Each year when December 31 arrives, there’s a collective lament over the speed of time. The complaints seem a bit louder in this pandemic era, since many of the usual markers that help us keep time have been postponed from one season to the next or cancelled completely. Again. Although many pop culture markers have fallen prey, creators have continued to offer their works, sustaining us with glimmers of hope and windows into other dimensions.
Our writers have pointed to these artifacts throughout 2021 with creative offerings of their own. Below are the top 15 most-read articles of the year, which are just a sampling of the many, many excellent pieces published.
This collection highlights how we at Christ and Pop Culture seek “to edify the Church, glorify God, and witness to the world by encouraging and modeling a biblical presence within culture.” If you are new here, these articles will provide an excellent introduction for our approach to cultural commentary. If you’ve been reading throughout the year, see if your favorite article made the list, and thanks for reading along in 2021! And if you’ve benefited from our work, your gift will sustain our efforts in the year to come.
How did we get here?” “This is not America!” “I didn’t think it would be this bad.” You’ve probably either said or heard plenty of people saying these things in your community after the assault on our nation’s Capitol Building on January 6. In the African American community, the tone is much different, however: “We tried to tell y’all.” Black America—made up of individuals like my 82-year-old African American grandmother who experienced firsthand segregated life in America and can spot wildly deceptive and destructive tropes a mile away—saw this coming from over four centuries ago.
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens shows the reasonable trajectory of a self-centered, individualistic life. At the beginning of the novel, Scrooge is the ultimate in individualism, and it’s not a pretty picture. Marley’s visit shows Scrooge’s afterlife if he does not change his ways. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future show Scrooge his current mortal trajectory. In their mercy, they have woken Scrooge to the dire situation he is in and that his life of selfish, rampant individualism contributes directly to the misery of others. However! The Ghost of Christmas Future has morphed until Scrooge finds himself holding a bedpost.
Ted Lasso gave Nate Shelley everything he could have ever hoped for or dreamed of.
That’s why it was so hard to see Nate take a more villainous turn in season two. We want Nate to be good! He’s an underdog, and he’s lovable, and he should be so, so grateful to Ted, shouldn’t he? But just because a person has been saved by someone doesn’t mean they will feel indebted to them forever—in fact, sometimes that expectation leads to feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Nate’s character trajectory from underdog to the person who betrays Ted and the team at the end of this season is not only predictable, it’s realistic. Nate is a well-drawn picture of the servant in the parable—he’s an example of how just because a person has been given much mercy does not mean they will turn around and show mercy to others in return.
Growing up in the 80s I was told traditions like the abbreviation “Xmas” took “Christ” out of Christmas, Santa was a distraction from baby Jesus, and Christmas trees were pagan symbols from hell. But I’ve found some traditions deserve to be questioned. Fatman, the 2020 Christmas film, tells the story of a non-traditional Chris Cringle played by Mel Gibson. A militarized Santa is nothing new (i.e., Scrooged, The Santa Clause, Doctor Who “Last Christmas”), but this story helps us appreciate the pursuit for truth and eternal significance that often imbue our Christmas traditions.
When I reach the end of my understanding with certain doctrines or passages of Scripture, I imagine them as pop songs.
If a true cloud of witnesses becomes tough to discern, I shut my eyes and conjure Mavis Staples, her voice mingling with the creaky charms of The Band, telling me to “take a load off” and cast my cares on somebody greater. John Coltrane’s saxophone—like limbs waking—and assured, chant-like vocals manifest the sound of perfect love driving out fear in a way nothing else can.
And when I struggle to wrap my arms around glory, I turn to the pride of Las Vegas, The Killers. Brandon Flowers’s voice, and the swelling sounds which surround it, gives the ineffable a chance to make its case right here, right now.
Every character in Cobra Kai is privately hungry for mercy. Johnny embodies the phrase “hurt people hurt people.” Rejected by his self-obsessed and wealth-obsessed step-dad, Johnny found a safe haven in the Cobra Kai dojo. But when he lost to LaRusso, his sensei turned on him. No mercy, especially for losers. Taking that philosophy into adulthood only hurt him further. His worst fear is being a loser, but this fear stymies his personal growth. He struggles to ask for forgiveness and rarely admits a wrongdoing. In one humorous scene, a girlfriend asks why he has so much animosity toward Daniel. Through a series of flashbacks from The Karate Kid, he recounts only the hits he took from Daniel. He conveniently overlooks the ways he bullied Daniel, causing him both physical and emotional pain. In Johnny’s mind, he’s simply the victim of the events in Karate Kid: a lost title, a lost sensei, a lost girlfriend, a kick to the face. His obsession with winning, being right, and being cool render him out of touch with reality. So, he teaches his students the philosophy that made him “a winner,” even though it was the philosophy that ruined his life: don’t show mercy, even though mercy is the one thing he most longs for—a second chance.
