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September 6, 2013

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Why getting popcultured is no bad thing: thoughts on Steve Turner’s latest

by Mark Meynell
MJHM U2 at Wembley

Regular Q readers will know that matters pop-cultural are regularly considered here. And one of my favourite books of recent years on any subject is the brilliant Popologetics by my friend Ted Turnau. But regulars will also know that I am a fan of Steve Turner’s books, not least because he has a great way with words (I only wish he’d apply that to poetry again!) and has unrivalled experience in writing about the world of popular culture from a deeply theological perspective. So I was very excited by the arrival of his latest: Popcultured.

A book that I always recommend to anyone who wants to think about the arts in general (whether they are practitioners or followers) is Steve’s brilliant Imagine. This is follow-up of sorts, as he looks at a wide range of creative endeavour. What gives this unique authority, though, is that Steve has deliberately interacted with believers who are involved at high levels of these professions, including a host of familiar names that are well qualified by their professional experience to comment.

Steve Turner popcultured

Each chapter is necessarily brief and introductory – but all are concluded with lists of follow-up reading and interaction. We might have expected a great deal of music, art and cinema (not least from this former music-critic), but he has written extensively in the past about music in particular. Instead, he deliberately opens eyes to the pop-cultural environment at its widest: so he focuses on journalism and then advertising, the modern obsessions with celebrity or thrill-seeking, fashion and comedy, technology and photography. He offers are some excellent insights into all of them, and for any who blithely consume, ignore or obsess, this will be an important book. Because most of us fail to give thought to a proper critique of what we imbibe (whether that is through indiscriminate panning  or relishing) this is therefore an important read. As he says:

I hope that it will make you a better consumer, creator and critic and encourage you not to hide. (p56)

He himself models this goal in his own life, and he has certainly achieved that with Popcultured, in my view,  This is not the last word on any of these topics, by any stretch. But for many it may well be the catalyst for serious engagement, and for that I am very grateful indeed that it is now out there.

Here are a few favourite snippets:

  • On the Power of the Media: Most people don’t change their minds about important moral issues because of a blinding revelation or an unassailable argument, but because of acclimatization, frequently orchestrated by the media. It just gets too hard to hold on to your convictions when they are constantly ignored or mocked. Malcolm Muggeridge, a prominent British journalist in the middle of the last century, used to give the illustration of a frog and boiling water…. Muggeridge said in 1975 that television “had provided the Devil with the greatest opportunity he ever had in human history.” (p51)
  • On Worldviews behind films:  Stanley Kubrick… told Playboy, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it’s hostile but that it is indifferent… However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” (p65)
  • On Movies:  Bono once said that rock ‘n’ roll had been very good at telling the story of what Johnny got up to with his girlfriend in the back of a car. What it wasn’t accomplished at, and what he wanted U2 to achieve, was telling the story of what happened next. Movies are a great medium for following up the consequences of actions, but these knock-on effects have to be believable. (p75)
  • Roter Teppich 10On Celebrity: Pop star Jarvis Cocker noted that, “Becoming famous has taken the place of going to heaven in modern society. That’s the place where your dreams will come true. It’s an act of faith now. They thing that’s going to sort things out.” (p101)
  • On Satire: In The Act of Creation, the best book ever written about the process of comedy, Arthur Koestler says, “The satirist’s most effective weapon is irony. Its aim is to defeat the opponent on his own ground by pretending to accept his premises, his values, his methods of reasoning, in order to expose their implicit absurdity… Irony purports to take seriously what it odes not; it enters into the spirit of the other person’s game to demonstrate that its rules are stupid or vicious. It’s a subtle weapon, because the person who wilds it must have the imaginative power of seeing through the eyes of his opponent, of projecting himself into the other’s mental world.” (p153)
  • On Advertising: In 1966 Marshall McLuhan predicted a world “where the ad will become a substitute for the product and all the satisfactions will be derived informationally from the ad.” (p163)
  • On Photography: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” said the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. (p189)
  • On Fiction: Simone Weil, the French writer, once observed that in real life nothing was so refreshing and sweet as good, and nothing so monotonous and boring as evil. “But”, she added, “With fantasy it is the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive, and full of charm.” (p211)

I’ll close this what for me was one of the book’s inspiring moments, near the end, in which he longed for creative excellence and integrity to be a means to communicate far more than a truth, a tale or an idea. For at its best it can communicate a world or even a cosmos. The perfect illustration of this is the wonderful art of Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne RobinsonA review on the New Yorker website by Mark O’Connell is an example of the effect that I think Christians should be striving for. He was writing about Marilynne Robinson, author of the novels Housekeeping and Gilead, and said that he loved her work for two main reasons. The first is the grace of her prose style, which he thinks got its grace from her vision. He said that he writing made him feel “what it must be like to live with a sense of the divine.” The second is that it introduced him to a world that he would normally approach with “borderline hostility” and made him feel drawn to it. In conclusion he said, “She makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace.”

What I love about his commentary is that it shows a contact between writer and reader. The fact that Mark O’Connell then wrote about his feelings added to the discussion. I also love the fact that he sees her prose style as a product of her vision and can see the harmony between the world, the way she reports on the world and the insights she brings to bear on the world she sees. “Robinson’s moral wisdom,” she wrote, “seems inseparable from her gifts as a prose writer.” (p229-230)

Would that all believers working creatively could do that, whatever their medium.

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