Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
The summer months are an interesting time for many of us. For some, they represent a break from work or studies, a time to travel, a chance to rest and spend time with friends and family. For others, the summer isn’t any different from the rest of the year, with the exception of ever-increasing temperatures (and if you’re in the South, suffocating humidity). One thing we all do in the summer, though, whether we work or rest, is consume cultural artifacts. We are cultural beings in every sense of the word. We participate in the world around us, both giving and receiving culture as if it’s purely a commodity. Sometimes our summer can be defined by one cultural item. Music offers the right word at the right time. A blockbuster is an adventurous escape from our everyday experience. Literature creates new worlds for imaginative exploration.
This past month has been eventful, but not in the best of ways. In the wake of tragedy after tragedy, juxtaposed within a season that’s expected to be fun and restful, cultural items can help us heal, or they can move us beyond present circumstances. That’s why Christ and Pop Culture staff writers were asked, “What’s getting you through the summer?” While what follows isn’t a cumulative list of the best of the best of this summer—notice the inexplicable absence of Finding Dory—each recommendation serves as an access point from which we can engage the culture around us in a thoughtful manner. Here’s what’s keeping us afloat.
It would take something spectacular for Coloring Book to not finish as my favorite music project of this year. The third mixtape from this 23-year-old Chicago rapper is a burst of light in a summer increasingly consumed by death and cynicism. It’s mix of horns, gospel choir, and Chicago dance-hall music creates the perfect summer sound. It is also worth taking notice that one of the biggest rap projects of the year, thematically, is so explicitly Christian. Chance’s theology seems surface level at first, but is robustly filled out on closer listening. In a world where talk of “blessing” has been reduced to a meaningless hashtag, Chance reclaims its use, challenging listeners to find joy and gratitude among life’s complexities.
Jason Martin recently described himself in an NPR interview as a “minor league ball player”: “I’m better than some, but not good enough to get it done.” In one sense, he’s right. His band’s fourteenth long player isn’t pushing boundaries or blowing anybody away. Where he’s wrong, though, is when he says he’s not good enough to get it done: On the contrary, “getting it done” is exactly what he’s doing. SLOW is—both remarkably and unremarkably—yet another Starflyer record full of well-crafted, melodic rock songs, and it may be his best in years. He sings with his characteristic deadpan honesty about the realities of getting older and of our ambivalence toward the past. “Was it really better back then?” he wonders. “Were there really less problems? Or was it really because then we weren’t so numb?” SLOW reminds us that it’s not necessarily the most gifted artists who move us most. It’s the honest ones.
I discovered Gioachino Rossini’s “Domine Deus” under unusual circumstances: My mom was having surgery. Desperate to distract myself (and avoid the endless bad news blaring from CNN in the waiting room), I started listening to some new music I had downloaded a few days before. That’s when I was caught off guard by the sheer beauty and ebullience of this piece—all the more so because Rossini has never been one of my favorite opera composers. Apparently sacred music brought out an entirely different side of him! The music—the lyrics of which consists entirely of different names for God—is part of his “Petite messe solonelle” (“little solemn mass”), written late in life. The whole thing is beautiful, but “Domine Deus” is particularly special, and I’ve been mildly obsessed with it ever since.
Kings Kaleidoscope’s new album Beyond Control is quickly becoming my favorite album of the summer, if not the year. One of my favorite tracks, “Dust,” manages to make lyrics like “Dust to earth and ash to ocean/Evanescent, fading fast/You are all I really have” joyful, with a tapestry of instruments from horns to a vibraphone. Some listeners might want to stick to the clean version of “A Prayer,” which includes some strong language; the story behind it, however, is a testimony to the raw vulnerability of the album: Writer Chad Gardner took the words straight from his own prayers during a particularly dark and anxious time in his life, and he didn’t want to clean up the words before recording. The result is a powerful and poignant album.
I’m currently writing a book about suffering, and it’s heavy and slightly depressing. My background music needs to have a stable mixture of solemnity and brightness, or I’ll fall into the deep abyss. That’s why I’ve been listening to the newest release from The Gray Havens, Ghost of a King, on repeat these last few months. The husband-wife duo of Dave and Licia Radford comprise what’s dubbed a “narrative-pop-folk” band. If Ghost of a King is comparable to a film in album form, the story is both twisty and affecting. At any moment, their music plumbs the depths of solemn themes like original sin and Adam-Christ typology (“This My Soul”), only to jump into a Taylor Swift-esque ballad that shakes and quakes to the sounds of rhythmic synths and background “heys” (“Diamonds and Gold”). All of this makes for 10 tracks that are cavernous, catchy, and redeeming. Sure, Justin Timberlake has a new single out, but Ghost of a King is the true and better summer jam.
There are a lot of terrible things that happen in the world around us and, lately, I have not felt particularly optimistic about my ability to do much about them. Sandra McCracken’s Psalms, which is mostly just adaptations of biblical Psalms (and some poetry from the Prophets), draws out the rich textures of emotion we find in Scripture. The music is great for singing along with (or weeping over, as the case has often been for me), and even my preschool daughter loves it.
