Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
What were the most-meaningful cultural influences of 2016? 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. We’re counting down the list each day this week; stop back to see The 25 of 2016 take shape.
Throughout the year, our podcast The 25 provided a place for Christ and Pop Culture writers and friends to nominate powerful cultural artifacts and happenings from 2016. Nominations covered a wide array of potentials from film, television, music, games, Internet, and people. We then used our magic algorithm to compile those choices into a tentative list of around 30 items. Finally, a panel of six (aka, the CAPC 25 Council), 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.
Our final deliberations were recorded and produced into a two-part podcast in which you can hear exactly how the CAPC 25 Council determined the order and make-up of the 25 of 2016. Listen to Part one and Part two.
“It is the unflinching glance into hood stardom that hip hop requires.”
Hip hop is the soul of street life, and Atlanta’s streets never produced a more important musical team than Organized Noize. The production collective gifted the South’s most skillful hip hop artists with beautiful canvases to paint their masterpieces. Through the documentary The Art of Organized Noize, the virtuoso trio of Rico Wade, Ray Murray, and Sleepy Brown finally tell their story on their own terms, while giving viewers a nostalgic treat.
Organized Noize is responsible for some of the South’s most distinctly authentic music, having laid tracks for legendary groups like Outkast, TLC, and Goodie Mob. The film brilliantly documents the collective’s dramatic, complicated relationship with success. We see the origin of “The Dungeon,” the basement hub artists used to discover their southern sound, as well as the story of how the team crafted TLC’s smash hit, “Waterfalls.” The film’s whirlwind tour is reminiscent of the group’s rise and fall.
To say the documentary is sincere would be an understatement. It is the unflinching glance into hood stardom that hip hop requires. The documentary refuses to merely idolize Noize’s exploits. Rather, it confronts the team’s struggle with drug abuse and their difficulty navigating the music business with friends. Yet, this drama is not exhaustive because the heart of Organized Noize is all about family and sacrifice. Organized Noize famously left a $17 million record deal from Interscope at the peak of their career. While some view this decision as foolish, we cannot help but appreciate their authenticity. This team doesn’t belong to mainstream record labels and never made music for their approval. Organized Noize belongs to Southern hip hop, to the streets, to Atlanta, and to everyone who refuses to let their priceless sound be forgotten. — Tyler Burns
“We are on the precipice of exciting opportunities.”
Twenty-sixteen is the year of virtual reality. Angry and anxious about our recent presidential election? Experience a world controlled by you! News of the latest celebrity death causing existential dread? Give digital immortality a shot! Do you want to run away and pretend 2016 didn’t happen? Welcome to virtual reality. With this year’s release of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR, your escape is more possible than ever — right from the comfort of your living room. PlayStation VR (PSVR) made this year’s list because of its broad reach and accessibility in bringing this new tech into our homes.
Virtual reality as a form of entertainment is an experience in reconciling contradictions. With VR, I’m a grown man sitting alone on a couch while my visual surroundings tell me I’m a diver in a deep ocean descent — and the palpable emotions of excitement and fear support the latter. It’s a surreal experience to cognitively know you’re safe while your body viscerally reacts to a virtual shark as if your life depends on rescue.
Only time will tell whether or not virtual reality is here to stay, though it’s undeniable 2016 has been marked by the introduction of VR entertainment for the masses. We are on the precipice of exciting opportunities, but as with any new technology, we need to be cautious of the new forms in which sin may manifest through it. (VR has already been embraced and commercialized in the porn industry.) While primarily a form of entertainment at present, the future applications for VR in all types of contexts are thrilling — and PSVR brings that potential into our homes. — Tyler Glodjo
“[R]aises the crucial question of how more young artists from difficult backgrounds can be seen, heard, and helped.”
