Christ and Pop Culture seeks to acknowledge signs where the Christian Faith meets the common knowledge of our age by discussing and demonstrating exactly how we ought to think about and interact with pop culture.We desire to be a faithful presence, honoring God and edifying our neighbor as we wisely participate in culture.
For most of us, Christmas delivers us everything but the Silent Night we sing about in that iconic carol. Our preparations for celebrating Christmas could rarely be described as heavenly peace. It’s more like earthly chaos as we race about collecting our gifts, visiting family and friends, and attending performances and parties. As we repeat the lines of Silent Night each year, it can spark waves of guilt: We know our lives—and our hearts—are not living up to this Christmas ideal. And that leaves us wondering if we’ve missed some crucial lesson along the way.
In this episode of Persuasion, Erin Straza and Hannah Anderson wrap up their holiday mini-series, Lessons & Carols. The first conversation covered the lessons we’ve learned about Christmas meeting the soul’s longing for connection and love. And the second episode turned to the ways we attempt to buy our Christmas joy (for others and even for ourselves). Here in the finale, Erin and Hannah dissect the tension between the peace we sing about and internal chaos we so often experience during Christmas. Can we learn to appreciate the message of Silent Night even when our reality is no match? Is a Silent Night even realistic? Is it possible we have unreasonable expectations for the season that magnify our need for the Prince of Peace? Listen in for dialogue on questions like these, and continue the conversation on Twitter @PersuasionCAPC or in the CAPC members-only community on Facebook.
Period pieces and Oscar chances come to the fore in this episode of Seeing & Believing. First up is The Favourite, a darkly funny look at courtly backstabbing, political intrigue, and the nature of power in the court of England’s Queen Anne. The guys then move closer to home with their review of Green Book, Peter Farrelly’s based-on-a-true-story film about racial tensions and friendship when a white bouncer agrees to be the driver and bodyguard for a black concert pianist in the Jim Crow-era Deep South.
Music interlude by Floral Dreamasaurs, “The Man Inside.” Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.
What do you want for Christmas? Children are ready for that question, quick to list all the toys and treasures their little hearts desire. We’ve learned from an early age to make our lists and send our requests to Santa, all in the hope that come Christmas morning, everything we want will be underneath the tree. Our culture has tied Christmas fulfillment to the amassing of stuff.
In this episode of Persuasion, Erin Straza and Hannah Anderson continue their holiday mini-series, Lessons & Carols. The first conversation covered the lessons we’ve learned about the way Christmas can meet the soul’s longing for connection and love. And in this installment, the conversation turns to the ways we attempt to buy our Christmas joy for others and even for ourselves. Maybe you attempt to hold consumerism off by implementing the three-gift or four-gift rule. Or maybe you attempt to redeem your participation in the season by donating your budgeted money for each person to a charity helping those much less fortunate. Try as we may, the commercialization of Christmas is here and the fault is ours to bear. How do the Christmas traditions and carols we practice each year contribute to this skewed perspective? Is there any way to uncouple our real need for joy from the false promise that it will be waiting for us under the tree on Christmas morning? Listen in for dialogue on questions like these, and continue the conversation on Twitter @PersuasionCAPC or in the CAPC members-only community on Facebook.
Christmas has a certain rhythm to it, starting quietly in October (thanks to retail stores) and building to a full roar by Thanksgiving Eve (thanks to retail stores) that’s sustained until Christmas by all kinds of gatherings, celebrations, and activities. Its predictable entrance and unfolding to December 25 is the framework that upholds our traditions, both personal and communal.
Much of the communal aspect, for me, hangs in the background of my Christmas memories. When my city hangs garland and decor from streetlamps and hosts a Christmas parade, and when TV stations start their countdown to Christmas specials, it’s a signal to me to get in sync with the larger celebration. The communal traditions remind me to fix my eyes ahead, to wonder at what prompts such disruption. I remember anew that “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message). I remember that Christmas is as much about the hope (and promise) of change as it is about tradition. The traditions keep me wondering what God will do next.
Our writers share how traditions shape their Christmas celebrations.
And these communal traditions spur me to unpack the ones my husband and I have established for ourselves, few as they may be. While I’m great at thinking up potential traditions, I’m terrible at ongoing execution. We’ve tried a bit of this and that, with few things sticking over the long haul. We always decorate the house and trees with plenty of twinkle lights. We always watch a handful of Christmas movies—How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Jim Carrey version), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Claymation Christmas Celebration, to name a few. We always visit and feast with extended family and friends—my family on the 24th, Mike’s on the 26th. And there are always cookies.
But my favorite tradition comes Christmas morning, in the pause between family parties. There is no alarm clock, no schedule, no need to get ready. There is quiet and coffee, books and blankets, lounging and reflecting. (And cookies.) We look at our twinkle lights and enjoy simply being together. It seems a fitting tribute to the God who chose to come and be with us.
