Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau's Popologetics is just such a book. Hence this serious, extended review. I should be up front at this stage and declare that he is a friend, so perhaps some will merely assume this is a question of mutual back-scratching. I can assure you it's not (I've received no commissions... as yet). But still, this is a great book. For a whole range of reasons: it is very readable and lucid; it makes its case with wit and self-deprecating humour; it is a model of how to handle disagreement (theological and otherwise) with great grace and generosity; and it demonstrates extensive appreciation of the field and offers a rich mine of treasure to any reader.
But first things first. What does Turnau mean by pop-culture?
So here is my working definition of popular culture: Popular culture is made up of cultural works whose media, genres, or venues tend to be widespread and widely received in our everyday world. ... Popular culture has to do with access. It dwells in spaces not too far from where we live. (p7)
He recognises this is not a watertight definition, but it at least shows why pop culture is important and demands our attention.
In analysing and engaging with this new Babylon, the book is divided into 3 main sections: "Part 1: Grounding" - fairly standard (esp if familiar with the likes of Schaeffer and James Sire - e.g. The Universe Next Door "Part 2: Some Not-So-Helpful Approaches to Popular Culture" - the real heart and gold of the book. "Part 3: Engaging Popular Culture: Why Critique Popular Culture?" in which he applies his approach to 5 very different case studies: A song (`Heartache Tonight` by The Eagles); a documentary (Grizzly Man dir by Werner Herzog); a Japanese anime series (One Piece); a film (Kung Fu Panda); the social networking phenomenon Twitter.
POP-CULTURAL JUSTIFICATIONS Sometimes, I do wonder if my own theological engagement with pop cultural texts is simply a way of justifying the simple pleasures of books and movies. I've no doubt that this is what some colleagues and (so-called) friends sometimes suspect! Motivations are always mixed of course. But Turnau manages to articulate a robust defence that is far removed from being self-serving. There are missional imperatives at stake here.
If this book is to have the impact that it deserves, however, it needs to be read by, and to convince, two groups of people. On the one hand, there are the holy sceptics, who for a range of reasons, disparage the whole business. They might take it to be a distraction from simply `getting on with the gospel'; or dismiss it out of what can only really be described as cultural snobbery about anything populist. On the other hand, there are those who have gone the whole hog in the opposite direction by seeing every cultural text as sacramental - those whom he nicely charges with acting "as though trendiness were next to godliness, who strive after being culturally savvier-than-thou." (p166)
The ways in which Turnau (in Part 2) tackles these polar positions is exemplary - and to my mind utterly convincing. He heads each one off at the pass with gentle but firm insistence. So Part 2 is what consequently makes this book worth its weight. Thus he is at pains to alert us to the implications of a robust doctrine of Creation as well as the Fall, and the importance of common grace (or what he later calls `footprints of God' - p232). But he is sufficiently theologically orthodox to win over any of the `pure gospel' brigade. But he is easily earthed into prevailing cultural trends (both in terms of scholarly analysis and appreciation of the different `texts' people are creating) to gain credibility with the `pop-culture-vultures' while wanting to call them back to an authentically Christian theological orthodoxy (especially on Scripture).
So particular highlights from part 2 for me were: - Chapter 6 includes an excellent subversion of what we might call a Christian ghetto tick-box approach to pop-culture (e.g. rating movies by the number of swear-words etc) by showing that some of the `cleanest' texts could be as idolatrous and unhelpful (if not more so) than those that are more violent or explicit.
- Turnau powerfully deconstructs the distinctions often made between high and low art which fuel the dismissals of anything populist. The likes of Kenneth Myers will tell us that told Beethoven is far more noble and therefore more valuable the Beatles. After exposing some of the more sinister and hidden assumptions of such thinking (e.g. the social-Darwinist racism that fuelled the notion of high- and low-brow culture, p113), he points this crucial irony: ... I want to express a concern that some Christians, in the name of preserving cultural excellence, overestimate the value of art and high culture, and underestimate the value of popular culture. In so doing, they come dangerously close to making an idol out of high culture. (p125)
- I was really struck by Turnau's handling of Marshall McLuhan's deeply influential thesis about cultural media and their message. No one can venture into this realm without at least engaging with McLuhan, but this is a fresh and appreciative critique. McLuhan makes a classic category confusion. He speaks of one thing (the form, the how of media) in terms of another (the content, the what of media). And it turns out that there really is quite a difference between what one says and how one says it, a difference that McLuhan's theory suppresses... A better, more careful restatement of his slogan might be this: "The medium deeply contours the message." ... You could say that a medium's influence on content is adverbial: we experience the State of the Union Address televisedly, or textually, or radiophonically, or even YouTubedly. (p140)
- The defence of Scriptural authority and its ontological difference from other texts that might be `inspired' in the way Shakespeare is very strong - and a pleasantly surprising find in such a book (from around pp189-196). In this he tackles the case of writers such as Detweiler and Taylor - two authors I'd not come across before and with whom I'd disagree quite a lot but who clearly have very interesting things to say.