The most popular TV drama in Spanish history, which originally aired in 2013–2014, and is now streaming on Netflix, opens with a monologue delivered by a beautiful young woman: “My name is Sira Quiroga, and I’m a seamstress. I never imagined that destiny would lead me to risk my life crossing a foreign city with an arsenal of pistols strapped to my body. But now I know that destiny is the sum of all the decisions we make in our lives. For me, it all began with something as simple as learning to thread a needle…” I love how Sira’s character develops from a flighty young woman into a savvy undercover agent in this full-blown period drama, gorgeously set in Spain, Morocco, and Portugal during and after the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. It’s like Veronica Mars meets Downton Abbey with a little Project Runway twist.
Mr. Robot’s slick, Breaking Bad-esque plot spiral made it a hit, but the philosophical war boiling beneath the surface is what won me over. Populist rage is all the rage these days, evidenced by the surprising presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. A show about a hacker working with a revolutionary group called “F Society” to take down a corporate giant is a no-brainer fantasy for the self-righteous masses ready to revolt against the powers that be. Until the fantasy of Mr. Robot starts to come true. Then the cost of revolution—chaos, blood—completely upends the purity of our protagonist’s moral clarity and our own understanding of ends, means, and true justice.
The Great British Baking Show (called The Great British Bake Off in the U.K.) is a gem of a TV program. A bunch of delightful, charming, kind bakers sweating and smiling inside a great big tent, the genius of this entire competition show is that the baking itself is the drama, and the contestants are just people. And they are truly lovely people—baking their butts off, hugging each other at the end of each episode—who aren’t trying to one-up each other but who are just trying to do the best they can. The attention to detail, the judges (one a sadistic bread maker, the other a lovely older woman with the best catch phrases), and the overall camaraderie and creativity on display make for a show that becomes surprisingly addictive. I have watched each precious episode I can get my hands on multiple times, quivering with excitement, cheering at the heartwarming finals, and learning the names of all sorts of excessively complicated European pastries that I will never, ever cook. It’s the most perfect thing to watch in the summertime, and a new season is currently airing on PBS. Get it while it’s hot.
I’m pretty well over TV broadcasts these days, but for the past few years it’s been a minor holiday for me every time a new season of Bob’s Burgers hits Netflix. If you’ve only seen ads for the show, you might not understand why—the animation is nothing to write home about, and the ads emphasize the gross-out humor. What you find when you actually watch it, though, is a smartly written series with unforgettable characters (see: Tina, one of TV’s only realistic portraits of a teen girl), an improvisational approach that’s rare in animation, and a story of a loving family scraping by on hard, honest work. Also: kale puns. So, so many kale puns.
This Netflix show about a crime family living in Birmingham’s slums during the 1920s is the anti-Downton Abbey. It’s based on a true story, and it’s full of blisteringly wonderful lines like, “He looked at me the wrong way. It’s not a good idea to look at Tommy Shelby the wrong way.” The entire cast manages to capture Birmingham’s class and social struggles after World War I, but Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Tommy Shelby easily steals the show with a character whose single-minded nature to protect and advance his family speaks to a decidedly timeless concern: the search for authenticity. The Shelbys ruthlessly transition from small-time crooks to a recognized, powerful crime family, but the show’s excellent script and insistence on letting us share the pain, horror, and unexpected beauty of their lives makes it worth watching. Plus, season two has Tom Hardy. What more could you want?
I’m always on the lookout for a mystery series that transcends the genre, exploring philosophical themes and developing strong and dynamic characters. These novels join the Armand Gamache books by Louise Penny and the Lord Peter Wimsy books by Dorothy Sayers in doing just that. I particularly love the way they look at the complexities of blended families, love, and marriage—all the while engaging me with well-told mysteries set in charming neighborhoods in and around London. I owe this find to another thing that’s getting me through this summer—Anne Bogel’s delightful podcast “What Should I Read Next” is chummy book-talk that I can’t get enough of.
Though I only read the Kickstarter-funded children’s novel The Green Ember to my kids this summer, I’ve been aware of its existence almost since its announcement two years ago. Written by S. D. Smith and illustrated by Zach Franzen (both mainstays at The Story Warren), The Green Ember is especially popular in the homeschooling niche my family occupies, but certainly warrants a broader audience. Smith has read all the right people and learned all the right lessons from them—his rabbit kingdom of Natalia is a world full of stories (with a prequel available and a sequel on the way), and in sometimes lyrical prose, the novel itself shows how seemingly ordinary individuals grow—through story, through vocation, through courage—into legends.
There are some writers you read not just for enjoyment but also for comfort. You read and reread their books because they seem to be fluent in the language you hear only inside your own head. Paging through the familiar paragraphs feels like wrapping a soft, warm blanket around yourself. David Foster Wallace is one of those writers for me, and his essay collection Consider the Lobster was where I first found him. The essays therein (with subjects ranging from proper English usage to the porn industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards) capture so much of what it’s like to be alive in the postmodern era: adrift in a sea of stimuli and ethical quandaries, and desperately desiring to find something solid and true. Wallace’s signature prose style—self-scrutinizing, morbidly verbose, and possessed of a wickedly funny deadpan—matches the mindset. Here is a writer who understood what life in the internet age would be like, years before the internet age had fully dawned. And in 2016, an election year gone mad, the essay “Up, Simba!” (about John McCain’s presidential bid in 2000) is absolutely essential reading.
