As the calendar winds down and eases from one year to the next, many of us turn nostalgic. We wonder where the time went and reflect over the ways we spent the past 365 days. Maybe it’s a matter of clicking through the photos we snapped or reviewing our goals or taking note of what we’ve read or listened to or watched or laughed at. Remembering is a way of marking time and seeing how various ideas and experiences have made us who we are now.
Here in 2019, we have an additional opportunity to review and reminiscence, because it’s the end of a decade. The Christ and Pop Culture team is highlighting some of their personal favorite pop culture artifacts of the past 10 years in a week-long series called Faves of the Decade. We hope you enjoy the entries they share!
When I was in college, my now-husband and I would spend evenings hanging out in his dorm room with him playing online computer games and me watching. My roommates thought it was ridiculous, why would I want to watch someone else play a game? Didn’t that defeat the entire point of a game anyway? Little did they know that 2011 would bring about a major industry shift paving the way for games (computer, console, and even table-top) to become spectator sports and in the process, change what we mean by both.
In 2011, Twitch, a video live-streaming service was launched. It allowed players to broadcast the games they were playing in real-time and allowed viewers to watch along at home. Not only that, but the service allowed viewers to participate by commenting, asking questions, or even just chatting with other viewers in the channel-specific chat rooms while the game was going on. Online gaming was quickly becoming a sport with massive tournaments, celebrity players, and even sponsorships and spectators were now allowed to participate in a new and dynamic way.
Not surprisingly, the launch of Twitch (now a subsidiary of Amazon) coincided with the rise of esports. The results of which is that the landscape of gaming has shifted dramatically over the last few years from something people did on their own in their free time, to something done before an audience. Skill is celebrated, the competition encouraged, and millions of dollars spent creating massive events where the best of the best gather to play. In turn, this also paved the way for table-top games, most notably Dungeons and Dragons, to shift playstyles as well and enter into the world of games as spectator events.
Today, live-streaming games is a huge business with companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft all maneuvering for a share of the profits. The last decade has seen millions of every-day people stream their games, whatever those might be, and millions more join in by watching and every indication is that the trend will just continue.
Fourteen words were all that were needed on July 8, 2010, to transform the landscape of basketball in the 2010s. “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” said NBA superstar Lebron James, “and join the Miami Heat.” The context in which these words were said by the then-twenty-five year old—a 75-minute live-airing on ESPN—drew massive criticism and disdain for the once dubbed “chosen one” of basketball. James was villainized for joining a team that already had two superstar athletes (Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh). America was not used to a young black man with talents like his taking matters into his own hands on a national stage he created for himself. Fans burned his jersey in protest. Owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, wrote a scathing open letter about James that described him as selfish, heartless, and callous, and called the move a “cowardly betrayal.”
James’s fame and acclaim has since returned after winning two NBA championships with the Heat. But the decision that has since cemented James as an all-time great was his move back to Cleveland almost four years to-the-date of “The Decision” (less clouted with pomp and circumstance) where he helped secure the city’s only NBA championship. Since then, other basketball players have taken a page from Lebron’s game book. Players like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook have made similar decisions that were best for them. Lebron James’s “The Decision” will forever be regarded as one of the most controversial sports moments of this decade—not necessarily because of the decision itself, but because of the mark it has left on how we view athletes and how athletes with business acumen and specific skills view themselves.
Vinland Saga is a graphic novel series from Japan about vikings and Odin-worship and Christianity and warrior culture and pacifism and revenge and redemption and having scary dreams about all the hundreds of people you’ve killed. It’s loosely biographical, telling the life story of Thorfinn Karlsefni, his wife, his founding of a settlement in Newfoundland, and his interaction with the Viking king Knut.
So here’s this kid named Thorfinn who’s set on avenging his fathers death. His dad was this epic warrior, the best of the best, but he gave it all up for something more powerful and became a pacifist. Then because when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, his old gang of super tough vikings have him assassinated. So Thorfinn’s been part of this mercenary band since he was six, waiting for his chance at revenge. He’s become this monstrous fighter, basically a superhero of murder—but it’s okay because vikings are all about battle and war.
