Cover Story

CULTURE: A year in review

"We should recognize that seismic events impact on the creative process and that artistic and spiritual rebirth can follow a shattering experience." -Singer-songwriter Paul Simon on the effects of 9/11

Issue: "Year in Review 2001," Dec. 29, 2001

After the planes flew into the towers, pop culture stopped in its tracks. For days, entertainment programming on TV was suspended in favor of 'round-the-clock news. Movie theaters closed, Hollywood studios shelved their latest shoot-'em-ups, and recording studios recalled their rap albums about blowing up buildings and killing cops. Dan Rather, the anchor of liberal bias, wept on national TV and was comforted by the erstwhile cynical comedian David Letterman. Sophisticated New Yorkers started flying the American flag. So did the rest of the country. Patriotism was no longer something to be ashamed of. Overnight, a nation that had made a fetish of its diversity united. Sept. 11 was the year's cultural turning point, with a clear demarcation between where the culture was going before and after the attack. And yet, ironically, a new, more culturally conservative mood could be seen coming even before the terrorists hit. Showing up
Let it not be said that Christianity is excluded from the public square. Hard-core, conservative Christian books from evangelical publishing houses dominated the bestseller lists, not only the new and old titles in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's end-of-time franchise Left Behind, but even more spectacularly Bruce Wilkerson's The Prayer of Jabez, which enlarged its territory to the point of selling close to 9 million copies. Christians who question the theology of these books were not thrilled by those big numbers, but at least Bible sales were up 40 percent after Sept. 11. In popular music, Christians, semi-Christians, or crypto-Christians (it is not always clear which) had a huge presence. Creed was one of the most popular of all rock bands; U2 made a heralded comeback; and Contemporary Christian Music veterans P.O.D. ("payable on death") broke through to the other side to find mainstream recognition and success. Overtaken by events
Over-the-air networks, cable companies, and satellite empires battled with each other and bought each other out in 2001. Broadcast executives, thinking they had to compete with pay-TV channels for smaller and smaller audiences, tried to imitate HBO and Showtime cutting-edge fare. Some of that displayed quality (A Band of Brothers) and other shows simply sensationalized sex. Regrettably, the networks often imitated not the quality but the sex. Reality TV, from more Survivor to sex-drenched teases like Temptation Island, remained in vogue, then multiplied to the point of near-fatal overpopulation. But Reality TV all but faded as the real reality of Sept. 11 clicked in. Terrorism, national crisis, and war made Americans care about what was going on, so TV news at times performed well, even patriotically-though some network brass cracked down on reporters wearing American flag lapel pins, for fear it might compromise their "objectivity." Some executives complained of the "patriotism police"; another, ABC's David Westin, took the concept of objectivity to its logical conclusion and refused to say whether he was for or against the suicide bombing of the Pentagon. The resulting PR disaster forced Mr. Westin to take a position (against). The year's biggest winner: the Fox News Network, which allows conservative points of view to be heard without the usual sneers. The upstart 24-hour news channel beat out the far more liberal CNN even though it is carried on far fewer cable systems. Tunes, tones, and trends
The music industry showed contrary trends going on at the same time. Teeny-bopper acts like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears were enormously popular, as they increasingly traded off their projection of innocence for a projection of sex. Adolescent girls favored this genre, while adolescent boys were sold ever more decadent, shock-your-parents music by groups like Slipknot, who dress in horror movie masks, celebrate nihilism, and defecate on stage. But thoughtful rock aspiring to authenticity-Christian bands that succeeded as crossover acts-also found a major audience. Aging baby boomers would not be denied, as the old stars from the 1960s kept coming back. Mick Jagger refused to gather moss. Bob Dylan made another good album. But they probably felt old when Michael Jackson tried to join their number by making a comeback, and the death of Beatle George Harrison only emphasized their mortality. Rap music kept its heart in the gutter and its stars in street gangs. Old-style Rhythm & Blues, the melodic, expressive "soul music" of the Motown sound, started to make a comeback with black audiences. But then one of its main stars, Aaliyah, was in a plane crash and she died. Country music that got airplay often sounded like mainstream pop, only with a twang. But DJs were taken by surprise when the soundtrack of O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, consisting of the ancient tones of paleo-country performed by talented contemporary artists, became the No. 1 album of the year. Mainstream stars like Patty Loveless began producing bluegrass albums. Americana artists like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, whose songs are still full of the gospel, started hitting the charts, as did complex, innovative alternative country acts such as Nickel Creek, a trio of teenage virtuosos who sing about love, ancient Ireland, and Jesus. This year's Country Music Association Awards show, which had only lately told George Jones to get on home, gave top honors to tunes that were bitterly critical of the pop direction taken by the country music industry ("Murder on Music Row," "Too Country"). Traditionalist Alan Jackson sang about 9/11 in "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning," and included the line, "I know Jesus, and I talk to God." Garth Brooks, who announced his retirement, did a duet with Mr. Jones, who is still left standing. On the money
