Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective

Written by Ted Turnau Reviewed By Ted Newell

Popular culture scholar and apologist Ted Turnau has written a manual for “those who want to be able to give an intelligent, warmhearted, biblical answer back to the worldviews presented in popular culture.” Popologetics presents its argument in three sections that build toward a “workshop.” Part One defines culture, popular culture, and worldview. Part Two deepens understanding by contrasting Turnau's approach to other evangelical approaches. Part Three outlines a procedure for engaging popular culture with the gospel, illustrated with a “workshop” of examples.

Part One's first three chapters show how popular culture provides clues to worldviews. Those who want to commend the Christian faith cannot respond to only isolated affirmations of culture. Visible culture shows something of the heart of a society, so understanding its implicit worldviews is essential for a full response. Culture products are evidence of dialogues within individuals and their society about what is true, good, and beautiful. Thus Christian readers need a biblical understanding of culture.

Turnau's theology of popular culture (ch. 4) uses the familiar rubric of creation, fall, and redemption but makes a couple of key moves. He gives a preliminary definition of culture as “the human imaging of God's community, communion, and creativity by engaging and responding to the meanings inherent in God's creation (revelation) in order to create 'worlds' of shared meanings that glorify God, demonstrate love to other human beings, and demonstrate care for the rest of creation” (p. 58). For example, God's ways are revealed in farming because humans are paying careful attention to the way creation works as in Isa 28 (pp. 66, 69n36). But “imaging” is a key term in the definition because Turnau's creation includes creational relationships and institutions such as marriage. This expansion is because humans were created in God's image (pp. 45-48). Turnau is much like Albert Wolters, who distinguishes God-given creational structure from its fallen or redemptive direction (p. 59). Acknowledging divine creation means that though cultures indeed make “worlds” (p. 57), human culture cannot itself be other than derivative of the world made by God. Because humans are addressed by creational givens from the natural world outside them and by the inescapable image of God within them, no neutral or “objective” account of culture is possible. Turnau's virtual starting point is that creation is clear in speaking of God.

After the fall recorded in Genesis, however, culture has become a mixed bag. Though God established culture as good, fallen human culture can express either evil or good. Turnau says that interpreting popular culture is like trying to listen to a radio tuned to two stations at once, with the second station using the best songs of the first station to drown out the first: secular culture tries to drown out God's voice so that truth and idolatry vie for loyal followers (pp. 70-71). Culture is the site of conflicting religious interpretations of God, world, ourselves, and each other (p. 72). Though some Christian thinkers advocate for high culture, to Turnau the main difference between high and low culture is only their audiences, since similar dynamics of the heart apply to Mickey Mouse and Mozart (pp. 72-74). The important contribution of chapter 4 is its employment of Rom 1. Human beings systematically hold down the truth that presses on us. Turnau's conceptualization of culture thus combines positive recognitions of goodness with a Foucault-like recognition that culture is a “systemed exclusion,” constituted by what it cannot say.

Part 2 interacts with evangelical approaches to popular culture that Turnau sees as less-than-helpful. Three chapters dissect the “What, Me Worry?” attitude, the “Ew-Yuck” attitude, and the “We're-above-all-that” attitude. The first attitude imbibes popular culture uncritically because religion is limited to personal uplift; the second creates cleansed cultural products because it revolts at sin in culture; and the third attitude imagines that though low culture debases the soul, high culture is good for it, so that Brahms is thought to sustain a spiritual life (pp. 79-133). Turnau adds two more approaches to these-imagophobia or the fear of images and a search for Christian relevance through whatever is trendy (pp. 135-208). Turnau conducts an exercise in discernment with “cheerleaders of the postmodern,” evangelical thinkers who emphasize the good revealed in popular culture and would want it to be appreciated on its own terms. But culture then takes precedence over Bible. Turnau's Rom 1 culture theory avoids their implicit syncretism by connecting a theory of culture to the biblical concept of idolatry.

Part 3 details Turnau's own five-question rubric for engaging popular culture: (1) What's the Story (or mood)? (2) Where is the world of the cultural product (the “text”) to be located? (3) What's good and true and beautiful about it? (4) What's false and ugly and perverse about it? (5) How does the gospel apply? By comparison, Wolters's structure-direction discernment process yields broad and debatable answers. Similarly, Michael Paul Gallagher's Clashing Symbols (1997, 2003) has a three-step discernment procedure that asks how the product is humanizing or crushing our freedom and which dimensions of our humanity are being silenced or ignored. While Wolters's and Gallagher's questions are likely to yield insights, Turnau's procedure allows texts to be carefully appreciated and critiqued, as creational goods from what Calvin saw as the factory of idols. Turnau's procedure yields the finely grained and compelling analyses of five pop-culture products that close out the book (pp. 247-312). These appreciative critiques are in the style of Roland Barthes's culture dissections in Mythologies (1957) and left this reviewer wanting many more-say, the same twenty-eight analyses that Barthes's seminal book provided.

Turnau, a missionary and cultural studies professor in Prague, is an intellectual heir of Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til. Popologetics is compassionate, trenchant, culturally attuned, and rigorous. Avoiding a Christ-against-culture disengaged stance or a Christ-of-culture syncretism, Turnau shows how cultural discernment can lead one to a deeper appreciation of the Christian faith and all the way to worship. Not only parents and friends of teens and twenty-somethings, but pastors and seminarians stand to see the worlds in which so many in Western culture really live, and to come away equipped to give an “answer for the hope that is within them” (1 Pet 3:15).

Ted Newell

Ted Newell
Crandall University
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Other Articles in this Issue

Children's story bibles are not Bibles and, it turns out, neither are they for children...

This article is written in love and admiration for pastors in North America...

As I write this the UK Parliament is considering Clause 1(1) of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill...

I shall begin with a well-known exegetical conundrum and then branch out to a much larger issue that none of us can afford to ignore...