The Christ and Pop Culture 25 is a list of our favorite people, works of art, or cultural artifacts from the last year that we feel best represent God’s truth and grace in the world. The list is extremely weird, a meandering, whiplash-inducing product of the diverse perspectives of our writers. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The goal of our list is to illuminate and appreciate the good both in and outside of the church, to show the way God uses Christians to shine a light on the world, and the ways God’s common grace spills out into the most surprising places.
Each of our writers submitted their top five choices for the categories of film, television, music, games, internet, and people. We then used our magic algorithm to compile those choices into a tentative list of around thirty items. Finally, a panel of four Christ and Pop Culture writers, each representing various perspectives and expertise, met over the internet for three plus hours to hash out exactly how the list should look.
While our list is in no way meant to be authoritative or objective, it is a serious attempt at appreciating culture, a task that is at the forefront of Christ and Pop Culture’s purpose.
25 The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt
“Human Beings Searching out Depths Unknown”
Michael Schmidt wends through hundreds of authors scattered in time across the better part of a millennium to create a vivid history of the novel in English. He nimbly traces the origin and growth of different currents that flow into the mainstream of long-form fiction. With each chapter he groups old and new figures together into asynchronous clubs based on shared emphases or concerns, considering Daniel Defoe alongside Truman Capote, G.K. Chesterton alongside Donald Barthelme, and so on.
Schmidt makes heavy use of his novelists’ own opinions about each other, and it lends the book a sparkling conversational quality. Their quips and snippets, culled from untold numbers of essays, letters, articles, and reviews, are in places as valuable as the analysis they both frame and season. Schmidt himself, of course, is no slouch: his erudition and wit color every page.
I have built The Novel into my daily life. I read between one and sixty pages a day, and I leave scraps of paper to mark the pages where Schmidt reaches saturation levels of insight. His appreciation for The Pilgrim’s Progress and his analysis of Jane Austen’s genius had me ripping strips off an old heating bill; a corner of paper towel marks page 345, where Herman Melville remarks on the “thought-divers … that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.”
I don’t have enough scrap paper. There are near-perfect sentences and remarkable quotations in every section. These pages are alive with thought-divers, human beings searching out depths unknown; there are jokers and mischief-makers, too, and each character contributes his or her piece to the conversation, which Schmidt hosts with generosity, tirelessness, and joy. – Martyn Jones
24 House of Cards
“An Eerily Human Combination”
The second season of Netflix’s House of Cards was simultaneously one of the darkest, most complex, and most engaging shows of 2014. This season follows Frank Underwood’s new position deeper into the Dantean political hell of Washington.
Frank Underwood is one of the most convincing, likeable, despicable anti-heroes ever to come across my TV screen. Frank looks directly into the camera to draw us in on his strategies and mild irritation, and it becomes hard not to root for him, even while he destroys lives for the vanity of “power”. House of Cards will play with your allegiances, challenge your sense of right and wrong, and probably disturb you, all while being terribly entertaining.
The show pulls apart the put-together facade of Washington DC politics and dives into the depths of greed, pride, and ruthless ambition, all swirling within an oddly relatable humanity. It’s an eerily human combination of “I can’t believe someone would ever do that” and “I can totally relate to that impulse”. If you can stomach honest depictions of the brutality of human nature, House of Cards proves to be one of the most intelligent and engaging shows of the last decade. – Nick Rynerson
23French Style Furs – Is Exotic Bait
“Intones the Weight of the Faith’s Creed”
Is Exotic Bait’s lyrical concept comes straight from the poetry of 20th century monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, and that concept swaggers and fights against the music throughout the album. Still, the often-frantic pace propels the heaviness of the lyrics. Tracks like “All The Way Down” intones the weight of the faith’s creed: he descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead.
At a brief thirty-six-minute runtime, Is Exotic Bait, packs a punch. The best way to describe the music of French Style Furs is what would have happened had 80s pop compositions been kicked in the teeth by their punk godfathers. FSF are just as comfortable within the company of Tears for Fears and The Cure as they would be with The Clash or Fugazi. The French Style Furs are able to play to the strengths of both: extravagance and attitude.
With a heavy amount of raw soul and a pop lilt, The Cold War Kids’ lead singer Nathan Willett brings a large amount of life to their already quirky indie rock, so when I first heard he and CWK bassist, Matt Maust, teamed up with Biola U. comrade and We Barbarians drummer, Nathan Warkentin, I was both perplexed and excited about the result of such a project.
