From cable news to social media, streaming sites to the megaplex, popular culture can be a dark and depressing place. But amid the glut of bad, bleak, cynical, cheap, violent, and sexually exploitative content, there are some rays of light and diamonds in the rough. Yes, there’s plenty of bad stuff Christians should identify and avoid. But there are also good things Christians can identify and celebrate.
Too often Christian “engagement” with popular culture is focused on one extreme or the other—critiquing/avoiding or celebrating/embracing—but a healthy posture does both.
What follows is a celebration of the good, the uplifting, the life-giving in 2018 popular culture. The list could have been much longer that the 18 items I’ve highlighted below (in alphabetical order), but if you’re looking for something refreshing in pop culture as the year winds down, these might be a good place to start.
Beautiful Children’s Music
Doubtless because I became a dad in 2018, I’ve started paying more attention to the quality of popular culture geared toward children. A few new albums gave me hope that my son will not lack beautiful and good music to populate his Spotify library (or whatever form music curation takes in the next few decades) as he grows up. Ellie Holcomb and Shai Linne both released children’s albums and accompanying books in 2018. Holcomb’s Sing: Creation Songs (and accompanying book Who Sang the First Song?), and Linne’s Jesus Kids album (and book God Made Me AND You), are worth checking out. (Read an interview with Linne about both projects.) I also delighted in J. J. Heller’s I Dream of You, Vol. 2, an album of lullabies that—along with Christy Nockels’s Be Held—found heavy rotation on my son’s first playlist.
Better Christian Movies
Though we have a long way to go before the “Christian movie” genre becomes synonymous with beauty and greatness, and certainly before movies like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (“The Best Christian Film Ever Made”) become the standard for faith-based film quality, 2018 saw some minor progress. Released in March, Paul, Apostle of Christ did not shy away from suffering or sugarcoat the realities of the early church’s plight. Also released in March, I Can Only Imagine represented an artistic step forward in the faith-based filmmaking of the Erwin Brothers (Woodlawn, October Baby). In April, N. D. Wilson released an excellent faith-infused nature documentary, The Riot and the Dance (available on DVD). Here’s hoping 2019 continues the trend of higher-quality Christian movies.
Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin is a thematic cousin to the director’s acclaimed Finding Neverland (2004), a film about Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie. Like Neverland, Robin—based on A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories—highlights the tensions between the protected innocence of childhood and the unavoidable pain of life. It challenges viewers to value the fanciful, the imaginary, and the spaces of play free from the “efficiencies” of adult life. As I wrote in August, Robin also captures something beautiful and true about the bittersweet losses that come with life’s changing seasons. It’s a sweet, sincere movie that—like Pooh himself—finds joy in life’s simple pleasures.
Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians is a joyous, hilarious, moving film. It celebrates culture, family, place, and marital love in beautiful ways that have made many audiences feel seen and known by a Hollywood film, perhaps for the first time. It’s the sort of classic, sincere romantic comedy that you just don’t see often anymore. It’s also a film that delights in the specific sights, sounds, and textures of life in specific places—in this case (largely) Singapore, one of the world’s most interesting, and, yes, “crazy rich” nations. Rent on Amazon.
Dan Crenshaw and Pete Davidson Reconcile on SNL
Coming as it did on the heels of one of the ugliest midterm election seasons in memory, this Saturday Night Live clip rightly moved audiences. In the clip, comedian Pete Davidson apologizes for mocking the appearance of Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw (a war veteran who wears an eye patch) on a previous SNL episode. Crenshaw then takes some jabs back at Davidson, before ending with a moment of mutual respect and solidarity. On Veteran’s Day weekend, Crenshaw urged the audience to “never forget” the sacrifices of veterans and other heroes—like Davidson’s own father, who died on 9/11. A reconciling handshake between Davidson and Crenshaw completes the clip, a hopeful image of peace and mutual respect in our divided times.