What makes the 1995 box office hit While You Were Sleeping different from other rom coms? And why is it on my annual Christmas movie list? It’s not just Sandra Bullock’s gentle girl-next-door awkwardness, massive sweaters, and perpetual bad hair days to which she’s oblivious (though I love her for the bad hair!). It’s not only because of the scene which weaves four incoherent conversations into one delightful family dinner (“These mashed potatoes are SO creamy!”). It’s not even Bill Pullman’s Sexy Dad grin and classic explanation of “leaning”: “Hugging involves arms and hands. Leaning is whole bodies moving in… like this. It’s about wanting… and accepting… Leeeeaning.”
Well—I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said in the past about cults, conspiracy theories—that sort of thing.
And when I saw what happened at the U.S. Capitol on the sixth, I started worrying maybe I’d been barking up the wrong tree.
Like, what if the election wasn’t stolen?
Yeah, that’s possible.
And maybe there isn’t a global cabal of Satanist pedophiles waiting for Trump to unmask them.
Yeah, see, that one always did seem a tad farfetched.
It saddens me that even a successful, celebrated young woman can feel that her only true worth is in her accomplishments. It saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. We live in a world that hammers that message into us in all kinds of ways, both blatant and subtle. It’s no surprise that Rachael Denhollander—the former gymnast who fought to take down the doctor who abused both her and Biles—titled her memoir What Is a Girl Worth? She knew all too well that the sport she loved was full of people who could and would make a young woman feel worthless.
And tragically, many of us live in a church that does the exact same thing.
If you were born sometime between the fifties and the eighties, you know the trope well: the hero trudges confidently through the wilderness, whip in hand, smirk on face, ready to take on whatever nature throws at him. Then, without warning, the very ground gives way beneath his feet! He reaches for a branch, a vine, anything—but it’s no use! He’s being sucked down, down, into the earth. In a matter of minutes he’ll have disappeared and his quest will all be for naught.
It might be safe to say that episode 8 of WandaVision, titled “Previously On,” broke the internet in the best way possible. Long before I got a chance to sit down and watch it, I saw that line tweeted over and over again. You know the one:
“But what is grief, if not love persevering?”
People who don’t even like superhero entertainment, let alone the MCU, have been quoting it all week, pastors tweeting about working it into their Sunday sermons. It has been hailed as C. S. Lewis-esque, people have used it as a catalyst to cathart all over their Twitter feeds, it has become an expression of delayed grief from a pandemic year.
Blasphemous isn’t shy about its inspirations, full of art and imagery drawn from Golden-Age Spanish Catholicism. Guiding a capirote-capped character known as the “Penitent One” through the nightmare land of Cvstodia, players explore decrepit cathedrals and dispatch insane victims of an omnipotent divine force. Playing through Blasphemous is like digitally revisiting the Prado—plus some wild platforming mechanics and brutal execution animations.
Prior to January 6, I hoped I’d seen the worst that Trumpism had to offer, but then the President of the United States instigated a violent insurrection on our Capitol. And it wasn’t just any insurrection; it was a Christian insurrection. All the trauma and betrayal of the last four years swept over me as I watched the events unfold, but I was also gripped with sadness, because for all my feelings of shame over what people bearing the name of Christ have done to this country, I still believe there is a properly ordered way to love America as a Christian. I remain a patriot, but I reject nationalism in all its forms—most especially Christian nationalism. This struggle between patriotism and nationalism, between Christian and national identity, is far from unique to our current moment, and it’s one average people of all types have had to wrestle with throughout history.
It’s well known that Plummer groused for years about The Sound of Music, to the point of giving it a pretty unflattering nickname. An actor with a long and storied career, including plenty of Shakespearean roles, he resented being chiefly identified with what he considered, at best, a sentimental children’s musical. Still, the passing of time, a rewatch or two, and an ongoing friendship with co-star Julie Andrews softened Plummer sufficiently that in later years he could be seen gamely putting in appearances at cast reunions and anniversary specials, like a gruff grandfather coaxed into indulging a persistent family.
Reminded of all this by Plummer’s obituaries and tributes, I started wondering why exactly he had taken the Sound of Music role in the first place. I was both amused and touched when I found out.
Given such a prime and public example of sexual absurdity, one can understand the stance of the American evangelical church over the last several decades. Warning of such brazen godlessness, evangelicals dedicated themselves to promoting “purity culture,” a movement comprised of different practices and artifacts—from books that promote courtship (Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye) to purity rings and purity pledges—whose primary goal was promoting sexual abstinence before marriage. As Rachel Joy Welcher describes it in her recently released book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality, purity culture was “an earnest response to the age-old problem of immorality and the modern crisis of STDs and teenage pregnancy” (9–10). And so successful was this movement that it outgrew evangelical boundaries, allowing evangelicals to champion abstinence through federally funded programs like Silver Ring Thing and enlist mainstream celebrities like Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Selena Gomez in the cause. The only catch is that purity culture hasn’t exactly delivered on its promises, leaving in its wake broken pledges, sexual confusion, and leaders (from Josh Harris to all of the names listed above) repudiating it.