Merton-inspired themes like corporate corruption and patriarchy still hang in the present day air, giving the album an inherent earthiness and transcendence. – Blake Collier
22The Walking Dead
“Cherish Our Existence and Abstain from Desecration”
There’s a moment in Season Five of The Walking Dead when the camera pans over an abandoned car, momentarily showing the words “pardon our dust” before we rejoin our group of survivors. This season—and this past spring’s season four—asks us to empathize with the growing necessity of murder as a means to survival. We watch Rick Grimes and his group continue to struggle, yet we remain invested in their survival despite the inherent cost to their humanity.
Throughout the series, the characters of The Walking Dead have tried to rationalize the inescapable fallenness of their existence with consideration of the way things once were. This season, they arrive at a very Christian realization: we cannot return to a state of innocence, because that state never existed. The threat of cannibals triggers this realization, yet they provide us with the greatest affirmation of the Imago Dei yet offered within the show. It may sound macabre, but in a physically desecrated world, loving your brother might just mean not eating him.
Season four’s “The Grove” aligns with Chapter One of Ecclesiastes: life will prove fleeting and death’s grasp will overcome us all. In light of that truth, season five repeatedly asks us to pardon the dust, to acclimate ourselves to our inevitable death. As Daryl eloquently states, “we ain’t ashes.”
But that’s not the end of the story, and Ecclesiastes inevitably leads to the promise of God shouldering the burden of our existence. When the line between cannibalism and Rick’s group is realized, we’re offered hope that all burdens will one day be gloriously lifted. In the land of the dead, we’re meant to cherish our existence and abstain from desecration, even if it simply means surviving to live one more day. – Nathan Valle
21 Parks and Recreation
“A More Excellent Way”
We live in a deeply divided age where differences in everything from politics and philosophical worldviews to parenting styles and favorite television shows can lead to vitriolic exchanges, name-calling, straw men, and overall nastiness. As such, I think we could all learn a lesson from Parks and Recreation’s mid-level bureaucrats.
In real life, sadly, folks like the ultra-positive Leslie Knope, who believes in the power of government to improve people’s lives, and the ultra-libertarian Ron Swanson, who believes government is straight from the pits of hell, would have nothing to do with each other. Any interaction between them would be fraught with tension. But Parks and Recreation shows us a more excellent way.
Knope and Swanson, and the rest of the Pawnee, Indiana Parks department, constantly butt heads over political ideas, business goals, and life choices. But they never stop respecting and caring for each other; they never stop giving each other grace — especially this past season, as Leslie struggled between leaving Pawnee for bigger and brighter things and remaining faithful to her beloved community. By staying involved in each other’s lives, they remind us that even in the face of deeply divisive culture wars, we are more alike than we think. Oh, and the fact that their hijinks are consistently hilarious? That’s just the icing on the cake. – Jason Morehead
20 The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
“Beckons Us to Pause”
It’s not often when an album comes along that gives someone a reason to slow down, take a breath and pay attention, but The War on Drugs’ Lost in a Dream demands exactly this. What began as background music stopped me from multitasking as the ambient sounds found resonance with my general weariness. This refreshing album beckons us to pause for a period of time in our convoluted world.
These Philly natives have been around since 2005, and I feel slightly ashamed — though, also, grateful — that their latest effort was my first foray into their music. The War on Drugs creates soundscapes you can live in, inhabited by words: the lyrics and chameleon-like vocals of Adam Granduciel. There are moments throughout Lost in the Dream where it seems Granduciel is possessed by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Don Henley. It’s almost uncanny, at times, but also seems right at home within the spaces of sound that they create for his voice to move around in.
Unlike the rest of their work, Lost in the Dream strikes an almost dreamlike state. Sprawling six to nine minute songs reflect no rush of urgency. Yet it never feels as long as it is, a testament to how the album mesmerizes its listener. If Lost in the Dream is any indication, maybe rock ‘n’ roll isn’t completely dead, but in the process of being born again. – Blake I. Collier
19 Lila by Marilynne Robinson
“Even Desolation has its Graces”
Attentiveness is the gift Marilynne Robinson offers us in her latest novel, Lila. By worldly standards, the story’s title character deserves hardly a first, let alone a second, glance. Unwanted as a child, Lila ekes out what life she can from her orphaned childhood on. From field-to-field, town-to-town, job-to-job, Lila creeps through the world unnoticed, until arrested by the eye of respectable John Ames, venerable pastor of Gilead, Iowa.
While her seemingly insatiable desire for belonging and security struggles with the vulnerability she invites by acknowledging that desire, Lila accepts Ames’s kindnesses, little by little. And little by little, this grace changes her. In this way, and drawing from its central biblical allusion to Ezekiel, Lila tells the story of resurrection, of salvation through sacrifice, of the painful work of grace.