Then events conspire so that his reason for living vanishes. There’s no longer any vengeance for him. He’s rudderless until he remembers some stray words his father spoke. This combines with a lot of talk about Christianity (if you remember history, this was a time of great mashups between Odin-worship and the northern spread of Christianity).
So suddenly, after 1,700 pages, we finish Chapter 54, which is titled “The End Of The Prologue.” The book has been 1,700 pages of brutal war. It’s a bloody violent action-lover’s dream (with a sprinkling of religious and political talk to make it feel not entirely like a dumb superhero book). And suddenly, [END OF PROLOGUE SPOILER] the action hero—this unstoppable warrior—takes a vow of pacifism, becomes a slave on a plantation, and starts living toward the goal of building a world of peace.
I mean, think about that, it’s pretty brassy to put together what is basically a brutal action adventure story and then suddenly after 1,700 pages get your readers on board for a book about a guy who won’t fight back. It would be like Christopher Nolan making The Dark Knight Rises into a movie where Bruce and Selina wander around Gotham City chatting Before Sunrise-style, and at one point they get mugged, and Bruce gives up his wallet and maybe offers the mugger a job at Waynetech.
I find the book fascinating, not only because of how it incorporates mature and varied discussion of faith and its consequences (which are pretty much totally unexpected in the genre), but also because it implicates the reader in Thorfinn’s violence. You hear that kind of thing a lot, a book or movie or videogame implicates the reader in this or that, but I think Vinland Saga really drives it home after Thorfinn dumps his old self to become a man of peace. You have this warrior who’s both incredibly skillful and incredibly savage, who could kill ten men in a flash. And he gets confronted with unjust brutality or theft and you just want him to strike back, you want those who oppose him, those who would abuse him, to know the fear they ought to have for him. You want catharsis and vindication—and because you’re wanting violence and the hero instead offers the other cheek, you’re left feeling the power of that decision.
The first arc of Vinland Saga is being adapted into a TV series and is available to stream in the United States on Amazon Prime Video.
—Seth T. Hahne
Take it from someone who makes his bones writing humor (pre-order my book now!): comedy can be a thankless job. Any standup comic will tell you that a perfect joke can take hundreds of rounds of refinement—each syllable, each breath is crucial to the impact—but will seem effortless to the audience. It’s why comedy films rarely win Oscars: they look so easy, even though a good one will often take even more effort than a Very Serious Drama. The upshot, though, is that comedians make the best storytellers. They know how—in an exacting, moment-by-moment way—to raise and then satisfy (or dash) audience expectations. So when a comedian tries tackling serious material, the result is almost always worth a look.
I read comic Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime back-to-back with political writer J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and while the two memoirs were strikingly similar in some ways—both told of a boy born into poverty and dragged out of it by a tireless matriarch—there’s a reason Born a Crime has stuck with me and Hillbilly Elegy has not. Part of it, I’m sure, is that, as a man born into a mixed-race relationship in apartheid South Africa, Noah has come much further to achieve success than Vance; part of it, also, is that the Trump years have made it hard to sympathize with working-class whites, who still stand lockstep behind a shamelessly cruel, racist, and blasphemous president. Mainly, though, Born a Crime is still on my list because Noah is a masterful storyteller. There’s not a page in Born a Crime that didn’t leave me both laughing and crying.
There’s much that’s important about Born a Crime. Stories of institutionalized racism will always be a necessary reminder of the hate that’s been hardwired into the modern world, but that is not why I loved the book. Born a Crime is unforgettable because when I was reading it, I was there, standing in the slums of South Africa with Noah. Ultimately—even when apartheid is a distant memory—that is why people will still read Born a Crime.
—Luke T. Harrington
It’s hard to believe the Hunger Games books were still being released at the very beginning of this decade, as it feels as though they’ve been around forever. But at the beginning of the 2010s, Suzanne Collins was just wrapping up her wildly successful dystopian trilogy, which set the gold standard in Young Adult dystopian literature (and just this year generated enough demand for a prequel novel). For a generation of readers hungry for the next big, immersive, life-altering read after the end of Harry Potter, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy ably filled the gap—spawning not only four blockbuster movies, but a new era of Young Adult literature. In a dystopian future where the United States has been divided into twelve districts ruled by an authoritarian Capitol, the power of the Capitol is maintained by a yearly Hunger Games, which serves both as entertainment and oppression. In the Hunger Games, children are selected from each district to fight to the death in a massive and elaborate arena. To the victor go supposed fame and glory—if the fighters can survive. Resourceful, embittered teenager Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games in the beginning of the story, an act of self-sacrifice which sets off a chain reaction of events leading to disillusionment, revolution, and liberation.
