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Earlier this month our staff writers shared their recommendations for feel-good, heartwarming, hope-filled entertainment as we all shelter in place. Such distraction, amusement, and—dare I say—escape is one benefit of pop culture. It is good for us to see life from various perspectives, to hear stories from other eras or planets, and to put off the weight of sorrow, even for just a moment or two. This is true, even when the world isn’t consumed with a frightening pandemic. But this is the state of the world, and we need something more.
The good news is pop culture is good for more than distraction, amusement, and escape. Another benefit is the way it helps us reconnect to deeper truths, realities that we feel deeply but have trouble processing. Oftentimes, when bombarded with much sorrow—as we are these days—we push those truths even deeper, where they linger and swirl, until we have the capacity to sort them out. This is how creative works can help. Artifacts that showcase beauty, tragedy, love, loss, fear, sacrifice, and the like tap into the depths of our souls, pulling out what’s been stuffed inside, helping us see and name the things that need to be seen and named.
And so, the Christ and Pop Culture staff writers now share recommendations that tap into all those feelings that have been stirred and stuffed by this pandemic. These picks range from the melancholy to the haunting to the finite nature of life. These emotional support artifacts will contribute to your soul’s well-being.
My wife and I began self-isolating a month ago, and since then, we’ve had our good and bad days. On the good days, we curate life, hope, and beauty in our home, through bouts of baking, movie nights, family phone calls, reading, writing, neighborhood walks, and the occasional round of Wii Bowling. On the bad days, those same rhythms persist, but are drained of purpose, haunted by the pervasiveness of death and the reality that this life we live is tenuous and prone to rupture. On those days, our home can become a memento mori, a stark reminder that we will die, and it’s in these moments that I’ve found a quiet comfort in Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell.
Carrie & Lowell itself is a memento mori. Stevens wrote the album as a reflection on the death of his mother, a complicated figure who suffered from addiction and mental illness and abandoned Stevens when he was young. In this album, Stevens doesn’t shy away from the painful truths of his relationship with her, making it an intensely personal exploration of broken families, grief, and, yes, the inevitability of death. Through these themes, Stevens weaves his story into a larger narrative of faith and doubt. In the album’s opening song, “Death with Dignity,” he bemoans how he can’t make sense of Carrie’s death: “Somewhere in the desert there’s a forest and an acre before us / But I don’t know where to begin.” Later, in “Should Have Known Better,” Stevens talks of death as an ever-present burden and source of regret: “My black shroud / Holding down my feelings / A pillar for my enemies.” And the grief crescendos in “Fourth of July,” which ends with the repeating line, “We’re all gonna die.”
However, amid these bleak refrains, Stevens also plants quiet seeds of hope. Though death is ever-present throughout Carrie & Lowell, so is the possibility of faith and the wonder of the created world. Later in the album, Stevens sings, “The only reason why I continue at all… signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark. Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart.” And in the album’s climactic song, “John My Beloved,” Stevens offers a bare and honest prayer: “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head.”
I don’t think it’s possible, nor healthy, to wholly ignore the painful realities of this pandemic. And that’s why Carrie and Lowell has been a balm to my soul. Stevens wrestles with the impermanence of our lives on earth, and yet, he also invites us into the mysteries of divine grace, urging us to find peace in these inherent tensions of existence. As he asks us near the album’s end, “So can we be friends, sweetly, before the mystery ends?” I encourage you to give Carrie & Lowell a listen, as we all contemplate this mystery separately, yet together.
I love Hamilton. The music is fantastic, the lyrics are witty, and the writing choices are simply perfect. I often listen to it while going about my day, sometimes even with tears in my eyes because it’s that well done. In many ways, listening to it now is no different. What is different for me during this pandemic, is how often I play one particular song, “Wait for It.” On days when my emotions are simmering just below the surface, in moments when I need to give myself permission to cry, this is one of the places I turn.