Though some have criticized Lila for poorly representing Christian soteriology, Robinson’s fiction offers insight into human nature and the human condition, not discursive theology. Few writers capture, as Robinson does, the fragility of relationships, the immensity of joy and pain, the difficulty of giving and receiving compassion. And fewer still do so with such beauty. Through her poetic prose, Robinson makes small delights luminous; in her fiction, even desolation has its graces.
Yet insight is not quite the right word; perhaps I should have said, Robinson’s fiction offers a glimpse into human nature and the human condition. For she definitively answers no questions. Rather, Lila invites us into the mystery of life, to more fully experience it for ourselves, to really contemplate our situation. Robinson’s story of this abandoned child reminds us of ourselves. We know not why Ames — or God — intervenes, the outcast to save. Any answers to this mystery are not for Robinson to give. They are for us to discover, and Lila beckons us to begin. – Marybeth Davis Baggett
18 Alissa Wilkinson
“Prepared for Such a Time as This”
In 2014 Hollywood discovered the evangelical market, flooding theaters with films like Son of God, Noah, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Financially, the strategy worked, netting studios over $330 million, but the cultural and spiritual effect of this trend is questionable at best. The increased attention on American evangelical cultural taste has revealed that — as a general rule — we don’t quite know how to evaluate, appreciate, or critique these productions. And so our voice in this media-driven, pluralistic world becomes muted, our message untranslatable to those most needing its truth.
Alissa Wilkinson has been prepared for such a time as this. As chief film critic for Christianity Today, Wilkinson models and encourages graceful, insightful cultural analysis, chock-full of gems that remind us the gospel truth overspills its scriptural boundaries and shows up in unexpected places.
For those not familiar with her CT column, Watch This Way, here Wilkinson covers the big and small screen, and her essays range from reviews of individual stories, to thematic or topical surveys, to big-picture arguments about the nature of Christian cultural criticism, storytelling, and art. Her take is often nontraditional, yet always orthodox; check out “Lessons from the Church of Satan” for this surprising combination. Even still it is an accessible column, filled with anecdotes and callbacks that reward the regular reader. In each of these endeavors, Wilkinson brings illumination, substance, humor, and courage. (Lest you doubt courage is necessary, check out the comment section of this piece).
Wilkinson’s work is driven by her conviction that for Christians cultural engagement is not optional. Sharing the gospel requires understanding it, recognizing it at work in this world, and communicating its importance to ourselves and others. Again and again, Wilkinson shows us how to do just that. – Marybeth Davis Baggett
17 The Toast
“Free of Technical terms, Down to Earth, Non-Confrontational”
If you were looking for smart, funny women in 2014, you didn’t have to look far. Memoirs by Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler hit the bestseller list. “Jane the Virgin” debuted to acclaim, starring Gina Rodrigez and created by Venezualen director Perla Farias. Anne Helen Petersen finished her PhD and took a job writing accessible, intelligent longform pieces for — of all places — Buzzfeed.
But the true breakout star in the smart women genre this year was The Toast, a website started just eighteen months ago by Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe. First of all, it’s funny: take a look at their Dad Magazine covers, or these Texts from Emily Dickinson. Second, it’s inclusive: Nicole and Mallory consistently offer their platform to voices that can be harder to hear in our culture. They run pieces they expect their audience to disagree with.
Perhaps most importantly, Mallory and Nicole (and the other contributors) write about things like sex, politics, and religion without resorting to jargon, cliché, or equivocating. (Even effectively satirizing such cliché from time to time.) In the recurring series “Gabbin’ about God,” for example, Mallory answers Nicole’s questions about Christianity — sometimes bringing in her dad (pastor John Ortberg) to explain things.
As American culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, it’s this kind of voice — free of technical terms, down to earth, non-confrontational, like Francis Spufford in Unapologetic — that we need to learn how to use. The Toast gives us a great place to start. – Amy Peterson
“Slipping Past the Jaded Watchmen of Our Imaginations”
Film critic Manny Farber coined the phrase “termite art” to describe a very specific kind of film that is unconcerned with boundaries or conventional good taste. It is concerned only with moving forward, constantly establishing new boundaries by eating away at the old ones. Like a termite burrowing through a block of wood, this kind of film makes its own path, even if it goes against the grain to do so.
Members of the Academy, for your consideration I give you Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the termite-iest example of termite art to hit cinemas this year.
Everything about this movie is bonkers, from the squint-and-cock-your-head sci-fi premise (humanity escapes a new ice age by building and boarding a planet-spanning freight train) to Tilda Swinton’s blackly hilarious performance as a schoolmarmish authority figure with a heart of obsidian. As the protagonists move from the back of the train to the front in a quest to overthrow their dystopian oppressors, each train car presents us with a fantastically strange new environment. Which is your favorite — the car that houses a 24/7 rave club or the car that’s basically a giant fish aquarium?
