No matter what your 2021 held, you were no doubt helped along by some comforting art, music, and story. You might have discovered an album that seemed to name precisely your own emotional landscape; perhaps you stumbled on a book that you could count on as an escape in the silent hours of the night; or maybe it was a TV show that kept you hooked from its pilot to its finale. Whatever it was, we want to hear about it! So please share in the comments section below. In the meantime, we’ve got some excellent recommendations from the Rabbit Room’s staff and blog contributors to get the conversation started.
(Executive Director & Managing Editor)
The Princess Bride by William Goldman – I’d never read the book before, but this year, while we were on the Appalachian Trail, Jennifer and I started reading it aloud around the campfire at night. We’re still not finished with it, partly because I’m savoring it and don’t want it to end, but it’s been SO much fun. I’m amazed both by how different it is from the movie, and how perfectly the movie captures it. Pro-tip: the introduction is long and indulgent and off-putting and necessary, but don’t let that fool you, because once you get into the story itself, it’s magical.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr – This book articulates a number of things about the Bible that I’ve often felt, but haven’t been able to articulate myself. I’m so thankful for Dr. Barr’s voice and scholarship and perspective and especially enjoyed the dive into various eras of Christian history. I wish I could get everyone to read her book and act accordingly.
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson – I’m a sucker for a doorstop-sized fantasy epic and this one fit the bill. I was mostly there with the first book in the series (The Way of Kings), but this one was pretty much un-put-downable for me. I blew through its 1,000 pages and still wanted more (though I’ve slowed in the following book). Apparently I need more giant lobsters in my life. Didn’t see that coming.
Hold Still by Taylor Leonhardt – I’m in awe of this record. Taylor is an incredible songwriter and this album feels like she’s hitting her stride. Can’t get enough.
In These Silent Days by Brandi Carlile – I don’t know how she does it, but I’m a sucker for her raw honesty. Throw in a werewolf and I’m hooked.
All the Wrecked Light by Hannah Hubin – Seeing/hearing the evolution of this poetry/songwriting project was a real treat this year. I’ve listened to it all the way through dozens of times via the Hutchmoot production and each time it amazes me with some new depth or insight.
Landscapers – I didn’t see this one coming. I knew nothing about it other than that it starred Olivia Coleman, and it turned out to be one of my favorite pieces of cinema in a long time. I love the way the filmmakers found to tell the story. It’s a tale that’s complex and baffling and tragic and beautiful and it’s captured with creativity and nuance and incredible performances by Coleman and David Thewlis. Don’t miss it.
The Green Knight – Baffling? Yep. Beautiful? Yep. Will it bore some people into a coma? Yep. But I loved every second of it. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It’s a film that kept my mind engaged for weeks afterward, and I can’t wait to see it again. And again. And again.
The Sound of Metal – In the same way a great documentary does, it’s a film that takes you deep into a specific, yet usually hidden, corner of human experience and helps you know it and feel it in a way you didn’t before. The film follows a drummer as he goes deaf and struggles to figure out how life works in silence. It’s a fantastic piece of film-making (and acting). Be sure to watch it in surround sound so you can appreciate the viruostic sound-design.
(Head of Operations)
On the Road With St. Augustine by James K. A. Smith – This book—equal parts travelogue, theological commentary, and biography—met me in a place where I really needed it this year.
The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers – This book is so important for critical, Christ-centered thinking about art. I wish I had read it years ago.
Dune by Frank Herbert – The only fiction book I managed to finish this year also could have made it on my Film list. The world is so immersive and Herbert’s writing is captivating. I had no idea how many ways one could describe sand.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War On Drugs – I just love everything about the War on Drugs brand of rock. Their newest record is probably their most accessible with tight hooks and memorable melodies all over the place. I’ll be spinning it for years.
GLOW ON by Turnstile – I didn’t think a hardcore punk record would make my top three this year, but I cannot get enough of this record. The rhythms, the riffs, the tender moments, the anthems…it’s glorious.
Songs of Sage: Post Panic! by Navy Blue – My favorite rap record of the year. Navy Blue is a master of complex rhymes and dreamy soul production. This record is steeped in pain, frustration, sorrow. Yet, underneath it all burns a fire for change and hope for a new day.
Pig – Someone described this Nicolas Cage film as “What if John Wick, but it’s Ratatouille?” And honestly, yes.
The Beatles: Get Back – I was just delighted for the entire eight-ish hours to be immersed in this shockingly intimate fly-on-the-wall experience with my musical heroes.
Licorice Pizza – Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are so good in the Paul Thomas Anderson tribute to early-70s Los Angeles. It’s a blast and really highlights the social and personal awkwardness of those kid-adult years stuck between 15 and 25.
(Head of Development & Communications)
The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr – I wish I’d had this book far earlier in life. Whether you agree with the conclusions Dr. Barr draws or not, the information itself is illuminating—and the mere inclusion of nuance in scripture passages we take for granted as obvious can be world-changing for those seeking to know and draw closer to the heart of God. As an addendum to this read, I’d suggest the Bible Project Podcast series on How to Read the Bible. The two together paint a transformative picture for how we engage with God’s word to better love and bring life to the world.
The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon – Those who know me will be tired of me talking about this book. I make no apologies. I wasn’t exaggerating when I called it paradigm-shifting. I’m not the type to pick up a cooking book of my own volition—whenever Capon humorously mentioned something about “no cook worth their salt would…” it applied to me. I’m the cook not worth my salt. So while lovers of food and the art of cooking will surely get even more out of it, I have the credentials to assure the rest of you that this is a book for all of us. It’s full of theology, beautiful writing, humor, and, yes, food and cooking. It will uplift you, expand your life, and inspire you to see and love creation in a new way.
