As my Facebook friends, all of whom I love equally, will tell you, I share a lot of articles. Two a day, generally. I’d share more, but Zuckerberg’s blasted algorithm starts pushing them down if I share too many.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t do this to start trouble. I mean, the comments do occasionally veer into dicy territory, but I’m not out picking fights. Honestly, I just share things that I think are a little better than the average article. Facebook is full of terrible ideas that are poorly written and, perhaps even worse, great ideas that are poorly written. I figure it can’t hurt to do the best I can to share dependably good ideas, relatively well written. Hopefully, even if you disagree with the premise, you’ll have to give credit to the craft.
But because not everyone has as much time to comb the Internet for the good stuff as I do, I here offer a few of my favorite things I read this year. To make this worth your while, I stuck to pieces that weren’t necessarily hyper timely (which is why I didn’t include Jen Hatmaker’s excellent response to the Baltimore riots) or strict reporting (like Bob Smietana’s exposé on The Gathering). I also didn’t include anything I or my wife wrote, although in truth, this was my favorite article of the year.
So here they are, in no particular order. I hope it’ll provide you with something to do over the Christmas break.
Got in just under the wire, but Taffy Brodesser-Akner put Hillsong NYC under the microscope—something I’ve done many, many times in my own writing—and discovered something wild, wooly, and difficult to quantify. What you get out of the article largely depends on what you bring into it (I’ve been fascinated to see people read the same article and come away seeing it as either a clear defense or attack on how Hillsong operates), but you’ll definitely get something out of it.
And here I have to say out loud how much I like Carl. I say it here because I still felt it after this conversation. I like him even though he is ideologically opposed to things that are important to me. I somehow could not fault Carl for his beliefs, because they torment him. I couldn’t fault him for them even though his influence is so vast and all it would take was a word from him to heal the suffering of so many people who feel like they’re without a tether. I couldn’t dislike Carl because in the end his belief is an organism outside reason. It’s Carl who will take my jokes about how Christianity seems so much easier than Judaism and follow them up with 200-word texts in which he tries to use this toehold to tell me his Good News. He is so worried for my soul, and this should annoy me, but instead it touches me, because maybe I’m worried about my soul, too, and Carl wants so badly for me to enjoy heaven with him. How can I fault someone who is more sincere about this one thing than I have ever been about anything in my life? But on the other hand, if there’s one thing that’s true about Christianity, it’s that no matter what couture it’s wearing, no matter what Selena Gomez hymnal it’s singing, it’s still afraid for your soul, it still thinks you’re in for a reckoning. It’s still Christianity. Christianity’s whole jam is remaining Christian.
The celebrity profile is always tricky, and never more so than with Stephen Colbert, who has made a career out of being difficult to profile. But Joel Lovell, who captured Colbert just before his new late show launched, peels away the layers and gets to the Colbert who has seen some horrors in his life, and come out wiser for them. By inserting his own awe of just how wise and thoughtful Colbert is into the piece, he convinces us of Colbert’s authenticity and, even more bracing, his pain.
He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
I have a lot of love for the people over at Christ and Pop Culture, who churn out some fascinating and deeply thoughtful content. They wrote a lot of great stuff this year (Luke Harrington wrote a terrific piece on Christian masculinity in January) but nothing got my own wheels turning like Lauren Wilford’s piece on female representation in action movies. Guys like me (white, straight, male, blah) have a hard time imagining what it’d be like to never see themselves as the central driver of any great adventure yarn, and Lauren helped put words to something I only recently started exploring.
Most of the time, however, we’re sold the idea that universal struggle is for men. Plenty of films feature women as supporting players. And plenty of films have female leads and explore feminine issues. But few films give us a protagonist in its full etymological sense—a character who suffers and transforms and rises to challenges, someone we can all root for and identify with—who also happens to be woman. So when a film gives us a genuine woman action hero, like in Kill Bill or this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it feels revolutionary. It feels like being told that women are human. It feels like being told that heroism is available to even one such as me.
Marilynne Robinson is one of America’s greatest living writers, so it stands to reason that something she’d write would end up here. Ostensibly about American gun control, Robinson does a terrific job of framing the American obsession with firearms around the American paranoia of threats to liberty.