All of this is spellbinding, inventive, and utterly mad — the best blockbuster of the year, for my money. There is a purpose behind it, though, that goes beyond a mere desire to entertain. Because Bong Joon-ho disregards common storytelling conventions, he bypasses the defenses that audiences have built over time, slipping past the jaded watchmen of our imaginations to make us think in new, perhaps uncomfortable ways about stratified societies; human nature; and the bizarre things that can happen when technology, politics, and religion come together and kiss. Long live the termites. – Kevin McLenithan
“A Sobering Tension Between Certainty and Mystery”
Radiolab is a podcast that turns a scientific ear to the world we live in. While there are episodes featuring researchers explaining science-y things like animal populations in the Galapagos islands, fossil records, and the language of dolphins, the show also explores things like the elusive concept of authenticity in hip hop and the ongoing impact of President Bush’s written response to the 9/11 attacks.
At the heart of the show is a typically playful but often sobering tension between certainty and mystery, transcendence and futility, and yes, science and faith. Hosts (and often foils) Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich generally push and pull toward a more objective or elusive understanding of the world, but always in the interest of finding something beautiful, warm, and true to rest in. In “Super Cool,” Jad holds out hope that a miraculous account of a sea’s instantaneous freeze could be true; Robert cackles as experts make the event sound possible but likely bogus. “In The Dust Of This Planet” traces the origins of a t-shirt worn in a Jay Z music video to a philosophical text, interviewing costume designers and cultural critics in search of a meaningful connection to today’s nihilistic pop culture.
The show’s production is the best in podcasting. Gorgeous soundscapes become powerful narrative elements that are at turns lyrical, organic, and digital, bolstering the cast’s perfectly paced storytelling. The subtle audible details brought to the surface allow the listener to share in the wonder of the show’s hyper-curious, creative staff.
In a climate where the staunchest proponents of both science and faith have little use for the other, Radiolab is a welcoming safe haven for believers caught in the middle. The show embraces the tensions Christians so often face, and exhibits genuine affection toward those who are able to investigate God’s creation without abandoning their faith in Him. – Cray Allred
“Persistence Is the Alchemy That Transforms”
Here’s the thing about Christlike love: it always seems simple and straightforward at first. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”—roger that, Jesus. Next time I see someone looking sad and lonely at church, I’ll make sure to invite him back to my house for Sunday dinner. Done and done. But things hit a snag once we realize just how unlovable we all can be. I mean, have you seen the human race lately?
What makes Calvary such a lovely film is, paradoxically, its commitment to depicting characters who are absolutely ugly. Brendan Gleeson’s Father James shepherds perhaps the most wayward parish in Ireland, and that’s before one of his parishioners opens the film by promising to murder him within a week. With that threat hanging over his head, Father James devotes himself over the next seven days to the same people who have no interest in godliness or even in reciprocating his graciousness. It’s not an easy road for him to tread; his flock includes everyone from sneering atheists to a convicted serial killer, and Father James is no saint. He persists, though, and that persistence is the alchemy that transforms Calvary’s ugliness to beauty.
That’s part of what makes Christ’s forgiveness so glorious: not just the forgiveness itself but the persistence with which he offers it. The wonder of John Michael McDonagh’s film is that it makes me aware all over again of how much I need that forgiveness. I watch the last scene of Calvary and sense a three-word sentence hovering silently just beyond the final frame. It might as well be directed right at me. – Kevin McLenithan
13 Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor
“Raw People, Knocked Around and Under Too Much Strain to Gussy Themselves Up”
Christians who love books are dealt a rough hand. Most Christian fiction is starchy, not clearly situated in relation to a world of people who eat, fart, and have sex; literary fiction in a secular mode rarely finds room for people of faith except when they provide a useful foil for developing another, more sympathetic, more central character. Cardboard angels or savage idiots: basically, that’s our menu.
Of course this assessment is idiotic and sweeping and lazy and etc. I mean, of course it is. It doesn’t work as analysis. It’s rather meant to capture a sentiment I find to be prevalent among my literary friends. Many of us are starved for characters of faith that don’t fall into one of the buckets described above.
This, at least, is a first go at understanding why Kyle Minor’s book Praying Drunk has so deeply affected many of us. We were starved for fiction like this, and we knew it.
Minor is an exile from American evangelicalism who writes semi-autobiographical fiction that cuts and scalds. Praying Drunk is a beautiful, jagged, and forceful book. The central conceit is that a man “in literal Baptist heaven, sitting on a cloud,” is trying to make sense of the life he had on earth by telling and retelling stories. Characters and events recur; when they do they change, accruing meaning and intensity as they do.
