Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Inevitable 2014 List: Books, Movies, and TV Shows Worth Noting

As this year wraps up, I offer the following retrospective on entertainment that stood out to me in 2014. It's not necessarily a list of things I recommend (though that is true of some of them). It's simply meant to provide insight into the cultural stories that are reflecting and/or shaping our worldviews, particularly those of a young adult audience. In addition, they all offer some great talking points about some of the most profound questions in life.


  • Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin series offers one of the best YA stories I have read. Maberry offers great characters, intense story lines, philosophy, ethics, honor, love, and sacrifice embedded in books that will make you reset your alarm. It's pretty grim - it is a zombie apocalypse - but it's saturated with goodness and hope.
  • Neal Shusterman's Unwind series presents a dsytopic world that is uncomfortably connected with ours (he includes actual news clips between many of his chapters). It is a mesmerizing, sobering look at not only what it means to be human, but also what happens when a society agrees to give up on those declared to be unwanted, broken, or simply unnecessary. My students at the Christian school where I teach love this series - and that's a good thing. For an overview, check out my reviews of the first three books in the four-part series: Unwind, UnWholly, and Unsouled.
  • Dean Koontz's Innocence is the latest from perhaps the most famous Christian author alive today. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year.  He's moved more books than Stephen King, which is no small feat. Since he’s not published by a Christian publishing house, he flies under the radar in Christian circles. That’s a shame. He is writing about horror, hope, good, evil, nihilism and purpose in a way that is captivating, true, and broadly accessible.
  • Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series has its flaws and the worldview was decidedly more secular than the previous three recommendations, so this recommendation is a qualified one. Still, there was a lot to like about this clever, thought-provoking sci-fi dystopia. It's a good discussion starter for topics involving war, human nature, the importance of the individual  vs. the community, and the pros/cons of consequentialist ethics. And it's on its way to theaters, so you might as well know what's up.
  • All You Need Is Kill/Edge Of Tomorrow is violent, vulgar, epic, mesmerizing, and at times strangely moving. After I finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I spent days thinking about both the cost and necessity of self-sacrifice. The book may be marketed to a YA audience, but it's certainly adult in its content (the manga version both cleans it up and drains it of its power, and Edge of Tomorrow is cleaner but butchers the ending). It's neither the best nor most wholesome book on the list, but it gives a profound view of heroism and nobility from a Japanese perspective. Considering the massive popularity of manga and anime, I suspect we will see similar stories increasingly making their way into mainstream Western storytelling. 


  • The Walking Dead has taken cable TV by storm. It's one of the most gruesome shows, but it's also one of the most thought-provoking. Who knew a zombie apocalypse could provide so many opportunities to discuss morality, politics, religion, loyalty, evil, hope and love? This link to "Who Are We? Reflections on the Walking Dead, Season 4" will provide an overview of the series as well as links to more articles.
  • George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series is truly epic. Mr. Martin did his homework in the medieval era before writing, and his portrayal of human nature in a world where life, death and thrones are all a game is unrivaled in popular fiction. However, I'm being kind if I say it offers a pretty grim view of the world in which the brutal reality of evil leaves no one unscarred. Rather than reviewing the books (which I have read) or the show (which I have not watched), I posted a series of articles based on the essays found in Game of Thrones and Philosophy. Here's a link to one which will lead to the other articles in the series.
  • HBO's True Detective.  This is one of the most brilliantly acted shows I have seen. It's also one of the most vulgar, so don't read that first comment as a recommendation. In spite of that, True Detective's Season One offered an honest look into the heart of nihilism. If you are a fan of seeing what it looks like to take a philosophy and live it, you will be mesmerized as Rust embraces the void in which he so earnestly believes. How does one fight evil if the world is really that meaningless?  This series offers a great conversation starter between people of different worldviews who want to wrestle with topics of good, evil, morality, and God.