New York Times journalist Daniel Bergner chronicles the improbable and grueling journey of Ryan Speedo Green, who went from an abusive broken home, to solitary confinement in a juvenile detention center, to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. This is not your typical poverty-to-stardom tale, and it’s no light feel-good read, either. Against all odds, an esoteric, highly demanding form of music spoke to a disadvantaged African-American teenager, and he put every ounce of strength, will, talent, and energy that he had into following its call, aided at every turn by mentors and helpers who heard something special in his voice.
Bergner spent extensive amounts of time with Green and various family members, friends, teachers, and more, and his gripping story covers a wide range of the factors that affected Green and his career prospects, from the legacy of eugenics in the United States to the troubled history of opera and race. In prose both gritty and inspiring, Bergner recounts how one determined young man “sang to restore order to the world” — and in the process, he raises the crucial question of how more young artists from difficult backgrounds like Ryan Speedo Green’s can be seen, heard, and helped. — Gina Dalfonzo
“[E]mploys all the typical trappings of a family sitcom but features a decidedly atypical family.”
ABC’s Speechless is a situational comedy that features JJ DiMeo, a 16-year-old boy rendered speechless by cerebral palsy. The trailer quickly captured the show’s essence: JJ giving someone the middle finger, a gesture indiscernible without his mother’s apt translation: “That’s the finger. Work in progress.”
The sitcom employs an irreverence atypical of most shows about kids with special needs, and I worried it would seek cheap humor at the expense of a vulnerable community. What makes the show brilliant, however, is that it never does this. The humor of Speechless is largely derived from the juxtaposition of speechlessness and voicelessness; that JJ is one but clearly not the other creates a charming irony that Speechless does not allow the viewer to overlook. This paradox is further drawn out when JJ selects his own aid: Kenneth, the school’s gardener who is self-described as “the black person in Newport.” Kenneth is not speechless but, the viewer gathers, likely voiceless until JJ gives him cause to be listened to.
Speechless employs all the typical trappings of a family sitcom but features a decidedly atypical family. It uses a man rendered voiceless by white privilege to bring JJ speech, and JJ’s speechlessness to give Kenneth voice. It accomplishes all of this not in spite of the fact that it is a sitcom, but precisely because it is one — an unconventional recipe certainly worth this year’s 22nd spot. — Val Dunham
“Consequences follow hard after moral transgression.”
How many of us, when we heard that Vince Gilligan would be creating a spinoff show of his masterful Breaking Bad for AMC, expected it to be anything other than a mediocre cash-in? Of those who did entertain high hopes, how many expected the spinoff to become one of the best television shows currently airing? Very few indeed, and yet here we are, with Better Call Saul only two seasons into its run and already considered by some to be on par with Breaking Bad or even superior to it. Like its predecessor, Better Call Saul creates unforgettable characters and then allows them to entangle themselves in webs they’ve woven out of their own ambitions and character flaws.
This moral seriousness is what gives Gilligan’s series their narrative urgency. Better Call Saul isn’t as bleak or as white-knuckle tense as Breaking Bad — it is, after all, an origin story for Breaking Bad‘s comic-relief character, a slippery lawyer formerly known as Jimmy McGill — but the stakes still feel high because everything matters. In Gilligan’s world, consequences follow hard after moral transgression, even if that transgression is as seemingly minor as a strategic elision of the truth in order to avoid confrontation. Your sins will find you out; and when they’re hot on the heels of characters as funny, complex, and likable as Jimmy McGill, Kim Wexler, and Mike Ehrmantraut, it makes for riveting viewing. — Kevin McLenithan
“The film is heavy yet captivating.”
Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th looks at the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in 1865. Specifically, the film examines a clause embedded in the amendment that states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
DuVernay sees a criminality loophole within the language of emancipation. Her 100-minute documentary chronicles black criminality and prison policies in America from the passage of the 13th Amendment to the present. She argues that coded language, corporate lobbying, and racial division have placed mass incarceration on continuum with slavery for profit, power and for political gain.