Turnau walks tightropes in Part 2 with consummate, Blondin-like skill. He compellingly avoids culture war pendulum swings for as he nicely states, `sometimes pendulums become wrecking balls'. (p175)
POP-CULTURAL PASTORAL WISDOM While not a pastor, Turnau's pastoral concern is clear throughout - both in wanting to treat those with whom he disagrees with respect and in ways that do their positions justice, and in wanting to help young believers and sceptics alike to grow in wisdom. He recognises the important place for individual conscience (as he makes clear when engaging with those who are concerned by the effect of less than edifying cultural influences). His pastoral approach is reflected in his bookmark-sized list of questions to ask of any cultural text (p215):
- What's the story? - Where am I (the world of the text)? - What's good and true and beautiful about it? - What's false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)? - How does the gospel apply here? And as so often with any hermeneutical endeavour (whether it be of the scriptures or a tv programme) good questions are the key. And in fact, a good question could be more crucial to evangelistic endeavours than we might expect:
Many times, when talking about the meaning of popular-cultural worlds with non-Christian friends, it is enough to simply point out the absurdity by using a couple of obvious questions: Does money really give you a happy, peaceful life? Why are many rich people so miserable, then? Is sex and following your own desires all that there is to life? What if someone actually lived like that? And so on. A well-placed question can corrode the foundation upon which an idol sits. (p238-9)
So by working through the 5 cultural texts that he uses as case studies, he is modelling both how to understand our culture's impact on ourselves (whether its contributions are valuable or detrimental) and giving us new options for building bridges with those around us. The 5 he chooses certainly aren't the case studies I'd choose! But that really isn't the point. He is simply showing how it can be done on anything. And while most of us wouldn't be able to draw on anything like Ted's breadth of knowledge as we delve deeper, the simplicity of these 5 questions (which grow out of the Christian worldview foundation articulated in Part 1 of Creation - Fall - Redemption - New Creation) makes it very accessible. This is ideal background material for those wanting to start up a reading/discussion group, for instance.
If the book has a drawback it is simply its size. There are lots of hands that I want to put it into - and while it is absolutely chocabloc with gold (and wouldn't want any of it omitted), my fear is that its 320 pages would put people off from opening it up. Because it is so readable I really don't think it would cause too much of a problem once people start. It's getting them to start that is the challenge.
Having said that, I found myself completely chiming with Bill Edgar's endorsement on the back cover: A tour de force. Written incisively, with appropriate humour, and especially using up-to-date examples from the field of popular culture... there is nothing remotely like it in print today. I recommend it enthusiastically.
I really enjoyed this book and found it very helpful for thinking about how to engage with culture in order to engage our culture with Jesus. Engaging our culture with Jesus seems to be one of the thrusts of the book. It can be fun to engage with popular culture as a Christian as a form of intellectual exercise, but what I really need to do, so often, is to be better able to chat to the person sat next to me at work for 9 hours a day about the latest film / book / hit song and be able to talk about it as a Christian and hopefully share something of my hope in Jesus with them.
This book is great because it helps to have that missionary mindset because it is (among many other things), biblical, generous and readable.
Biblical Turnau very clearly brings the Bible to bear on popular culture and immediately gets us thinking about our biblical worldview. This is where the strength of the book lies - it doesn't just take verses and bring them to bear on bits of culture - e.g. do not murder vs a film full of killing, and say don't watch this, instead watch this. Instead, Turnau encourages us to think in terms of worldviews - bringing the Biblical story, from creation to new creation to bear on the worldview of the cultural text in question. This exposes the idolatry of the text for example and causes us to see the hope held out in the Gospel. What I like about this approach, is that it leads to the possibility for a conversation rather than, "I didn't like that film, it was too gory." It avoids the trap of seeing, for example, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire hunter" as demonic and evil and "The Wizard of Oz" as good and wholesome. "The Wizard of Oz" worldview is about as far from the gospel as you can get - "Abraham Lincoln" on the other hand I'll wait and see...
Generous Turnau makes his position clear throughout, but is very generous in his critique of other Christians' views and in his critique of pop culture itself. Turnau is clear that some parts of culture are more corrupted than others, but in viewing the world we inhabit as a 'messy mix' it means that rather than being prescriptive, i.e. read this, don't read this, Turnau encourages us to think critically about what it is we are hearing, watching or reading and to engage our minds - again, it leads to conversation - both with oneself, with our children, and with our friends and colleagues.
Readable Finally, this is also incredibly readable (in the space of about four pages Turnau referenced both the Smashing Pumpkins and MacGyver - my teenage self got way too over excited at this point!). I'm a slow reader with a short attention span, but I got through this rather quickly, and wanted to read the next chapter straight away.
In being so readable, it struck me how useful this book would be for young Christians - by which I mean Christians who haven't been so for very long or haven't thought through what it means to have a "Christian worldview". Throughout Popologetics, Turnau effectively gives us a Bible overview - tracing many of the key themes of the Bible and God's redemption / salvation story (Creation - Fall - Redemption - New Creation). This is something that many Christians just do not have - a joined-up understanding of how the Bible fits together and the grand story of salvation and thus how to understand the world in which we live today (The now and the not yet of being new creations living in the old creation). I think this book would be very useful for those who are particularly interested in culture, but who might shy away from reading something exclusively "theological".
A fun,clear and thoughtful book exploring how Christians today are to engage with pop culture. I have no background in this area of study but came to this book simply as a person who likes watching films and TV and would like to help others to think about the things we consume from a Christian viewpoint. I found it very helpful in providing a framework for my thinking and in offering suggestions for practical applications.
There can't be many scholars who have thought more deeply about the interface between Christian theology and popular culture than Ted Turnau. He challenges the historic snobbery which, in some quarters, still surrounds the 'high culture'/'popular culture' distinction. In so doing he helps a lot of ordinary Christians finds ways to thoughtfully enjoy and celebrate the ways in which God's common grace is seen in so many examples of popular culture, yet also engage critically with the idols of our age.