At a lunch recently Lord Jonathan Sacks, then chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, said that the United States is the world’s only covenant nation, that the phrase “We the People” has no equivalent in the political language of other nations, and that the State of the Union Address should be called the renewal of the covenant. I have read that Americans are now buying Kalashnikovs in numbers sufficient to help subsidize Russian rearmament, to help their manufacturers achieve economies of scale. In the old days these famous weapons were made with the thought that they would be used in a land war between great powers, that is, that they would kill Americans. Now, since they are being brought into this country, the odds are great that they will indeed kill Americans. But only those scary ones who want to destroy all we hold dear. Or, more likely, assorted adolescents in a classroom or a movie theater.
Of the million thinkpieces that came out and continue to come out about Kendrick this year, my favorite was Clover Hope’s almost immediate reaction, which landed in the immediate wake of its surprise launch. To Pimp a Butterfly was my favorite album of 2015, but I’m mindful of a certain, necessary distance that I enjoy it from. It’s an album not only made by a black man who is keenly aware of his blackness, but also an album steeped in the black experience of America. As a window into a very different American experience than my own, it’s incredibly helpful, and Hope’s piece helped me grasp the gap between how I heard the album and how the album was created better than anything I read this year.
This initial feeling is suffocating. I don’t know what all this means yet, so I’d rather not make this neat, like I usually do. Rather than search for terms to describe what I like and dislike—right now, even the obnoxious spoken word is a cool thing—I’m just focusing on the blackness of it, which one of my colleagues rightly predicted. “The Blacker the Berry” made it clear that this was Kendrick’s very intention, to reach this far into darkness and make it inescapable. He grew out his mini-fade into short twists, the first of many tell-tale signs. The anxiety and reality of having to dissect all this blackness in a sensible, meaningful way through words is paralyzing. How do you capture the detail and the overwhelming visibility of invisibility? Can you do the blackness justice? Can he? Can I?
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a lot of vital articles (and one hugely vital book) this year, including his riveting, astonishing analysis of how mass incarceration has failed the black family. But I think the most poignant thing I read from him this year was his reaction to the Justice Department’s Ferguson report. As a wordsmith, Coates is unparalleled, but what really sets him apart is his lack of f**ks. He was called on the carpet a few times this year—often by Christians like me—for not having more hope for race relations in America. Of course, I wish he had more hope too, but I don’t feel like I’m in a good place to suggest he take a rosier outlook. Perhaps, now and then, America needs someone with audacity to not hope. Perhaps that will wake us up.
The innocence of Darren Wilson does not change this fundamental fact. Indeed the focus on the deeds of alleged individual perpetrators, on perceived bad actors, obscures the broad systemic corruption which is really at the root. Darren Wilson is not the first gang member to be publicly accused of a crime he did not commit. But Darren Wilson was given the kind of due process that those of us who are often presumed to be gang members rarely enjoy. I do not favor lowering the standard of justice offered Officer Wilson. I favor raising the standard of justice offered to the rest of us.
The third GQ article and the second Taffy Akner article on this list, but I’m not going to exclude it just because she happened to write to must-read articles in one year. We should all be so gifted. And if this article happens to deal with the shocking, heartbreaking world of rich old men who wield a haunting amount of power over young, beautiful women, well, so much the better.
There was some trial and error in trying to find the right girl, but eventually Scrooge found a 22-year-old whom he was able to take to Pink concerts and to plays and to movies before taking her up to his hotel or apartment to conduct the Weird Sex Thing he needs so badly that he cannot even wait till a third date before asking for it. He gives her roughly $500 each time they see each other, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on congestion pricing.
Now, are you ready for something sweet? He could see himself marrying her! And this, he says, is what makes sugar dating different from prostitution. “I don’t have an extensive track record with escorts, prostitutes, or hookers,” says Scrooge. “But I’ve done it a couple of times in foreign countries. And it’s just the biggest turnoff you’ve ever seen. It’s like all business. They don’t smile.” With sugar babies, no one’s on the clock. There’s hugging and kissing, laughing and talking.
With sugar babies, he says, it’s almost like a real person who actually loves you.