“Art, Beauty, and the Testimony of the Spirit” by Steve Guthrie – I don’t know how to talk about this essay from The Testimony of the Spirit without just quoting large swathes of it. I will say that I always want to think about art and creation the way Dr. Guthrie does. The various talks, articles, and podcast episodes he’s done that touch on how the Spirit interacts with sub-creation are gently yet profoundly reshaping the way I think of our connection with God as creators, and always for the better.
ALL THE WRECKED LIGHT by Hannah Hubin – I loved this thoughtful, meticulous work all over again getting to see it in action at Hutchmoot: Homebound. What a triumph of poetry, music, and artist collaboration. A work of defiant hope born out of rigorous study and the sharing of communal gifts.
The Land of Canaan by J Lind – The amount of thought and work J puts into his songwriting is astounding. The music is stellar, and I appreciated his daring in this album to approach questions and feelings that we don’t often allow ourselves or others to face.
Destiny and Dead People Tea by Autumn Orange – I’ve never been a lo-fi listener until I happened upon this album by accident. Turned out I needed something calming and kind to listen to this year, and this was the ticket. I loved the hints of story woven into it without clear explanation; it added an element of lore and mystery that I found fun.
Spider-Man: No Way Home – Feel free to skip this if you want to avoid spoilers! As my brother said after the movie ended, “I feel so vindicated for all the investment I’ve put into Spider-Man movies over the years.” I can’t believe I finally got the Spider-Man movie I’ve been waiting for all this time, and I can’t believe this was that Spider-Man movie. I couldn’t possibly say all I want to here, but more than a fun superhero movie, this story about empathy for one’s enemies—even in the face of great loss and personal sacrifice—is that not what we need? As amazing as it was to be amongst a crowd of people cheering and screaming at Spider-Man being all that he spider-can, it was far more amazing to watch a compelling story of entire worlds being put at stake for the salvation of a group of villains. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? But love your enemies, do good to them.” If these were actually the heroes we emulated, how different would the world look?
Arcane – A beautiful story brilliantly told. With the show being born out of a video game, I was cautious in my approach, expecting a pretty, but empty, cash-grab. I was taken aback at every turn by the love and intention poured into every aspect of this story. I play the games, quasi-know the lore, and I’m pretty adept at TV-trope trivia. Every single time I thought, “okay, now they’re going to do this,” they surprised me, to the very end, and in the best way. The entire thing would be worth watching for the final episode alone, in my opinion. (Note: It’s not a kid’s show. Please do not read this and then go watch it with your kids; there will be discomfort.)
Ted Lasso – The main story thread and themes of this one-of-a-kind show are imperative and counter-cultural in the best way. I’m still kind of blown away that a show like this exists. I know some are turned off by the raunchiness it sometimes contains, and I completely respect that. For me, there’s such an abundance of good counterbalancing, it’s not even an issue. To be able to approach vital, relevant themes in such a lighthearted, approachable way is stupendous. The show is like Ted himself—it slips past your cynical defenses with its goodness. I love what they’ve set up in the main plot, and can’t wait to see what they do next season.
(Development & Communications Coordinator)
Divine Secrets of the Yaya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures by Martyn Lloyd Jones
Home Video by Lucy Dacus – Lucy makes you laugh, cry, and question everything you know about songwriting. Every track off this new record is memorable and demands to be heard.
Favorite tracks: “Hot & Heavy,” “Please Stay,” “Triple Dog Dare”
Valentine by Snailmail – A perfect mixture of Lindsey Jordan’s classic rock tone with the pop flare of King Princess. Their defining single “Pristine” used to stand out amongst all other tracks, but each song off this record brings something different to the table.
Favorite tracks: “Valentine,” “Madonna”
Good Woman by The Staves – A sister trio from the UK…need I say more?
Favorite tracks: “Nothing’s Gonna Happen,” “Paralysed,” “Failure,” “Satisfied” (I could go on)
Sour by Olivia Rodrigo – I feel like this one is a given.
Favorite tracks: “deja vu,” “jealousy jealousy,” “favorite crime”
Spiderman: No Way Home
No Time to Die
The Sunday Philosophy Club series by Alexander McCall Smith – If McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series was my 2020 comfort read, then this was my 2021 comfort read. There are so many of these books, and each one is more delightful than the last. They center around Edinburgh resident (as always) Isabel Dalhousie, who is editor of The Review of Applied Ethics and has a tendency to become involved in the dilemmas of others. Plots are outrageous and yet just barely believable, and the writing is effortless, but where McCall Smith shines best is in his subtle, subtextual commentary on human nature. Great bedtime reading.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff – On a drastically less chill note, this book does an excellent job of de-mystifying and contextualizing the complicated web of deceit the Internet has become. Zuboff’s tone admittedly borders on apocalyptic, but then again, that could prove to be a fitting descriptor of where we find ourselves after all.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – I’m such a sucker for Michael Pollan’s writing. Disarming, informative, and ever-curious, in this book he tries some magic mushrooms! As someone who believes the Christian story to be true, it was gratifying to read the perspective of a writer so thoroughly agnostic as he searches for spiritual meaning in brain chemistry. I loved (most of) his insights.
Becoming Ordinary by Becca Jordan – My first full listen of this record was in the dark right before bed, through headphones with my eyes closed. These songs are straight-up therapeutic, and they exemplify the magic of well-earned simplicity. The lyrics on this album are extremely concise, packing deep emotion and truthfulness into just a few syllables. Give it all your attention and it will reward you. Oh, and the production of Jess Ray and Kyle Langdon is therapeutic in its own right, making sparing use of soundscapes that set up the listener to receive what’s being said.
The Land of Canaan by J Lind – I look up to J as a songwriter so much. This album is fascinating, from start to finish. The integration of the story of Abraham and Isaac throughout, the slow unfolding of themes from that story, the delicate balancing act of critiquing religious language and “leaning into it” at the same time—it’s dense and juicy like a Steinbeck novel. And it’s mysterious. But J knows exactly what he’s doing. Listen and let yourself wonder what it means, and let that wondering lead you into new thoughts and questions. This is an album to sit with for multiple listens.