There are many bodies in this book. There are suicides, unsuccessful fights with cancer, murders, and then there are the spiritual deaths—the sudden ends to relationships, the passing out of sight and memory, the abandoning of belief.
Raw people, knocked around and under too much strain to gussy themselves up: these are the characters that populate these stories, and what a miracle it is that those who are Christians are allowed to be human beings too. – Martyn Wendell Jones
12 Anita Sarkeesian
“Suffering in the Way That Pioneers Tend to Do”
In her Feminist Frequency series of videos, media critic Anita Sarkeesian examines female tropes in video games. She looks at the way women are portrayed visually and in the plots of the games themselves, whether they are primary or ancillary characters, for example. None of this may seem particularly relevant to those of us existing outside the world of gaming, because this is just what critics do. They peer closely at culture from a specific point of view and make their analysis public. But inside the gaming subculture, Anita Sarkeesian’s work hasn’t been well-received. Many gamers disagree with the idea that misogyny in games is a problem. In fact, many gamers disagree with Anita Sarkeesian so vehemently they have threatened to rape and kill her. Repeatedly. In public, private, inventive, intentional, designed ways, gamers have repeatedly threatened Anita Sarkeesian’s life.
As gaming, now a multi-billion dollar industry with nearly two billion players worldwide (many of whom are women) continues to expand, the industry’s players are adjusting to the spotlight, moving from subterranean subreddit subcultural status to the aboveground glare of the mainstream.
Anita Sarkeesian is a pioneer in this regard and, not to put too fine a point on it, has suffered in the way that pioneers tend to do, even cancelling an appearance at Utah State University in October because of a threatened shooting massacre if she spoke at the University’s Center for Women and Gender as scheduled. Agree with her or not, 2014 just might be a watershed year, the moment when gamers realize that the growth of their industry cannot outpace its development. If gamers want to enjoy the technological advances of this present age, they need to participate in its societal advances as well, including this: women have the right to expect agency in the world they inhabit, virtual or otherwise. – S. D. Kelly
“A ‘Non-Christian’ Approach to the Flood Story”
There’s no denying that Darren Aronofsky’s take on the story of the Flood is far from orthodox. Drawing from extra-Biblical sources in addition to the Biblical text, Aronofsky creates an antediluvian world of rock-encrusted fallen angels, proto-industrial societies, and supernatural snakeskin. At times, it seems like something more akin to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies than a “traditional” Bible movie. But therein lies its strange power.
I confess, in all of my readings of this story, I never gave much thought to, say, the terror that Noah and his family might’ve felt at seeing God pour out His wrath on a sin-riddled world. Nor did I give much thought to just how depraved mankind must have been to make God do such a thing. Aronofsky pulls no punches with regard to the details, whether it’s brutal scenes of those outside the ark crying for help as the waves wash them away, or graphic—yet not gratuitous—depictions of human fallenness run unchecked.
Noah confronts us with the hard truths found in Scripture—truths that Christians might be tempted to brush aside or sanitize due to familiarity or perhaps a desire to make the Bible “cleaner” or more palatable. By taking a “non-Christian” approach to the Flood story, Aronofsky allows Christians to see an all-too familiar story in a new light. Even with its flaws (and there are many), that alone makes me appreciative of Aronofsky’s effort. – Jason Morehead
“The mundane, universal human need for unconditional love”
It might seem impossible that anyone could take a character as popular and iconic as Sherlock Holmes and make him over in a way that displays reverence for the source material and still represents a legitimately fresh take. Yet Mark Gatiss, Stephen Moffat, and company have been doing that for three years now on BBC’s Sherlock, with the help of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and a pitch-perfect supporting cast. However, could anything have topped the dazzling cocktail of wit, intrigue, and brinksmanship that constituted the show’s first two seasons? In good Holmesian fashion, I was skeptical.
But season three did not disappoint. The rapid-fire dialogue crackled more sharply than ever before, while the Gatiss/Moffat team burrowed insightfully into the psychology of their particular iteration of the classic team. At every point in all three episodes, the producers managed to eviscerate all the clichés of character vulnerability and still provide us just the right note of oblique, almost grudging, sympathy for our ingenious—and borderline sociopathic—hero.
From the detecting duo’s ignominious reunion in “The Empty Hearse” through Watson’s nuptials with the carefully-introduced Mary in “The Sign of Three” to the agonizing, awkward, and redemptive Christmas at the Holmes-brothers’ parents’ (played delectably by Cumberbatch’s real mother and father), Sherlock Season Three demonstrates that even the most extraordinary and seemingly cold-blooded individuals share in the mundane, universal human need for unconditional love. – Geoffrey Reiter
9 Monument Valley
“The joy that comes with discovering and cultivating beauty”
The iPhone App Store is a not-so-brave new world for the game industry, a place that can redefine or reinforce preconceived notions about the purpose of and problems with the relatively new past-time. While so many other iPhone games stumble over themselves to rope the player into a new and exciting feedback loop, Monument Valley offers little more than beauty and a challenge, though the two are tied artfully and inextricably together.
