The Pop-Culture Game-Changer: Ted Turnau’s Popologetics
Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau’s Popologetics is just such a book. 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. So a television show (or the iTunes or bit-torrent re-narrowcasting of the show) would be an example of popular culture. So would be a local band or DJ playing at a club. A concert of classical music at your city’s symphony hall would not count as a pop-cultural text because it inhabits a “sacred space,” placed at a distance from the everyday world. Popular culture could include both folk culture (such as telling ghost stories around a summer campfire) and mass-media culture (such as a movie in which teenagers tell ghost stories around a campfire . . . and start disappearing one by one). 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. Here is a provocative line from Camille Paglia whom Turnau describes as a ‘postfeminist social critic and gadfly’:
Popular culture is the new Babylon, into which so much art and intellect now flow. It is our imperial sex theater, supreme temple of the western eye. The pagan past, never dead, flames again in our mystic hierarchies of stardom. (p xii)
In analysing and engaging with this new Babylon, the book is divided into 3 main sections:
- “Part 1: Grounding” – an introduction to issues of worldview apologetics and how pop-culture is revealing and fruitful as an object of study. For those familiar with the writings, say, of Schaeffer, James Sire and Douglas Groothuis, this will be fairly familiar territory. Nevertheless, it lays down important foundations on which to build, so its clear why he felt the need to include it.
- “Part 2: Some Not-So-Helpful Approaches to Popular Culture” – in some ways, this is the real meat of the book, partly because it is the longest, partly because this is where his whole approach to pop culture is articulated and defended. 5 different approaches are tackled – and despite having a counter, apparently negative agenda, this is a very positive and encouraging read.
- “Part 3: Engaging Popular Culture: Why Critique Popular Culture?” – this is where the fun really starts. It is full of helpful practical advice, and then 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.
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.
Many family-oriented movies and television programs have similar idolatries at work within them. Consider the pervasive “you’ve got to believe in yourself” ethos that permeates so many of the recent Disney films and television shows. William Romanowski sees a subtle cultural idolatry at work even in The Wizard of Oz (1939): that we can find all the answers if we only look within ourselves.18 These are the sorts of things you miss if you are focusing only on things such as nudity and violence. Even when the movies don’t have objectionable elements, it does not mean that they are “clean” of idolatry. It just means that the idolatry is harder to find because it is more socially acceptable. (p97)
- 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.
And so do I.
Andy Warhol’s treatment of Leonardo’s Last Supper