3. How I Pray
I probably could have filled this entire list with articles from The Toast, but this is the one I read the most often and have thought about the most regularly. In fact, I have maybe thought about it more than any other piece I read this year. Nicole Cliffe became a Christian this year, and watching her journey has been deeply, truly instructive for my own little Christian walk. It restored an eagerness to start praying again, and that’s been a beautiful thing in my life. Grateful to Nicole for being honest. Grateful to God for the chats that this article has inspired.
I ask for everything! Dallas Willard, whose books and life were a real gateway drug for me, once told a friend of his who was going through a just terrible, terrible thing, that you don’t really need to say I mean, God, ultimately I want your will to be done, so only do these things if it’s your will, because, duh, God already knows that his will is what’s going to happen. So go ahead and ask for what you truly want. Is it going to happen? I mean, maybe. The world is a really broken and tragic place. Why would God make my stupid redesign transition flawless because I asked him to, but allow horrible things to happen to innocent people constantly? I don’t know, I’ll ask him about it when I meet him. But I still ask for what I want. Big stuff, little stuff. And for me to be a better person, which is the main thing. I definitely said “I’m still the same person!” to a bunch of friends when I converted, but it’s not really true. I’m not that great, honestly, and I want to be better, so I ask for help with that. I think it’s working, but really slowly.
I’ve been able to interview a few Big Celebs™, and I’m familiar with the sort of existential musings the experience inspires in Miranda July here. But July actually uses these musings as the focal point of her piece. Her “very revealing conversation with Rihanna” is as much about what the conversation revealed about July as it is about Rihanna. I wouldn’t recommend that all celebrity profiles go this route, but July—who occupies a pretty unique space in the cultural zeitgeist herself—utilizes it wisely. It comes across as more introspective than indulgent.
Souls are funny things. They stay constant even when the outside changes, or when the heart makes mistakes. Souls don’t really care about good or bad, right or wrong — they’re just true. Everlasting. It makes you sound dumb to talk about this stuff, which is why no one could tell me exactly what it was about Rihanna. But millions of fans don’t seem to need it explained to them. A soul just knows a soul. I never told you she was pretty because that’s not what I experienced. My understanding, from the moment she sat down, was that we were in love. We were the most in love any two people had ever been. The sun was finally setting. We’d been talking for almost two hours. I just had one more question.
It’s been my experience that a lot of Christians talk a lot about the importance of “honesty” and “sharing your story” but in practice, rarely do so. Our modern Christian idea of being “genuine” is generally taken to mean making some vague reference to the fact that “you don’t have it all together” without ever diving into the details. In Coming Clean, Seth Haines avoids all this by exposing the grim depths of his alcoholism. It’s a terrific read, and John Taylor does a fantastic job of cutting to the heart of the book in his article for RELEVANT.
Two years before that Easter Sunday, Haines sat in a hospital waiting room, trying not to think about Titus, his infant son born with a hole in his heart and a rate of respiration that jogged a little faster than most.
“You get enough alcohol in your system and you don’t feel anymore.”
Friends, family members and strangers visited in rotation. They offered prayers for swift recovery.
Haines and his wife, Amber, watched as doctors squirted blue liquid into Titus’ mouth through a syringe. The 6-month-old gurgled, squirmed and wailed as plastic tubes entered his nose and reached down into his still-developing intestines.
The doctors shook their heads when they found clumps of blood the size of popcorn kernels. The Haineses discussed what songs they would play at Titus’ funeral.
That was when Haines called his sister and said, “I need you to bring me gin to the hospital. Smuggle it in.”
Hours later, a Nalgene bottle arrived, filled to the top with Tanqueray. Haines unscrewed the cap and poured its contents into a plastic cup filled with ice.
In that moment, Haines—the believer, husband, father of four, full-time attorney, worship leader, home group host and editor of the blog “A Deeper Church”—was becoming an alcoholic.
I could do more. There was Laura Ortberg Turner’s terrific piece on anxiety and shopping addiction. Ezekiel “The Shrillest” Kweku’s wonderful article on being pulled over while black. This Clickhole thing. I could go on, but where would we end? If you think I missed anything, let me know in the comments.