While Hollywood kept trying to see how low it could go-breaking the cannibalism barrier with Hannibal and getting dumber and dumber and grosser and grosser with a whole new genre of scatological comedies-this was also the year the studios discovered family values. Stung by a government commission report criticizing the way the movie industry had been marketing to children presumably not old enough to get into the R-rated movies it was pitching to them, studios vowed to police themselves and theaters actually started checking IDs. But it was economics that had the biggest impact. In the face of a whole slew of R-rated duds, it became clear, through a string of hit movies such as Monsters, Inc., that the most profitable formula consisted of making children's movies that adults would also like. These used to be called "family movies." These particular hits featured computer animation so sophisticated, so 3-D looking, that the actors union may have reason to fear getting replaced by pixel images. The year's biggest cinematic excitement came from two much-anticipated films that finally appeared at the end of the year: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring. Based on two hugely popular fantasy novels and designed to appeal to both children and adults, these movies represent two approaches to the genre. Many Christians were leery about Harry Potter and his school for witches. But J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, of which this movie is the first installment, is one of the greatest works of art by a Christian in the 20th century. The art and ideals of war
As America entered a new war of its own in 2001, the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson became a distinguished commentator. Featured in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and other publications, Mr. Hanson was one of the few pundits who predicted the overwhelming victory American forces would have in Afghanistan. His book, written well before the war, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, documents how Western military forces have always been able to crush fighters from other cultures. Over and over again, Western forces have decisively defeated non-Western enemies even when vastly outnumbered. Mr. Hanson shows how warfare, with its tactics, strategies, and individual warriors, is an expression of culture. Western militaries, he argues, are so lethal because of specific features of Western culture. In ancient Greece, free citizens fought for their own land and families against Persian hordes who were considered slaves of the king and had to be driven into battle with whips. Ideals of freedom and citizenship made effective fighters. So did Western rationalism. Troops fighting together in well-organized, well-drilled ranks-from the Greek phalanxes to the lines of muskets firing and re-loading in unison-could overwhelm most enemy warriors fighting free-form, no matter how brave they were. Mr. Hanson gives blow-by-blow accounts of the Greeks fighting the Persians, the Romans fighting Hannibal, the Europeans turning back the Muslim invaders, Cortez annihilating the cannibalistic Aztecs, all the way to the Battle of Midway and the victory turned into a media defeat at the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. His accounts are bloody, even gruesome, but he offers new insights into Western history and Western culture that seem especially telling today. Non-PC Bible-for your PC, too
Although 2001 gave us many good books, the book of the year has to be the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Many Christians grew up with the Revised Standard Version, the first major modern translation, which was, in its time, a skillful updating with the fruits of modern textual scholarship of the King James Bible. Regrettably, that version was marred by liberal theology and the higher-critical approach to Scripture. (Thus, Isaiah 7:14: "A young woman shall conceive and bear a son," instead of "The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son.") The New Revised Standard Version is even more liberal, with its gender-neutral language. But the ESV is a conservative revision of the Revised Standard Version. As such, it continues the tradition of the great English Bibles, with a resonance-and familiarity-of language, combined with clarity and accuracy. And to show that it is truly a Bible translation for the 21st century, each volume comes with a Bible text and reference CD-Rom. Remembering the forgotten Founder
John Adams by David McCullough was a spellbinding-and bestselling-biography of perhaps the most important and least well-known of the Founding Fathers. He promoted some of the best ideas of the Revolution (the separation of powers; the rule of law) and suggested some of its best decisions (choosing Washington to lead the Continental Army; asking Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence) and practical actions (provisioning the army; negotiating with France to come to the aid of the colonies; negotiating the Treaty of Paris in which the King of England finally let his people go). Not that Adams was popular-his prickly personality and steadfast character landed him in political trouble-but he emerges in Mr. McCullough's biography as an engaging human being, particularly in his life-long loving relationship with his wife, Abigail. Writing the family business
In Rise to Rebellion, Jeff Shaara-having taken over the family novel-writing business of his father Michael, author of the brilliant recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels-begins the saga of another war. The younger Mr. Shaara wrote a prequel and a sequel to Killer Angels, rounding off the Civil War in a memorable trilogy. Then he wrote an account of the war with Mexico, each time presenting the action from the scrupulously researched points of view of actual participants in the battles, Lee and Grant, Stonewall Jackson and Joseph Chamberlain. In his 2001 title, Mr. Shaara begins a series on the Revolutionary War, presenting an inside narrative of Washington, Franklin, Adams, and the British General Gage.

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