What were the most-meaningful cultural influences of 2019? 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 Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
“Displays the transformative power of knowing our own history.”
Evangelicals are notorious for our short memory. We often conceive of our communities and churches as individualized and untethered to historical and cultural context. Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism is a necessary corrective.
Tisby chronicles the history of race in America, highlighting the significant role the church has played in upholding racist institutions, leaders, and ideas. From the first chapter to the last, Tisby calls the church to be courageous instead of complicit: refusing to compromise with earthly systems of power while resisting political quietism.
The Color of Compromise also displays the transformative power of knowing our own history. Its persistent focus is the possibility for change, ending with a chapter of suggestions for how Christians can fight racial injustice today. As Tisby powerfully articulates, “One of the reasons churches can’t shake the shackles of segregation is that few have undertaken the regimen of aggressive treatment the malady requires.” Knowing our history—and for white Christians, repenting of and lamenting our history—produces the necessary perspective and energy for meaningful change. It also prevents us from charging headfirst into complicated structural problems with paternalism and naivete about our own biases.
The Color of Compromise is the kind of book I wish I could hand to every student on my seminary campus, because it tells the truth in love. For pastors and ministry leaders especially, this work should inspire greater awareness of a cultural and political context we cannot afford to ignore, as well as provide valuable resources for well-informed action. —Kaitlyn Schiess
“While the original Watchmen comics were written for the politics of the 80s, this show is for present day America.”
When I first heard about HBO’s Watchmen, months before its first episode aired, I was bummed. There are so many great comics prime for a prestige drama adaptation; to me, Watchmen was outdated, and its previous film adaptation by Zach Snyder was a massive letdown. I enjoyed the original comic when I first read it—the narrative and subject matter is great literature, and its themes and setting were particularly powerful for its time—but it just doesn’t feel as important in 2019.
HBO’s Watchmen series, however, moves beyond its source material and situates itself in 2019 in such a striking and poignant manner that I questioned how this show could don the name of Watchmen. The first 15 minutes of the series depicts the race riot and massacre of black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. There aren’t any superheroes; it’s a visual depiction of a terrible event in our nation’s racist history that feels all too familiar in 2019. As the show pivots to the present day, when cops hide behind masks to maintain anonymity as they face a growing white nationalist terrorist group, the show’s creators make it apparent that while the original Watchmen comics were written for the 80s, this show is for present day America.
I was hooked in those first few minutes because Watchmen wasn’t Watchmen, and I was excited for this novel take. I could go on about how masterful the show is. Each episode is a mastercraft in storytelling, acting, and cinematography. Regina King anchors this show as Angela Abar/Sister Knight as this first season is really about her heritage and how America’s racist past persists through present domestic terrorism. As the season progresses, more and more connections are made to the show’s source material, and while I’d say it isn’t necessary to be familiar with the original Watchmen for that first episode, familiarity certainly helps make sense of much more near the end of the season. Watchmen is an HBO show, so the content warning should be assumed at this point, but it makes our list this year for multiple reasons: it’s an example of excellence in storytelling and television, it makes new something old in a manner that goes beyond a mere adaptation, and it does all of this while powerfully depicting and speaking to the important issues our country faces today. —Tyler Glodjo
“More than just the actual accomplishment of pulling off the movie, however, is the quality of the story itself.”
Twenty-nineteen’s Avenger’s: Endgame was the movie that ended an era. Although not the official final installment of the 23-movie, 3-phase Infinity Saga (that honor goes to Spider-man: Far From Home), Endgame was the climax of the Saga and an achievement in film, in character development, and in storytelling that reaped massive dividends at the worldwide box office and in the hearts of fans and newcomers to the franchise alike. To ably weave together the stories of twenty-three films, which were all handled by a variety of directors and writers over the course of twelve years—and to do so in such a way that none of the individual films leading up to Endgame failed to contribute to the narrative arc resulting in Thanos’s story of defeat—is simply astonishing. That a producer (Kevin Feige) and his team at Marvel—including writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, composers, and more—did it without a single true failure in the mix demonstrates how the resulting climactic achievement in Endgame is certainly worth acclaim.