The film is heavy yet captivating. DuVernay holds your attention with the compelling voices of her passionate pundits. The minutes move quickly as she mingles words with archival scenes and daunting numbers: the United States, which holds 5% of the world’s population, claims 25% of the world’s prisoners, or nearly 2.5 million men and women. 13th is a useful starting point for those who desire to grow in their awareness of and concern for racial justice issues like mass incarceration. — Nana Dolce
“[T]he Pearsons are at once radically distinctive and compellingly universal.”
NBC scored a hit (for critics and viewers alike) with its 2016 freshman series This Is Us, the network’s heir apparent to the family drama Parenthood. Presented in a creatively fragmented narrative format, This Is Us tells the story of the Pearson family, presenting them across space and time as they face the challenges of their unconventional family’s dynamics. In the best sense, the Pearsons are at once radically distinctive and compellingly universal: their own relational situation is unusual, yet the responses and emotions of people involved are in many ways recognizable to us all. The series serves as a reminder that, despite our culture’s individualistic mindset, we are all, in part, products of an inextricably intricate network of relationships and that the sins (and virtues) of past generations have real (and often unforeseen) implications for their children. These themes are nothing new, but the innovative storytelling method and the ease with which the cast embodies their characters combine to set This Is Us apart from the crowd. — Geoffrey Reiter
“[This] speech embodied the hopeful, defiant spirit of the modern justice movement.”
On June 26, Jesse Williams turned the BET Awards stage into a pulpit. His blistering Humanitarian Award acceptance speech embodied the hopeful, defiant spirit of the modern justice movement. Williams, a veteran actor and teacher, combined both the educational and entertaining elements of his professions to preach with poetic flare.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of his speech is the breadth of commentary Williams manages to slip into five minutes. Apart from the expected memorializing of dead black bodies turned hashtags, Williams pays homage to the important work of grassroots organizers (especially black women), while deftly firing back at short-sighted critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement. These lines alone would have been enough to inspire his audience, but he didn’t stop there.
At the peak of frenzied applause, Williams issues this redemptive challenge, “Now the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money — that alone isn’t gonna stop this.” His insightful words manage to surgically thread the needle of appreciating black excellence without neglecting the urgent virtue required for all to reach liberation. In 659 words, Jesse Williams used an unexpected medium to verbalize resistance and give the budding justice movement a definitive, inspiring moment. — Tyler Burns
“[T]his is not a feel-good personality test.”
Twenty-sixteen is the year we started hearing people casually toss out numbers as identifiers — “I’m a two; she’s a four; Donald Trump is an unhealthy eight.” This is the Enneagram, a personality typology that has been around for centuries — but is now being heard of, seemingly, everywhere. It splits personalities into nine different types: the reformer, the helper, the achiever, the individualist, the investigator, the loyalist, the enthusiast, the challenger, and the peacemaker. Instead of relying on a test, practitioners encourage the curious to read the descriptions of the types and choose the one that best describes them. They say the mark that you have found your type is by how much you wish that it wasn’t true.
As someone who rolls their eyes when people talk about Meyers-Briggs or the Strengths Finder, I was as shocked as anyone when I fell hard for this particular way of looking at people. But it has been incredibly practical for helping me own up to my own personality (I am a four who always wanted people to think I was a two). It’s been great for my marriage, for working in a nonprofit, and for getting along with family members. It helps us identify our core personalities and how we can best work together.
However, this is not a feel-good personality test. This is a helpful framework for identifying how you view the world and how to move toward a position of health instead of falling into the vices/stress patterns of your particular personality type. This is because the Enneagram is deeply connected to spirituality — both our inner fears (the lies we most strongly believe) and our sin natures (and the brokenness we are the most predisposed to). The sin thing is actually a huge part of the Enneagram — which makes it so fascinating that it is starting to have it’s moment in the cultural sun. Perhaps 2016, more than any recent year in history, made us collectively realize how the sin nature is prevalent in us all. While the Enneagram can’t fix everything, it can help us identify how to name and operate out of our true natures and how to start working on moving toward a place of health. That is as good of a place as any to start. — D. L. Mayfield
“[W]e can trace what we love by looking at our everyday practices.”
