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.
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.
10 Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship
“A rich font of spiritual blessing for everyone”
When the New York Times and the Atlantic are talking about people who aren’t relatives buying homes together, you know something has changed. It may be the way secular modernity has tended to grind people into atomized individual serving sizes, ideal for have-it-your-way sexual consumption. Conservative Christianity, meanwhile, has responded with an overzealous focus on the nuclear family, erasing any historical or theological appreciation for the meaning of other relationships. This leaves out anyone who doesn’t fit either script—especially gay Christians like Wesley Hill, whose 2010 book Washed and Waiting told his personal story of coming out and finding solace in Christ as he pursues faithfulness.
In Spiritual Friendship, Wes takes on the neglected historical and cultural aspects of friendship, expanding his personal story to our communal relationships, even as he focuses on the most intimate—even vowed—same-sex friendships. Drawing on Aelred of Rievaulx (a 12th-century monk whose book On Spiritual Friendship inspired this book’s title), he raises the possibility of deeper friendships being not just as a bulwark against corrosive individualism or a solution to the “problem” of gay Christians, but also a rich font of spiritual blessing for everyone. (See this review for more details.) This short book is desperately needed in our cultural context, raising questions we shouldn’t keep to ourselves. —Matthew Loftus
9 Daredevil and Jessica Jones
“Characters struggling to behave heroically”
2015 saw the release of two shows on Netflix featuring characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil was released in the early in the year, followed by Jessica Jones just last month. It was fitting that they book-ended the summer—a carefree time when everyone is outside soaking up Vitamin D and eating ice cream—because Daredevil and Jessica Jones are not summertime shows. They are dark shows, featuring characters struggling to behave heroically in spite of the impulse to do otherwise. All the usual tropes are there: villains with bizarre personalities, sidekicks with hearts of gold, hopeless cases, and so on. Yet both series took the genre in a different direction, offering viewers superheroes for the rest of us—regular people gifted with irregular skills.
Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) are similar in some ways: both live in Hell’s Kitchen (the pre-gentrified version), both are able to transcend the limitations of the human body, and both have a strong sense of right and wrong. But for both of them, the ethics of being a hero prove to be murky: Is it ever okay to do what’s wrong in order to do what is right? Is it ever okay to do nothing at all? Watching Murdock and Jones struggle with questions like these makes their superhero status secondary to the problems they have as people—problems many of us have as we strive to do what’s right, even when it hurts. —S.D. Kelly
8 Stephen Colbert
“Comedy infused with conscience”
Was there another professing Christian in 2015 who had a broader platform in American pop culture than Stephen Colbert? Maybe Pope Francis did, but he’s…you know, the pope; being a representative of Christianity to the world is in his job description. Colbert, on the other hand, could easily take a safer road in his job as an entertainer. There’s plenty of money and job security in producing explicitly Christian media—just look at the Kendrick brothers. Likewise, Colbert could just keep his head down as a secular comedian, maintaining a separation between his faith and his work. But with his move to The Late Show this year, Colbert has chosen a third path: a philosophy of entertainment that openly integrates his Catholic faith with his brainy comedy.
Examples of his gutsy Christian witness abound. How about this profile in GQ, where he quotes the catechism (“I am here to know God, love God, serve God”)? Or how about when he chastised anti-refugee politicians by quoting Matthew 25:35 to his studio audience? And it’s not every day that you see a comedian frankly discussing a Christian ethic of grief with a sitting American vice president on late-night television.
Pop culture–savvy Christians, take note: this is what it looks like to be salt and light in the world. On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert has the attention of millions of sinners, Christian and non-Christian alike, and he offers them comedy infused with conscience, entertainment infused with love. May his tribe increase. —Kevin McLenithan
7 Inside Out
“A painful, awkward, true look at emotional pain”
Throughout the first half of Inside Out—an animated film in which the central characters are anthropomorphizations of the various emotions in a young girl’s head—the main character, Joy, continually repeats the same mantra: “Riley needs to be happy!”
I confess that I took for granted that this was true—that making the central human happy must indeed have been the ultimate MacGuffin of the film. Why shouldn’t I have? The idea that everyone needs—deserves—to be happy is ingrained so deeply in our broken culture that most of us don’t even think about it, let alone question it. Inside Out, however, sharply and rudely yanked this rug out from under me, shaking me to the core in the process.
At the heart of Inside Out is a truth so deep that even many of us who struggle with depression are only dimly aware of it: the darkest pit of emotional pain isn’t feeling sad—it’s feeling nothing at all. While sorrow might be less pleasant than joy, it’s in our moments of emotional weakness that we’re the most human.
Even Pixar’s most anemic films, like The Good Dinosaur, still manage to jerk tears simply through manipulative editing and scoring. But Inside Out did so by connecting me to my own soul in a way that was painful, and awkward—and true. —Luke T. Harrington
6 Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
“A heart-wrenching, honest exposé”
Relationships aren’t always the easiest to capture in music, but emotions are. The gritty, raw, sad, happy, whimsical and every feeling in between can be carried in the weight of rhythm, melody and harmony. Even poor musicians can manage, in some fashion or another, to endow their music with some emotion, even if it is just candy pop.
Sufjan Stevens, however, is no poor musician; in fact, he’s a master of subduing and taming the most raw and extreme of emotions and musically taming them to do his bidding.Yet with his latest album Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan doesn’t do much taming. Instead, his life, refracted particularly through the death of his estranged mother and his love for her, is laid bare for all to see.
Carrie & Lowell may sound like classic Sufjan Stevens, with pared down guitars, harps, and keys. But this is a grown-up Sufjan, writing about grief-induced self-destruction, the desire for intimacy with someone he can no longer know, and the raw experience of life under the sun. His transparency and struggle moves us beyond the pop-candy of emotional strangulation to give us a heart-wrenching, honest exposé of our own hearts’ desires and passions for love. Carrie & Lowell feels like a modern wrestle through Ecclesiastes—one that leads its creator to conclude that “there’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” —Jeremy Writebol
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