Alice in Wonderland by Nahre Sol – The way Nahre Sol approaches music energizes me as a musician in a way that I can only compare to someone like Chris Thile. I found her through her ever-educational YouTube channel, and when I learned that she’d released an album of piano music in 2020, I added it to my library faster than you can say “coo-coo bananas.” And that’s exactly what this album is: coo-coo bananas. It might stress you out at times, cost you energy, and baffle you. Let it happen. And then bask in the slow, meditative moments when they give you a well-earned break. What you’re hearing is the sound of a skilled composer, wondering aloud. The patterns, the progressions, the melodies, the moods. It’s all just too much, in the best way.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines – An absolutely bonkers movie. One night in the no-man’s land of summer (my least favorite season, at least in Tennessee) I decided to watch it when I was alone at home, in a terrible mood. By the end, I had both laugh-cried and cry-laughed on at least a dozen occasions. This film is somehow deliciously funny, surprisingly insightful, and tender-hearted, all in the same breath. A completely contemporary film tackling contemporary problems with all the open-hearted playfulness of a child.
Bo Burnham’s Inside – Woof. This one will hurt. Now, it gets dark. And at times, almost unforgivably indulgent. But that’s the whole point: the guy is alone inside his house during lockdown in 2020, but look! He made you some content. And this…”content”…often felt like hearing my own stream of consciousness about current events, in both an unsettling and a comforting way. This film is messy, but its gift is solidarity, the practicing and questioning of humor as a redemptive force, and the lingering sense that you are not the only one who has been slowly losing your mind.
Only Murders in the Building – This TV show completely blindsided me with its abundant goodness. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and…Selena Gomez?? No. Absolutely not. But, wait a second…yes. Yes, please. How does it work? I don’t know. Don’t ask questions. It just works. This one is a wild ride, but you will be richly rewarded if you choose to join. Plus, what in the world could possibly come next with season 2? I eagerly await.
Also, Ted Lasso. Always Ted Lasso, the TV show which has my whole heart. What did we ever do to deserve this story?
Leslie E. Thompson
(Marketing & Publicity)
A Window to Heaven: The Daring first Ascent of Denali by Patrick Dean – This is the book I managed to read on my maternity leave, and it was captivating. It’s the telling of the first team to reach the top of the largest mountain in North America (formerly Mt. McKinley) in 1913. The team was led by an episcopal archdeacon who was originally from Britain but found a home among the native Alaskan people in Fairbanks. He was an ally for that community, speaking out against the “whitewashing” happening in the state, and especially against the naming of the mountain McKinley as it had been called Denali by the native peoples for centuries. The team’s leader, Hudson Stuck, used the ascent as a way to bring justice to the native peoples and insured there were native Alaskans on the team to accomplish the feat with him.
The book initially piqued my interest because early in 2021 my husband and I took a babymoon to a bed & breakfast that overlooked Denali. The mountain, called the “High One,” became a symbol of redemption and promise after our miscarriage in 2020. We left that trip knowing we’d likely name our daughter Denali. Alice Denali was born in September and when considering a book to read over feeding sessions, I remembered this one and thought it a good fit. It was a reminder that Christ-followers have a unique vantage point and purpose in the world, and that though we can often feel lost in our quests and adventures, they aren’t isolated and can be used for something greater than the things themselves.
The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner – I don’t think I will ever outgrow good Young Adult series and this one has been one of my favorites. One of my friends handed me the first book a couple months ago, and a week later I was back for the second one. Each book is different, but they all keep you on the edge of your seat. The author keeps her cards very close to her chest and no matter how much you think you know, you will never see the end coming.
The Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen – I got this little book as a Christmas present and I plowed through it. The book is written as a letter to the author’s secular friend, trying to communicate what is like to live as the beloved of God and how that translates into our brokenness and the way we give to each other, all the way from life to death. It’s a quick and easy read but it has some profound truths that I will be pondering for many weeks to come.
The Painted Desert by Andrew Osenga – Andrew Osenga seems to have a talent for creating music that finds you exactly when you need it. That has certainly been true for his album The Painted Desert over the past couple of months. My life has recently been a mess of beautiful chaos and his songs “Still Waters” and “The Year of the Locust” have brought me peace and stillness again and again. They have both been playing in my car almost nonstop and I am so grateful for the soft words of truth they have been speaking over me.
A Boy Called Christmas – I was under the distinct impression that all of the good Christmas movies had already been made, but I was pleasantly surprised. This movie has the whimsical, old-school magic of a Grimm’s fairy tale with just enough joy and heart-felt warmth to make it a delight to watch without the syrupy sweetness I have found in other movies. Maggie Smith is as dry and hilarious as ever and the characters around her are so fun and engaging that I can’t wait to watch it again.
Begin Again – This is a bit of an older movie with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly about the struggles of pouring your story and your brokenness into songwriting. It manages to be both real and hopeful, a balance that seems to be getting more and more difficult to find. It’s a simple story, but I think it can hit close to home for anyone who has ever been a new and struggling artist, or for someone who loves getting the best of the best out into the world.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – This is the kind of book that could only be written by someone who has spent many years asking impossible questions and loving people well and suffering and growing wise. A speculative fiction novel of this scope could easily become mired in the sorts of details required to make a Jesuit mission to an alien planet plausible. And truly, Russell dazzles with her careful attention to, and thoughtful consideration of, everything from interplanetary travel, botany, chemistry, and medicine, to the governance of the church, the problem of overpopulation, and the complexities of marriage. But what takes the reader’s breath away is Russell’s unfailing humanity and her insistence on taking us to the silence beyond the unanswerable questions.
Fair warning: You won’t recover from Emilio Sandoz’s story. You aren’t meant to.
