Many Christians remain on the defensive in response to the culture around them, pointing out dangers and condemning anything that makes us uncomfortable. We find warning and condemnation to be a valid position, but not a valid default position. In order to demonstrate an alternative, we thought we’d demonstrate what it’s like to give popular culture the benefit of the doubt.All this week, the writers at Christ and Pop Culture will be playing the role of evangelist for some of the things we’re most excited about this year.
We’re not exactly recommending these things. Christians have different weaknesses and convictions, not to mention the unfinished or unrevealed nature of the concepts, releases, and artifacts we’re discussing. Nonetheless, this week we humbly present to you, the reader, a list of trends, films, television shows, albums, games, and books that we think you should give a chance.
2008 was the year many of my favorite contemporary authors–Marilynne Robinson, Leif Enger, Kathleen Norris, Toni Morrison–released new books. Since many of them value quality over quantity, I’m not expecting anything new from them this year. Maybe 2009 will be the year we hear from some great new writers. That said, there are a couple of new books from familiar writers that I’m eagerly awaiting:
Jonathan Stroud, Heroes of the Valley (January 27)
Jonathan Stroud is one of those writers who gets classified as “YA,” but whose works can be read and enjoyed by not-quite-so-young adults as well. His Bartimaeus Trilogy–featuring a genie who speaks in footnotes and dueling 19th-century magicians Gladstone and Disraeli–may bear some surface similarity to the Harry Potter series and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (the first and second Bartimaeus books preceded Jonathan Strange), but, for my money, it’s deeper and more satisfying than either. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, while a good deal darker than the Harry Potter books, has a good deal more to say about the allure of power–and the difficulty of relinquishing it. The plot summary for Heroes of the Valley looks a little generic: hero’s quest, coming-of-age, and all that. My hope is that, in Stroud’s hands, the standard story elements will come alive in surprising ways.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (May)
2009 must also be the year of Scandinavian sagas–which generally I’m not that excited about, but this one’s from Tollers himself. (Then again, having just discovered from the Wikipedia article about the Volsung Saga that it involves otter death, I may skip this one. However, I don’t remember anything about otters in Wagner, so maybe it’s not a necessary component of the story.) Sigmund is the same character as Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, if you happen to be more familiar with that version of the story. Yep, there’s a ring. There’s a dragon. If nothing else, digging up Tolkien’s version of Sigurd may shed interesting light on how he reworked Scandinavian myths in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Is his Christian belief obvious in the way he deals with the pre-Christian legend of Sigurd, or was he more interested in creating something “faithful” to the original saga (which could also be an expression of Tolkien’s Christianity, just in a different way)? I’ll also be curious to see, since this is a work of “narrative verse” (that means “poetry”), whether people will actually read it.
Perhaps 2009 will also be the year in which I catch up on a couple of 2008 releases that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Toni Morrison’s new novel A Mercy is still at the top of my list, especially since it deals with community, race, and religion in late-1600s America. Speaking of the 1600s, I’m still kicking myself for not getting around to The Wordy Shipmates, a cultural analysis of the importance of early American Puritans like John Winthrop–written by Sarah Vowell, perhaps better known as the voice of shy Violet in The Incredibles.
MusicU2, Horizon (March 3)
You may have already heard the new single “Get on Your Boots,” which, as of the moment I’m writing, is streaming for free over at U2’s web site. Now, I’m a big fan of boots, whether they’re made for walkin’ or stompin’ out poverty or whatever, and I’m also a fan of U2. But I’m not sure whether I’m a fan of the song yet. Something about it feels too calculated, too much like “I’m Bono and I know the same folks who like Obama are the same folks who like me, so . . . ‘Hope! Change! Boots!'” Maybe it’s just that I’m one of those people and my own pride is rebelling against the stuff my “tribe” is supposed to like. Given that it’s U2, though, probably at least half the tracks on the new album will win me over. “Cedars of Lebanon” sounds promisingly biblical. If there’s a song on there that’s anything like modern-day Psalm “Yahweh” from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, I’ll probably be pretty pleased.
An issue that’s likely to surface for many of us as we read books and listen to music in 2009 is how to justify spending money on “frivolous” entertainment when our neighbors, near and far, are suffering from economic and natural disasters. Obviously, here at Christ and Pop Culture, we think arts and entertainment have pretty deep significance, and that they give us something other than bread to share with our neighbors. I’d like to think that it’s not an either/or issue. Actually, Stephen King had a pretty good solution to this conundrum in his “2009 Wish List”:
“Last, I wish that every appreciator of the American pop cult — and I count myself very much in that number — will remember that books, music, movies, and videogames are important…but not all-important. There are millions of people in the world who are more concerned with getting their hands on enough to eat than they are with whether or not they’ll be able to score a new-generation Kindle or Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for their Nintendo. I know that all the fight-hunger, work-for-peace Bono blah-blah can get a little old, but none of the bad stuff is going away soon. So in 2009, I’m going to contribute a buck to some useful charity like Save the Children or Physicians for Social Responsibility for every one I spend on movies, DVDs, or iTunes downloads.”
Arts/entertainment expenditures and poverty relief can be a both/and. And I encourage you, if you choose to take this approach, not to think of your charity giving as a kind of “carbon offset” to counteract your “bad” spending on entertainment. My hope is that our participation in culture, which can be good in itself, becomes all the more joyful when we connect it to providing for people’s physical needs. (P.S. If you choose to practice this both/and approach to spending and giving, please don’t tell anyone that you’re doing it, because then you’ll just be self-righteous and annoying.)