Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media, and Entertainment

Written by Steve Turner Reviewed By Brett McCracken

What hath popular culture to do with Christian faith? That question doesn’t sound nearly as scandalous to evangelical ears today as it might have fifty years ago, and yet it’s still a provocative and complex enough question to warrant the continued publication of “cultural engagement manuals” like Popcultured, the latest book by a veteran of the genre, the Londoner Steve Turner. The idea that pop culture and Christian faith can and should be integrated might by now seem self-evident. Nevertheless, Turner begins Popcultured by making the case in ten points. Pop culture should matter for Christians, for example, because it’s a gift from God; because it’s pervasive and inescapable; because it’s a window into the zeitgeist and an opportunity for conversation.

It matters because it’s a mandate going all the way back to Eden, part of the cultivation task given to Adam in the beginning: “Our culture, at its best, is another way of tilling, planting, rearing and gathering in,” writes Turner. “We break up the hard soil of our rational minds, plant beautiful ideas, rear the imagination and gather in more fully rounded human beings” (p. 17).

Pop culture, maintains Turner, is more important and formative than Christians often think. In our interactions with culture—which includes creating it, enjoying it and critiquing it—Christians should have both respect and discernment. Respect means dignifying “recreation” as a gift from God that is not a “waste of time” but an activity of “putting ourselves back together—re-creating ourselves” (p. 50). Discernment means going about our cultural recreation with Philippians 4:8 in mind but also the awareness that “sometimes we have to sit through some bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff,” which is “as true for the Bible as it is for Shakespeare” (p. 53).

With Popcultured Turner presents an accessible theological overview of culture in all its variety; its fourteen chapters run the gamut from celebrity to comedy to photography and fashion, with references to everyone from George Carlin to Kim Kardashian, cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall to fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Each chapter contains helpful questions for discussion, book and website recommendations, and suggestions for action. With its widely relevant topics and accessible, non-academic tone, Popcultured is a book that lends itself well to Bible studies or book groups.

Two chapters are devoted to Christian approaches to movies, an area of culture of particular interest to me as a longtime film critic for Christianity Today. Turner discusses cinematic narrative (ch. 4) in the context of myth and redemption but challenges Christians to embrace realism rather than “cheap sentimentality” (p. 65) and to understand that redemption is sometimes “messy” (p. 66). He rightly critiques the notion that a “Christian” approach to movies necessarily means one of four things: family films, biblical epics, heroes of the faith, or movies with conversion scenes (p. 67). The Bible itself is forty percent narrative, notes Turner, and contains a variety of narrative genres (e.g., prophetic, parable) that are not nearly as didactic as most of today’s “Christian” films.

Turner wants Christians to have a broader sense of where God can be found in pop culture. “The truth, if it’s told well, will always endorse some aspect of the gospel,” he writes (p. 75). Christians should approach something like cinematic storytelling, then, not as just another medium to dispense answers to life’s various problems; rather, they should recognize that the goal of a film should be enrichment or enlightenment, the unveiling of truth.

One weakness of Turner’s chapters on film, however, is that they focus almost wholly on the narrative/storytelling aspects of the medium with little engagement with the phenomenological realities of the “moving image” form. Turner’s approach is the traditional one (academic film studies got their start in literature departments, after all) and the more accessible one for “Christian readings.” However I would argue that cinema as a medium is a closer relative to photography than it is to literature. It’s time that Christian scholars move beyond reading film “texts” in light of literary theory and start engaging them in light of Sontag, Postman, Bazin, Kracauer, Deleuze, and the like.

An overemphasis on “content” and underemphasis on “form” is one of the weaknesses of Popcultured generally. Though Turner cites Marshall McLuhan a few times in his discussions of advertising, McLuhan’s famous maxim that “the medium is the message” could more thoroughly inform the book’s understanding of how the various forms of culture not only shape the message but are in themselves messages. Turner grasps this, I think, and it comes out at various points in the book (e.g., his discussion of the semiotic history of blue jeans in his chapter on fashion), but some chapters left me wanting more.

The chapter on journalism for example (ch. 5), while containing helpful discussions of bias and embedded values, could have delved deeper into the dramatic ways that technology has changed journalism and how the various new forms of journalism fundamentally alter the landscape. And while the chapter on technology (ch. 11) is one of the book’s strongest, it seems a bit passé to consider “technology” a distinct category as much as something that necessarily grounds our understanding of every type of culture. I would have loved to have seen more about how social media technology informs advertising, for example, or how streaming and DVR technologies fundamentally change our approaches to movies and television.

Of course an inescapable problem in writing “cultural engagement manuals” (Christian or otherwise) is the “instantly outdated” dilemma, something that is admittedly a challenge in my own writing. Not only is the content of culture constantly changing, but perhaps more significantly its forms are. Which brings us to a meta question: is traditional book publishing really the best format for helpful explorations of cultural engagement? Does the pace of change and intensity of breadth in pop culture today require a more nimble medium for relevant commentary and guidance? Are websites, blogs, or podcasts more valuable formats for the explorations undertaken in books like Popcultured (or my own Gray Matters [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013])? Quite possibly. But if a book is still one’s preferred medium for thinking through the sprawling questions of cultural engagement, or if a broad-strokes introductory manual on the topic is desired, Popcultured is a handy, helpful, and commendable resource.

Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken
Biola University
La Mirada, California, USA

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