The game’s challenge serves a greater purpose than providing a hook to draw in the player. In manipulating the surrounding environments around our protagonist princess, we are also learning to appreciate the world’s inherent utility and value. In order to create pathways for Ida, we drag our finger to create aesthetic completeness, and in so doing, we become aware of the ways that aesthetics and form can pave the way for peace and spiritual progress.
The title of Monument Valley refers to the ruins of a once-great land, destroyed by some unknown sin or folly. Our princess is responsible for whatever destroyed their world, but perhaps only insofar as she presided over it when that ruin took place. Either way, the very act of returning restores glory to the world. And we, the players, are introduced to it for the first time, drawn in not by “addictive” gameplay or the promise of the next unlock, but the simple satisfaction of uncovering the next monument, and remembering, for perhaps the first time in an iPhone game, the joy that comes with discovering and cultivating beauty. – Richard Clark
8 Brooklyn Nine Nine
“The comedic potential lying at the edge of adulthood”
For what is most likely a target demographic of twenty-somethings, Brooklyn Nine Nine captures the comedic potential lying at the edge of adulthood and shows both its promise and peril. Centering on the workplace of Brooklyn’s 99th Precinct, the show follows the exploits of Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) as he simultaneously clowns around at work while successfully closing the most cases. On the other hand, his colleague, Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), takes her job very seriously, desperately wants the Captain (Andre Braugher) to mentor her, yet seems to consistently misstep in her quest to move up the ranks. Over time though, Santiago begins to make headway in her career ambitions, and Peralta begins to more closely resemble an adult as opposed to a frat boy working in a police station.
With these contrasting main characters in place, we see young adults gradually mature in the context of a workplace comedy. As viewers find out more about the quirks and insecurities that drive each of the main characters, they inevitably find themselves identifying with those characters.
The diversity of the cast—the Sergeant (Terry Crews), the secretary (Chelsea Peretti), and the Captain—makes the show relatable, which enlivens the mundane life situations that constitute subplots for nearly every episode. In that sense, we are not just entertained, but are getting to know people who seem real. As they learn how to work through and address the circumstances of everyday life, we may just learn how to navigate our own lives as well.
Without coming across as “preachy,” Brooklyn Nine Nine superbly blends comedy, action, and insight to make a show I hope stays around for several more seasons to come. – Nate Claiborne
“Making fun of us in the best way imaginable”
ClickHole is not one of those websites. Clickhole is The Onion’s ornery little brother—a ruthless satire of Buzzfeed, Upworthy, The Huffington Post, and all of those other sites that mercilessly kill our time by showing us inanity like “12 Charts That Perfectly Illustrate Your Life During the Holidays.”
While The Onion exists to mock current events, politics, and the state of the world, ClickHole exists to mock us. ClickHole takes aim at the viral distractions––the cat videos, the listicles, the quizzes––that give us a break from the depressing cycle of news stories, critical think-pieces, and mundane computer tasks. While The Onion pokes fun at the world we live in, ClickHole pokes fun at us. And amazingly, in ClickHole’s debut year it put out better content than just about any “real” website around.
With articles like “7 Nihilistic Quotes That Only Brilliant, Misunderstood Young Males On The Internet Will Appreciate” and “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World” and quizzes like “Is Your Dad Proud Of You?” and “Which Mad Men Character Are You?” (reminding you that you’ll never be Don Draper. . . or even Joan), ClickHole understands the plight of the privileged, bored, insecure, and middle to upper-middle class spiritual nomads, and they incessantly mock said plight.
Nothing has exposed the utter absurdity of the internet and the human condition this year quite like ClickHole. Good satire always has a sense of the times, but rarely is satire as ahead of its time as ClickHole. So thanks, ClickHole, for making fun of us in the best way imaginable. – Nick Rynerson
6 Thabiti Anyabwile
“The bravery and optimism that the gospel gives”
Early last year, Thabiti Anyabwile interacted at length with Doug Wilson‘s writing, patiently and graciously countering a revisionist history that downplayed the plight of American slaves. He also dealt with the white, revisionist historian in Wilson, publicly extending grace and even confession in front of the twitching eyes of Christian comments-section frequenters.
