Monday, December 28, 2015

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2015

Whether you're new to this space or you've been reading since the beginning, you may wonder why I keep these Roundups around. I trace it back to a moment during my seminary days when several professors encouraged me to read, watch, and listen to media that wasn't explicitly theological as a way of keeping up with the culture in which I'd be ministering. I took that seriously, and these posts are one of the ways I hold myself accountable. I don't know how many others like that I do these; maybe they're just for me. But I think they're fun, especially this one. So with that brief explanation, here is my annual wrap-up of what I found most enjoyable, engaging, or memorable. Numbers are just for convenience rather than rankings.

My Top Five Books of 2015

1. Facing the Music - Singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp recounts her childhood family struggles, rise to Christian music stardom and subsequent disappearance from the scene, reconciling her sexuality and faith, and her return to music. She's tremendously honest when sharing the darker periods in her life and how she's always wrestled with being in the spotlight, and offers a helpful insight into how one can be Christian without necessarily having to uphold certain beliefs and social positions. It's a genuine, vulnerable read that I couldn't put down.

2. Fiddlehead - This is the final installment of Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series that I've enjoyed reading the past few years. Returning to the alternate steampunk history of the Civil War era, President Ulysses Grant wants to find a way to end the war and re-unify the country once and for all. People around him have other plans, however, and he turns to special agent Maria Boyd, whom was first introduced in Clementine, along with steampunk cyborg Abraham Lincoln. The narrative is as gripping as any of Priest's previous novels, and also offers some commentary on war profiteering, which seemed timely.

3. Being Mortal - Surgeon Atul Gawande writes about the proper role of medicine as people consider questions surrounding life in later years or when facing terminal illness. He shares a variety of patients' stories--including that of his own father--to illustrate the positive and negative effects of attacking health problems at all costs vs. considering what will help people live a quality life up to the end. It's a powerful, thought-provoking book to which I returned throughout the year.

4. Stagg vs. Yost - John Kryk chronicles the early days of college football when the Ivy League schools ruled the East, and a handful of schools that would eventually be part of the Big Ten ruled the West. The teams in the West really revolved around the rivalry between the University of Chicago coached by Alonzo Stagg, and the University of Michigan coached by Fielding Yost. Access to a large volume of official documents from both schools as well as personal correspondence allowed Kryk to reconstruct the ways teams even in the earliest days constantly tried to one-up each other for recruits. This is a great historical gem for any college football fan regardless of affiliation.

5. Beyond Resistance - UCC General Minister John Dorhauer takes the reader through a brief tour of the issues facing the institutional church these days, among them being the rise of postmodernism, and explores possible responses to them. He introduces the concept of "church 3.0," which will look radically different from the versions before it (in case you're wondering, 1.0 was pre-Reformation and 2.0 was Reformation to present day). Essentially, he argues that many churches entrenched in the 2.0 way of doing things should just carry on as best they can, while also making room for 3.0, which may have none of the features that many love about 2.0, including Sunday worship, buildings, and professional seminary-educated clergy. I only read this last month, but the concepts have stuck with me.

Honorable Mention: Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe

My Top Five Movies of 2015

1. Avengers: Age of Ultron - The team is back together to battle an entity of artificial intelligence brought about by the spear from the previous movie and Tony Stark's best, yet misguided, intentions. Alongside the half dozen main players are many of the characters both major and minor from the other movies, and a few new faces. An ensemble this large carries the risk of too much to deal with, but I thought the film was able to balance its cast fairly well. There are many side plots among the characters, but it's aware enough of what it needs to do in order to further the main plot without getting too bogged down in the smaller stories.

2. Birdman - Michael Keaton stars as an actor on the downside of his career, trying to shake the stigma of a past Hollywood superhero role by staging a play on Broadway. He wrestles with issues of relevance and mortality as he tries to keep his show together. It's part ode to theatre, part reflection on existence itself in all its messiness, and is shot mostly as a long continuous scene while evoking an extended piece of improvised jazz. I wish I'd watched this sooner, because the whole thing is incredibly well-acted, philosophically rich, and creatively filmed.

3. Inside Out - The voices of Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black star among others as the various emotions inside a young girl's head. I would rank this among Pixar's best offerings, as it combines humor and more touching moments to portray the joys and struggles of growing up, moving, adjustment, and relationships. The artistic imagining of how the brain processes feelings, thoughts, dreams, and memories was creative and well done, and the room got a little dusty for me more than once.

4. Ant-Man - Paul Rudd is one of my favorite actors. I can't think of one performance of his that I haven't enjoyed. So imagine my first hearing about him becoming part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man. The movie chronicles his recruitment by the original, Hank Pym, in order to infiltrate a company developing the same technology for more nefarious means. Rudd brings all of his dry wit to a rare action role, which I enjoyed as expected. And as MCU movies go, I look forward to seeing him appear again.

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Like many others, I was excited about this movie since it was first announced. And yet there was some uncertainty about its quality given how Episodes I, II, and III came off. I am very glad to say that I was not disappointed. From the familiar music and return of beloved characters from the original trilogy to exciting new sequences and introduction of new cast members, this was as wonderful as I could have hoped it to be as both a callback to what first captivated fans, as well as a launchpad to something more.

Honorable Mention: Whiplash

My Top Five TV Shows of 2015

1. Doctor Who - After making our way through many of the new seasons last year, we finished up the Matt Smith episodes and caught up completely with the first Peter Capaldi ones just in time for the brand new season that ran through the fall months. I've enjoyed Capaldi's take on the Doctor as a little more alien, with more existential angst and curmudgeon-ness thrown in. I think that Smith has emerged as my favorite, especially during the story arc that fleshes out the identity of River Song after years of dropping hints. But while others don't seem to appreciate Capaldi, I like the change of pace he brings to the character.