I read 188 books in 2016. After reflecting on what I read and what was most enjoyable and interesting, I created a short list of recommendations. Near the top was James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.
Smith has been writing about “cultural liturgies” across several of his books. These liturgies are the practices that we enact, knowingly or not, in the everyday rhythms of life. This could include, but isn’t limited to, trips to the shopping mall, going to sporting events, or attending concerts. His work builds on a variety of sources, but this book is the most accessible to the broader audience. It is also more focused on practical takeaways, particularly for pastors and worship leaders, but not in such a way that other audiences are neglected.
I tend to judge how good a book is by whether it sticks with me or is quickly forgotten. I also tend to value books that give me pause to reflect on my own life and habits. Smith’s book is both of these. His explanation of how we can trace what we love by looking at our everyday practices is perhaps the most thought provoking. It is difficult to digest what Smith offers without reflecting on the cultural practices and habits that shape your own life. This shaping can be for better or for worse, and Smith’s book provides the insights needed to examine them well. — Nate Claiborne
“How does [one] move on from a life-changing artistic accomplishment?”
How does a writer, performer, son of Puerto Rican immigrants, dropped in the middle of a tumultuous political year by providence enthralled by a Founding Father, move on from a life-changing artistic accomplishment?
When Lin-Manuel Miranda took his final bow as Alexander Hamilton in July, speculation abounded about his and the show’s futures — it was impossible to picture one without the other. For its part, Hamilton has remained the highest-grossing Broadway show two years in a row, and Miranda proved he’s just getting warmed up. He shined as the quiet second subject of the PBS documentary Hamilton’s America, and both Moana’s soundtrack and The Hamilton Mixtape finished the year as chart-toppers.
Miranda has moved on from Hamilton with a singular artistic integrity that strikes a balance between embracing his past success and leaving room for others to inherit the work. He’s continued to be a vocal political and social advocate (he called on Congress to take action on behalf of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis) and a gracious and encouraging role model for fans (he tweets heartfelt wishes to his Twitter followers every morning). Miranda’s work this year has demonstrated how artists can and should be tough on injustice without losing kindness, enthusiasm, and humility. There’s a million things he hasn’t done, but just you wait… — Jessica Gibson
“Overwatch has reminded me of how deeply I need people in my life who are different than me.”
Overwatch constantly reminds us that we are not OK on our own. The game tells the story of a group of heroes who are philosophically and physically opposite (there is literally a character called Reaper who looks like Death and a character called Mercy who looks like an angel) who nonetheless set aside their philosophical differences for the common good. This take on unity and diversity might sound cheap on its face, but they are inescapable from the experience of playing the game itself.
One of the quickest ways to fail is by trying to prove your own skill. Whereas most multiplayer shooters value individual skill, Overwatch requires players to sacrifice for the sake of the team. Success requires recognizing your team’s weaknesses and submitting yourself to the task of filling in the gaps.
Playing with friends trains us to cooperate, communicate, and support one another. Playing with strangers challenges us to humble ourselves by meeting the needs of the team. In a year where I have struggled to be patient with those who think differently than me, Overwatch has reminded me of how deeply I need people in my life who are different than me. I need their skills, perspective, and insight.
The best videogames present us with well ordered worlds with absolute rules that train us to improve. Too often, however, games merely train us to improve at skills that lack clear intrinsic value. In Overwatch, however, humbly embracing diversity is absolute. — Drew Dixon
“A cultural force for commerce, community, and cell phone critique.”
When Pokémon Go released onto mobile phones, public parks were filled with hundreds of people at all hours, public monument attendance skyrocketed, church buildings saw random cars drive into their lots, and homeowners would find little kids at their door asking to be allowed into the backyard to catch a rare Pokémon. To this day, large groups of people still meet up and walk the park path to find that rare Pokémon (and hopefully hatch that 10k egg).