That exchange turned out to be small beans compared to the discussion of race in 2014. With the dubious legal proceedings surrounding the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner (and many others) at the hands of police, attitudes within the church about authority, crime, and people of color came to the surface when protests and social media erupted on a national scale. Thabiti continued to have the guts to suggest, as he did earlier this year on our reparations podcast, that America hasn’t truly reckoned with its history of racial violence, and that there are significant lingering effects of racial inequality in our current climate.
Writing along these lines at an outlet as conservative as The Gospel Coalition—and interacting with the anticipated dissent—demonstrates both the bravery and optimism that the gospel gives (and that the church needs more of). While it may seem an impossible task to build love and empathy between believers of starkly different backgrounds, experiences, and persuasions, to concede such work to the red/blue polarization of our world would be to deny the gospel its power.
Beyond demonstrating fruit of the spirit in answering concerns, misunderstandings, and, frankly, ignorance, Thabiti’s work exhibits most strongly a distinct characteristic: hope. For him to carry this banner, he must truly believe that the church can break down some of the tallest and densest walls between brothers. I’m inspired to hope for the same. – Cray Allred
5 The Grand Budapest Hotel
“One long blooming”
For me, every Wes Anderson film has an “Aha” moment. At some point during each film, the shell of Anderson’s self-consciousness, formal artifice, and muted emotion cracks open to reveal the treasures hidden inside, gleaming and warm like a dragon’s hoard. The film blooms, and what seemed earlier to be annoyingly mannered filmmaking takes on new dimensions. So I was waiting for that transfiguring moment while watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. When the credits rolled, I was still waiting—not because the “Aha” moment failed but because the film had no need for one. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one long blooming, as it opens up before the audience into a gorgeous spray of humor, romance, and nostalgia.
Anderson sprinkles the film with standout shots and sequences throughout its running time, of course—a single black-and-white scene toward the end moved me more than anything else in his filmography. But the film is a symphony, not a series of solos. Everything harmonizes—the luscious cinematography and immaculate production design combine to create a setting that is half storybook, half history. This is the perfect tone to set for the film, in which the aging proprietor of the titular hotel tells a writer about how he came of age as its lobby boy. Most of us remember formative periods in our lives as some combination of actual fact and embellished perception. Anderson’s signature stylization fits this story like a lavender glove.
These elements are anchored by a brilliant performance from Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, the caddish concierge whose role in the young lobby boy’s life is a touching combination of mentor, best friend, and father. Gustave is self-possessed at all times, but his courtliness and sangfroid cannot fully mask his sorrow at the realization that he is an endangered species in a gradually coarsening world. The Grand Budapest Hotel fairly bursts at the seams with exuberance, but in the end it is an elegy. All people’s lives are contained in a breath, expiring once their story has been told. – Kevin McLenithan
4 True Detective
“Narrating his existential angst in a near-constant murmur”
True Detective, in its first season on HBO in 2014, is a slice of modern noir. Over the course of its eight episodes, various strands of tightly woven plot lines bring in all the classic elements of pulp fiction, from the thugs to the dames to the booze. The most memorable character is Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-bitten detective narrating his existential angst in a near-constant murmur, holding the whole world in contempt even as he is willing to die to save it.
In the show’s death match between good and evil, evil is winning, even in the hearts of our heroes—Rust and his partner, everyman Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), the prose to Cohle’s poetry. The detectives rack up an impressive list of vices and betrayals between them. The good guys are also the bad guys. And the real bad guys? They are very, very bad. Men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
And the deeds in True Detective are truly evil, all taking place in the southern gothic atmosphere of coastal Louisiana. But for all the hyper-articulate musings offered by Rust Cohle—no fan of religion, it’s safe to say—in the end the detectives’ trajectory follows the one found in Scripture itself. The darkness of John 3:20 is followed by John 3:21. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. In True Detective, Cohle and Hart press on, manifesting truth with the sort of bare knuckle determination that shows just how hard it can be to do good. And in true pulp fashion, Light shows up. Light shows up and spites the darkness, to the whole world’s eternal relief. – S. D. Kelly
“Removes us from the throes”
Shot with the same actors over the course of twelve years, Boyhood surprised precisely because its long view of time gives way to no surprises. In a time when television and film thrive on cliffhangers, inconsequential catastrophe, and meaningless destruction, Boyhood’s exploration of the normal—mundane even—aspects of growing up is enlightening.
The film begins with six-year-old Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) lying in the grass staring into a clear sky in search for something meaningful. It ends much the same way, though Mason Jr. is then 18 and on the cusp of adulthood. In between we witness a summation of his entire adolescence. Supported by his single mother (Patricia Arquette), older sister (Lorelai Linklater), and sometimes present father (Ethan Hawke), Mason, Jr.’s journey through boyhood strikes with a subtle honesty regarding life, parenting, and growing up.