2. Mad Men - The driving narrative for this finale season is the firm's complete absorption into McCann-Erickson, the agency that Roger negotiated to give 51% ownership of at the end of last season. This change is more favorable for some than for others, but many of the SC & P staff really don't cope well with the transition, and many either don't make it to begin with or bolt soon after. The corporate shift almost immediately sent Don on a long road trip out West, which seemed strange and meandering at times but also inspired him to reflect on his history and identity. I enjoyed the finale, and thought it as good of an ending as could be expected. 

3. The Walking Dead - Having completely caught up with the graphic novels, I've been able to anticipate the new steps in the TV story, with some embellishments and changes. At the end of the 5th season, they finally found themselves settling into Alexandria...or at least trying. And then the newest featured them continuing to implement their own philosophy on the community, with plenty of mishaps and outside threats to deal with along the way. This remains my favorite show at the moment, and I look forward to the new year.

4. Daredevil This Netflix original shows Matt Murdock's slow development into the hero, first as a vigilante in a less stylish, homemade costume as he helps uncover a vast crime network headed by Kingpin, aka Wilson Fisk. The landscape of the series is fairly dark and they're able to give Hell's Kitchen the proper vibe; the plot and fight sequences are gritty and communicate the city's desperation for hope. I am very much looking forward to the next season.

5. Orange is the New BlackThere was a different vibe to the third season: a variety of smaller storylines shuffled the characters forward, seemingly with an eye toward how things would blossom in the next season instead. Perhaps the one overarching story featuring every character was a private company taking control of the prison, which brought significant changes to the system and way of life for everyone, usually not for the better. It was a transitional season, during which we saw some of the better and more intriguing backstories of the series so far, setting things up for the next.

Honorable Mention: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

My Top Five Albums of 2015

1. The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World - The small preview I enjoyed via "Lake Song" and "Make You Better" leading up to the release only whetted my appetite for the whole thing, which has stuck with me the entire year even considering it came out in January. "Anti-Summersong" is upbeat and playful, "Carolina Low" is pensive soulful bluegrass...the whole thing is just incredible. The lyrics are vintage Decemberists in their cleverness, and the instrumentation fits each perfectly.

2. Torres, SprinterAt times reflective and atmospheric, at other times driven and forceful, I've loved the raw indy rock feel of this album. Much of it explores her religious upbringing, and its continued influence on her life, both good and bad. "Strange Hellos" gives the album a crunchy opening, "New Skin" is an exploration of living into new identity and wondering how she'll be received. The whole thing is excellent; I've had the title track on repeat since I first heard it.

3. Meytal, AlchemyMeytal is the band started by drummer Meytal Cohen, whom I discovered years ago during a random Youtube search. Her extensive and impressive collection of videos covering her favorite songs finally led to this crowd-funded album. "Shadow in Disguise" and "Everybody Hates You" are particular favorites, and "Behind These Walls" is a more pensive change of pace. 

4. Grace and Tony, Phantasmagoric - This is the other crowd-funded album I loved this year. The songs are deep, at times driving, at times rueful, and make wonderful use of a variety of string instruments and influences. "Invitation to an Autopsy" is a dark story of a man named William pretty much doing what the title suggests, and "072713" is the married couple reflecting back on where they've been and who they've become. It's a well-crafted, deeply thoughtful folk-rock masterpiece.

5. Five Iron Frenzy, Between Pavement and Stars - I was pleasantly surprised when one of my favorite bands announced they were releasing this collection of B-sides from their Engine of a Million Plots recording sessions. It includes the provocative "God Hates Flags," which had been previously released, and a remixed version of "Blizzards and Bygones," which is particularly haunting. I pretty much love everything that Five Iron does, and this is no exception.

Honorable Mention: Marian Hill, Sway

My Top Five Blogs of 2015

1. Tertium Squid - I've always loved Gordon Atkinson's writing, in whatever form it has taken over the years. He tends to go in fits and spurts since he started at TS, but I'm rarely disappointed when he puts up something new. His writing on seeking an awareness of God outside of church and ministry tends to be powerful, personal, and thought-provoking. Even aside from that, his is the stuff that I think is just something that I as a pastor need to read.

2. Momastery - I've seen many references to Glennon Doyle Melton's writing for such a long time and finally delved deeper this year to see what it was all about. Glennon writes in a natural, confessional style that pierces through pretension and hits at the heart of issues such as parenthood, faith, risk-taking, and community.

3. New Sacred - I've been grateful to be part of a new blogging venture through the United Church of Christ this year, joining a sizable group of writers from across the denomination to reflect on faith, life, culture, and social justice. I don't just include this because I'm involved with it: I've gained a lot of insight from my fellow contributors, and am glad to be included in their company.

4. A Church for Starving Artists - Another year, another round of thought-provoking posts by Jan Edmiston on the church's present situation and future possibilities. Hers is really the only of her kind that I read any more, as I've become disenchanted by the majority of such blogs lately. As a fellow mainliner, I find what she writes more relevant and grounded for my own ministry than many. So I'm continually thankful for her voice.

5. MGoBlog - If you know me and this blog, you know that this was going to be here. After many years of blistering critique of the program, hopefulness followed by ennui, and lots of gallows humor, things seemed to finally take a turn on Brian Cook's blog with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh. Okay, all those things were still there in some form, but still. MGoBlog remains one of the few blogs I make it a point to check every day, because Go Blue, that's why.

Honorable Mention: Naked Pastor