Thursday, December 28, 2017

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2017

While putting the finishing touches on this post, I decided to take a look back on past Year-End Roundups. One thing that struck me about my older lists is how embarrassing some of them are. More than once while perusing, I said to myself, "Why'd I like that so much?" But I guess that part of the fun of doing this is seeing how tastes change over time. There could be things from this list that will make me cringe a few years from now, but this list reflects who I am and what I've been struck by while in this season of my life. This year I've finally added a category for podcasts, which I've been enjoying for years but I finally decided to give them special mention.

My Top Books from 2017

1. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander - Alexander analyzes how the "War on Drugs," began by the Reagan administration in the early '80s, has contributed to incarceration and stigmatization of black people. She carefully analyzes how the criminal justice system--before, during, and after one is imprisoned--has led to the creation of what she calls a racial "undercaste." Over the course of this analysis, she shows how black neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted for drug searches with little oversight for the reasons one could be stopped or searched, as well as the very limited rights and options one has during trial and after being released from prison. It's a very eye-opening read that I've found myself applying when reading or watching the news many times already.

2. Tranny by Laura Jane Grace -  Grace, the lead singer for punk band Against Me!, tells the story of how the band came to be and the ups and downs of their development, as well as her concurrent wrestling with gender dysphoria. After decades of personal struggle that included addiction and broken relationships that she eventually identified as her own acting out of her dysphoria, she finally comes out to friends, family, and fans as wanting to transition to being a woman. This was an engrossing read and Grace is as good a storyteller as she is a musician and songwriter.

3. What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell - I'm a longtime Bell fan and always glad when he offers new writing. Here he makes the case for the Bible being more than what many think it is: not boring, not an instruction manual, not something to be merely taken literally. He shows this by uncovering some of the cultural meaning of certain terms and practices in various stories and passages, showing how clever and deep and rich and (often) progressive they are, as well as how they connect to each other. Bell's project is the sort that I've loved since my earliest days of seriously studying the Bible, and he offers many incredible insights in his signature accessible way.

4. Washington's Farewell by John Avlon - This is a recounting of the history and aftermath of George Washington's "Farewell Address," printed in a newspaper at the end of his second term as president. I never heard of this until reading a shorter account of its development in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis several years ago. It was never taught to me in school, which fits with Avlon's noting that while the Farewell Address had been quite popular for over a century after it was printed, the Gettysburg Address eventually overtook it. This was an interesting recap of the context of the Farewell's writing, including the struggles and disagreements playing out at the time and how it has been used to prop up political arguments on both sides ever since. Washington wanted to issue final warnings and encouragements on subjects such as the importance of education, independence from foreign obligations, and remaining united in polarizing times.

5. Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde -  I've long enjoyed Wilde's blog of the same name, and this was on my shortlist of must-read new releases this year. Wilde writes of his experience in the family business, sharing many individual stories from his time in the profession but also using them to talk about his own struggles with burnout, our culture's fear of death, how we grieve, spirituality, and more. I found myself reflecting on many of my own experiences around funerals and the different ways people approach it. I think this would be a great resource for clergy, but for anyone in general who wonders what goes on behind the scenes in the "dismal trade," as well as those seeking a more well-rounded spirituality of death than what many resources offer.

Honorable Mention: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

My Top Movies from 2017

1. Logan - In his third solo installment, Wolverine's healing ability has diminished, which among other things has caused him to visibly age. Other mutants have supposedly been wiped out, and only he and a few others including Charles Xavier remain. All seems to be taking its natural course as these old remainers hang on day to day, until a young mutant gets in touch with Professor X and the small group takes one last adventure. The story was wrenching, the action sequences crisp and creative, and the acting superb.

2. Wonder Woman - We meet Diana as a child on her home island, slowly coming of age and learning to be a warrior against her queen mother's wishes. Eventually she finds herself in the middle of World War I after a spy (Chris Pine) accidentally makes his way to her homeland. There is plenty of action, but we also see Diana struggle with who she is and who she wants to be among humankind. There is a strong undercurrent of our thirst for violence and the question of whether we're redeemable given such urges. This was easily the strongest of the recent "DC Universe" films, and Gal Gadot is tremendous in the title role.