Traditions are signals to remember, to get in sync, to participate. They disrupt our norm—mostly for good. Here, a few of our writers share how traditions shape their Christmas celebrations. We hope these reflections help you find your own Christmas rhythm as we celebrate the coming of Immanuel, God with us.
What I remember most about my childhood Christmas programs is feeling uncomfortable. The heat was turned all the way up to combat the mild chill of Alabama Decembers, so it was unbearably hot indoors. We practiced for hours upon hours, and my legs often ached from standing, my throat scratchy from untrained, jubilant singing. My tights itched. During performances, I and my fellow cast members were crammed into small spaces just before being thrust out of the wings. The stage smelled like smoke and melted glitter (it’s a long story, but suffice it to say that my childhood church was heavily invested in pyrotechnics). The spotlights were blindingly bright, so bright that it was impossible to see any of the audience members who had come to see us. I felt deliciously smug when I was cast in the coveted roles, and I harbored a nagging, stinging sense of deep disappointment when my friends received the desired appointments. Still, it was wonderfully fun, if incredibly overwhelming.
My own children will have no such memories of Christmas programs because our church’s Christmas Eve service for children preserves all of the joy of pageantry with none of the complications. Our kiddos saunter into the lobby just minutes before the service begins and rifle through boxes of costumes, casting themselves into whichever role suits their fancy. Once they take their seats, animal puppets (guided by practiced adults) narrate the Christmas story, and Baby Jesus takes center stage. As the story progresses, the costumed children are invited up in groups to visit and sing to the newborn king. Freshly cast angels lead the congregants in a familiar Christmas carol, then the self-appointed shepherds take their turn. After each group has presented themselves to the Lord and to their doting parents, everyone sings a final carol before returning home for Christmas Eve festivities.
It’s true that some kids don’t know the words to their song, and sometimes a child chooses a costume that doesn’t fit perfectly. The service is loud, and the children are scampering. But these things happen in every children’s program, rehearsed or unrehearsed. The main thing is clear—the children are not there to perform perfectly. They are there to meet with God.
Within the church, and outside it, Jesus tends to surprise us. We don’t earn our roles in His appearance. It’s best if we show up, work with what’s available, embrace the role we’ve been given, and joyfully participate in what He has done. I’m reminded of these truths every Christmas Eve, when a few dozen little girls dress like Mary and scurry down the aisle to behold Him.
Since my parents divorced, it’s been a struggle to find a “family Christmas tradition.” I thought once I married my wife, we’d quickly create our own tradition. But between my separated parents, my sister’s family, and my wife’s family, a family Christmas tradition remains a foreign concept to us. We want to be unified with our families, but at the same time, choosing where and when to be with them has often put a strain on where and when we can be with them.
To create some sort of holiday continuity for myself, wherever we spend our holiday, I like to make sure TBS’s 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story remains on at least one TV in whichever house we’re staying in. Even though most of our family members aren’t the biggest fans of A Christmas Story, I think they essentially understand my desire for tradition and continuity. So they laugh at and along with me for some of my favorite lines of the movie: “Ohhhh ffffuuuudge,” “Fra-jee-lay. It must be Italian!” and “You’ll shoot your eye out,” are just a few of them.
Our editor helped me see that this touches on the ways we navigate brokenness and attempt to establish stability in the midst—which reminded me of the hope we have in Jesus. The desire my wife and I have for joy and unity at Christmas will one day be fulfilled at the foot of Christ’s throne. In the midst of our current broken patterns of Christmas, Christ remains the joy at the center of our Christmas Story.
Christmas is a busy season for us, as I’m sure it is for most families. Between school programs, parties, shopping, and all the other things that come with the holiday season, it can be hard for us to pull back, slow down, and delight in the beauty of what we’re actually celebrating.
One of the things we started doing when my kids were small has grown into a favorite family tradition now that my kids are slightly less-small: We read together. And one of our favorite books to read aloud is One Wintry Night by Ruth Bell Graham. It’s a picture book, but it’s a long one that’s divided into chapters so we take our time, reading a little here and a little there as we’re able to carve out time. The kids grab every blanket they can find in the house and make a huge, comfy pile in front of our Christmas tree, I make mugs of hot chocolate with whipped cream, and we all come together to listen to the story of Christmas. But unlike most Christmas storybooks, this one doesn’t just tell the story of Mary, angels, a long donkey ride, and a city with no room. Instead this book opens by asking, If Christ was the saviour, who needed saving? With stunning illustrations and beautiful writing, One Wintry Night starts with the creation account and moves all the way to the resurrection, telling the overarching story of God’s plan of redemption. I love pulling close with my family. I love slowing down and re-orienting ourselves. But most of all, I love being able to put Christmas back into the context of God’s plan to draw us near; to delight in the beauty of the incarnation while looking forward to the joy of Easter.
I am the oldest of eight children. For 28 years, I have witnessed the inauguration of all our family’s Christmas traditions. I know why we open our stockings full of candy and propitiatory toothpaste first, why everyone always gets socks, and the origins of the ornament we make every year: a little booklet made of construction paper cutouts where we write down all the year’s notable events.
