in defence of “best of” lists
OK so I’m not going to actually make a defence of the strange compulsive practice of making end of year “best of” lists. It’s something some of us like to do, that’s all. I’m also not going to make a defence of my own choices in my end of year lists (coming soon!), which are my personal choices and therefore beyond criticism – although I’ll still enjoy a good argument if you tell me I’m wrong.
But I guess want to make a modest defence of the quantity of pop cultural consumption reflected in my end of year lists. Why do I feel the need to make a defence? Partly because there is a strong stream running through our religious culture which suggests that “secular” culture should be avoided by people of sincere faith in order to “come out of Babylon” and keep our minds pure.
And also because I partly agree with those who suggest that, as a culture, we are in danger of “amusing ourselves to death,” and filling every quiet moment with whatever noises and moving pictures are close at hand, even if it’s just chewing gum for the eyes and ears.
My modest (and not very original) suggestion is that the alternative to either retreating down the Christian rabbit-hole or mindlessly consuming junk-food for the soul, is to seek out the “best of” what is being created in our culture, and enter into conversation. If we believe God is everywhere present, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” then we need to look for the glimmers of light and signs of life which are scattered through our culture like treasure from a shipwreck.
Here are two quotes from two of my favourite writers, which make the case better than I can. First, here’s George MacDonald:
And between the dances I read two or three of Wordsworth’s ballads to them. For I thought if I could get them to like poetry and beautiful things in words, it would not only do them good, but would help them to see what is in the Bible, and therefore to love it more. For I never could believe that a man who did not find God in other places, as well as in the Bible would ever find Him there at all. And I have always thought that to find God in other books enables us to see clearly that He is more in the Bible than in any other book, or all other books put together.
And this one is from Frederick Buechner:
From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein…
Literature, painting, music – the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.