Liew’s graphic novel masquerades as a retrospective collection of the life’s work of Singapore’s greatest cartoonist, Charlie Chan Hock Chye. In truth, there is no such artist, and the book is instead a roundabout way for creator Sonny Liew to unveil a counter-narrative to the Singapore Story, the official explanation of Singapore’s path to independence and success. Liew’s examination of Chan’s comics across the decades brings light to the less-than-shining moments of Singapore’s recent history and the policies of Lee Kuan Yew and lost an art grant from Singapore’s National Arts Council for his trouble. A fantastic example of entertainment as more than entertainment; also a nice, brisk introduction to the island nation of Singapore.
It would be impossible for any writer to be more British than Barbara Pym. Perhaps Winston Churchill qualifies, but he painted with a broad brush and changed the world. Pym’s work is much smaller, incremental really—so small you hardly notice it. She wrote the sort of novels that move at the pace of real life, which is to say, hardly at all. Her books do not extend past the borders of the garden, the tea room, the parish church. Her protagonists are all women and the action is almost all of an interior nature. If it sounds boring, I’ve not been successful in conveying Pym’s appeal, because it is not boring to read a Pym novel, just as it is not boring to be a woman. Most of life is actually lived out in out in small exchanges: the inflection your mother gave to her comment about your favorite skirt, that time you passed your childhood friend on the sidewalk and couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Such small, internal, domestic concerns, so limited in scale, are not inherently petty—though it is possible to be petty about them. It is quite the opposite, actually. Small moments, considered in a series of other small moments, are what composes a life. Pym’s books are deeply human. They are also deeply personal (without being revelatory or sensational), which makes them soothing to read. It is this plodding quality, expressed through pitch perfect sentences and a constant faint whisper of absurdity (the very foundation of civilization), that makes Pym’s novels resonate.
I heard so many positive things about this indie game that I had to try it. It did not disappoint. Undertale is a video game that questions the very nature of video games. You control a human child who has fallen into an underground filled with monsters, and the way you deal with them is up to you. With strong characters, exciting story, and challenging gameplay, this game explores the nature of mercy, violence, friendship, death, love, and preconceptions.
I don’t want to confess how many hours I’ve spent playing Overwatch this summer. As I spend my summer months sequestered in western Pennsylvania away from my family and community as I work on my PhD, Overwatch has been both a respite for my mind and a connection to distant friends. It is a 6v6 hero shooter with a Pixar-esque aesthetic, and a diverse roster of 21 unique characters who each play and affect the team differently. This isn’t your annual Call of Duty clone that quickly leaves noobs behind—or beats them mercilessly—as those with more time to play advance in ever-increasing ranks for top-tier gear. Instead, everyone in Overwatch are equals. Additionally, the game’s metrics consistently highlight the positive aspects of gameplay and teamwork. When my days are spent tirelessly reading and writing research, Overwatch has become my nightly escape. There’s no deep theory to engage. I just point and click, and enjoy the time with friends far away from me.
We don’t call it a “pastime” for no reason. The long days and the humid steam of a Midwestern summer would be incomplete without the sounds of a leather snapping after a pitch, or the crack of a bat and a crowd oohing as the ball flies over the wall in left field for a home run. Baseball through its season marks the beginning, midpoint, and culmination of a summer. Baseball is the American opiate to brush away the disturbance of politics, systemic injustice, and everything that troubles us in the heat of the summer. A trip to Field of Dreams will remind us that, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
I have a love-hate relationship with social media platforms. My instinct is to hate them for their addictive and time-stealing ways. But I also recognize their usefulness for certain things. My Facebook and Twitter accounts are only months old but they’ve been much used these first few days of July. It was through Facebook that I first learned of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I have found thoughtful (though not always) reflections on both platforms—and Facebook in particular has served as a sort of online community to grieve with. Social media has changed the way we receive information and communicate with others (consider the Facebook live stream immediately following Castile’s shooting). And in times of tragedy, these platforms can help us to demonstrate Romans 12:15: “mourn with those who mourn.”
For me, summer is meant for reading. It’s been the way I’ve spent the lazy, hazy days since my childhood—which may be why I get so excited to participate in our local library’s reading program, A.R.K.S. (Adults Reading Kids’ Stuff). It’s simple: read children’s books and earn prizes (like free cookies). Reading children’s books is part escape, part therapy. When the world’s brokenness rages, stories about pet sloths or energetic snails give a delightful reprieve so I can remember what’s lovely and still true. And a story about little girl who finds plenty of mischief after much heartache draws my tears in cathartic empathy. Children’s books teach in unexpected ways that I can’t pass up. And they pay in cookies, so I’m all in.
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