I grew up in the 1980s, which was a glorious decade for popular culture. Maybe not the most faith-friendly era, but for 80s kids who grew up in the church, there were a lot of fun entertainments that shaped us. For example, just last Sunday I had the opportunity to do a little pretending in the children’s sermon. I put on a Darth Vader mask, lowered my voice to a James Earl Jones baritone, and breathed mechanically. Everyone, old and young alike, smiled, laughed, or rolled their eyes. Some even cheered! No one except the smallest children wondered what the mask represented. What other pop culture villain could have elicited such an immediate reaction?
Pop culture is here to stay. But that does not mean every pop culture artifact is worth attention. How should people view pop culture, in its various forms such as movies, television shows, music, books, magazines, video and computer games, social media, and the like? How should we think about these things? How should we use and consume them with discernment so they don’t consume us? How should we talk about pop culture? Is it all good? Or all bad? Or is it a messy mix of both that invites our critical enjoyment and participation as vehicles of God’s (both common and special) to society? Author and scholar Ted Turnau argues that popular culture is worth talking about. His book, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, is a play on the word “apologetics” which means a thoughtful defense. Why is the world would a Teaching Fellow at the International Institute for Christian Studies and a teacher at the Christian International School of Prague want to study pop culture? Popologetics is his answer.
This book feels like the author’s multimedia class lectures distilled into written form. There is some repetition, but the outline is structured logically to teach the material for anyone. It doesn’t assume a lot of prior education in Christian apologetics, worldview analysis and comparison, or interpretation. Turnau brings the reader along methodically and thoroughly.
Part 1 of the book is where he lays the groundwork for discerning popular culture. Chapter titles in this section:
- Puzzle Pieces: Popular Culture and Worldview
- The Conversation between the Beaver and the Tree: The Influence of Popular Culture on Worldview
- R.S.V.P.: What Is a Worldview Apologetic?
- Toward a Theology of Popular Culture: What Creation, Fall, and Redemption Tell Us about Popular Culture
The purpose of Part 1 is to define and explain terms, and establish the theological framework of the author’s biblical worldview (creation, fall, and redemption). This worldview is the lens through which he interprets the world, including popular culture. For readers familiar with Presuppositional Apologetics in the Reformed tradition of Christianity, this part of the book is a helpful and humorous refresher.
Part 2 of the book analyzes other approaches to pop culture. Here the author argues we ought not think about pop culture in these ways. In other words, he shows us what he believes is the wrong approach before he sets forth his positive case. For some readers, this might seem to give the book a negative feel too early in its pages. Why not present the positive case and then defend against the negatives? I think Turnau chose the negative-positive order because his approach is a minority position. Most people would gravitate toward one of the views regarding pop culture espoused in the section of the book. Chapter titles are the following:
5. Problem? What Problem?: The “What, Me Worry?” Approach
6. Don’t Touch That Dial—It’s Dirty!: The “Ew-Yuck” Approach
7. But It’s So Jejune: The “We’re-Above-All-That” Approach
8. A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Imagophobia
9. It’s All Good!: Cheerleaders of the Postmodern
The “What, Me Worry?” approach receives the briefest treatment. One might also think of this approach as the Alfred E. Newman attitude, or the Ostrich Head in the Sand view, or the Blind Consumer. This view has not been seriously put forth as the right approach to thinking about pop culture because it doesn’t think about it at all.
The “Ew-Yuck” approach is adopted by some folks in the Christian fundamentalist camp, the Moral Majority crowd, and sometimes parents who are zealous to strain out everything from pop culture that might poison children.
Nevertheless, the author attempts to find common ground with those he disagrees with. Each chapter discusses what the opposing viewpoint sees correctly (according to Turnau’s view) before laying out critique.
Turnau sees a shared perspective among these opposing views:
One common thread runs through all these approaches: they oversimplify the nature of popular culture; they tend to gloss over the messy complexity that is popular culture. Some see only evil and idolatry. Some see only grace and light. But my point in chapter 4 was to lay out a biblical understanding of popular culture that saw it as deeply meaningful, imbued with grace and implicated by idolatry. Popular culture is a messy, meaningful mixture that requires thought, patience, and an approach that recognizes both the good and the bad. (p. 208)
Part 3 of Popologetics puts forward the positive case for critiquing pop culture Chapter titles are:
10. Popologetics: Reading and Responding to Popular Culture
11. Popologetics Workshop: Practicing a Christian Reading of Popular Culture
12. The Way Forward: Objections and Conclusions
Chapter 10 presents and explains the author’s positive method of critiquing pop culture. The heart of his method is asking 5 key questions when engaging a particular pop culture “text” (anything from a song, book, video game, painting, etc). It is these 5 questions that he calls “popologetics” (quoted from pp. 313-314):
- What’s the story? What is the plot? How does the plot serve to develop characters? Or in the absence of a coherent plot, what mood does this text project?
- Where are we? What sort of imaginative world is projected by the text? Look for the style and structure, the ethics and aesthetics of this imaginative world.
- What is the good and true and beautiful here? How does this imaginative world reflect God’s grace to human beings? How would you connect it to God’s creation and redemption story?
- What is false and evil and perverse here, and how can I subvert it? How does the worldview of the text capture the grace in idolatry? How does this world lie about reality, and how can you expose the lie? How can you reveal the weak and crumbling foundations of its chosen idols?
- How does the gospel apply? How does the Christian worldview respond to the desires and questions stirred by the imaginative world of the text? How does God’s redemption, the new life and new creation that he achieved for us, answer and silence the idols? How is God’s mercy and excellence unveiled as the answer to these desires raised by popular culture?
In his lengthy chapter 11, Turnau applies popologetics to a rock song (“Heartache Tonight” by the Eagles), a documentary movie (“Grizzly Man” directed by Werner Herzog), a Japanese shōnen anime series (“One Piece” by Eiichiro Oda), an animated movie (“Kung Fu Panda” directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne), and a social network medium (Twitter). This chapter is worth the price of the book. While chapter 10 explains what is popologetics in theory, chapter 11 gives the reader a first row seat while a master analysis applies popologetics in the lab as he uncovered fascinating insights and draws thought-provoking conclusions.
At the end of the book, Turnau anticipates that the average reader might feel totally intimidated by his well-honed, practiced analysis of pop culture. Some might be tempted to just throw in the towel. But the goal of popologetics is not to impress the world with your erudite conclusions that no one until you have managed yet to see. The goal is to have thoughtful conversations about the popular culture “texts” we love to share enjoyment with others, and to talk about them in such a way that may open the relationship to understanding and believing the gospel of Christ. One purpose of Popologetics, like all apologetics, is preevangelism. But popologetics can also strength Christians in their faith, in their discernment of grace and idolatry in the world, and in their using and enjoying popular culture which allowing it to squeeze you into a mold not shaped like Jesus.
I’m mostly happy to support Turnau’s conclusions. “Mostly” because I sense that he may be a little too careless in lumping all manifestations of pop culture together. Some “texts” are more immoral, dangerous, and addicting than others. I suspect he would agree, but I wish he had made this more explicit in his summary sections. But that is only a quibble. Overall I very much appreciated his refreshing humor and willingness to engage popular culture as a thoughtful Christian.
Read a sample of Popologetics