Over the years, the list of traditions has been edited down to a manageable scope, and things like the family Christmas photo and stockings hanging on the mantle are sometimes last-minute additions in a season that feels like it only ever gets more hectic. Even when things felt a little perfunctory, we still did them because we were preserving something unique that only our family, out of all the families in the world, could preserve. They might sound similar to what your family did, but these traditions were ours—a flickering advent candle held by 20 hands, alive only as long as we continue to hold it.
Last year, my wife and I moved to Portland, Oregon, so that she could pursue her master’s degree. When the first Portland Christmas rolled around, we flew home to spend Christmas Day with our families, just like we did in college, opening presents, playing games, and helping construct especially complex LEGO sets. We helped fill in important dates on the construction paper booklet ornament. We upheld the traditions.
This year, we’re not. We will spend our first Christmas in our own home, just the two of us. It’s a change in plans (we love seeing our family; work doesn’t always love giving us sufficient time off), but I can’t help but see it as a tremendous gift.
This year, Christmas is a completely blank page. We have a tree—that much seems essential—and we will be exchanging and unwrapping gifts. But there’s no map to this. There isn’t a list anywhere of the available holiday traditions to choose from. Aside from collecting likes on Instagram photos of your lights and decorations, there’s no metric to really measure if you’re doing “tradition” right. What if you can’t think of anything good and, someday, when your kids get to that age where they get good at sniffing out bullshit, they say, “This is a stupid tradition,” and just crush your spirit? What happens if you try a few different things every year and nothing sticks and you end up with no traditions at all? What then?
I don’t claim to know much about capital-f Family. But if I may impart this one very small observation: it’s whatever you decide you want it to be. The part that makes it family business is that you decide together. We might cook an elaborate dinner, or we might go out to a Chinese restaurant. We might stay up all night wrapping presents for our kids last minute so that the living room is “magically” filled with them when they awake. We may never have kids at all. We like going to see the Nutcracker ballet. We’ll probably keep doing that.
At some point this December, something will happen, intentional or incidental, that will simply be right. It will feel warm and safe, and it will pull us in toward each other. It will be the first board nailed up in the framework of our family: the distinct tiny holy thing comprised of the two of us, which somehow amounts to something much larger.
During my childhood, my parents both had jobs that didn’t stop at Christmastime. My mother is a doctor and my dad is a pastor, so working Christmas Eve was a part of the job. Most Christmas Eves my mom would work late trying to wrap things up for the holiday. My dad would pack up the three (and later, four) of us kids and take us to church. We’d get there early, and while he finished reviewing his sermon, he’d have us put the drip guards on the candles and fold the bulletins. Then, we would get to hand them out to the congregants as they arrived.
Although my parents didn’t take us to a homeless shelter to serve meals or make a big to-do about donating toys, they quietly taught us service by continuing to work in order to ensure that others could celebrate Christmas. Even as he prepared for his most-attended services of the year, my dad took the time to give us—and trust us with—real responsibilities. We loved getting to help my dad and share Christmas with every single person we greeted as they walked into the sanctuary. Through my parents’ demonstration of quiet, daily commitment, my sisters and I learned about both the duty and joy of serving our church and community.
You Are Invited to a Harry Potter Christmas Eve Dinner by K. B. Hoyle
When I was a child, my family holiday traditions were everything. We got a real tree, we observed Advent, we opened one gift on Christmas Eve, we attended a late-night candlelight service, and we woke up early to stockings and a Bible reading of the Christmas story. My dad made homemade crescent rolls—the smell of baking bread filling the house from sun-up until it mingled with Christmas dinner and scented candles and lingering weeks-old Christmas tree at sundown. This was peace and joy and holy longing. This was Christmas.
But then I grew up and became a wife and a parent, and Christmas changed. For many years, Advent longing suffocated beneath the stress of expectations—my own and others’—and I could not reclaim the joy of the season in the midst of the noise and the chaos, or my resentment that my Christmas was not the same as it was when I was a child. It took me a long time to realize that what I longed for was not a reclamation of my childhood traditions, but a return to the holy peace and longing of Advent. I needed to forge new traditions with my husband and children and allow my family members to do as they wished, as well.
In recent years, our holiday traditions have become something unique to us. I cannot bake, so there are no homemade rolls, and I despise mornings, so we do not wake at the crack of dawn for the stockings—and we forbid our family from disturbing us before 10 a.m. on Christmas morning. But I love the soft light of candles and the holy music of Advent. I love a good meal shared with family, and we all love great books and fun and whimsy. That is why, after Christmas Eve service, you can find my husband and me and our four boys in our home sharing an English rib roast and Yorkshire pudding from my Harry Potter cookbook. Our door is open to guests—you’re welcome to come and share—but madness and stress have no place here. It is good to reminisce about the past, but building traditions in the present has become a sweeter, holier, more joyful way to enjoy the holiday season than I ever could have anticipated when I was a child.
