Chasing Contentment by Erik Reymond, Free for CAPC Members
In Chasing Contentment, Erik Reymond identifies the lie that satisfaction and contentment come through consumption.
What were the most-meaningful cultural influences of 2018? 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. We’re counting down the list each day this week; stop back to see The 25 of 2018 take shape.
Nominations covered a wide array of potentials from film, television, music, games, Internet, and people. We then used our magic algorithm to compile those choices into a tentative list of around 30 items. Finally, a panel of six (aka, the CAPC 25 Council), each representing various perspectives and expertise, met over the internet for three-plus hours to hash out exactly how the list should look. Our final deliberations were recorded and produced into a two-part podcast in which you can hear exactly how the CAPC 25 Council determined the order and make-up of the 25 of 2018. Part one is available today; part two will be released later in the week so as to not spoil the surprise for the top spots.
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.
With NBC’s The Good Place, series creator Michael Schur once again struck sitcom gold. The writer behind The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine this time turned to the afterlife, which lends a fantastical element to Schur’s already prodigious talents. The show tells the story of four people who have died and now find themselves in the “good place,” or a secularized version of heaven. The conflict develops when one good-place-dweller reveals she, a chronic ne’er-do-well, could have gotten in only due to a glitch in the system and turns to another, an ethicist in his former life, for help in “earning” her place.
From its start, The Good Place has been an absolute pleasure, intertwining weighty questions about eternal values and human purpose with sheer hilarity and a brilliant ensemble cast. The quirky characters—the earnestly indecisive Chidi, the charmingly impish Eleanor, the comically vain Tahani, and the sweetly doltish Jason—come to relatable life in the masterful performances of William Jackson Harper, Kristen Bell, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto. Complementing, and unexpectedly befriending, these human characters are the otherworldly demon Michael and anthropomorphized database Janet, played respectively by Ted Danson and D’Arcy Carden. Come the final episode of the first season, the show established its comedic genius in an innovative twist that reset the whole narrative field and made possible the metaphysical hijinks of season two.
The philosophical heft of the show, which peaks in episodes like “The Trolley Problem” (season 2, episode 6), derives from its consultants, philosophy professors Pamela Hieronymi and Todd May. What results more than satisfies the Roman poet Horace’s famous standard for great literature; it simultaneously teaches and delights. Amid—and even through—the laughs, The Good Place poses and explores questions like what it means to be moral, what challenges one faces when embracing the moral life, what the proper motivations for right behavior are, if it’s even possible to be good for pure goodness’ sake. Again and again, through the characters’ interactions with each other, the show tells us that relationships and love matter most. More than rules, more than prohibitions, more than an educative program for moral transformation, what should govern our lives, these stories tell us, is love for the other. In this way, The Good Place season 2 is surely a show for our time, getting underneath the political discord of the moment and pointing us to ultimate principles fit for guiding our own lives. —Marybeth Davis Baggett
When I learned Latin in junior high, the first poem I studied was from Catullus. I translated it blushingly: “Give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred/ and then another thousand, then a second hundred…” It went on like that for a while. I thought of this poem again while listening to “Pink in the Night,” a track near the end of Mitski’s Be the Cowboy. As the drums start and the vocals intensify, she sings
I know I’ve kissed you before, but
I didn’t do it right
Can I try again, try again, try again
Try again, and again, and again
And again, and again, and again?
For Japanese American indie rock musician Mitski, love is a thousand kisses, but that’s not all it is. Love isn’t just “a many-splendored thing,” as another poet once said; it’s a many-splintered thing, a many-splintering thing.
Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s fifth studio album, and on it, she explores the manifold ways in which love blesses and bends and breaks us. Love is a jealous master on “Geyser”; it’s what we long for when we’re lonely, even if it won’t save us, on “Nobody”; it’s the illicit longing that almost drowned us on “Old Friend”; it makes our chests pound and bruises us in “Washing Machine Heart”; it’s bound up with nostalgia and longing in “Two Slow Dancers.”
While Mitski’s songwriting is often praised for its “vulnerability,” the true genius of these songs is the genius of the fiction writer; in each, Mitski creates an emotional experience for the listener, drawing out empathy for whatever story she’s telling. And in the process, she offers all of us a chance to reconsider how love works, how self-love and relational love conflict and how they might tentatively begin to co-exist. —Amy Peterson
Netflix’s Daredevil has been known since its debut in 2015 for overt Christian messaging. With a titular character who is Catholic and fights crime while dressed as a red devil, it would be difficult to get away from religious themes. Rather than kicking the against the goads, or falling into the Hollywood trap of painting Matt Murdock’s (Daredevil’s) religiosity in a simpering, oversimplified, clichéd manner, the creators of Daredevil have consistently allowed Murdock’s Catholicism to define not only who he is, but also to shape the parameters of the world he inhabits. Nowhere is this more apparent than in season 3.
