Commentary: Inspiring hope – Top picks in 2012 pop culture

By Greg Garrett, Special Contributor…

From the comeback of a beloved quarterback to the completion of a beloved movie trilogy, here are my top picks for some of the most hopeful and uplifting stories of the year.

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan is, without doubt, the great popular filmmaker of our age. In blockbusters like the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, he asks hard questions about life and how we’re supposed to live it. In this final film of his Batman trilogy he simultaneously rivets us to our chairs and makes us consider how we are to respond to a world full of violence, economic inequity, and everyone-for-one’s-self selfishness.

In the world of The Dark Knight Rises, unlikely heroes emerge, and everyone can be a hero—the point of the costume—Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) says toward the end of the film. Take two: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s police officer who becomes so much more, and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a former prostitute and jewel thief who has rightfully thought she has to look out for herself. Throughout the film Wayne/Batman constantly challenges her to do better, to be better, and he offers himself as an example of self-sacrifice. She tells him he’s given Gotham City everything; he responds, “Not yet.” As “media nun” Sister Helena Burns points out on her blog (, the film is perhaps overlong, but it may need to be to hold all its thematic material: “Hope! Despair! Failure! Moving on! Sacrifice! Torture! Justice! Darkness! Light!” This Dark Knight inspires us to hope, to toil, to rise to the best within us.

Doctor Who

It’s rare that a TV show affects me so powerfully as the recent run of the BBC’s Doctor Who has, but, as always, it’s about character. When an appealing character such as the Doctor (Matt Smith) interacts with such lovely and spunky people as Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill) and together they save worlds and each other, you get to care about them. A lot. Of course, at first, there was some romantic tension between Amy and the Doctor—she had waited her whole life for him, and ignored the loving Rory. But in this season, especially, the married couple had grown strong in their love, and ultimately, they choose that love together over a life of adventure, even though it devastates the Doctor—and us.

Amy’s story, The Guardian’s Dan Martin wrote, has always been about growing up. Like Luke Skywalker, always her mind was somewhere else, never on the pedestrian elements of life. And yet, we know, life takes place here and now. Sometimes that is adventurous; sometimes it is a long life full of day after day. The latter is what Amy consciously chooses at the end of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the episode that ends this half season of Doctor Who. Doing the work, showing up for life, even when it’s not glamorous or particularly exciting, is what the spiritual life is all about. Thankfully, we’ll also have the memories of our adventures with the Ponds to keep us company.

The Hunger Games

In my piece for The Huffington Post, I read the fine film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel as a parable for the Great Recession, and argued, “a narrative that shows young people competing to the death against each other so that those they love can have enough to eat is just a more-violent version of the Ayn Randian laissez-faire capitalism shaping our economic life now. . . . If we’re fast enough, tough enough, work hard enough—and don’t befall some accident in the woods—we should be just fine.”

Over the top? Maybe a bit. But that’s what science fiction can do for us—go a little overboard so maybe we can see in its hyberbole the direction we’re headed. Not only is this story wrestling with recession and our great military adventures in the Middle East, I think it also foregrounds our cultural penchant for voyeurism. As I told the Los Angeles Times, the Hunger Games may seem impossible, but they’re simply our reality TV shows pushed to a lethal point. Would people actually watch other people killing and dying? Well, I fear, yes. We gravitate to train wrecks already on Jersey Shore and Hoarders and what have you, and there’s a spiritual cost to that.

Mumford and Sons, Babel

It entered the charts at Number One in the States, Britain and Canada, and while it didn’t chart a new musical direction for the popular folkies from London, it didn’t need to. By turns rousing and musing, Babel explores love, life and faith; and while it’s hard to tease out a coherent theological vision—Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes writes that “Babel is full of all manner of religious shoptalk, with biblical metaphors swirling like detritus in a Christopher Nolan film”—the individual moments and the whole offer powerful lessons. Lead singer Marcus Mumford, the son of prominent British evangelical Christians, has written another set of songs informed by the language of spirit, songs about sin, repentance, forgiveness and redemption, and whether we hear them as secular or spiritual songs, they offer us wisdom. In “Holland Road,” perhaps a story about a break up, the Mumfords offer us haunting lines about loss and hope:

But I’ll still believe, though there’s cracks you’ll see,
When I’m on my knees, I’ll still believe,
And when I’ve hit the ground, neither lost nor found,
If you’ll believe in me, I’ll still believe.

In the first single, “I Will Wait,” we don’t know whether it is a girl or God referenced in the line “Well you forgave and I won’t forget,” but in a sense, it doesn’t matter. As has been said of U2, you can hear these as love songs to a human being, or to a Supreme Being. The band invites us to spiritual encounter, whether in the title track (“Cause I know my weakness, know my voice / I’ll believe in grace and choice”) or in songs like “Ghosts That We Knew,” which asks “Give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light.” Hope in the darkness is a huge thing to proffer; this band does so in music that engages and uplifts, and I am grateful.

Peyton Manning/Robert Griffin III

Pro football is the most popular sport in America, and despite a year littered with debris—a tragic murder/suicide, a scandal centered on a bounty program run by the New Orleans Saints targeting opposing quarterbacks, and a continuing stream of bad news about concussions and their long-term health effects—two of the most compelling storylines in the NFL are Peyton Manning’s Denver comeback from neck surgery and the ascendancy of the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III.

Mr. Manning, long an iconic figure in the game, missed the entire 2011 season and was released by the Colts, who feared he might never return or might be substantially diminished if he did. All Mr. Manning has done with his new team, the Broncos, is to lead them to dramatic victories, a division title, and to what The Sporting News calls “the best season of his illustrious Hall of Fame career.”

Meanwhile, as of this writing, Mr. Griffin’s jersey is the most-purchased in America, and the press coverage is never-ending, both within and outside the Beltway. A few games ago, when it looked as though the Redskins were completely out of the playoff picture, Mr. Griffin urged his teammates to believe that they could achieve something memorable together—and despite the odds, by New Year’s they had ridden Mr. Griffin and a newly-tenacious defense into playoff contention. When weighed against all the storylines of greed, violence and dysfunction in our culture in particular and in sports in particular, these two players offer inspiration through their embodiment of hard work and hope.

Dr. Garrett is a novelist and author of several nonfiction books on religion and pop culture. This article first appeared on Reprinted with permission.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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