“We don’t get political,” a friend recently told me about his church. It’s a sentiment many church leaders would appreciate: the implication that the church focuses on the truly important, spiritual things, instead of getting caught up in the quagmire of political debate. Regardless of the many arguments that could be made about the necessarily political character of the church or the need for churches to engage cultural issues, there’s one uncomfortable fact that trumps them all: our worship is political.
In these seasons of Advent and Christmas especially, history points to a church whose worship is particularly political.
Whether we intend for it to be or not, the songs we sing, the words we repeat, the prayers we pray, the rhythm and rituals of our corporate identity shape our political identity. The real question is not whether our churches are political, but whether we’re aware of it. Are we thoughtfully considering the ways that our worship together can counteract the political messages of the world, or does our worship leave our political preferences undisturbed? Are our loyalties and allegiances formed more strongly toward the global church, our risen King, and his coming kingdom or toward a political party, a nation, or a racial category? One way to approach these questions is to discover the church traditions that have come before us, often rich with political significance, and join with centuries of Christians across the world in practicing them.
And in these seasons of Advent and Christmas especially, history points to a church whose worship is particularly political.
One of my favorite hymns, “O Holy Night,” for example, has explicit political implications: it connects the arrival of our Savior with these deeply political actions:
“Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
This is the version we’ve sung since 1847, when the original song was altered slightly by American writer John Sullivan Dwight in order to reflect abolitionist beliefs during the Civil War. What once focused merely on Christ’s view of humanity—“He sees a brother where there was only a slave”—the updated lyrics reflect a more active role of Christ’s work of redemption. Yet when we gather together during this season and sing this song, once used in the deeply political fight against slavery, the churches that “don’t get political” try to convince themselves that being apolitical is (and had always been) the proper orientation of the church. But nothing could be as perpetually relevant or beautiful than the radical and eschatological idea that Jesus came to end oppression. In his book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, Dr. Matthew Kaemingk asks, “What should we the church do in the emerging age of fear and reactionary politics? We should sing old hymns and wrestle with their subversive political implications.”
Perhaps we should even take a cue from abolitionist Christians and be unafraid of writing political hymns and sermons for our own era. It is easy to look back on past political issues and claim that they were merely “moral” or “theological,” but in the midst of the controversy, they were deeply political. Our theological convictions have political weight, and holy indignation is an appropriate response to chains that enslave and systems that oppress. By acknowledging the injustices of our own day, we can mourn the state of our fallen world and confess the ways we have been complicit in them. Awareness of what’s broken is the first step toward subverting it.
Songs against Political Apathy
The nature of Advent songs points us toward our unique position living in between two Advents, celebrating the incarnation and yet longing for the second coming. These include “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” all classic Advent hymns. There’s something important about Advent that is distinct from Christmas—instead of merely celebrating the first coming as a way of anticipating the second, Advent focuses our attention on the darkness and brokenness that make us desperate for the final redemption of all things. There’s even a sense in which Advent allows us to grieve our waiting, crying out to God and admitting that we often doubt he’s even coming at all.
In her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge describes this tension beautifully. As the early church continued to wait for Jesus’ return, anxious and desperate in the midst of persecution, they began to wonder if he was really coming back at all. “And in its perplexity, the young church repeated a story to itself,” Rutledge says, then recounting a story told by Jesus in Mark 13. Jesus said, “It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping” (Mark 13:34–36).
The owner of the home is away, but “it is he who put the whole operation in motion, who gave shape and direction to its existence.” And then Rutledge reveals the full force of the story in light of Advent: “The expectation of his return is the moving force behind all the household activity, and yet often it seems that he will never come.”
There might be nothing more radical and politically important than the notion that we are both anticipating the coming kingdom of God and offering glimpses of it today. This posture of “waiting and hastening” (2 Peter 3:12) is a necessary stalwart against both political idolatry and political apathy. Instead of using the coming reign of Christ to justify political inaction, exploitation of the natural world, and indifference toward material suffering, Advent reminds us that we still have a job to do. While the master of the home is away, the expectation of his return motivates our participation in the redemption of the world. At the same time, the Advent reminder that we live between two advents keeps us from putting our hope and salvation in earthly political systems, for our true King is coming again and possesses the real power to make all things right.
Songs against Nationalism
There’s something else distinct about many Advent and Christmas songs—they are almost inescapably filled with references to the Jewish Messiah. Lines like “O come, o come Emmanuel, to free your captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here,” or “Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art” give voice to distinctly Jewish hopes. We shouldn’t be able to celebrate Advent or Christmas without the constant reminder that our Savior was the long-awaited Messiah for the Jewish people. Our identity as American Christians is peripheral to the biblical story—we are the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), not the main characters in the story. And while we should rejoice that God’s plan has always been to use Israel to bless the nations, this season should point us back to the reality that our faith connects us to a global communal identity, not merely our specific local churches.