Longbourn by Jo Baker – To take one of the most widely known and beloved stories in English literature, pick it up, and scrutinize it from just below, and off to the side, requires considerable nerve. To create something new from the raw material of that novel—a triumph of tenderness and human agony, an honest look at class structures and racial inequality, an insightful foray into the horrors of forced labor and war—is astonishing.
It’s all there, flitting at the edges of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s love story. But we never thought to look until Jo Baker expanded Austen’s masterpiece to include the invisible souls who prepare the tea and scrub the stains from the unmentionables and wait long hours with the horses while the young ladies dance and those, too, whose blood and sweat funded the leisure of the upper classes. A moving, gorgeous, fascinating novel.
Ted Lasso – I don’t care if every person on the blog recommends this show because while I saw some beautiful films and some compelling television this year, Ted Lasso trumps them all. A sampling of my favorite things:
- Without exception, everyone is held accountable. Why? Because there are no healthy relationships in which only one party is accountable, and relationships are the heart of the series.
- Everyone is accountable, AND everyone has a reason for behaving as he/she does. There is more to people than their anger, their self-centeredness, their ambition, their silence, or even their positivity. People have layers (like onions, or parfait, if you prefer), and it’s worth digging below the surface. Which is of course accomplished through relationships!
- The male lead’s primary relationship in both seasons 1 and 2 is with a woman. And here’s the kicker: the relationship is one of friendship and ever-deepening respect. There are no romantic overtones. Hah! Take that, world! They’re just friends, and it’s magnificent.
- I can’t think of a time when, collectively, we were more desperate for a reminder that there are people of all kinds, in all places, choosing to behave like adults, to risk, to hope, to ask forgiveness, to make themselves vulnerable, to move toward one another, to celebrate, to love. Doesn’t that make you want to do the same? And keep doing it?
- A man walks across a locker room full of men shocked into silence, and he embraces his adversary in that man’s moment of deepest shame. I mean…
Jen Rose Yokel
Wintering by Katherine May – I don’t even know what to say about this book other than it was right on time. In a year where I often found myself tired, numb, and creatively fallow, May’s book was a gentle reminder of the gifts hidden in seasons of retreat.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – I’ve determined my favorite adult fiction genre is “I have no idea what’s happening but it’s beautiful and I’m here for it.” The House is a captivating world of mystery, and Piranesi’s love and wonder for the place is beautiful to read.
The Love that is God by Frederick Bauerschmidt – A brief and beautiful apologetic for the Christian faith. This quote alone earns a place on my list: “If, as Josef Pieper put it, what it means for us to love someone or something is to say ‘I am glad you exist,’ then what it means for God to love us is for God to say, ‘Because I am glad, you exist.’”
Hold Still by Taylor Leonhardt – Taylor is quickly becoming one of my favorite songwriters, and her second album is so worth the wait.
Departures by Jon Foreman – Whether solo or in Switchfoot, Jon Foreman’s music has soundtracked my life. Grateful for these songs that explore the challenges of the past couple years with honesty and hope.
Pressure Machine by The Killers – I didn’t know I wanted a moody, stripped down, Nebraska-esque concept album from The Killers, but I’m really glad it exists.
The Green Knight – David Lowery’s Sir Gawain adaptation is a weird, thoughtful twist on the Arthurian legend that I’m still pondering months later.
Summer of Soul – A fantastic music documentary. I could talk about the beautiful footage restoration and stunning performances, but honestly, my favorite part is watching one interviewee tear up with joy while watching his childhood memories come alive on screen.
WandaVision – A standout series in Marvel’s latest TV experiment, WandaVision works as an exploration of grief and escapism, wrapped up in loving homages to the history of television. (Honorable mention to Hawkeye, a MCU show I loved for completely different reasons.)
Renegades trilogy by Marissa Meyer – A story about warring superhero factions with a strong X-Men vibe. The storyline was thrilling and complex!
Jackelinan series by Stephen Hunt – I got sucked into Hunt’s series set in an alternate reality sort of Victorian steampunk world. I read the first four books, and each of them plays off a genre type of story, from Indiana Jones-style archaeological adventure to murder mystery.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – I absolutely loved Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and this follow-up does not disappoint. If you like mysterious fantasies involving vast magical underground libraries, this is for you.
The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby – Somehow it took me this long to discover Bruce Hornsby. His debut album has such great classics like “Mandolin Rain,” “Every Little Kiss,” and “The Way It Is.”
Into the Mystery by Needtobreathe – One of my favorite bands holed up in a house for three months during the pandemic and created maybe their best album.
Year of Love by Beta Radio – Beta Radio has quietly become one of my favorite bands of the past few years. This album is a meditation on all the anxiety and possibility that 2020 offered.
WandaVision – What can I say, watching WandaVision was a thrilling yet profoundly moving journey.
Spider-Man: No Way Home – As a die-hard Spidey fan, I was delighted and moved by the latest Spider-Man entry.
No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton – The past year has found me digging into Merton’s work more than ever and it’s become an essential element in this stage of my discipleship.
The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead – This book of short stories as tribute to the Big Apple stopped me in my tracks at several moments. Some of Colson’s best work.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle – I’d wanted to read something from the front man for The Mountain Goats for a while now and his debut novel did not disappoint.
Sapling by Foy Vance – The Irishman has never missed in a decade of making music, but the story of this album as an expression of feeling completely useless to those he loves most at home when not able to tour due to the pandemic is so affecting. Vulnerable and beautiful.
Gold-Diggers Sound by Leon Bridges – The smoothest sounds of 2021 belong to Leon Bridges, especially on a groove like “Motorbike”.
Pressure Machine by The Killers – Brandon Flowers did his best Nebraska (Springsteen) impression and created an album that makes me cry every time (“Sleepwalker”, especially).
The Power of the Dog – This recent Netflix release should be a popular name at the next Oscar’s ceremony for myriad reasons, not the least of which are Benedict Cumberbatch’s incredible performance and Jane Campion’s exquisite direction.
