violence. And this is the world that The Last of Us Part II presents us. Picking up where the previous game left off, players take on the role of Ellie, a young woman on a journey of vengeance decades after a pandemic (sound familiar?) ravages the world.
On paper, the premise sounds rather stale; we’re no strangers to dark dystopias in the 21st century. But the brilliance of this tale, penned by Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross, is the way it refuses to valorize or dehumanize any of its characters. Though we grow to relate to Ellie and her loved ones, and though we’re invested in her journey, we also witness the ways that the cycles of violence she’s born into allow her to justify evil acts. And though the antagonists of her story can be cruel and brutal, they, too, are products of injustice and victims of abuse—and thus, worthy of mercy.
The question for these characters is whether or not they will perpetuate the cycles of violence they’ve long been contingent upon. And the beauty of The Last of Us Part II is in the answer. Druckman and Gross show us that amidst grief, desperation, and anger, it’s possible to find a different way. The cycles can be broken; redemption isn’t an illusion. And in a year like the one we’ve just experienced, characterized by polarization and dehumanization of the other, perhaps that’s the story we need.
I only read one thing in 2020 that got published in 2020 (aside from a blizzard of tweets, obviously), and it was the lovely Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. In a lot of ways, it was the perfect read for a bizarre and hectic year. The story was engrossing and briskly told. Clarke crafts an entire world that has the sense of Tolkein-esque scope but sans the Tolkein-esque reams of painstaking detail. She gestures and sketches and sparks your imagination enough to fill in the rest.
At its heart, Piranesi is a duel between Nietzsche and the Beatitudes. A story about wonder suspended between surrender and control. It asks the question of how you choose to be in the world. Do you receive its gifts and its hardships? Can you suffer and, in your suffering, wake up to a new self you didn’t know you had? Or is the world endurable only to the extent it offers some means to power? Clarke doesn’t club you over the head and tell you to choose. She gives you a glimpse of a beautiful, risky world and invites you to go deeper in.
Writing this at the end of a day when pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol affirms to me that Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black is clearly one of the most important books of 2020. Because many involved in the insurrection have been identified by Reuters as white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, race is the prevailing issue of our day. McCaulley provides needed insight; his central argument is this: the Bible not only affirms the value of Black lives and their place within the redemption story, it speaks to their contemporary concerns, legitimizing their grief over oppression and their expectation of freedom.
Key to Reading While Black is that McCaulley writes for fellow Black Christians who have experienced the trauma of racial discrimination and see hope in Scripture’s promise of liberation. Yet in the interpretations of the Bible that white Christians—from American enslavers to their present-day descendants—champion as theologically accurate, such promises are ignored or even denied. At the same time, McCaulley notes, some mainline readings or justice movements may not take the Bible as seriously as some Black Christians do, seeing it “as being as much a part of the problem as the solution” (15). The work McCaulley puts in to bridge this gap, at once centering the Bible as God’s word and affirming the value of interpretations rooted in Black Christians’ lived experiences and need for justice, is what makes this book powerful. It’s clear that McCaulley wants his fellow believers to see that yes, “Scripture’s dominant themes” really do speak to “the hopes and dreams of Black folks” (18). For white folks, like me, listening in, the book invites us to see how our own readings of Scripture have missed God’s concern for the vulnerable and oppressed and to adopt new ways of being Christian, that make room for and follow after our Black brothers and sisters.
McCaulley does not shy away from controversy. He opens with a chapter on police violence, arguing that Romans 13, far from urging believers to kowtow to oppressive authorities, actually insists on the humanity and rights of the oppressed; and he ends with a chapter tackling the so-called slave texts in the Bible and outlining “God’s vision for a slave-free world” (148). Yet throughout, the beating heart of the book is McCaulley’s insistence that the Bible’s promises hold true for the Black church, that God affirms Black people’s hunger for justice, and that Black people are at the center of God’s redemptive work in history. In this tension, between the real oppression Black people face, often from (incomplete and poor) readings of Scripture, and divine promises to them lies the book’s great sense of hope. Right now, hope is very difficult; likely it was even more difficult this summer, as McCaulley and others awaited publication of the book during the George Floyd protests. Yet to McCaulley, as to other Black Christians and activists, hope is not (only) fulfilled in the eschataological hereafter but also in God’s reputation of liberating his people and thus his promise to do so in the future (83). A commitment to hope pervades the book. In this light, Reading While Black invites all of us who read to recognize God’s faithfulness in liberating the oppressed and to pursue such liberation in our reading of Scripture, our lives, and our work in our families, churches, and civic communities.
—M. V. Bergen