Our cultural influences, personal preferences, and national identities are certainly not unimportant, but they are secondary to the global and historic faith we profess. In a political climate that often thrives on fear of anyone who doesn’t look, speak, or act like “we” do, singing songs that remind us of our Jewish, Middle-Eastern, refugee Savior is a political act. Participating in worship that forms our loyalties to the global and historic church has deeply political effects—from our thinking about foreign aid to our advocacy for refugees to our general awareness about injustices happening across the world. Evangelicals’ political failures are often linked to our myopic view of our faith: focusing exclusively on the economic, cultural, and traditional traits that have characterized our faith, instead of its global nature and cosmic scope. Broadening our view of God’s work in the world might begin by remembering that we ourselves are the product of a worldwide spreading of the faith from a nation, culture, and language nothing like our own.
The sentimentality and commercialism of Christmas can threaten to squash our observance of both Advent and Christmas, turning our corporate worship into nothing more than a reflection of the shallow celebration around us. But both seasons have a deeply counter-cultural and other-political nature that we should embrace. Instead of ignoring or minimizing the deeply political nature of our worship, we should acknowledge and embrace it, celebrating the way that our formative practices have the power to turn our community into a preview of the coming kingdom of God.
This series is a mash-up of essays, thoughts, and episode synopsis, all triggered by watching Season three of The Good Place, a terribly unique and clever show. Needless to say, there are spoilers. For a more traditional recap (as well as excellent behind the scenes stuff), check out the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (otherwise known as Shawn the demon).
After a short hiatus, The Good Place is back with a mid-season finale that shakes the afterlife up in all the ways we’ve come to expect. However, I did not expect this episode to bring out the fundamentalist in me, in ways I am still parsing out. In a nutshell, it’s a half-hour exploration of identity, the perception of self, and the overarching investigation behind the very rules and results of the point system that sorts people into the good or bad place when they die. It left me with a question still lingering in my brain: What makes a person who they are?
We are defined not just by who we are, but by who we are in relationship to one another.
In this episode Janet has brought the humans into her void in order to save them from the demons on earth—making them the first humans ever to die and not immediately end up in the good or bad place. Due to reasons explained yet beyond comprehension, all four humans retain their consciousness while taking on Janet’s form. Watching D’arcy Carden transform her face and body and voice and mannerisms into Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani even as she remains in character for Janet made me smile so hard that my face ended up hurting—if she doesn’t win an Emmy, I think we should riot. Janet and Michael leave the four humans (in Janet form) and go to the neutral place to meet the Accountant (played by Stephen Merchant). Michael asks to be shown how it all works because he believes the bad place has been tampering with the system. In the end, Michael discovers that no one in the past 521 years has made it into the good place. He grabs the humans and sends them via a direct mail chute to the good place (or is it?). Another cliffhanger ending for the show that keeps changing the game.
One of the two themes that stood out to me in this wildly fun episode was the actual setting of the home of the Accountant. The set is a play on The Office, another Mike Schur production (with the Accountant even holding a mug that says “Existence’s Best Boss”). The bland office setting, coupled with the banality of birthday parties and corner pieces of cake and a routine explanation of how points are characterized and totaled, underscores the underlying horror of what the neutral space really is. It is a place responsible for all humans to be sent to the bad place—where all humans for the past 500 or so years have been sent to suffer and be tortured for all of eternity. And nobody in the neutral place seems particularly bothered by this.
It’s hard not to think about my own religious background, which does adhere to the belief of eternal conscious torment for those that have not accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts on this earth. It’s hard not to think of all the sermons, books, and radio plays I heard as a child that just accepted these rules as simple facts, with no room for questions or doubts or even grief. Even as a child I wondered: Didn’t people know anyone who wasn’t a Christian? If so, how were they not going through life anguished? Instead, there was a certain calmness to the way the rules were presented that chilled me. I heard an acceptance of a system that worked well for them, but not for the vast majority of people in the world.
The other theme—the sense of self/identity—in this episode left me rather puzzled at first. Eleanor tries to get Chidi to have an honest discussion about their relationship, while he chooses to hide in an intellectual lecture. Eleanor starts to lose her sense of self, causing Janet’s void to begin disintegrating. The crisis of the episode revolves around whether or not Eleanor is able to remember herself. She can’t, and it takes Chidi to save her and everyone else—by telling Eleanor all the things about herself that he has noticed and that he loves. It culminates in a kiss, which restores the humans to their original forms.
At first blush I didn’t love this ending. Eleanor’s shattered identity can only be fixed by a man telling her he loves her? I felt the fundamentalist inside me recoil. Only Jesus saves us, I said grumpily to myself. Only in a humanist philosophy could this ending have any real weight. And yet the more I thought about it, I realized I was both wrong and right. The more I have gone through the world, the more I have realized that Jesus doesn’t just save our isolated, lonely, shattered selves. He doesn’t just come to pick the very few that will get into the good place because they had the fortune of being born into a place where they heard about Jesus in a way that made sense to them. As a Christian who is settling into the third decade of her faith, I believe Jesus incarnated, lived, died, and resurrected to show us the love of a Father God who is available for all. And Jesus himself showed us how vital relationships with one another are. Second only to experiencing the transforming love of God, we are to love and be loved by our neighbors in order to know what it means to be fully human, fully alive.