Following Matt Murdock’s loss of faith, the third season of Daredevil sets out to show what it looks like when a person determines not only to live without God, but to mete out justice without God’s objective standard of morality. Through the use of color symbolism, settings, lighting, sound, costume design, and one character who acts as a chilling doppelgänger to Murdock’s Daredevil—every detail of the third season is carefully honed, an expert example of how the medium of the story itself can be a spiritual reagent not just for the characters on the screen, but for the viewers, as well. The redemption of Matt Murdock in season 3 of Daredevil sets the show apart as being so much more than a typical superhero story. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in the process of sanctification. —K. B. Hoyle
First Man chronicles America’s race to the moon by focusing on the individual who touched it first—Neil Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling). Less concerned with the more glorious moments of the Apollo and Gemini programs, Damien Chazelle’s newest project instead uses Armstrong to chronicle NASA’s slow, methodical, day-to-day lunar advance—an advance filled with victories and setbacks, promotions and death. For most of the film, audiences see only what Armstrong’s character sees. Linus Sandgren’s brilliant cinematography depicts space exploration as offices and training facilities flooded with fluorescent light and cheap ceiling tiles. Space travel is painted for what it truly is, too: claustrophobic, dark, and dangerous. There’s no mythologizing here.
Darkness is also an apt way to describe Armstrong’s domestic life. After losing his daughter to a brain tumor, Armstrong is propelled by grief into his work. But he would never say that himself. He’s a solemn, professional man. A man lost in the stars of oxygen tubes and electric wires, never fully present to his wife (Claire Foy) and their children.
Across the film, Chazelle slowly carves away at Armstrong’s motivations. Within his stoic tenacity lies a longing for something. Something More. Just what is this? Armstrong doesn’t really know. Perhaps it’s a trip to the moon. Maybe it’s to be the first one to make that trip. Or, possibly, it’s to locate some sort of meaningful symphony among the speckled heavens—a vast dance of mystery, darkness, and light.
In this sense, First Man functions as a deeply spiritual work. Not because it finds fulfillment in the celebration of human ingenuity, but because it understands that behind our ambition, our pain, and our desire for More lies a longing that can’t be easily filled by making it into the history books. Or, as the famous quote from C. S. Lewis goes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Could this be why we travel to space? —Wade Bearden
Amid the welter and squalor of Manhattan in 1976, Travis Bickle confides to his diary, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” That Travis will himself deliver said rain in a hail of bullets from a cache of illegal firearms is amply hinted at before Taxi Driver’s recklessly brutal climax—a sequence so intense that censors insisted on muting the colors so that the abundant carnage is the color of rust, rather than crimson. (The original footage has since vanished, leaving us with only the sepia-toned massacre.) For all his aberrant behavior, Travis sees himself as something more than a vigilante; he believes himself to be a cleansing agent in the heart of the city’s underbelly, the rain that will wash away the dirt and grime. A 34-year-old Martin Scorsese was behind the camera, and a 30-year-old Paul Schrader was behind the screenplay.
In 2017, in the bleached out winter of upstate New York, Reverend Ernst Toller grapples with a question from one of his parishioners: “Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” The question goes way beyond politics for Toller and brings him to a point of spiritual crisis in this remarkable movie. This time, a 71-year-old Schrader is both writer and director. In many ways, First Reformed is a hard-edged Diary of a Country Priest, with a deeply flawed priest at its center. In other ways, however, it’s a spiritual successor to Taxi Driver. Travis pined for a furious rain that would purge all the scum from the streets. In the wake of growing environmental devastation and widespread cultural collapse, Toller simply exclaims, “Well someone has to do something!” What kind of rain does our current predicament demand?
Despite its growing list of awards, First Reformed is not a crowd-pleaser. In fact, it’s almost comically devoid of concessions to audiences: Shot with half the frames of an average motion picture, its pace is slow and meditative. The dialogue and visuals are as harsh and austere as the New England winter in which they unfold. The slender rations of humor that we do get are as acidic as bile, and the act of prayer offers the protagonist about as much relief as a bed of nails. The ending will inspire some to scratch their heads; others, their screens. Just why is this ordeal-of-a-film so worth your time? Because its central question is, “Will God forgive us?” Most of us just ask, “Will God forgive them?” —Cameron McAllister
 The name also belonged to a Marxist playwright from Germany whose life would end in suicide.
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