Ted Lasso – I suspect this will be a popular listing here at the Rabbit Room for the likely fact that so many of us needed as many uplifting episodes of Ted in an unsettling year as we could get.
Dune – This ticks all my boxes. Childhood literary love? Check. Denis Villenueve directing? Check. Epic sci-fi? Check. A film so many have wanted to make (and failed) over the years fully delivered for me in my first theater-going experience in a couple years.
Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
The Essential Margaret Avison by Margaret Avison – “Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes / The optic heart must venture: a jail break / and re-creation…” I was delighted to discover this collection that pulls together a number of my favourite Avison poems and introduces new ones. ‘Snow’ has shaped a life-long desire to cultivate an ‘optic-heart,’ ‘The Dumbfounding’ is now a perennial Lenten call to reflect upon “the outcast’s outcast” who “sound(s) dark’s uttermost, strangely light-brimming, until / time be full,” as is ‘The Word’ reaching out to that which is “far fallen in the / ashheaps of my / false-making, burnt-out self…”
Keeper’nMe by Richard Wagamese –Delving deeper into the art of my indigenous kin is one of the ways I am seeking to better understand how our Creator calls me to live well in the place I am planted. And I have fallen in love with the storytelling of this Objibwe author. Indian Horse is his signature novel, but the gentle exploration of ‘Story’ in Keeper’nMe moves me deeply, and re-reading it with friends this year incurred some great conversation about the potential healing of community, story, and the refusal to give up on each other.
Saving Us by Katharine Hayhoe – How often is a book recommended by both a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and Margaret Atwood? Hayhoe is a bit of a hero to me for how she persists (and usually succeeds) in facilitating communication, respect, and fruitful dialogue even with those who most adamantly disagree with her. In her work as a scientist she determinedly models a Christlike attitude and practice, the efficacy of which has pleasantly surprised and challenged many who accepted the characterization that Christians don’t care about the planet. If you’re curious about that call to ‘steward the earth,’ pick up this book.
Waska Matisiwin by Laura Niquay – Whilst I await the new album from soulful and sassy Indigenous pastor and musician Cheryl Bear, I have been listening to Waska Matisiwin (‘Circle of Life’), by this Atikamekw (Cree) singer-songwriter. Listed for the Polaris Prize, the album is grungy-folk-meets-indy-Québecois-meets-traditional-indigenous. In her native language Niquay explores themes of community, resilience, hope, and revelation (liner notes include translation into French). Don’t let the language difference be a barrier to the beauty.
Lost Words: Spell Songs – You may have heard Malcolm Guite discuss Robert MacFarlane’s revolutionary picture-book project with artist Jackie Morris: The Lost Words—a protest to the replacement of nature words in the Oxford Junior Dictionary with new technology terms. This album is the collaborative response of a group of independent Scottish, English, and African musicians to that picture book. The concern for language, landscape, the mutual identity of God’s creation is swept up into a blend of harp, guitar, cello, kora, Indian harmonium. “The Lost Words Blessing” is my favourite: inspired by traditional Gaelic blessings, it acknowledges grief whilst summoning hope and light, and calls us to attend. The album throughout is layered with musical and linguistic influences spanning Orkney to Senegal. (And if you’ve not read MacFarlane’s essay on the memory of ice—“The Blue of Time”—please do!)
The Anniversary Collection by ‘Harry Christophers & The Sixteen’ – Purcell, Byrd, Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri are musicians to whose work I could listen on repeat ad infinitum; my Desert Island music. This new album has notable pieces by each, including Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus (Have Mercy on Me, O God)—that polyphonic wonder which boasts one of the most ethereal moments known to music. The one lacunae is Tallis’ Spem in Alium, which serves to remind me of perhaps my favourite art installation experience: watching Steve Guthrie and his family encounter Janet Cardiff’s brilliant reworking of Spem in Alium at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa. Collectively the Guthries manifested what I feel every time I visit that invitation to ‘climb inside’ Purcell’s prayer-motet. This then is my vote to add an artists/exhibitions/installations list in the future!1
The Man Who Planted Trees – With Andrew Peterson, scientist Suzanne Simard, and novelist Richard Powers all reminding us to be like Théodin and ‘remember the trees,’ I’ve enjoyed revisiting and sharing the inspiring short animation ‘The Man Who Planted Trees,’ by Frédéric Back, based on Jen Giono’s short story L’homme qui plantait des arbres. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, and free for watching on the National Filmboard of Canada site, this evocative telling of a sylvan shepherd in the foothills of Provence will have you reaching for a spade.
Making Peace with Creation – Theologian, poet, environmentalist, and Inklings guru Loren Wilkinson (himself an institution at Regent College, Vancouver) explores the vital relationship between humans and the rest of Creation, and how the Incarnation of Christ speaks to that relationship: what it means for us as Image-bearers, co-creators, and dwellers of the earth. Bringing visual artists and philosopher Iain McGilchrist to the conversation, the stunning videography and accompanying works of art invite us to respond with embodied wonder. Directed by Iwan Russell-Jones, this hour-long documentary has just been re-released for free viewing.
Wolfwalkers – The third in the stunningly animated Irish Trilogy by studio Cartoon Saloon finally arrived in December 2020 (the first two were ‘The Secret of Kells’ and ‘Song of the Sea,’ and their sister-piece is ‘Breadwinner’). As visually sumptuous as the previous works, this tale delves again with detail into both history and historic art, as well as cultural myth, for inspiration. The reminder of actions taken by Cromwell and his tree-felling troops as they sought to subdue 17th century Ireland, and the religious language they used to fortify their actions, is not comfortable but invites some important questions. Our relationship with beauty, nature, and each other continues to be explored, as does the invitation to parse out the misuse of religion for power and our cultural lenses in consideration of what might be holy.
Determined to Believe? by John Lennox – Good, clear thinking on Scripture and doctrine from the Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh – A hard book, but an important one. We need Waugh’s voice these days. This novel is in many ways just Ecclesiastes.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – It was high time I read Robinson, and she didn’t let me down. She has a lot to say about longing in this work, the sort of desire that Lewis calls sehnsucht in Surprised by Joy.