Beyond the mass crowds that would pop up whenever a Snorlax would appear in hopes of catching one to put in their Team Mystic gym, the quiet discussion of “What is a sacred space?” was given a more prominent soap box. Visitors to the Holocaust Museum were asked to not play the game at all out of respect to the history contained within. Other museums and public spaces cracked down, while churches and school were forced to deal with defining proper boundaries.
Pokémon Go is still a cultural force for commerce, community, and cell phone critique—perhaps more than any mobile game or app to date—therefore earning its place on The CaPC 25 for 2016. — Jonathan Clauson
“There are no easy resolutions here.”
In 1945 Poland, Mathilde—a young doctor working to rebuild the country after the twin depredations of the Nazi and the Russian armies—receives a knock on her door in the dead of night. The war is still a very near, very raw memory, so Mathilde is on her guard as she answers the knock, but the door opens only on a nun. The nun implores Mathilde to come to her convent but won’t say why. She says only that the matter is urgent and that Mathilde will understand why upon her arrival.
To say more about the plot would almost give away too much. The Innocents has at its center an image that is simultaneously grotesque, tragic, and beautiful, recalling the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. There are no easy resolutions here. And in fact, the central conflict is resolved in a way that seems distinctly Christian, even if director Anne Fontaine did not intend it to be read as such. The film seeks not to undo, minimize, or avenge the tragedy that has befallen the women at its center. Rather, the tragedy is transmuted, its evil turned to good in a way that is recognizable to anyone familiar with the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers. Fontaine manages to depict this shift without hitting a false note or cheapening the suffering of her characters, which strikes me as nigh-miraculous. See this film. — Kevin McLenithan
“[M]any aspects of our current cultural moment can be found in fledgling form in those tragic events.”
It’s no accident that 2016 was the year America rekindled its fascination with the now 20-year-old O. J. Simpson case. Indeed, The People v. O. J. Simpson, FX’s 10-episode dramatic miniseries documenting the infamous murder trial, suggested that many aspects of our current cultural moment can be found in fledgling form in those tragic events. News packaged as entertainment. Our compromised justice system. The role of celebrity and identity politics in our society. And, most of all, the fact that black people and white people can look at the same events and come away with drastically different understandings of what happened.
Full of wonderful, layered performances from actors like Cuba Gooding, Jr. (in the title role), Sarah Paulson, and John Travolta, and written with the ticking relentlessness of our 24-hour news cycle, The People v. O. J. Simpson is the kind of television you tear through in just a few sittings. Revisiting the O. J. case allows the show’s creators to apply the recent true-crime craze (think Making a Murderer and Serial) to the topsy-turvy politics of celebrity and America’s race conversation. The result is not just a fascinating drama—there’s no lack of dramatic tension here, despite the fact that the trial’s result is well-known, and most of us actually remember the events of the trial to some degree. It’s also a deep dive into the contemporary American zeitgeist. — Ethan McCarthy
“Gambino let loose stylistically and took his talents to the next level.”
It’s not like we needed any convincing that Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) was the dopest polymath on the planet — he can act, he can rap, he can make you laugh. But in 2016, Gambino let loose stylistically and took his talents to the next level.
His hit FX show, Atlanta, isn’t what anybody expected — if they even had expectations to begin with. Atlanta was written by and stars Glover as an Ivy League dropout hanging around his hometown (guess where) and riding along as his cousin, Paper Boi, is starting to make a name on the local rap scene. What follows is thoroughly unpredictable. At times Atlanta is as slapstick as Community (think: fake Dodge ads, a black Justin Bieber, and an entire episode set in a public access TV shoot) and at times absolutely gut-wrenching as we follow Glover through life as a young black man in Atlanta. It shouldn’t work, but it totally works.
