Why bother talking about movies and music in 2019?

Over the next week, time permitting, I will post my annual lists — a tradition I’ve sustained since I was 13 years old, a compulsion that I don’t fully understand, a process that feels both celebratory and maddening.

Back then, I thought I was doing something unique; I didn’t know anybody else who had similar impulses. Now, I live in a world of lists, and it’s easy to feel that such an activity is pointless.

But when I go to work on them, I forget my reservations because I remember that to testify in public about what creative work has blessed me is an expression of gratitude, and the world can always use more gratitude.

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: I would never be so presumptuous as to call my selections “The Best of the Year.” I haven’t seen or heard enough to make such judgments. Moreover, our encounters with art are as personal and distinctive and ever-changing as our relationships with people. If I share a list of favorites with you, I’m testifying that this experience was meaningful for me, and while I’m inviting you to experience it for yourself, I make no claims or promises.

For music, I’ll post my 25 Favorite Recordings of 2019 (albums I’ve played most and recommended most highly), but only after I’ve posted a big list of Honorable Mentions (albums I’m enjoying and still learning to appreciate). These will be separate posts.

For cinema, similarly, I’ll post a long list of runners-up, and then a 25 Favorite Films of 2019 list.

I admit — I’ve found it difficult this to concentrate on these lists, to find words for why music and movies are still so important to me during these troubling times.

2019 was a difficult year in the Overstreet home.

We are still wounded and weary with grief from a sudden and tragic death in our family, which meant that our summer was full of difficult conversations with family and complicated decisions. Soon after that, one of my dearest friends over the last 20 years passed away. And now, in this last week of 2019, we are saying another painful farewell.

These losses have seemed even heavier because of their historical context: Every day brings further news of the seeming self-destruction of the country I love. I feel the losses of betrayals as so many of the Americans — and more specifically, so many professing Christians — who taught me to prioritize justice and mercy have decided that to set these ideals aside for the sake of gaining political advantages. They have aligned themselves with racists and misogynists. They have turned back the clock on civil rights, and they have all but torn down the Statue of Liberty in hardening their hearts against immigrants and refugees. I’ve seen so many people I once respected and admired pledge their loyalty to a vile tyrant, and to a party that has locked arms in defense of his lies, obscenities, and atrocities. The nation I loved has abandoned its vision of “liberty and justice for all,” profaning the sacrifices of generations before them, in favor of “power and riches for some” — the antithesis to Christ’s Gospel of love and grace.

This present darkness has made it difficult to appreciate or enjoy some unexpected blessings. In my career, for example: I find myself now, much to my astonishment, after two years of adjunct work at Seattle Pacific University, blessed with the title “Assistant Professor of English and Writing.” And, due to the trust and support of the SPU administration, that title has just been unexpectedly amended to include “Writer-in-Residence.”

I am grateful. But it is hard to celebrate these occasions when I am surrounded by such obvious hardship and suffering.

So I am making the most of my opportunity: I aim to sharpen my students’ minds, soften their hearts, and equip them with the skills to make a difference. I hope to cultivate empathy and appreciation for integrity, excellence, and justice, I pray that their lives will become testimonies of truthfulness and mercy, lights shining in the darkness.

And as I engage in this daily discipline, I find myself doubly blessed. I’m grateful for every opportunity that I have to introduce students to great art — literature, music, and cinema.

And I’m grateful for the occasions I’ve had — rare as they are these days — to write about and speak about those experiences. (This year, for example, I was delighted to speak at Brehm Cascadia’s Story & Sacrament conference and at Seattle Pacific University’s Day of Common Learning. Best of all, I led a week-long film seminar in Santa Fe, at the Glen Workshop, focusing on great films about friendship… in a real movie theater! And I contributed several long essays to Good Letters, the long-running Image arts blog.)

But this is strenuous work.

And, under the crashing waves of personal losses and large-scale betrayals, I often need to swim to the surface of this turbulent sea for fresh air and for illumination.

Music and movies provide that. I spend so much of my teaching time reading that I feel less driven to read literature in my “spare time.” I want the mysteries of music and cinematography, which speak to me so differently from text.

Many of those occasions in movie theaters and under headphones have given particularly poignant expression to loss and to longing. Consider Ghosteen, Nick Cave’s epic expression of longing for consolation after the death of his young son. Consider Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation, another travel journal of lament and hope.

And so, in the posts I’m preparing now, I invite you to explore, to see if you too might find rewarding relationships with any of these albums or films. And I hope I’ll hear from you, as I have over so many years, about these selections and others that have become important to you. Though 2019 is ending, our exploration of its treasures is not — it’s just begun.

And by providing this fuel for one another’s fires, we can help each other burn in the dark.