Psychologists have said that there is no such thing as a baby; instead, there is always a baby and a mother. We are defined not just by who we are, but by who we are in relationship to one another. In this way, Chidi being a vital part of restoring Eleanor’s sense of identity (which we know has been fractured by her parents and other relationships in her life) makes sense. God uses other people to love us, and in this way we are changed. Even the entire quest of this episode and this season—Michael trying to prove his hunch about the good place correct—is born out of his relationship with the four humans. Without getting to know them, he would not have changed. He would remain a cartoonishly evil demon, or perhaps the Accountant who blandly condemns everyone to hell.
Both the internet and audience’s hearts get broken with the films in this week’s episode. Wade and Kevin check out Disney’s sequel to Wreck-It Ralph to see if its satire of internet culture holds up, then offer their review of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters.
Music interlude by Derek Joel, “Grateful.” Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.
As the last state to fly the Confederate emblem in its state flag, Mississippi stands alone. But some Mississippians are actively pushing to change that. Red Flag is a deep dive podcast into the history of Mississippi’s state flag and modern efforts to update it. The show was created by a team of Mississippians via Podastery Studios, the same company behind Pass the Mic and Truth’s Table. I spoke to Beau York and Chellese Hall, the hosts of Red Flag, to learn more about this project.
I’d like to hear how Red Flag came about. How did Mississippi’s state flag become a matter of personal interest and advocacy for you both?
Beau York: I remember very specifically when it first struck me that this is something I should do. I was at the Legacy Conference in Chicago last year, and I was in my hotel room just reflecting on how I’d done a lot of traveling. And I had these two thoughts floating in my head. One is, after doing all this traveling and realizing when I go places, I have to tell people I’m from Mississippi. And it’s this “brace for impact” moment for what they think that means, the negative connotation that follows. Sometimes when I go and speak they’ll put up the flags of the various states that people are from. And there’s always this trepidation of what are they about to put up for me? Because I certainly would not want them to put up our current flag, that being a personal, very internal source of frustration and embarrassment.
And then also knowing that we were needing to do a new project with Podastery, we wanted to do something that was going to be impactful. It was going to have some meaning and also do things a little bit different than we’ve done in the past. A lot of what we’ve done in the past with Podastery has been very conversational. But I really wanted this podcast’s approach to be a little bit more hard-hitting and journalistic.
There’s also the extreme damage that the flag does, not just in terms of, “Oh, this is a bad look,” but also in terms of this actually being a traumatic image that has far-reaching impact, not just in the lives of Mississippians, but across the country. There’s a visceral reaction to our flag—as there should be—because of its history. And here in Mississippi, we don’t know our history.
Chellese Hall: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, and I moved to Mississippi when I was six. A lot of my family didn’t want to visit us and missed out on a lot of anniversaries, birthday parties, and graduations. The very first time I heard my great-granddad cuss was when he said, “[Expletive] no! I’m not going to come to Mississippi!” And I’m five years old, wondering what are you talking about? It’s really hurtful. A lot of my family in the North have roots in the South, but they haven’t been back since because of what they experienced.
There were kids at my school who wore Confederate flags, hats, belts, t-shirts, and all those things. And there was some kid on the bus who would always jokingly say, “The South will rise again!” and we just took it as, you know, white people being crazy or people being ignorant and latching on to radical Southern ideas. But those things are rooted in an attitude of racism. They’re rooted in an attitude of a lot of what are called now, politely, “Southern ideals.” But they’re rooted in the same ideas that the flag was created to champion power over black and brown people.
And getting back to the Red Flag project, it was like, how can I not do this? This needs to be told.
There’s a visceral reaction to our flag—as there should be—because of its history. And here in Mississippi, we don’t know our history.
What do you hope to accomplish with the Red Flag podcast?
Beau: The ultimate endgame is we want to see the flag change. But we’re doing that through a method of education.
There’s also a piece of this that is to showcase to the world that there are actually Mississippians who want to see this change. This podcast is produced holistically by Mississippians, people that have ties to Mississippi. Either they grew up here or they live here, they’re transplants here or they were born here. All of the people that are making this show at every single level are tied to the state.
Chellese: Yeah, and I think people are really over apologies. It doesn’t need to be an “l’m sorry that we did this to you.” It needs to be much more of an acknowledgement in getting to the truth of how the ideas behind the flag really has Mississippi where it is today, but has also kept it where it’s been for so long.
You’ve talked here about how one of your goals is to persuade. So do you see fellow Mississippians as your primary audience for the show?