Speaking of “shouldn’t work, but totally works,” Childish Gambino’s 2016 LP Awaken, My Love! is exactly that. A straight rip off of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain and Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Gambino doesn’t rap a single verse but soulfully yells over Eddie Hazel-esque guitars. On first listen I was disappointed, waiting for Gambino to break out into that “Sweatpants”-style flow that never came. But the more I listened the more I realized that this record was more than a funk album — it was a coming out album. With Awaken, My Love! Glover is telling the world that he is going to do whatever he pleases, whenever he pleases. He has made it, and with that we get an already creative genius coming into his own — both steeped in history and way ahead of his time.
When Donald Glover came onto the rap scene with “Freaks and Geeks” back in 2011, he warned us that this was coming, and in 2016, he proved without a doubt that “Gambino is a mastermind…” (I’ll skip the rest of the verse, for the sake of our more sensitive readers). — Nick Rynerson
“[T]hey broke a 108-year championship dearth.”
Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the Cubs losing. This lesson was painfully drilled into my soul in 2003 as I watched Steve Bartman lift his “cursed” hand into the air and deflect a pop-fly out away from Moises Alou. Although this was not the cause of the team’s eventual collapse to the Florida Marlins and subsequent elimination from the playoffs, it certainly was the catalyst. My heart was broken. I was sure the Cubs would play in the World Series for the first time in 95 years. However, it was not meant to be. I remember telling a good friend, “I finally know what it means to be a life-long Cubs fan. Always losing.”
I lost faith, and interest, in the Cubs. Shortly after the hire of Theo Epstein and the subsequent 90+ loss seasons, I gave my heart to the city I lived in and their three-time champions, the San Francisco Giants. Here, I finally knew what it was to win. And yet, I knew a day would come when the Cubs would break The Curse of the Goat and win a World Series.
In all reality, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Cubs won the Series in 2016. This was the game plan since Epstein’s first day on the job. And he unpacked that plan to perfection. The Cubs received the warm embrace of everyone outside of Cleveland as they broke a 108-year championship dearth. The Cubs winning the World Series also became a portent of the “when pigs fly” reality of 2016. In such, sport has reflected reality once again and taught us that even the ones that seem the most unlikely to win can pull it off against all odds. — Jeremy Writebol
“[A]n uncomfortably raw peek into the depths of Kanye’s mind and soul.”
Thanks to his latest antics, Kanye West the human being seems to be fading further and further out of the public’s purview. Instead, we’re becoming increasingly familiar with Kanye the provocateur, Kanye the troll, Kanye the screwup, and Kanye the monster. “Kanye needs mental help” is the pop psychologist’s platitude, “Kanye needs God” the pop culture Christian’s. Thing is, Kanye’s quest for mental health has been at the forefront of his music and public statements for years, including a track record of therapy, diagnosis, and prescription. With The Life of Pablo, the same is true of his quest for a higher power (the Christian God, to be exact). It’s hard to believe a philanderer-cum-family-man would make such a transition by marrying a Kardashian, and Mr. West admits in the confessional Pablo the process has been as hard as it sounds. In an uncomfortably raw peek into the depths of Kanye’s mind and soul, we see that West is acutely aware of just how much help he needs (and wants) to find redemption.
The truth is, we don’t like hearing from people whose problems are so loud, and we struggle to give grace to those we say need it. But Kanye West’s artistry is too good, and his pleas too transparent, to let ourselves all the way off the hook. — Cray Allred
“Disney/Lucasfilm has continued to build the expanded universe and enlarge the canon through a number of other mediums.”
This has been quite a year for fans of the beloved galaxy far, far away. Rogue One, the franchise’s first foray into non-saga films, proved that Star Wars can indeed thrive at the box office without a Skywalker in the spotlight. In addition, director Gareth Edwards’s trademark sense of cinematic scale and commitment to imbue the film with a grittier tone helped establish Rogue One as a game-changer for the franchise.
