In years past, if you wanted to keep up with culture there would have been a “to read” list. Books and journals, periodicals and perhaps early blogs. That still matters (as a writer, forgive me for that vested interest), but increasingly there needs to be a “to watch” list. The most culturally influencing media is not the written word, but the visual form.
So what to watch?
From time to time, I will give an accumulated list of things that you can watch that are shaping culture in powerful ways.
One caveat: Please don’t bait me into whether we should be watching these things. Many of you can, some of you should not. For more on that, see my opening installment in the series “Is it okay for a Christian to...” where I dive into whether it’s okay to watch something like HBO’s Game of Thrones.
With that aside, here are five things that should be on most people’s “culture watch” list, at least in terms of recent months:
1. 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)
Why: This is the best (and most disturbing) crash course into youth culture available. Suicide, rape, binge drinking, drugs, hooking up, the occult, sexting, homosexuality, bullying… the list goes on and on. The premise is the suicide of a high school girl who records 13 tapes prior to her death, detailing the 13 reasons (specifically, the 13 people) why she killed herself. It is an exceptionally well-made and acted series. And one that can create countless conversations about not only suicide, but also sexual assault and the wide range of teen angst. Make no mistake – it’s a moral mess. But it’s the mess teens are consuming. And living. No wonder it exploded in popularity among the very youth it depicted. In April it became the most tweeted-about show in 2017. It was mentioned more than 11 million times within three weeks of its release. But with the release came great concern about its subject matter, so much so that Netflix put a warning in front of three of the episodes with links to suicide prevention websites and hotlines. The concern was that certain depictions might be seen as “glamorizing” something such as suicide (I don’t believe it did) and lead someone to fixate on doing it for attention (sadly, the more likely scenario). We now know that searches for “suicide” went up after the series’ release (read the Washington Post article HERE). Personally, I can’t imagine any parent of a teen or anyone who works with teens not watching this from start to finish.
2. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Why: GoT (watcher’s shorthand) is one of – if not the – most popular show on TV. Yes, it has violence and sex. It is, after all, HBO. But it is also a perverse morality tale. An almost anti-Tolkien saga that may be more reflective of a fallen world. In other words, good doesn’t always win. In fact, in GoT, it rarely does. Yet this is the show the world is watching and talking about and taking in, providing many opportunities for moral conversation.
3. Despacito (YouTube)
Why: In a cultural nanosecond, this single video has become the most-watched video in YouTube history (with more than 3 billion views and counting). Intriguingly, it is not even in English. But it is shaping a wider world. The real headline is found when you read a translation of the lyrics. Watch the video HERE and then get the translation HERE. And while you’re at it, you may as well catch up on the other nine YouTube videos on the top-ten list.
4. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Why: As the UK’s Telegraph reported (read the article HERE), when we cast our eyes back over 2017, one image will abide: “blinkered white bonnets and rich, red cloaks.” Yes, The Handmaid’s Tale, based on a 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, was another dip into dystopia. But this is not another Hunger Games. The premise is a world where a shrinking minority of women are able to have children. They are gathered and forced to serve the procreation needs of the elite. In Puritan-ish clothes, forced to take on the male names of their guardians, they are walking wombs. But it has been the perceived political parallels to our modern world that has gripped our attention as much as the tale itself (e.g., women’s rights). Or as the lead actress Elizabeth Moss suggested, it is “bleeding into reality.” Whether you agree with the parallels or not, it is part of the cultural conversation.
5. In A Heartbeat (YouTube)
Why: This 4-minute animated video is a reflection of how Christians lost the culture war regarding homosexuality and gay marriage. It movingly depicts the “feelings” of one boy for another, Pixar-ing the homosexual attraction in such a creative and compelling way as to make the relationship irrefutable morally. After all, it suggests, it’s a matter of love – a heartbeat – not sexual, or even less, moral. It’s a brilliant piece of work but, sadly, once again puts forward the cultural argument that feelings trump everything – even those things that are transcendent truths and values (for more on this cultural current, see “Slipping Down the Slope”). As of this writing, it’s already approaching 20 million views. Watch the video HERE.
All to say, take a few moments to put down the book and pick up the remote.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.