3. Hidden Figures - Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae star as three NASA workers who end up playing major roles in the United States' first manned mission to space in 1961. Of course, the film touches on issues of both race and gender bias that these three face (from both white coworkers and black family and friends), while also set against the backdrop of the larger historical moment which includes fear of communism and the Civil Rights movement. It's an inspiring and funny and interesting depiction of how these three women contributed to an important moment in our country's history.

4. Band Aid - Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally star as a couple losing touch with each other, filling their days with fighting over little things, the source of which we find is a miscarriage they've never dealt with together. The two decide to start a band and begin expressing some of their feelings through their songs, which eventually translates to their beginning to talk through the sense of loss they've been avoiding. As the group begins to enjoy success, they begin finding hope as well. This is a very sweet, funny, well-paced film with some touching and honest moments, and the soundtrack is really good, too.

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Picking up right after The Force Awakens, we return to Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, along with many of the original trilogy's beloved faces as battles continue to wage between The First Order and the Resistance. Rey is on a dual mission both to continue to figure out who she is, as well as try to convince Luke to come back and help Leia and the others. This movie explores new directions and messes with familiar ones for something new, creative, funny, and tense. Where The Force Awakens gave us a big dose of nostalgia, The Last Jedi charted something fresh and original, showing it wanted to do more than just play the hits. Between that and Old Grizzled Luke in general, I really liked it.

Honorable Mention: Lion

My Top TV Shows from 2017

1. The Young Pope - Jude Law stars as Lenny Belardo, the newly elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Lenny is 50 (relatively young for a Pope), smokes, is going through a faith crisis, has unresolved issues related to growing up an orphan, and begins his papacy as an angry, arrogant recluse. With the help of those around him, he grows into his role while also facing some of his inner problems. The show can be artsy and strange, but that gave it fun and depth. It explores themes of belief, miracles, sexuality, church politics, and personal growth. At times it made me cringe and at times it could be incredibly deep or sweet.

2. Preacher - In its second season, Jesse Custer, his pseudo-girlfriend Tulip, and his best vampire friend Cassidy have hit the road looking for God, whom they found out at the end of last season is missing. Unfortunately for them, they're being stalked by a remorseless cowboy known as the Saint of Killers while also being monitored by a powerful organization known as The Grail. The show hasn't let up at all on its violence or its dark humor, and I was able to appreciate its satirical takes on faith, which were much more overt this season. It also fleshed out its concept of hell as a side character dealt with being sent there by Jesse last season.

3. The Defenders - In this inaugural season, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand come together to face a common foe, played brilliantly by Sigourney Weaver. The balance of four stories--both the way they play off of the individual series and have them intertwine--is very well done, the fight sequences are crisp and exciting, the integration of characters feels very natural. The long wait for this team-up was worth it, and I look forward to how the small screen version of the Marvel Universe continues to unfold.

4. The Good Place - Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor, a woman who has just died and finds herself in a friendly afterlife that looks a lot like existence on Earth, where everyone lives in mansions and eats frozen yogurt. Michael (Ted Danson) is her host, explaining that she's in the "Good Place," a non-denominational, ecumenical version of heaven that he says every religion got about 5% correct. The one problem: Eleanor doesn't belong there due to being such a self-centered person when she was alive. As it turns out, there are quite a few problems with where Eleanor is, which play out in hilarious fashion. I like pretty much everything Kristen Bell does, and I really liked both the first and second seasons of this.

5. Stranger Things - The second season picks up not too long after where the first season left off, with various characters still coming to grips with what happened, and a few permanently changed. Will in particular is having a hard time, having spent such a long time in the Upside Down and it still seemingly living inside him. He and his friends encounter new mysteries and inevitably their older siblings and various others become involved once again. The first season was hard to top, and this came pretty close. The writing is high quality and the 1980s vibe is pitch perfect.

Honorable Mention: Doctor Who, Season 10

My Top Albums from 2017

1. Against Me!, Shape Shift with Me - Along with Tranny, this album helped solidify my Against Me! fandom. I especially enjoy "Boyfriend," which muses about the complications of having romantic relationships, and "Delicate, Petite, and Other Things I'll Never Be," which expresses a desire to be one's most authentic self. You can hear Laura's life in these songs, but they contain universal truths as much as any song can as well.

2. Sleigh Bells, Jessica Rabbit - This duo's latest features their signature grinding guitars over electronic beats, but maybe a little more polished than on Reign of Terror, which was my first taste of them a few years ago. "It's Just Us Now" is a song about being determined to be together now that the couple has found each other, "I Can't Stand You Anymore" is pretty much what it sounds like, and "Crucible" is about wanting to believe tomorrow will be different while also knowing better.

