Thinking Christianly About Style, Media, and Entertainment

Steve Turner. Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media, and Entertainment. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 257 pp. $17.00.

The weekend I wrote this review included two activities so regular in our household they are almost liturgical. On Saturday, my wife and I ordered takeout from our usual Chinese restaurant and settled down to watch the finale of X-Factor, the British version of American Idol. On Sunday, we passed through the door of our local Baptist church where we are members. This pattern is so typical that our two-month-old daughter knows of no other kind of weekend.

I imagine that for many Christians such a combination is not unusual. The kind of takeout may differ. The choice of entertainment may vary, and be less embarrassing. But that our lives involve us both in church and popular culture is almost inevitable for 21st-century Christians.

But this pattern raises some questions: are these two areas of life—popular culture and Christian living—related? Does one affect the other in any way? Is watching lightweight TV tantamount to sin, a waste of the precious time that God has given us? Or is popular culture simply a nothing, like an inert, colorless gas, unable to affect anything or change anything due to its inherent weightlessness; harmless but unworthy of serious attention from the Christian?

Steve Turner’s book Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media, and Entertainment takes issue with both of those perspectives. He argues that “it’s possible to understand pop culture using a biblically informed mind and that this doesn’t lessen the appreciation but increases it” (250).

Turner writes from the unusual perspective of a committed evangelical Christian with firsthand knowledge of creating popular culture. As a professional writer and journalist, he has written books about Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, U2, and Van Morrison, among others. He includes Cliff Richard in his acknowledgements, and his chapter on celebrity begins with a personal anecdote about David Bowie pestering him to attend his gigs in the early 1970s.

None of this means that his insights are above contradiction. But he writes as an artist and as someone who has intimate knowledge of how the creators of popular culture think and work. He’s aware of subtleties and details that Christians writing from outside the creative industries may lack. For instance, his section on how the vocabulary of an article will reveal the hidden assumptions of the journalist was particularly illuminating.

Popcultured aims to help the Christian to live in a world surrounded by popular cultural expressions, TV, music, film, games, and more while managing “the hard task of being simultaneously critical and spiritually engaged” (14). The book begins with three introductory chapters: the first lists 10 reasons why popular culture is worth caring about, the second gives a short definition of culture in general and popular culture in particular, and the third a brief biblical framework of how to understand culture.

This is not the book for a detailed, carefully argued theology of cultural engagement. Those looking for that can turn to Ted Turnau’s definitive Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective (P&R, 2012). The strength of Turner’s work is in dealing with specific areas of popular culture: cinema, journalism, celebrity, fashion, thrill-seeking, comedy, and more. These chapters often feature an overview of the subject, an exploration of its historical development, and then an application of a biblical worldview to the topic, concluding with some discussion questions and further reading suggestions.

Popcultured is that rare thing, a book full of original thought that challenges our complacency and slothfulness in thinking about popular culture. It’d be wrong, though, to give the impression Turner’s book simply condemns Christian disengagement with popular culture. He’s well aware of the sin and rebellion displayed and glorified by popular culture and the dangers it poses for Christian discipleship. But, ultimately, the call of Christian discipleship requires us to engage with these topics.

I imagine many pastors and elders will see a book like this as a kind of “nice-to-have book,” perhaps a little light diversion from the latest Puritan paperback from Banner of Truth. I’d argue it’s much a more vital book than that assumption. Ask yourself, what’s the ratio between the amount of journalism, advertising, photography, fashion, and comedy you or your congregation consume, and the amount of thoughtful Christian teaching you’ve heard on those topics?

To put popular culture in the category of adiaphora or indifferent things is a double mistake. It blinds us to where the Devil has laid traps for our affections and stops us from giving glory to Christ for the beauty, truth, and goodness we see in it that is rightfully his. 

Some may see Popcultured as another example of what one celebrity Christian blogger called the “trendy Christian infatuation with cultural interaction.” But cultural interaction, particularly popular cultural interaction, is precisely where Christ’s call of discipleship must find its expression.

Unless I know how, or whether, to watch the X-Factor, or read the local paper, or laugh at the standup comedian in the name of Jesus, then I am failing to obey the “whatever you do” of 1 Corinthians 10:31. In his magisterial Doctrine of the Knowledge of God John Frame argues, “When one lacks knowledge of how to ‘apply’ a text, his claim to know the 'meaning' becomes an empty-meaningless-claim.” Unless we know how our theology applies to the myriad of popular cultural expressions so ubiquitous in modern life, we cannot claim to really understand it. For those looking for help with that, Popcultured will be a valuable resource.

Editors' note: A version of this review originally appeared at 9Marks.