Beau: Yeah, you’re exactly right. You know, when we put together the project, we had a little internal pitch deck. We looked into who is our target audience. And yes, our primary target audience is Mississippi and specifically people who have personal investment, especially people who have control of where the state goes. You know, in the end, if you want to make this thing change, you have to influence those that have the ability to change it.
And then a very close secondary audience are national folks that are interested in what’s going on in Mississippi, or would be interested to see a new generation of Mississippi rising up and taking ownership of the state.
One of the things that surprised me about the show was hearing that you weren’t from the outside coming in, but you’re saying, “No, I’m a Mississippian. This is what I care about.” Tell me if this isn’t an accurate portrayal, but it feels to me that you’re not even necessarily appealing to some outside value. It’s almost like you’re asking Mississippians to take hold of a truer identity of who they are. That this flag isn’t who Mississippi is. It doesn’t represent who we are. Is that fair?
Chellese: Yeah, I think so. It’s a multi-faceted thing. We didn’t want to just say, “Oh, it’s a terrible, bad thing.” But we’re saying, this is the flag’s origin. This is what they meant. This is what they thought, this is what happened. We want to bring a linear view of how it was used as a tool during Jim Crow to how the flag got to where it is today.
Beau: I like how you put it too. Because the goal isn’t a hit to anyone’s heritage. Especially in the early episodes, we very much want to be inviting for everybody. Our goal was never to bash. The goal is to say, look at this raw and unfiltered. You should feel the weight of this in some capacity. It’s going to impact people differently because of the history. Whether you are a descendant of the oppressed or the oppressor, it’s going to come with a blow. It’s going to come with a gut punch. And it should. If we do our job, right, then we’re telling the history in an appropriate way. We don’t have to make the case. History itself makes the case in and of itself, just being what it has been.
It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about how divided the culture is politically. But what is your hope for this discussion, given that climate?
Beau: The first six episodes of the podcast have been about history. The final two episodes are less about history and more about what’s going on today. And we intentionally broke it up because of the way everything fell out. We knew that an election cycle was coming through, and we knew the midterms were happening. And even though none of the elected officials have any actual authority over changing it, it’s a pulse check to see where we are now.
Chellese: People need to understand that [there are] worse things to be than racist. It shouldn’t be such a harsh word. People understand prejudice or discrimination, but with racism, they think “Oh, I’m not a racist.” But if you are actually contributing to a system that has historically disenfranchised and terrorized a group of specific people by law or otherwise, then that makes you racist a little bit, implicitly or otherwise, by contributing in supporting this, either ignorantly or willfully.
Beau: We’ve seen the pushback. We’ve gotten the emails. The best part is whenever they accuse us of not being from Mississippi, which I always find fascinating.
And I almost don’t want to share this because this is Christ And Pop Culture, but you know, we’re in Mississippi. We’re in the Bible belt. A lot of the pushback that we get are from Christians.
Does that mean that the Church is a source of frustration for you? Or source of hope?
Chellese: I think the Church is a place that’s also learning and growing with types of issues like this. And they have to because people are searching for answers at the core of their faith to know what is right and wrong morally.
Time and time again, God has shown through His people that those who were impoverished, who were enslaved, and who were held captive, who were women, and who didn’t have power, who were the minorities and in a nation that was not their own, He was setting them free, giving them equal rights and equal power to be and to live and to worship and to pursue life.
At the core, there’s this faith and hope that we rely on within our faith in Christ. People were calling themselves “foolishly hopeful” that the flag would change. As far as if the Church is a source of frustration or of hope, I think it is never foolish to be hopeful, especially if we hope that there’s common ground. Sometimes there isn’t. But sometimes there is. And I’m always hopeful that there will be.
Red Flag is produced byPodastery Studios and hosted by Beau York and Chellese Hall. You can download it wherever you listen to podcasts.
The college students who ran my youth group used to blare “A Boy Brushed Red… Living in Black and White” multiple times before the service began. They were part of a post-hardcore band themselves, and I fervently believe that the liturgy of post-hardcore music formed many of the wannabe skaters who dwelt in the corners of the crowded room.
My sister was one of these kids, and I was introduced to Underoath through her. Of course, being in seventh grade meant that Underoath was the coolest band in the world, since they were my first encounter with post-hardcore music. My eighth-grade band teacher also shared a love for Underoath. “You know what’s even cooler, though?” he asked. “Emery. They’re unbeatable.”
Doubt, addiction, despair—these afflictions are cancerous, but they are not new.Although the angsty-teenager-post-hardcore-listening phase passed by my sister in a year, surprisingly, I return to the two bands, every now and then, for a hit of nostalgia. Alas, it’s been 10 years since I first listened to them. They have both matured in their sound and lyrics, their own struggles with faith mirroring my own. Yet, Underoath and Emery’s differences emerge clearly, I believe, in their two newest albums, Erase Me and Eve, respectively.