3. Bishop Briggs, Bishop Briggs - This EP features several songs that I've been enjoying for the past year or two, "Wild Horses" and "River." Briggs has a soulful style that I've liked ever since I first heard her, and I'm glad she's finally putting out more than just singles.

4. Offa Rex, The Queen of Hearts - This band is basically The Decemberists plus English folk singer Olivia Chaney. On this first album, they cover and re-interpret a series of old British folk songs, which are beautifully and carefully arranged. Style-wise, some of it is familiar Decemberists, but Chaney's own wrinkles shine through and provide a new dimension that allow the entire ensemble to travel down new roads together.

5. Kesha, Rainbow - Kesha--a longtime guilty pleasure--has forsaken a lot of the overly poppy sounds of her past albums and much of her singing about endless partying for something much deeper and more thoughtful with a quite eclectic sound behind them. "Praying" and "Hymn" are rich with spiritual themes steeped in the everyday, "Bastards" was kind of my own personal anthem this year, and "Woman" is straightforward empowerment rock.

Honorable Mention: Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3

My Top Blogs from 2017

1. Vital Signs and Statistics - While the other UCC blog listed here seems to get more attention, I've really been enjoying this offering from my denomination's Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD). This blog offers analysis of trends facing our churches and pastors, and while I admit I don't understand all of it, I do enjoy the work they put into what they do and what it can call our collective attention to.

2. Gordon Atkinson - The former RealLivePreacher has long been an influence on my own writing, and I keep his books close by for inspiration. He retired his Tertium Squid blog in favor of a one-stop place for writing old and new, which all features a searing honesty about life and faith that I've always appreciated.

3. John Pavlovitz - This year I discovered this blog of "stuff that needs to be said" by minister, author, and speaker John Pavlovitz. John writes on a number of different issues, chiefly how faith intersects with the issues of the day. He frequently offers a well-reasoned take on our current political climate, and calls Christians to do and be better in response.

4. A Church for Starving Artists - I've long been a fan of Jan Edmiston's take on the state of the church. She writes from the perspective of helping lead a mainline denomination, with an honesty about what is working and what isn't. She's imaginative and insightful, and I've been grateful for her writing for a very long time now.

5. MGoBlog - I've run out of new ways to say what I love about my favorite Michigan blog. It has set the bar very high for news and in-depth breakdowns of Wolverine football, basketball, hockey, the conference, and the state of college football. The writing is top notch on its own merits, but this is the first place I visit (daily) for updates on what's happening with some of my favorite sports teams.

Honorable Mention: New Sacred

My Top Podcasts from 2017

1. Sound Opinions - Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot are Chicago music critics who have been doing this show in various forms for over 10 years. They offer musician interviews and performances, new album reviews, analyses of old favorites, and uncovering of hidden gems. This show has alerted me to many artists' work and greatly expanded my knowledge and appreciation of music.

2. The MGoPodcast - It's the podcast version of the blog, basically. Site writers Brian Cook and Ace Anbender break down games and the state of the Big Ten in-season, and offer thoughts on recruiting and other sports throughout the year. Their analysis is strong and banter amusing. Even non-Michigan fans can learn a ton about the team if your own favorite has them on the schedule and you're curious about what they might be in for.

3. The Robcast - I used to love listening to Rob Bell's sermons when he was pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. When that ended, I wondered whether I'd be able to hear his unique teaching style ever again. Thankfully, he couldn't stay away from offering his insights in some way. Bell sometimes reflects on some topic by himself and sometimes he interviews guests (and sometimes he has guests interview him).

4. Pulpit Fiction - Two seminary classmates of mine, Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, started this series on the weekly Revised Common Lectionary texts over 4 years ago. I became a listener in the last 2 or 3, and have often been glad for their reflections on upcoming preaching themes. I've also been glad to contribute a few times for their Voice in the Wilderness segment, which is always fun.

5. The Liturgists - Michael Gungor and "Science Mike" McHargue lead a collective of artists, speakers, authors, and thinkers in conversation about some of the biggest questions of our country, world, or universe, grounded in progressive faith. These tend to be some of the longer podcasts I listen to and I often feel like I've run a marathon when I've gotten to the end, but I've also had my mind opened and expanded in the meantime.

Honorable Mention: The Art of Wrestling