The Great British Baking Show
This British import is the most feel-good of all reality shows. It has none of the backstabbing, crass materialism, and moral perversion of other reality TV shows. Instead, it is full of hugs, handshakes, cheerful pastel appliances, pastoral English landscapes, and lots of crème pâtissière. As I wrote earlier this year, the show—which just launched a new season as well as a holiday edition on Netflix—also celebrates the beauty of local culture in a globalized age that tends to draw our attention everywhere other than where we are. By immersing us in the delights of British baking, from Banoffee pie to Bedfordshire clangers, the show communicates gratitude for good gifts of place-specific culture and culinary creativity. Watch on Netflix.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Even though Netflix is increasingly overwhelming and anxiety-inducing in its sheer volume of (largely mediocre) content, there are still many treasures to be found. One gem is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a period romance set in 1946 Guernsey, a British island near France that was Nazi-occupied in World War II. The always delightful Lily James (Cinderella, Downton Abbey) plays a journalist who goes to Guernsey to write about a quirky literary society. She finds a story there, but she also finds love. The film is wholesome escapism of the Hallmark variety, but better made and better acted. If you haven’t already, enjoy it with your loved ones over the holidays. Watch on Netflix.
Innovative, Beautiful Worship Music
I’m always on the lookout for contemporary worship music that is both faithful and fresh, as much of it (sadly) feels musically mundane and predictable. This year three albums stood out to me as examples of artistically significant worship music. Colorado singer-songwriter Aaron Strumpel’s Mighty Refuge is avant-garde by contemporary worship standards, breathing new musical life into classic hymns (e.g., “Just as I Am,” “Be Thou My Vision”) without doing harm to their original melodic beauty. The new album Discovery, from British band Rivers & Robots, is overflowing with joy in declaring God’s goodness and provision (the crowd-sourced music video for “Provider,” embedded below, will make you smile). And while it may feel odd to categorize as worship, Sandra McCracken’s Songs From the Valley provides a fresh reminder that lament has biblical precedent and should have a place in worship.
This Mark Wahlberg comedy is a genuinely funny, relatively clean, often moving look at one couple’s experience of foster care and adoption. It’s a film that shows the beauty not only of a healthy marriage (Wahlberg and Rose Byrne have great chemistry) but also a healthy “instant family,” providing a beautiful picture of the theologically rich concept of adoption. The film captures the rocky realities of the adoption process, fraught with complex emotion on all sides, but the payoff is worth it. We need more films like this that celebrate foster care and adoption, perhaps inspiring viewers to personally take up this worthy cause. In theaters now.
Justin Bieber Reading Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage
Though it’s noteworthy when you see one of the world’s biggest pop stars leading worship at the Coachella music festival, or singing “Good, Good Father” on the streets of London, the latest tabloid episode in Justin Bieber’s Jesus journey is especially encouraging. In August, the tattooed superstar—then engaged to now-wife Hailey Baldwin—was filmed in Manhattan carrying Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, one of the most theologically solid and Christ-glorifying marriage books anyone could read. One hopes Bieber was reading the book to make good on his Proverbs 18:22-quoting, engagement-announcing Instagram promise “to lead our family with honor and integrity, letting Jesus through his Holy Spirit guide us in everything we do and every decision we make.” At least one hopes the appearance of a Tim Keller book on TMZ prompted a few lost souls to order the book on Amazon.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing ‘Shallow’ in A Star Is Born
Cinema is well suited for rags to riches stories like the one told in A Star is Born, the fourth version of a film whose “star” was previously played by Janet Gaynor (1937), Judy Garland (1954), and Barbra Streisand (1976). The big screen is made for the goosebump-inducing performance scenes that populate this most recent version, which powerfully showcases Lady Gaga’s raw vocal talent. Especially moving is the scene where “Shallow” is performed on stage for the first time. Cooper’s country music star character, Jackson Maine, brings Ally (Gaga) to one of his concerts, where she watches from side stage. Maine announces the song to the audience and calls at-that-point-unknown Ally out to sing it with him. What follows is electrifying. When the song—which encapsulate the film’s existential longings to go beyond the shallows of modern life—hits its climax, it’s a beautiful moment of God-given talent being revealed and celebrated widely for the first time. In theaters now.
When daily headlines and social media outrage have you despairing at the world, turn on Paddington (2015) or this year’s Paddington 2. The witty, joyful films are a delight for all ages. Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is a clumsy, orange marmalade-loving, London-dwelling Peruvian bear who lives by his Aunt Lucy’s wisdom: “If we’re kind and polite the world will be right.” Though the world needs more than kindness and politeness to be “right,” it certainly could use more of these qualities. In addition to just being a joy to be around, Paddington—a bear who “looks for the good in all of us”—is a welcome model of virtue (he puts in the bear in “forbearance”) in our cynical and narcissistic age. Available on Amazon.