Since 2017, if not before, Underoath has decided no longer to call themselves Christian. Thus, Erase Me is at once a story of an annihilation of the band’s past Christian self and a progression from faith to abandonment. This progress, however, is never easy; the album begins with the speaker begging God for forgiveness as he fails to live up the standards he has for himself:
You’ve got me wrong
How did we end up like this?
I’ve lost myself
Please God give me a chance
You’ve got me wrong
This is all so damn useless
I’m done with you
As the album moves onward, the melancholic tone turns into anger, as in “On My Teeth,” in which the speaker proclaims, “I’m fine without You / I’m not Your f*cking prey.”
A feeling of disassociation emerges as the speaker realizes that what he has believed in is simply a façade, a comfort for his insecurities. “Ihateit” juxtaposes addiction and religion, showing how religion itself can become an addiction. It is here that the speaker sings, “God erase me / I don’t deserve the life You give.”
The process of abandoning one’s faith is rarely linear, so rightly, the album moves back and forth between feelings of anger, frustration, and despair. It’s not until the last song that the speaker becomes resolute in his departure, ending the album with the song titled “I Gave Up.”
In the bonus track of the album, “A New Life,” the speaker reflects on his life after he has given up his faith:
You make me so unhappy
I just want to be free
I’ve been tryin’ to figure out
What’s wrong with me
It’s not me, it’s not me
You’re not gonna ruin my life
God You’re not gonna ruin mine
This new life is a reinvention of the self from the ground up; it is exiting completely from the band’s past self toward forging a new meaning, an erasure that is similar to annihilation.
Emery’s Eve deals also with addiction, doubt, and despair. The album begins as the speaker distances himself from his conservative community—whether it be for teaching a horrifying version of God who only condemns in “Fear Yourself,” for caring too much about cuss words in “People Always Ask Me if We’re Going to Cuss in an Emery Song,” or even for their lack of empathy for individuals who struggle with same-sex attraction in “2007 Clarksville High Volleyball State Champs Gay Is OK.”
Yet the picture of Eve on the album cover is not one of anger or disappointment, but one of vulnerability. Eve is the mother of the blamed, representing those vilified in Christian communities, the outcast who is skeptical when she shouldn’t be. The ousted are given a new perspective on faith, however, one that is free to question the validity of their own beliefs and relate to others through doubt. In “Name Your God,” for instance, the speaker discusses a dream that he had about hell and the terror that grips him, yet he is unsure of hell’s existence. In “Streets of Gold,” heaven seems to be an analogy for the innocence and the purity of life without doubts and how far the speaker has traveled from it.
Doubts and addictions cause us to feel like we are “the sons that were never free,” that we can’t “pray away the weakness.” But “Eve” still contains tiny snippets of hope; as bleak as it is, the speaker continues to sing “I still believe.” He is aware that his doubt will come, while also noting that “it will go . . . You only have to make it to the next show.”
But the song that brings the whole album together, I believe, is “See You on the Other Side,” a song about how the disciples must have felt after Jesus ascended. In the song, the speaker, one of the disciples, seems nihilistic, matching in tone with Underoath’s own speaker in Erase Me. “We will all be erased,” the disciple in Emery’s song sings, as they’re left to cope with Christ’s disappearance. And yet the stark difference between their understanding of erasure emerges in the last line of the song: “But all of your words will not be erased,” which echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:35: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Indeed, Christ’s words to the disciples are kept, stored, and passed down through His church, giving life and meaning to us and the cosmos. They have the power to reverse death and our destruction—in other words, our annihilation—by securing us in the promise of our future purification. “Your words” mentioned here include our future selves, untainted by sin, just as Eve was, yet better because of our perfect union with God, better because we are cleansed and glorified.
Doubt, addiction, despair—these afflictions are cancerous, but they are not new. Mother Teresa herself dealt with despair; her journals include lines like, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not existing. . . . If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’” Amidst her doubts, however, she continued to give herself freely to others, as her public self exemplifies.
C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, notes how feelings of abandonment can be used as a temptation to pull us out of our faith and tradition; nonetheless, doubt can also be God’s strongest weapon for forging our obedience. Screwtape tells Wormwood, his trainee, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Similarly, while Shusaku Endo is most famous for his work in Silence, his last novel Deep River deals with a priest, Otsu, who carries the dead in the slums of India to the River Ganges to honor their deaths. At the crucial juncture in his life when he realizes he is a practicing Catholic who no longer believes, Otsu is asked by Mitsuko, a character who’s been tempting him to abandon his faith, why he continues to pray. Mournfully, Otsu replies, “[E]ven if I try to abandon God . . . God won’t abandon me.”
Underoath and Emery both reveal what doubt, addiction, and perhaps even abandonment could feel like. But their differences bring us to our choice: will we believe the lie that we can rid ourselves of Him, that we can be annihilated and start afresh? Will we remain obedient, like the saints before us, even when He seems absent?
I think Endo is on to something about the God who seems, at times, to abandon us. Rather than letting us be, our Lord is a God who haunts us into submission, a God who won’t leave us alone, a God whose words will never be erased.