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postOur year in culture: Books, movies, and music of 2009, part 3
by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

This week we’ve been posting about some of our favorite cultural artifacts of the year—books, movies and music not necessarily made in 2009, but consumed, pondered, enjoyed and treasured by each of us along the way. Earlier this week we heard from Nate Barksdale and Christy Tennant; today Andy Crouch finishes up the series.

There were a handful of cultural artifacts that took my breath away in 2009. Here they are, in roughly the order I encountered them:

Of course, I had heard of Over the Rhine before 2009. But I had never heard them in person. In 2009, I finally did, twice. Their sly, stylish, hook-laden yet depths-sounding music is a wonder.

Also in the “better late than never” category, I got around to listening to Pierce Pettis’s 2001 album State of Grace, a meditation on the South that connected me to my own Southern roots and the beautiful, broken stories of my Scotch-Irish ancestors.

At a distance, I’ve been thrilled to see the success of Fringe Atlanta, the most unlikely chamber music program in the nation: serious, stirring performances of the classical repertoire mixed up with the spinning sounds of one of Atlanta’s hottest DJs, Little Jen. What other classical music program is selling out tickets to an under-35 crowd and has them clapping and whooping after a viola solo in the middle of a string quartet?

The 5-part documentary Brick City, which aired on the Sundance Channel in September, is a tour de force, not least because of the walking tour de force who is one of its principal subjects: Cory Booker, the energetic young mayor of Newark, New Jersey. If you care about cities, leadership, gangs, violence and peacemaking, or redemption—or almost any other aspect of culture making—this series will provoke, disturb, and encourage you.

I read some marvelous books this year, and two that I read just this month are likely to stick with me for a long time. Both are memoirs (the genre of the new millennium, it seems). Kent Annan’s Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle is an unsparingly honest story of relocation to Haiti that captures the complexities of crossing differences of power, wealth, and culture in hopes of being part of God’s work of transformation, without and within. It’s funny, gritty, and strangely hopeful—just what a Christian memoir should be.

The same words could apply to the biggest surprise of my reading in 2009, a self-published memoir by Amy Julia Becker, Penelope Ayers. This book might seem to have everything against it. “Self-published” is usually another way of saying “self-indulgent.” The subject, the death of the author’s mother-in-law from cancer, is so common that, as I have written in the past, every editor has a pile of unusable manuscripts from people trying to capture the experience of accompanying a loved one through illness unto death. Usually they fall into unintentional clichés, sentimentality, and too much detail.

But Penelope Ayers is written with an unerring voice, a keen eye for hard and beautiful truth, and almost no false notes. Especially significant is the way that Amy Julia (whom I met this fall through a mutual friend) manages to weave honest reflections about faith into the story without in any way giving in to Christianese or insider platitudes. This is one book a Christian could give to a non-believing friend and say, “This is what it’s like to believe, from the inside.” We’ll be hearing more from Amy Julia Becker—perhaps, with any luck, in 2010.