Throughout the film one may anticipate plot twists as if we’ve been conditioned to expect them. When major events occur, however, the film moves on a year or two before we can even begin to process what has happened. Divorce, domestic abuse, relocation, alcoholism—such trials appear insurmountable when in the throes of suffering, doubt, and despair. Boyhood removes us from the throes before we ever realize we’re there, and in so doing, it reorients our perspective of what’s important and meaningful.
By refusing us the time to agonize over divorce, fear, abuse, despair, or brokenness, we are afforded the opportunity to step outside of time to see how single events can pale in comparison to the whole—no matter how big they may seem in the here and now.
Life goes on. This too shall pass. The long view of Boyhood does not encourage one to disengage from life’s sufferings with a despondent fatalism, but to meet them in expectation of the good for which we’ve already been promised they’ll produce. – Tyler Glodjo
2 Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Taken on a prophetic cast”
The June 2014 issue of The Atlantic is one of the only magazines I have ever purchased at a newsstand for full price. I bought it for a single article: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” with which Coates single-handedly got the engine to turn on a new conversation about race in this country.
If you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to read it now. Coates documents a sordid history of racial injustice—de jure in the early days, and then de facto—in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the US. He writes about black families being forced to buy homes under contract, families who were denied the equity that comes from a proper mortgage, who were forced to pay steep prices for homes that predatory speculators had bought on the cheap after inducing white panic. During a time when home ownership was becoming “an emblem of American citizenship,” black people were systematically being denied access to the American dream. God knows, they were hardly being permitted an American wistful thought.
These aren’t distant sins in American history. The involved parties are still alive, and the crimes and indignities suffered didn’t stop with legislation in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, or aughts. Coates ends his piece with the 2008 financial crisis, wherein lenders at Wells Fargo targeted black communities for subprime products referred to, Coates tells us, as “ghetto loans” for “mud people.”
The actual case for reparations is largely implied. Reparations boils down to giving back something you stole. Coates doesn’t call for specific programmatic measures apart from voicing support for HR 40, a bill to establish a governmental commission to study reparations. However, he knows very well what has been stolen and articulates enough of it that we might get the picture, too.
This one article hardly summarizes Coates’ output over the past twelve months. Endearingly nerdy, an ace with Twitter, and a vocal fan of Dragon Age and other games, Coates has developed a sizable platform and a following as eclectic as the American public.
But, too, his career as a public intellectual has taken on a prophetic cast in 2015. He is like Nathan making the appeal to David to recognize the sin of the man who has much, and who yet still takes more from someone else who is powerless to stop him. David condemns the evil man in the story, not realizing that Nathan was allegorizing David’s own actions all along.
We are not Nathan in this scenario. My hope is that Coates will help us to see and recognize the depths of our sin, so that we might repent of it and finally have our reckoning with the horror that props up the history of this nation. – Martyn Wendell Jones
“Grasping at certainty leaves us empty-handed”
What better way to sum up 2014 than with Serial, the breakout podcast which seems to personify both the good and the bad of the year? Serial, for the few of you left who haven’t been listening, follows a single journalistic story over a series of months and episodes, the facts unspooling in non-linear and dramatic ways. For its first season, Serial focused on the case of Adnan Syed, a boy who was convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
People are bananas for the show, hosting communal listening parties, discussing the newest episode with fervor and glee, everybody making pronouncements on the innocence or guilt of Adnan.
We tour the tragedy and misery and proclamations of injustice with the help of narrator Sarah Koenig, a masterful producer and somewhat untrustworthy narrator (making the show an all the more compelling listening). Koenig is too close to the story, her emotions veering wildly from shock to outrage to confusion to doubt. We’re all there with her, listening in every week, because we can’t quite believe that the justice system could so spectacularly fail someone—a person of color, a religious minority—and also because deep down we were created to crave justice and righteousness.
But if 2014 has taught us anything, it is that it is not enough to be shocked and surprised and intrigued that things could go so horribly wrong in our country and in our world. We can’t simply listen to and ingest the stories of pain and injustice. As 1 Corinthians 4 declares, the kingdom of God comes not through talk, but through power. It’s time for us to consider our attraction to such stories and to assess where we are in pursuing righteousness in our everyday lives.
In the end, Serial does not answer any of our questions. Instead, it points to the heartbreaking reality that so much of our grasping at certainty leaves us empty-handed, lost in a world of ambiguity, in a place where there still is no real justice for Hae.
But there still remains real power in listening to someone like Adnan, who may or may not be innocent, strive to take back the narrative that the judicial system sentenced onto him. These voices, pleading to be heard and acknowledged at the edges of the empire, are all around us. For those of us just tuning in, listening to them is the only way to move towards a more just and righteous world. – D. L. Mayfield