Don’t Lose Your Laughter by Aaron Schnupp – A beautiful debut album and a much-needed encouragement for the year. Aaron is a true poet, and his honesty—met with his narrative, imagery, and admittance that “hope is painful work”—made this album one of the best parts of my year.
Poet Priest by Andy Squyres – A lot of my prayers this year came from this album. Listening to his music feels like reading the last chapter of a Wendell Berry novel, and if Andy Catlett had been a songwriter, I think there’s a good chance his work would be this.
Sticks and Stones by Justin Schumacher – Some of the best folk material around. Six songs with such a solid vibe. My autumn sounded a lot like this.
Cinderella Man – It’s hard to beat a story about boxing.
A Hidden Life – I think a lot about the question Malick is asking in this film: whether or not faithfulness at all costs matters when there’s absolutely no earthly gain. He lets it play out on a grand scale so we can see it better, but it’s a question we should be asking every day, because we face it every day.
Tenet – I just don’t plan to stop thinking about this one. I feel like a kid at a magic show. I just want to see Nolan do it again and again.
C’Mon C’Mon – This black and white story about a man and his nephew is the most life I saw on a screen this year. It’s a story about empathy, to be sure, but mostly it’s a story about finding yourself by truly listening to someone else. It’s heart-achingly sweet and tender, without overt sentimentality. This is the kind of film that makes you want to be better.
The French Dispatch – This is the Andersonest Anderson. It’s Wes in peak form, telling an anthology of travelogue stories, complete with his color palette perfection. But more than just being great Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch is funny (Tilda Swinton is hilarious), sweet, and always interesting. The ensemble cast features Anderson stalwarts like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, and many more.
West Side Story – Climb up the fire escape, and find out what happens when the greatest film director of all time takes on a musical. This retelling of a classic film isn’t just a serviceable remake, it’s a jewel in his crown. The emotional weight provided by the combination of a cast of largely unknowns and Spielberg’s technical brilliance makes for a masterpiece.
Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund – I know a lot of people have talked about this book but it is with good reason. For me, it was like a friend who put their arm around my shoulder and quietly reminded me of some much-needed truths about the heart of God. There were so many sections I underlined and re-read but this one sentence stopped me in my tracks and sums up much of what the book is about: “Perhaps Satan’s greatest victory in your life today is not the sin in which you regularly indulge but the dark thoughts of God’s heart that cause you to go there in the first place and keep you cool toward him in the wake of it.”
Deep Roots of Resilient Disciples by Rick Hill – Rick Hill is a fellow Northern Irish author and this book was one of the surprise discoveries of 2021 for me. If Gentle and Lowly was a reminder that God is for me, despite my repeated failure to live up to my own standards, let alone His, then this book was a call to live intentionally and courageously in the light of the grace I have found. Maybe it’s because he’s writing out of the same culture I live in, but there is an earthiness to Hill’s approach that feels very rooted in local community and the rhythms of practical, ordinary, everyday life in a “post-pandemic” world.
The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman – This is not a book that will change your life but, if you’re anything like me, it will make you smile. I was given a copy by my daughter’s friend and I read it with few expectations. The main characters are a group of elderly friends who live in a retirement home and solve murders for fun. It’s light-hearted, entertaining and shamelessly ridiculous at times, but I loved it.
The Chosen – I am not generally a fan of on-screen portrayals of Jesus and I was sceptical when a good friend assured me I would love The Chosen. As a family we reluctantly gave it a try, and by two or three episodes in we were hooked and I was crying. It’s beautifully made and the way they capture the humanity of Jesus helped me read the gospels with fresh eyes. There are so many highlights but the scene where the disciples are fishing and the nets are suddenly full of fish, and the moment when Jesus turns the water into wine, are stunning.
All Creatures Great and Small – This is a favourite in our house and managed to delight our teenagers as much as it delighted us. It is gentle, warm and charming and it should be watched by the fire with people you love.
This is Us – Glenn and I started watching this on a whim during the lockdown at the start of 2021. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I do, and it’s not flawless, but there is something captivating about the way the story jumps between the past and the present, giving you insights into each of the characters as adults.
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry – All of his best poetry (in my humble opinion) in one volume. A tender love song to dirt and grass and everything quietly content to exist. It’s the kind of poetry book that sits by my reading chair so I can pick it up after difficult and noisy days. Some of his poems are better than others, of course, but for the most part, they settle my soul.
God of the Garden by Andrew Peterson – The sketches alone are worth the price of admission, but there’s so much more. In classic Peterson fashion, he weaves together vulnerable life anecdotes with ancient wisdom to make a transcendent reading experience. Dig deep. Branch out. Bear fruit.
The Crown – My short attention span robbed me of this incredible series for several years. I just couldn’t stick out the first couple of episodes, but then I got hooked. A work of art. High story-telling complimented by remarkable acting, filming, and a soundtrack to match.
James Bond: No Time to Die – A fitting finale that restored spectacle to the silver screen.
We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God by Kendall Vanderslice – Kendall’s exploration of the centrality of the Table to Christian life and worship—plumbing the depths of its metaphorical and literal beauty—has injected new life into the ways my family eats and worships. Side bonus: her Instagram account is chock full of practical bread making tips and profound liturgies for baking.
Stories of the Saints by Carey Wallace – This collection of tales includes absolutely striking illustrations by Nick Thornborrow. As the author writes in the introduction, “it’s their stubborn hope in something beyond this world that makes saints brave and good. But they don’t just point to things the rest of us can’t see. Led by their faith, they actually bring the better world to be, and invite us all in.”
Eternal Light by Paul Zach – Paul Zach’s songs are always artfully written and often perfectly suited to congregational singing. His past albums and his work as part of The Porter’s Gate collaborative are the kind of favorites I come back to again and again. His new offering is no exception to this pattern. Plus, Liz Vice sings on multiple tracks; if you know, you know.