With their triumph on the silver screen, Disney/Lucasfilm has continued to build the expanded universe and enlarge the canon through a number of other mediums. First, there’s the Disney XD television show Star Wars: Rebels, which creatively and effectively retconned material from the the old canon (now branded as “Legends”). Season two saw Ahsoka Tano—a fan favorite from The Clone Wars TV show—face off with her former Master, and the third season brought an iconic EU villain back into the fold with Grand Admiral Thrawn. In the comic book world, Kieron Gillen completed his wildly popular Darth Vader arc and launched Doctor Aphra, an ongoing spinoff series with an Indiana Jones vibe. Moreover, this past year also gave rise to a couple of standout novels in the new canon, namely Claudia Gray’s Leia-centric story Bloodlines and E. K. Johnston’s Ahsoka.
In spite of these delightful new additions to the Star Wars Universe, however, 2016 will ultimately be remembered as a bittersweet year, as Carrie Fisher passed away after suffering a massive heart attack. She will be missed, yet never forgotten. — Blaine Grimes
“[T]he series reminds audiences that the innocence of youth — while formative — is only a brief mirage.”
Much has been made of Matt and Ross Duffer’s Stranger Things being something of a blender meal. “Take a cup of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, add three tablespoons of The Goonies, and then finish the dish with a pinch of Alien.” But describing last summer’s Netflix original series primarily in terms of its influences doesn’t give the hit show the justice it deserves — let alone the justice it’s earned.
In its first episode, Stranger Things introduces viewers to four pre-teen boys, and then makes one of them, Will, mysteriously disappear. As Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) and a sloppy sheriff (David Harbour) search for the shy adolescent, his three friends find themselves in the thick of a government conspiracy, after befriending a mysterious girl dubbed “Eleven” (Millie Bobby Brown).
As Stranger Things snakes its way through an eight-episode first season, the show’s central mystery shimmers with both eighties nostalgia and the popcorn munching entertainment we’ve come to associate with filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and his spiritual protégé, J. J. Abrams. Yet more important, the series reminds audiences that the innocence of youth — while formative — is only a brief mirage. The young characters in Stranger Things routinely find themselves in genuine (versus comical or faux) danger. They experience both loss and the potential for more loss.
Sure, the eighties may not have passed everyone through its birth canal, but Stranger Things still has a way of causing audiences of every age to consider the wonder and tragedy of a childhood that slipped past their fingers.
“[A] gateway to a larger, more nuanced discussion, the beginning of an essential conversation.”
This June, the memoir of a near high school dropout turned principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm landed on bookshelves across the country. In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, first-time author J. D. Vance chronicles his childhood among America’s white working class, offering nearly unbelievable stories of addiction, poverty, and family dysfunction while attempting to extend dignity to a people regularly lampooned by the entertainment industry and dismissed by the mainstream media. As 2016 closed, Elegy had spent 22 weeks as a New York Times Best Seller and consistently ranked in the top five books sold on Amazon.
Stylistically, the book is a mix of millennial memoir (with the requisite dash of outlier status) and sociological commentary. Even so, its success has less to do with being the right book than with it being the right book at the right time. Many readers have reached for it out of a need to understand how Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election, in large part by courting the white working class.
For all its success, Hillbilly Elegy has also earned criticism — everything from Vance’s political conservatism to his use of the term hillbilly (the book is actually more about the values and experiences of Rust Belt whites than rural Appalachian whites) to the temptation to derive too much from one person’s experience of the world. As with any memoir, Hillbilly Elegy is best read as a gateway to a larger, more nuanced discussion, the beginning of an essential conversation rather than the end of it. — Hannah Anderson
“Forgiveness combined with a refusal to let the men we love act as gods in our lives.”
Twenty-sixteen’s greatest argument against idolatry and in favor of forgiveness came in the form of a visual album from Beyonce, released without warning in April. Combining songs from the album with poetry by Warsan Shire and gorgeously shot visuals, the hour-long film tells a story of a woman who becomes aware that her husband is cheating. As she works through the stages of anger and grief, she realizes that the root of the problem is idolatry: her husband has a “god-complex” (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), and she’s indulged it. Not only that, but women have allowed men to play God in their lives for generations. Beyonce reads from Shire’s poem “Mother”: “Did he convince you he was a god?” she asks. “Did you get on your knees, daily? / Do his eyes close like doors? / Are you a slave to the back of his head? / Am I talking about your husband or your father?”