If Harry Potter changed the way books are categorized on the New York Times bestseller lists (it did) and did much more for children’s literature, The Hunger Games changed the forecast of Young Adult literature—ushering in the strong female protagonist, a resurgence of dystopian books, a re-popularization of the first person present tense style of writing in commercial YA, and “competition” narratives (a trope that continues to this day in YA lit and shows no signs of letting up). For many of us who were pining after Harry, Katniss’s story was not a replacement, but an interesting turn into a new genre of youth literature. If I could put my finger on one important thing The Hunger Games gave us as a lasting cultural touchstone that ties it to this decade—something truly transcendent—it would be the icon of the girl on fire. Katniss Everdeen as the girl on fire is an image with heavy meaning to girls and women in the #MeToo era.
—K. B. Hoyle
Opinions of the New England Patriots franchise vary wildly, and as with any cultural product, this football team is not immune to criticism—in some ways, it certainly has earned it. Yet the Bible commends athletics in broad terms, and for the pure experience of sport, few events can rival the Patriots’ 34-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Down by 25 points in the second half, Tom Brady (the GOAT?) one-upped his past Super Bowl victories by shrugging of a terrible first half and leading New England to victory.
As Dorothy L. Sayers has noted in The Mind of the Maker, Christian or otherwise, the craftsman’s first duty is to do his job well. “Do your job” is indeed the mantra of the Bill Belichick franchise, and the team’s dogged refusal to concede, along with some admitted happenstance, (re: Julian Edelman’s ridiculous catch) combined to set the stage for one of the greatest conclusions in NFL history.
Tom Brady has been Jesus-juked by evangelicals for famously admitting that there must be more to life than his Super Bowl rings. And it’s true—no human achievement can compare to the glory of Christ’s presence. But the New Testament writers assume that great performances on the field—“finishing the race,” as it were—can remind us of that journey and that destination. The Patriot eucatastrophe of Super Bowl LI was an entertaining spectacle, a job well done, and a reminder of perseverance and hope in the face of defeat.
The videogame hardware industry, whatever else you may say about it, can be one of the most fun to watch. It moves fast (each console generation tends to be shorter than a decade), and the stakes are high. With few exceptions, a system’s popularity will either explode into a glorious supernova or collapse into a sucking blackhole, and we get to watch it happen in real time.
Three years into its lifecycle, the Nintendo Switch has gone supernova and shows no signs of slowing down.
Nintendo, as a company, is often derided for leaning heavily on “gimmicks” (touch screens! motion controls! 3D!) to move their hardware; while the accusation isn’t entirely untrue, it also means that they’re frequently the only game company trying anything interesting—and, more to the point, the only one reaching out to players beyond the traditional “hardcore gamer” demographic. At its best, Nintendo hardware has a je ne sais quoi to it—an I-need-to-try-that-right-now feeling that you’ll never get from the standard black-box-hooked-up-to-your-TV setup. Like the Wii before it, the Switch grabbed our attention with the sheer audacity of its existence—“It’s a home system and a handheld???”—but unlike the Wii, it then kept our attention with a steady beat of great software and “surprise” features. “Wait, it’s also a portable two-player system? HD rumble? It turns into a cardboard robot? I can play The Witcher on the bus now? A roleplaying game where you physically do pilates???”
Three years on, the Switch has carved out an almost impossible space for itself: its sleek portability makes it the perfect “adult” system in a way no Xbox or PlayStation could ever be, but its playful features make it something you can’t wait to share with your family. In other words, it’s become all things to all people, in the best possible sense of those words. Games as a medium have finally arrived, and there’s nothing left to do except wonder why we let them chain us to our TVs for so many years.
—Luke T. Harrington