More than just the actual accomplishment of pulling off the movie, however, is the quality of the story itself. Despite juggling somewhere between forty and sixty characters (taking into account 2018’s Infinity War), Endgame still manages to do what Marvel does best: it tells personal stories. About Tony Stark, wrapping up his saga of redemption that began with 2008’s Iron Man. About Thor, detailing his devastation and loss. About the dual narratives of Black Widow and Hawkeye and the friendship bond that only death could break. It is the story of Thanos himself—an inverted Hero’s journey. About Nebula and her quest to not be defined by how her father broke and remade her. And about Captain America, who finally gets his happy ending. Somehow, in a film that is (admittedly) bloated with characters and burdened with the need to conclude over a decade’s worth of stories while also telling a unique tale, the personal narratives hold it all together. And in the midst of all that, the heroes not only reverse death and save the day, they remind us that grief and loss are not permanent and all great tragedies will be, in the end, undone. The total effect of what the Russo brothers (directors) and Feige’s team produced was something that has never been done before, and for those of us who gave ourselves over to the joy of it, a truly exhilarating ride. Endgame was a movie worth waiting twelve years for. —K. B. Hoyle
“Youth activists can remind apathetic and downtrodden adults that things do not have to stay the same.
Childhood activism is treacherous work, and Greta Thunberg is evidence of the unique pitfalls of wading into contentious political issues as a minor. She has been dismissed as “indoctrinated” and mocked for her intensity, while her parents and other activists have been accused of weaponizing her youth for their own agendas.
Yet the 17 year old has proved adept at responding to criticism in a social media age. She has articulated her concerns with more force and grace than many adults, mobilized a generation of young climate activists, and defied harmful stereotypes about autism.
Thunberg is hardly alone in her generation: similar praise and criticism has been given to other youth climate and gun control activists. While there are certainly unique protections a society should provide children, much of the criticism discounts the historic role of youth activists. From Malala Yousafzai’s fight for female education to children protesting child labor in the early 20th century to the thousands of Black students who protested segregation in Birmingham, youth activists have produced real change. They’ve also given hope to a weary world.
Youth activists can remind apathetic and downtrodden adults that things do not have to stay the same. The destruction of our environment, mass shootings in schools, barriers to female education, child labor, persistent racism and segregation—these are all tragedies we risk normalizing. When our efforts at change fail or we become numb to injustices that surround us, a new generation can energize us. Greta Thunberg discomforts us—but maybe we need to be less comfortable with the world “just the way it is.” —Kaitlyn Schiess
When They See Us
“A soul-shaking glimpse into the harrowing reality of mass incarceration.”
“I’m sorry to ask, but can you put a little something extra on my commissary account? Mama, not much. Any little bit helps.”
“Boy, I ain’t got nothing to give you. I ain’t got it.”
The heart-rending dialogue between Korey Wise and his mother, Delores, demonstrates just how much injustice can take from its targets, until they are no longer seen with dignity, until they are invisible.
Ava Duvernay’s Netflix miniseries When They See Us is a soul-shaking glimpse into the harrowing reality of mass incarceration. Duvernay’s masterpiece tracks the tragic 1989 case of a murdered Central Park jogger and the massive hunt for the perpetrator. As a result, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise would never be the same. Through four relentless episodes, the series forces us to see the men at the center of the case as truly human.
The most haunting element of the series is how helpless it feels to watch. The law enforcement officers casually chose random Black teenagers to question. These detectives refused to give them adequate due process and repeatedly violated their rights. The prosecutor coerced confessions from the teenagers and stoked racial tensions during the trial. It all feels like a hopeless foregone conclusion. For many people of color who encounter the criminal justice system, injustice feels inevitable.
Yet, for all its haunting inevitability, When They See Us somehow manages to be equally hopeful. It imagines a reality where justice can ultimately prevail, where the incarcerated can be exonerated, where children can be themselves, where Black men can truly be seen. That reality is worth imagining and worth fighting to see in real life. —Tyler Burns
The 25 of 2019 Series
#25–#21, #20–#16, #15–#11, #10–#6, #5–#1, The 25 of 2019, The 25 of 2019 Podcast Part 1, The 25 of 2019 Podcast Part 2
Illustrations courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.
*Read how our list was developed in the introductory post.