Later, the words “GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT” flash on the screen. The narrative moves away from anger and toward forgiveness. As Beyonce and a group of women in white walk into the water, she says, “Baptize me. Now the reconciliation is possible. If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.”
Forgiveness combined with a refusal to let the men we love act as gods in our lives is the ancient, glorious way forward Beyonce makes beautifully new for viewers in Lemonade. — Amy Peterson
“[O]ne of those rare sci-fi masterpieces.”
Technically, Arrival is an alien invasion movie. Mysterious, impregnable spaceships appear around the globe, throwing society into a panic while governments, soldiers, and scientists scramble to determine the threat. But Independence Day: Resurgence this is most certainly not. Denis Villeneuve’s masterful sci-fi film is much more than the above description suggests.
Arrival is, first and foremost, a movie about communication. How do we communicate with forces existing far beyond our normal sphere? And if we can establish communication, will it save us or damn us? What is the cost of true comprehension? What’s more, Arrival also weaves together questions about the nature of time and the value of life, even life marred by terrible sickness and death.
It makes for a heady viewing, but as Arrival enters its final, twist-filled act, and its pieces begin fitting together, the film transforms into a deeply emotional experience before ending on a devastating and bittersweet, yet hopeful note. In the end, Arrival is one of those rare sci-fi masterpieces that, like Blade Runner and 2001, will still seem ahead of its time even half-a-century from now because its focus is on deeply human questions and ideas rather than explosions and special effects. — Jason Morehead
“[M]usic should be good and the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world.”
Before the release of his third mixtape, Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper performed the song “Blessings” on the Tonight Show. Flanked by horns and backed by a gospel choir, Chance gave us the first taste of his new project: I don’t make songs for free/I make ’em for freedom./Don’t believe in kings/Believe in the Kingdom.
These lines are a mantra for the mixtape, spilling over every track. Coloring Book sometimes steps outside typical lines in regard to piety, but the lyrical and musical meanderings all find their way back to this guiding theme: music should be good and the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world. Not cordoned off for only the righteous, God’s blessing is for all people in all places.
Chance is quick to remind us, though, that the blessings of the Kingdom are different than material comfort and happiness. When, for love’s sake, we embrace our responsibility to the world, complexity and sorrow are inevitable, but even these are blessings in Chance’s economy. As the last track on Coloring Book fades, Chance, choosing to embrace the responsibilities of love, challenges us with a smile and a wink, “Are you ready for your blessing?” — Andrew Whitworth
“[S]uffering is a natural and tragic part of being human.”
I played through That Dragon, Cancer (TDC) for the first time last January. The game is a remarkable experience, as developers Ryan and Amy Green, who lost their son Joel to cancer at just three years old, adapted their family’s journey into a minimalist and meditative video game. While such a decision might seem misguided, TDC is a soul-searching and experience that unabashedly points to the power of grace amidst pain and suffering.
If you’re a parent, playing this game is a testament to how much love and sacrifice exists in us for our children, as well as the crushing existential crisis that would accompany losing them. Even so, the game isn’t designed for just parents: Ryan and Amy’s story is full of beauty despite tragedy, and they intentionally constructed the game’s narrative to connect us to the countless souls who have experienced cancer’s inhumane grasp. At its highest points, the game doesn’t shy away from a harsh truth: suffering is a natural and tragic part of being human.
Yet by the end of TDC, I understood that suffering in a clearer and more beautiful way, seeing the image of God amidst the brokenness of sin’s effect in the world and within a family’s story. Ryan and Amy, in the midst of their suffering and against all common sense, embraced grace. The end result is one of the most honest and impactful games ever created, one that resonated deeper with me than anything else this year. — Nathaniel Valle
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