Spell Songs and Spell Songs II: Let the Light In by Jim Molyneux, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis – The companion music to Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words and The Lost Spells, this pair of albums is super creative, beautiful, haunting, yet comfortable enough for repeated listening.
tick, tick…BOOM! – It made me cry, and it made me feel less alone as an artist and human being. Basically what I’m looking for in a movie.
Ted Lasso – This was everyone’s favorite of all the things in 2021, right?
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn – These are five semi-autobiographical novels by the English author, each focused on just a few days or even hours of fringe upper class Patrick’s life, from young boyhood to middle age. Trigger warning: in the first he is sexually abused by his father (thankfully, we are spared too much detail) and this causes lifelong damage. For instance, in his early twenties he is wildly hooked on hard drugs. But the writing is truly sparkling and at times incredibly funny (I’ll never forget the tightly crafted descriptions of his insanely freewheeling trips in book 2). But over the five novels, we find deep humanity and grow to deeply love Patrick. And he finds gentle redemption through his own two young sons. The recent miniseries with Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his finest performances is remarkable too. But go to the books first!
Dweller in Shadows: A Life of Ivor Gurney by Kate Kennedy – It’s unlikely you have heard of Gurney, a criminally forgotten English poet and composer (almost Tolkien’s exact contemporary). But he was almost the archetypal troubled genius. He battled with mental illness for most of his life anyway, but serving in the First World War trenches hardly helped. In 1922 he was certified insane and spent the last fifteen years of his life in the City of London Mental Asylum, Dartford. It didn’t stop him writing or composing, though this ground to a halt in the 1930s (he died in 1937). Kennedy has written a brilliant biography; she’s uniquely qualified as a classically trained cellist with an English literature PhD. Especially moving to see how close friends like Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Herbert Howells stuck by him to the very end.
Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come by T. J. Clark – Clark is an atheist Marxist and History of Art professor at London’s Courtauld Institute with decades of experience. He is also a superb writer and polymath. I couldn’t put this book down—he wrestles with honesty and passion to interpret paintings he loves, expounding details brilliantly and giving historical context, from Giotto to Picasso. So interesting.
Recomposed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Max Richter – You might recognise Richter’s sound world, as it’s been featured in many a soundtrack and influenced many others. The Four Seasons is an old classical warhorse, and it’s easy to forget its genius. The surprise with this album (which I only encountered last year) is that for all the quirks and messing around with the old Venetian priest’s original, Richter has managed to make the original shine ever brighter while creating something uniquely beautiful and contemporary.
Infinity by Voces8 – I’m a sucker for anything this British acapella group put out. The quality of the singing is incredibly high: tonally precise and pure but never stolid or cold. Their repertoire is pretty eclectic too. This, their latest album, is no exception.
Chemtrails over the Country Club by Lana del Rey – Constantly surprising, even unsettling, this album is utterly beguiling. It is beautifully produced, without ever losing a sense of brittle fragility and hurt. Have definitely had days with Chemtrails on a loop!
The Dig – Based on the true story from Sutton Hoo in 1930s Suffolk as the storm clouds of war gathered. An amateur archaeologist (Basil Brown played by Ralph Fiennes) is convinced there is something significant under a widow’s (Carey Mulligan) farmland. The bigwigs from London try to take over, but in the end, the victory is his because they discover one of the UK’s largest ever Anglo-Saxon hoards buried in a huge ship. Much of it is in the British Museum for all to see now. I spent most of my childhood growing up just twenty minutes away and Fiennes’ accept is spot on! A stunningly beautiful film apart from the absurd shoehorning in of fictitious romance subplots. And why we don’t get to see the actual treasure at the end I’ve no idea!
Minari – Another beautiful cinematic paean to land and the landscape, this time 1980s Arkansas, as a Korean family immigrates and tries to start a new life on some disused farmland. It’s tough, needless to say, and there are many inevitable conflicts and much heart-searching. But it is such a grittily inspiring depiction of family life and loves, as well as of gentle, groping, confused Christian faith, that I was overwhelmed by it. The director’s semi-autobiographical story.
Charité – A German language show with just six episodes per season, set in the Charité, Berlin’s world-famous teaching hospital, at different times (#1 in 1880s, #2 in 1940s, #3 in 1960s). Have only been able to see first two seasons so far but it’s gripping, beautifully acted, and thought-provoking. Backstories are inevitably dark, because these periods in German history were dark: anti-semitism, eugenics, fascism, and so on all profoundly challenged the dilemmas and integrity of medics who were desperate to do the right thing.
A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier – It is always good for my soul to read books by or about Eugene Peterson. Knowing him changed my life and affected the way I approach my work, church, community, and my own long obedience in the same direction. This authorized biography by Winn Collier is wonderful.
The Night Lake by Liz Tichenor – This is a beautifully written book by a young priest on faith and loss. I was very moved by her story and her writing.
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall – I really enjoyed this story about two families who are friends and in ministry together navigating the inevitable joys and sorrows of life. It reminded me of Wallace Stegner’s writing.
A Beginner’s Mind by Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – This album feels other-worldly and achingly beautiful. The way their voices and styles blend together is perfect.
Daniel Tashian – You might know Daniel Tashian as a producer for Kacey Musgraves, but if you haven’t heard his music, now is the time! I have really been enjoying his EP with Burt Bacharach called Blue Umbrella and his Christmas EP called It’s a Snow Globe World. Check out the title track featuring Patty Griffin.
Sunday Night Soul – This is a live music event that happens twice a month or so in Nashville at The 5 Spot and is hosted/founded by the insanely talented Jason Eskridge. I don’t know what took me so long to make it out to this concert series but it was a highlight of 2021 for me and it won’t be my last time! Follow Jason Eskridge on Instagram for information about the upcoming shows. The joy in the room was palpable.