“Wait for It” is sung by Aaron Burr midway through Act 1 of the show and depicts his growing jealousy in the face of Hamilton’s swift rise to success. Outside of the pandemic, it’s a moving, poignant piece about Burr’s frustration, his past, and why he can’t risk as much as his rival. Inside the pandemic, however, it’s a haunting song of hopelessness. The chorus says it all, “Death/Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints; it takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes.” And every time I hear it I weep.
As a follower of Christ, I know that there is hope. I know that God is sovereign and worthy of trust even in the hardest of times. But as a human, I am struck by the hopelessness and the grief of this situation. My tendency is to push that away though, to paint on a smile, and say that everything is fine and God is good. And God is good. But the truth is, like the psalmists, we need to allow ourselves to grieve, to feel, and to lament. “Wait for It” invites me to feel the hopelessness, even just for a time. It allows me to grieve and I love it even more for it.
The four song Indie Rock EP Texas Sun is just the gentle soundtrack we all could use to calm our coronavirus fears. The unorthodox collaboration of the velvety smooth R&B/Soul voice of Leon Bridges and the grunge deft of the trio Khruangbin soothes the soul. The Texas combination (Leon Bridges hails from my city of residence, Fort Worth, and Khruangbin is from Houston) places the imaginations of their listener directly on the state’s country roads and trails with the tracks “Texas Sun” and “Midnight.” (If you’ve never visited or driven through Texas, this is what it sounds like if “Texas” could make sounds.) “C-Side” makes great background music for any occasion, but especially for the hot Texas spring and summer nights on the porch or patio while enjoying some easy conversation, beer, wine, or all three, with your significant other or even by yourself.
The most compelling song, however, is “Conversion,” the EP’s closing track. Bridges sings of tasting the goodness of God after eating pig’s slop, and being in the presence of God after realizing he was on the way to hell. After that observation, the song’s intentionally honeyed dawdle features about one minute of only instruments forcing the listener to contemplate the road they may be on. After the instrumental selah, Bridges sings: “At the cross, at the cross, is where I first saw the light/And the burdens of my heart rolled away/It was there, by faith, I received my sight/And now I am happy all the day.” He goes on to confess—or testify, if you will—“I’m not the same man that I was. You stepped in and changed my heart. Now I’m walking the narrow road. Moved the scales from my eyes. Transformed my soul. And now I see clear.” This EP can help us all see more clearly the goodness of God all around us, even if it is just the Texas Sun from our front porches.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the rapidly receding past—about a world still visible that may never exist in quite the same way, shape, or manner ever again. As these meditations require a process of grieving, I find that stories help.
The Last Battle is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s classic fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. In it, almost every beloved character Lewis ever introduced suffers death and passes through a stable door into a new Narnia while old Narnia is consumed by destruction.
When I was a child reading The Last Battle, I was confused at how a book could make me so sad and so glad all at the same time. I had read stories with real stakes in them before, but not ones where an entire world passes away—where everything I loved about six previous stories was fought for and lost to death and fire and cold and shadows.
And then Aslan told Peter, High King of Narnia, “Shut the Door.” And that was the end… Of one Narnia.
I don’t remember the first time I read The Last Battle, I just remember being devastated. Of course I’ve now read it multiple times, and I now understand the joy that comes after “night falls on Narnia”—I now anticipate the greater good of “further up and further in.” But I still weep when Peter closes that door. Why? I think it’s for the same reason Jesus wept when he was told that Lazarus died. Knowledge of the joy that is coming does not mean we do not, or should not, grieve loss and death.
I don’t have the heart to read The Last Battle right now, but I think about it often in these dark days, about how it handles grief, longing, hope, and joy—all mingled up together. Someday we’ll emerge from this pandemic into a world changed. It will be good to come alive again, and we should—and I’m sure we will—celebrate the end of this bleak time. But in many ways, the door will be shut on going back to what once was.