5 MOVIES FROM 2014 WORTH WATCHING AT LEAST ONE TIME (or three, if it's Guardians of the Galaxy)

  • Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel can seemingly do no wrong right now. I saw this movie three times in the theater, and it got better each time. If you want to know why the superhero genre is flourishing,  Guardians is as good a place to start as any. 
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a great film, maybe better than its predecessor. I spent days yelling "Apes!" randomly, which may or may not be a good sign. Entertainment value aside, Dawn offers a serious story that felt ripped from current headlines in the Middle East. 
  • Maleficent. If you think Disney's earlier portrayal of Maleficent should be set in stone, you won't like this movie. If you think fairy tales are a flexible vehicle for insight into the human condition, you will probably like this movie quite a bit. It's not a perfect story, but it offers a surprisingly moving narrative on honor, love and hope that intersects with real life more than you might expect. 
  • Days of Future Past. An older Xavier tells his younger self, “Just because someone stumbles, loses their way, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever.” It's easy to believe that the brokenness within us will inevitably result in devastation around us. Days of Future Past reminds us that it's never too late to turn around. Oh, and it's a superhero movie. Surprise.
  • The Equalizer. I never saw the show, so I don't know how the movie compares. If you like Jack Reacher, Liam "Special Set of Skills" Neeson or Joe Ledger, you will probably like The Equalizer. Robert is an honorable man who can't sit by and watch evil unfold when he can do something about it, particularly when the honor and integrity of women is in question. It's interesting that, in a world of increasing moral relativism, you can still find popular stories that declare some things worthy of judgment. (Note: it definitely earned its R rating.) 

Obviously, I am only scratching the surface. For more great insight into worldviews and entertainment, check out Focus on the Family's Plugged In, J.W. Wartick's Always Have a Reason, Austin Gravely's Another Ascending Lark, and James Harleman's Cinemagogue.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

50 Shades of Longing

50 Shades of Grey has been been something of a cultural phenomenon recently. If you are unfamiliar with it, here's an excerpt from an insightful piece by Terrell Clemomons at Salvo that establishes both the basic premise of the story and a crucial question that is well worth asking:
Dubbed "Mommy porn" because of all the women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s reading it, 50 Shades of Grey has sold more than 100 million copies after only three years in print, having outpaced Harry Potter to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time. 
The story centers on the bizarre relationship between Ana, a na├»ve 21-year-old virgin, and Christian, an intense, 27-year-old self-made billionaire. They're attracted at first sight, but before getting involved sexually, Christian wants Ana to sign a written consent form for a BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, masochism) arrangement. He presents her with a multi-page document outlining the terms by which he will completely dominate her and she will fully submit. "The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry, or complaint." This is a shocking new concept to Ana, but Christian has had fifteen such contractual relationships before. 
Ana never signs, but she effectively becomes number sixteen anyway. There are multiple trysts in Christian's "playroom," which Ana calls the Red Room of Pain, and Christian's hyper-controlling personality drives the whole affair. Ana would like more of a romance with some conventional boyfriend-girlfriend affection, but Christian says he doesn't know any other way to have a relationship. "Because I'm fifty shades of f***ed up." 
This is no doubt true, but he's not the only one. The question thinking people should be asking is, What is the appeal here? Why are millions of grown women—both independent, modern, and secular ones and married, conservative, and religious ones—reading this, presumably identifying with a timid girl who willingly becomes a controlling sadist's sexual plaything?  -  - "Desperately Disconnected: 50 Shades of Grey & the Longings of the Female Heart"
What, indeed, is the appeal? Clemmons goes on to highlight a study done by Dannah Gresh, a sexuality expert, and Dr. Juli Slattery, a clinical psychologist specializing in women and intimacy. Slattery read the series and, based on her own response as she read, noted five desires of a woman's heart that the books address. Gresh consulted publisher guidelines for erotica and interviewed women who read a lot of popular erotica to create a list of five common characteristics in the genre. Though done independently, their lists matched. Here is what they found (and I am paraphrasing):