Mare of Easttown – I loved, loved, loved this show. All the darkness felt like it was building to something healing and the acting was out of this world.
Ted Lasso – Not much to say here, just found most episodes a joy and a nice escape.
Only Murders in the Building – I loved the unexpected throwback style of this show and watching Martin Short steal every scene.
Merry Christmas, Anne by Kallie George, illustrated by Geneviève Godbout – This was a late addition to the Stuff I Liked in 2021, since I bought it for my older daughter (who’s not quite three years old) just before Christmas. But not only is it a delightful picturebook that’s remarkably true to the spirit of L. M. Montgomery’s story and characters, it’s a surprisingly deep meditation on community and art.
A Faith of Our Own by Austin M. Farrer – Another late addition to Stuff I Liked in 2021; it was a Christmas present from my wife. Austin Farrer was one of the most brilliant theologians of the twentieth century. His works are often quite difficult to read. So it was refreshing to glimpse, in this little volume of essays, the clarity and depth with which Fr. Farrer the priest could write on practical and theological subjects for a general audience.
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken – I reread this in the summer of 2021, and found Chapters 9 and 10—on the development of Christian poetry and visual art—particularly enjoyable.
Becoming Dallas Willard by Gary W. Moon – Dallas Willard’s work on spiritual formation is notable for its practical, philosophical, and occasionally mystical depth. And this biography gave me a fuller appreciation of all that went into forming the man who could write what he wrote.
Surrounded by Scott Mulvahill – Scott’s bass playing has as many levels of complexity as Fred Astaire’s dancing. He makes lines sing; he adds harmonic color and depth to accompaniment; and he provides songs with a strong rhythmic pulse—often doing all three things simultaneously. At the top of his baritone range, his voice is also a notably strong and supple instrument. On Surrounded, he explores tender subjects: what-if?, denial, heartbreak, and the rich, gritty joys of home. And he does so in a most striking way: in conversation with woodwinds and strings and, on his beautiful cover of “Up Above My Head,” with the gospel vocal trio ReSound. Few musicians could serve such a feast in the space of an EP.
25 Trips by Sierra Hull – Forty-five minutes of pure musical and lyrical enchantment from one of the great musicians of our time.
Senderos by Dino Saluzzi – The music of the Argentine bandoneon master defies easy categorization. But it’s always a joy to hear his musical explorations.
Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings by Ingo Walther and Rainer Metzger – You get a workout just lifting this comprehensive 732-page book. It’s more than just the art; it’s also an extensive biography that mines Vincent’s letters and works in an effort to understand his motivations and his progression as an artist.
In the Heights: Finding Home – Lin Manuel Miranda’s pandemic-delayed musical film was wildly entertaining, and this companion volume—similar to his “Hamiltome”—is so full of heart it works even if you’ve never seen the movie.
Hawkeye by Fraction & Aja: The Saga of Barton and Bishop – The primary source material for the Disney+ series was re-released in a collected softcover this year, and it was wonderful to revisit. This is some of the best comic book storytelling you’ll find anywhere.
Pressure Machine by The Killers – This was unexpected. The band of gloss and bombast created a series of intimate character studies populating a small Utah town. “Sleepwalker” is the “Dear Prudence” we all need after a couple of hard years.
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) [From the Vault]” by Taylor Swift – Here’s a primer: Taylor Swift is re-recording her old music to get the rights. This sleeper hit from Red was ten minutes long before trimming, and as part of the autocover Swift has given us the full version, (the most parenthetical song of all time), directed an accompanying short film, and ushered a new era of unrelenting ire toward Jake Gyllenhaal. This is brilliant songwriting that just became even more brilliant.
Sign O The Times (Super Deluxe Edition) by Prince – This Grammy-nominated box set captures Prince at what might have been the height of his creative prowess. The album was already his best, but the book and vault tracks reveal new insights into the enigmatic artist.
Spider Man: No Way Home – See what happens when people work out their differences? Sony and Marvel squabbled over Spidey, parted ways for a bit, reconciled, and we got the best movie of a storied and sometimes bumpy franchise. (Plus, my kid’s in the high school scene!)
Get Back – Peter Jackson’s take on hours of footage of the Beatles in the studio in their waning days as a band is personal, revelatory, and a treasure for fans. From stories of the era, I expected John and Paul to be at each other’s throats; instead, their old friendship was kinda charming. Also, Jackson still needs an editor.
tick, tick… Boom! – Andrew Garfield is brilliant in this engaging biopic that captures the joy and anguish of the creative process. Can he please win the Oscar? Please?
Hawkeye – This six-part series was so charming and fun, maybe because the stakes were not about saving the universe from destruction but simply making it home for Christmas. Renner and Steinfeld were wonderful leads. (Plus, I got to work on four episodes and had a ball.)
The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air by Søren Kierkegaard – I dedicated most of my 2020-2021 reading to the life and times of SK, and this was one of the shortest, most accessible, and most personally transformative books of the lot. A great intro for anyone hoping to read SK directly.
Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – A historian’s take on how a group of ordinary men became mass-murdering Nazis. Psycho-sobering.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez – A laboriously-researched genealogy that offers some explanatory power for our cultural moment. If the subtitle angers you, maybe reading the book won’t.
A Pillar of Salt by Noah Gundersen – Perhaps the first Gundersen album with palpable hope throughout, and I’m here for it.
Phoenix by Pedro the Lion – Ah, to grow up in such a beloved, bizarre desert city. If it hits at all, it’ll probably hit hard.
Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens – Dear Lord (hug me, I’m scared)
Jojo Rabbit – Deep, jarring comedy… the good stuff.
My Octopus Teacher – The philosopher of biology Peter Godfrey wrote a whole book about the octopus as a window into other minds and the nature of consciousness. This could be the film adaptation as far as I’m concerned.
Seinfeld – I learned everything I shouldn’t know, and way too early at that, thanks to this show. It’s a pleasure to relearn.