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.
20 Adele, 25
“Our generation’s Ella Fitzgerald”
“Hello… it’s me.” And with that aplomb, the powerhouse diva tromped back into the cultural landscape with her third numerically titled release. While 25 has upended the likes of Taylor Swift’s 1989 from the top of the sales charts, the two run a parallel course within the music business, singing about scorned love, broken relationships, and the malaise of first world problems. However, if Swift is the Tina Turner of our generation, then Adele is our generation’s Ella Fitzgerald. One with panache and sex-appeal, the other with the voice and quiet, understated power to last. Both powerhouses in their unique way.
25 is Adele’s Benjamin Button album, turning back the pages of time to “make-up” on what’s she’s missed. As she states, “I’m making up with myself. Making up for lost time. Making up for everything I ever did and never did. But I haven’t got time to hold on to the crumbs of my past like I used to. What’s done is done.” So, we go back to a woman who doesn’t want to be cheated on and scorned but wants to move on from past love to find new joys, romance, and pleasure. And even though it’s pop-candy for our ears, 25 is the luxurious gourmet chocolates we only get to enjoy every so often. —Jeremy Writebol
19 Key & Peele
“Deft cultural commentary”
If ever there was a comedic pair designed for social media, Key & Peele creators Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele would fit the bill. The duo used the power of YouTube videos and social media to leave audiences laughing, while often challenging presuppositions like all good humor does. They have dozens of memorable web sketches like the East-West Bowl Game starting lineup or fake aliens. Yet, the show always featured perceptive social commentary, particularly on the topic of race.
Humor has long been a minefield in cross-cultural friendships. The delicate nature of ethnic interaction can create an explosive collision of misunderstanding and insensitivity. Fully aware, the sketches and full-length show approached that danger naturally, achieving the elusive feat of educating the majority and providing catharsis for the minority without appearing inauthentic or forced.
Key & Peele was certainly more than a show about race relations during its five-year run on Comedy Central. The stars were far more dynamic and diverse than one topic. Yet, it is hard to undersell how much the videos were a vehicle for conversation and interaction across typical dividing lines. The project provided classic laughs, deft cultural commentary, and the opportunity for friends to gather around a smartphone, closing the distance between us one laugh at a time. —Tyler Burns
18 D’Angelo & the Vanguard, Black Messiah
“Anthems that scream channeled fury and determined hope”
Neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo broke his 14-year musical silence this year with an inspiring collection of songs that triumph the sound of freedom. Black Messiah, his melodic response to the non-indictment in the Michael Brown case, caught his fans off-guard but soon reminded us of everything we loved about the legend. Backed by the brilliant instrumentation of The Vanguard, D’Angelo is better than ever with anthems that scream channeled fury and determined hope.
“All we wanted was a chance to talk/‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk,” he defiantly croons in “The Charade,” a standout selection with the steady beat of a non-violent march. Other songs like “1,000 Deaths” and “Betray My Heart” reflect the same combination of frenetic pace and social consciousness to jolt listeners awake to see the world around us. While his trademark musicality is on full display, what stands out most prominently is a spirit that snaps louder than Questlove’s signature snares.
Drenched with unmistakable influences from some of Gospel music’s greatest voices, D’Angelo blessed young activists with timeless reinforcements as they raised their voices for human dignity. “D’Angelo is singing freedom y’all,” one activist tweeted. They get it. This album is more than Grammy nominations and critical acclaim. It is cool water on a hot day of protest. —Tyler Burns
17 Master of None
“A refreshing step forward in television”
It’s a good thing when ethnic diversity is represented on television; it’s even better when shows are made by, and star, people of color. But better yet, how about a show, made by and starring people of color, that tackles issues of race head on with frankness, grace, and empathy?
To be clear, Master of None (created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang for Netflix) is not just a show about race. Ansari stars as Dez, a thirty-something son of Indian immigrants living in New York and trying to get his acting career off the ground. The show’s thirty-minute episodes — each themed and edited to play more like short films than traditional sitcom episodes — address a wide range of issues, from the fear of starting a family or being in a committed relationship, to growing up as a child of immigrants (endearingly, Ansari’s real-life parents appear as his character’s parents).
What makes Master of None worthwhile is that while it’s certainly not afraid to take on issues, it does so with whimsy and sensitivity — embodied by Ansari’s lovable, goofy on-screen charm. Master of None never preaches. It’s brave, but it’s also empathic both to its characters and its viewers. And it’s that particular combination that makes it such a refreshing step forward in the race conversation on television. —Ethan McCarthy
16 Christena Cleveland
“Embodies a work for justice that is tiresome and unrewarding”
The increase of ethnic tension in America has revealed the novice of most Christians in areas related to diversity. Following her award-winning 2013 book Disunity in Christ, writer and social psychologist Christena Cleveland has positioned herself as one of the most consistent voices helping the American Church’s ongoing discussion of racial reconciliation.
While 2015 was not her flashiest year, the true work of justice is often fought outside of headlines and book releases. Cleveland embodies a work for justice that is tiresome and often unrewarding, and she perseveres with a humble and prophetic resolve. Contrary to other evangelical voices on this issue, Cleveland addresses social harmony from a psychological perspective, seeking to reveal the root of what drives groups apart rather than reaching for the low-hanging fruit seen in most primetime television talking points. Her theories occupy the 30,000-foot view of the discussion, striving to change thought processes rather than just behavior. She is thorough and undeniably brilliant. Yet, the most refreshing element of her approach is found in her writing tone.
It is distinctly gracious, measured and patient, even with those who strongly question the core of her premise. Her articles in Christianity Today reflect this irenic yet unflinching standard. Academia has taken notice, leading to her addition to the Duke University faculty as the director of the school’s Center for Reconciliation. In many ways, Christena Cleveland is a premier example of what this conversation can truly be: civil, humble, bold, and prophetic. —Tyler Burns
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