Stories like The Last Battle are not metaphors for what we’re currently going through, and I don’t mean in any way to suggest that the world that is coming will be better than the world we are leaving behind. But such stories can help us process grief and the complicated mix of emotions as we look back at a receding reality. We should mourn for what is lost, no matter what is coming. Even as we step with faith into a new reality.
Ever since my days as a preteen theater geek, I’ve been attending musicals of all sorts, including some of the biggest shows that ever hit Broadway. But few have moved me as deeply as a little show about a handful of World War II veterans and a war widow—still haunted by the horrors they’ve experienced—creating a swing band. Opening on Broadway in 2017, it was overshadowed that season by bigger theatrical events like Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away (though it did win a Tony Award for Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography), but I’ve never been sorry that it was Bandstand I saw that summer. There’s something about Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor’s musical, under all the makeup and lights and let’s-put-on-a-show pluckiness, that’s raw and real and grabs hold of you. It’s no wonder that, short as its run was, the show has built something of a cult following.
I think, then, that Playbill made the perfect choice when they picked Bandstand to kick off their new streaming series of shows (the goal is to raise money for artists in need). I watched on Saturday night, as original cast and crew members hosted a Twitter viewing party, and understood the story on a whole new level. When a bright-eyed ensemble sings about how the world’s going to be “Just Like It Was Before,” while ignoring the pain of Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), the newly returned veteran in their midst, it was hard not to draw a parallel with our current longings to turn back the clock—and the bleak reality that we can’t. It’s only in pushing through, in telling the truth until somebody finally listens, and in finding new connections—through music, through friendship, through love—that these characters can start to rebuild their shattered lives.
Playbill is streaming Bandstand ($6.99) through April 17. (Personally, I hope for a DVD one of these days, but there’s been no word of one so far.) If you miss it—or if you see it and, like me and so many other fans, can’t let go of it—I recommend investing in the cast album, which provides enough dialogue along with the songs to help follow the story. Still, watch if you get a chance. At the very least, it’s worth seeing Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which one moment is bouncy and buoyant and the next moment is creating an Iwo Jima–like formation of ghost soldiers collapsed upon a piano. And if songs like Cott’s screamingly defiant “Right This Way” and Laura Osnes’s searing “Welcome Home” don’t draw out of you that good cry you’ve been needing, I don’t know what will.
One of the amazing truths of this life is that we, as humans, can experience contradictory feelings at the same time. We can laugh and cry. We can feel grief and joy. We can experience fear and still be trusting. Feelings, it turns out, are not mutually exclusive. And so, while I listen to “Wait for It” (discussed above) to give myself permission to feel the hopelessness that is all around me, I can, at the very same time, rest in the hope we have in Christ. This doesn’t take away the grief, however; it adds depth and fullness to those emotions. The thing I have learned is that hope is not always rainbows and unicorns; rather, hope can be gritty, raw, and altogether filled with hurt. And it’s when I’m feeling this type of hope that I turn to “We Will Feast in the House of Zion” by Sandra McCracken.
“We Will Feast in the House of Zion” is an early song on McCracken’s Psalms album and is a song rooted entirely in future-focused hope. The lyrics are all about that moment when all of our hurts fade away and we are able to rest at the table of the Lord and feast in his presence. It’s about that feeling when our hearts are fully restored and all is, for the first time since Eden, the way it should be. But in the midst of that future hope, there are heaps of grief. Grief that things are not the way they should be now. That our hearts are broken now. That even though we are upheld and protected we are still walking through the fire now. That even though the dawn is coming, we are still wading through the darkness now.
When I listen to this song, my heart overflows with a mingled hope, and my eyes overflow with tears. I am reminded that God is with us, that his plan is for us, that he is faithful even when I am not. And yet I am also reminded that things are really, really hard right now. “We Will Feast in the House of Zion” allows me to feel both the grief and the ragged hope and to weep when; and that is something I have needed these past few weeks.
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