Last year, I started a tradition of compiling a few of my favorite things from the year ending. Books, music, and film have been my constant companions for as long as I can remember. So here are my superlatives from 2021.
The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology, by Thomas Joseph White
I am a slow and deliberate and fairly selective reader. I rarely read books that are hot off the presses. There are so many great books that I haven’t read that I usually wait to see which books stand up to the scrutiny of time before making the commitment to read them. I try to prioritize the classics I haven’t read, or haven’t read in too long (for example, this year I did some remedial work in Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clarivaux, and Bonaventure). So I almost never read enough books published in the current year to have a favorite. This year was no different. My favorite book from 2021 was actually published in 2017. Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican Thomistic scholar of the first rank, has written a truly magisterial treatment of this central Christian doctrine (I noticed it made Brandon’s best of list too). White’s book covers a remarkably wide range of issues on the person and work of Christ: everything from dyothelitism and the satisfaction theory of the atonement to the descent into hell and the nature of the resurrection body. I don’t quite agree on every point (his critique of the Calvinist doctrine of penal substitution distorts some things) but White’s treatment is consistently erudite and fair. Almost he persuadest me to believe Thomas’s view on the knowledge of the human nature of Christ (that Christ possessed the beatific vision and perfect knowledge in his higher soul). Overall, this book is a remarkable achievement in defense of classic Christology and an ontological understanding of Christ as true God and true man.
Honorable Mention: Dracula, by Bram Stoker, a classic in the horror genre I only recently read for the first time.
Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung
I believe this was officially a 2020 film but only had wide release in early 2021. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant family trying to build a farm and adjust to life in 1980s rural Arkansas. Beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, Minari is small story with massive implications for the human predicament. Some of the turns are wrenching, but the resolution is positively feel-good . Don’t miss the religious overtones: the religious fanatic, the exorcisms, the idol of money, the importance of church/community, the inclusion of the other, the costs of love, the gifts of grace (the minari plant that gives the film its title grows without effort). Also, the main character is named Jacob and he builds a well! Another subtext: the emotional strains of manhood in bleak economic circumstances, a theme that is noticeably muted in much popular art. (As I write this, there are a couple movies I have yet to see that are much anticipated: P. T. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley).
Honorable mention: Dune: Part One, directed by Denis Villeneuve
Pressure Machine, by The Killers
I have always enjoyed The Killers (and lead singer Brandon Flowers’ solo work as well) but this album marks a decisive step forward for the band, in my estimation. The polished pop rock anthems are traded in for mostly subtle and somber acoustic reflections on the depths of human pain. I don’t want to share too much because the album needs to be experienced not over-analyzed, but suffice it to say the album is about life in rural Utah (where Flowers lived for a period as a child) and especially the aftermath of the opioid epidemic (overdoses, suicide, and the shattered dreams of youth). Musically, it has echoes of R.E.M. and fairly obvious homages to Bruce Springsteen. The latter comparison is most apt because Flowers is able to accomplish for his native West what the Boss did for the working class in his native New Jersey. Religious themes are threaded throughout. So this isn’t just an album about pain; it’s also about wrestling through doubt and despair to find meaning and hope, symbolized in the opening track’s “West Hills” (a theme pregnant with biblical allusions).
Honorable Mention: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, by The War on Drugs