Paul McCartney on ‘Carpool Karaoke’
This was one of those (increasingly rare) moments where television captured something completely non-cynical, purely joyful, and almost universally appealing. To watch James Corden and Paul McCartney sing “Penny Lane” and other Beatles songs, as they meandered around the Liverpool locations that inspired them, was to participate in a bit of cultural nostalgia for a time when music was something we had more in common. But as I wrote in June, “It’s not just musical memory that resonates with us in this clip; it’s the way it captures memory generally, in all of its bittersweet complexity.” The clip reminded me of what C. S. Lewis said about nostalgia and joyful longing (he called it sehnsucht): “Our best havings are wantings.”
A Quiet Place
Can a horror movie capture goodness? A Quiet Place certainly does. The film is truly frightening (the bathtub scene!) but also very moving. It presents a beautiful picture of the nuclear family as a fundamental reality that undergirds society when all else collapses (as Trevin Wax highlighted in this article). With its strong depictions of familial love, grace, forgiveness, and sacrifice, Place is also “one of the most Christian horror movies you’ll ever watch,” Joe Carter wrote in April. In an apocalyptic world of despair and hopelessness, the family at the heart of the film clings to hope—as all of us who follow Jesus should, even when the world’s evil overwhelms.
Rap Music of Toby Nwigwe
The music of Nigerian American rapper Toby Nwigwe, a former University of North Texas linebacker, is refreshingly original, clean, and fun. His music videos—in which his wife and producer join him in funky dance moves and Sunday school-esque hand motions—are mesmerizing, and his lyrics reference everything from Frodo to Bieber to the Bible. Lots of Bible. Tobe (short for “Tobechukwu,” the Igbo word for “praise God”) isn’t too far off when he raps of his flow that “every bar is drippin / With the Holy Ghost.” In “JÔCKÎN,” Tobe references everything from the rapture to Genesis to John 5:30 (see video below). In “GROWTH” he reflects on total depravity (“Grew up jammin’ ‘So Fresh and So Clean’ but was still born filthy”). I CHOOSE YOU is about committed love (“This love thing just ain’t no grab and go”). TABERNACLE rhymes “Noah’s ark” with “Tony Stark” and “blackness” with “John the Baptist.” And that’s just the beginning.
Summer in the Forest
One of the loveliest documentaries of 2018, Summer in the Forest is a French film about Jean Vanier and the L’Arche communities he founded in France and around the world. Like Vanier himself, the documentary delights in dwelling with and dignifying the mentally and physically disabled people who live, love, and work in community at L’Arche. The film is permeated with Christ’s compassion and dignifying presence with society’s outcasts, not least in the figure Vanier himself, whose mission to these people is profoundly shaped by his Christian faith. “The weak are the foolish; they have been chosen to confound the wise and the powerful,” Vanier says in the film, paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 1:27. In a world ever prone to seek power at all costs, films like Summer in the Forest remind us of the beautiful, clarifying, and confounding wisdom of weakness. Rent on Amazon.
The latest novel from Leif Enger (Peace Like a River), Virgil Wander is a beautiful, funny, grace-filled portrait of small-town, hard-luck, rust belt America. Set in the fictional town of Greenstone, Minnesota, the story’s titular protagonist is a former seminarian who runs a movie theater and barely survived an accident where he drove his car into a lake. With its painting-with-words prose and curiosity about the quirky textures of Midwestern life, Wander reminded me of the Iowa-set fiction of Marilynne Robinson. It’s a novel that is less about plot than it is about place—rendered so lovingly and colorfully that it makes the reader nostalgic and at home, even in a place they’ve never been.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
This documentary about Fred Rogers could not be more well-timed. The kindness and neighborliness Rogers modeled, through his iconic TV show but also in his life, feels (sadly) like an exotic relic from our vantage point in angry, divisive, tribalistic 2018. Even the respectful, dignifying way Rogers talked—to children, to adults, to puppets, to anyone—feels foreign to our ears today, at a time when our own president uses unthinkable language to publicly demean respectable people. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a film every American should watch, to be reminded that goodness is attractive and something we should strive for again.