Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective Paperback – Apr 2 2012
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Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective
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My feel about this book is that it has a strong redemptive element but puts up a weak defense against the principalities of evil. Having said that, it is an extremely readable book and is an excellent resource in terms of reading culture with positive eyes. However, let this book be read together with Neil Postman's or Marshall McLuhan's resources. After all, a country cannot simply survive on hospitals, caregiving units, or recreational centers. It needs a strong military too as a deterrent. Turnau has a good optimistic look on the goodness of people in the midst of popular culture. Unfortunately, such optimism risks understating the sinful inclinations that can easily sway popular culture into a culture of evil principalities.
Rating. 4.25 stars of 5
This book is provided to me free by P&R Publishing and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
Instead of attempting to refute these perspectives that are more cautious and critical of pop culture, the author simply dismisses them. And he dismisses them by caricaturing them. The most blatant example of this is how he falls prey to the fallacy of excluded middle and sets up a false dichotomy between "high" and "low" culture, accusing authors such as Ken Myers and Neil Postman of perpetuating this dichotomy and even unwittingly being racist in the process!
Our author cavalierly dismisses Ken Myers's nuanced construction of "traditional" or "folk" culture, sweeping it under the carpet in one footnote. But this component of Myers's approach is the very thing that defends him against Turnau's false dichotomy. The folk culture of the immigrants that Turnau says wealthy Victorian elitsists were trying to suppress in their defense of high culture is the very culture that Myers and Postman extol--traditional, communal cultures that were the product of multi-generational folk traditions and ways of life, not that of mass-produced, generationally targeted, niche-marketed consumer entertainment products hatched in the boardrooms of Hollywood and Madison Avenue for mass consumption.
The author ought to have dealt seriously with the perspective to which he is setting himself up as an alternative, rather than simply caricaturing it. Instead, he simply zeroes in on Myers and Postman, showing a lack of awareness of the larger body of literature on which their critique is built. He (unwittingly??) builds his argument on the perspective of Lawrence Levine, the harbinger of PC multiculturalism on university campuses in the 1980s and 1990s. Levine famously disparaged Allan Bloom and William Bennett and Dinesh D'Souza for their defense of the "dead white male" Western literary canon and instead argued for the radical multicultural, race/sex/gender-oriented curriculum that was pushed at Stanford, when the radical multiculturalists promoted a change in the Western-Civilization-based core curriculum, shouting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!"
This postmodern critique of the "hegemony" of Western Civilization is an unsure foundation for a confessional Protestant understanding of art and culture. Yet Turnau seems oblivious to the implications of his employment of this line of argument. Readers need to understand that the entire conservative argument against radical multiculturalism in the university curriculum is upended by Turnau's thesis in this book. His thesis simply flies in the face of the whole classical school movement that has arisen recently in various segments of evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Orthodox Judaism. Readers who are committed to a more confessional Protestant approach, and how that applies to forging a theology of culture, will need to look elsewhere. The sad reality is that Turnau's approach will only succeed in driving more and more thoughtful evangelical students who want to engage thoughtfully with the arts, culture, and humanities into conservative Roman Catholicism.
This is a very comprehensive book; it's like taking a mini-course on worldview, pop culture, and Christian apologetics. You can tell that Turnau is a teacher by the very organized and instructive way the book is formatted. He clearly defines all his terms, and even gives us visual learners a few pictures (my favorite is his worldview tree). He teaches us that in many ways, popular culture is like a mirror that reflects the popular imagination, but then further informs and shapes us. "Through this dialogue, this listening to and shaping the imagination of its audience, popular culture's influence runs deep (far deeper than we realize) and wide (it is nearly ubiquitous, like something in the air we breathe). And it affects us at the level of worldview, how we understand the reality around and in us. The influence on our worldview is simply undeniable" (Loc 526-537). Turnau's passion and style are very Schaeffer-esque. Francis Schaeffer's books introduced many of these ideas to me in my early college years, so I am very happy to see a modern-day approach targeted to the popular culture of our time.
After defining important terms, motivating the reader for this significant task, and giving us a strong theology of culture, Part 2 of the book addresses the different reactions Christians have regarding pop culture. With funny headings like, "Don't Touch that Dial: It's Dirty!" to "It's All Good," we see the reasons why some of us have taken these approaches, and are challenged to open our eyes to the bigger picture.
Part 3 gets to the business of engaging pop culture. He encourages us to use our "critical imagination...We need to listen to our culture and argue with it a bit before we are ready to speak creatively to it" (Loc 3720). And just like a good teacher, Turnau gives us five questions to ask ourselves in this process (stay tuned, I will be using them in my next article). They are very helpful and easy to remember. Just like Schaeffer, Turnau reminds us that the imaginative worlds that popular culture creates are trying to live in God's world, and as Christians we have both the privilege and responsibility to point out their inadequacies according to the real story. Not only does the author teach us a method, he practically applies it to some popular movies, songs, shows, and even the Twitterverse. Good stuff. Turnau ends the book with more practical tips on how to engage our peers, learning about their views, and having compassion on those we challenge.
While I have many praises for this book, I do have a bit of critique as well. I'm not sure that everyone is going to want the 300 level course that Turnau is offering. While it's not a difficult read, it is a long one--368 pages. The author's voice is not "professorly" but the footnotes are. One chapter had as many as 111. I understand that this topic requires a lot of research, and even enjoyed reading and learning from many of the footnotes, but there were times I felt like he was having a conversation with himself in some of them. I'm just afraid that many who would be interested in this topic will not want to invest in the book's girth of knowledge. That would be a real shame. While Part 2 is well written and informative, I'm wondering if condensing those chapters into summaries would have served a wider audience of readers. My suggestion for those who may be intimidated by the size is to read Part 1, the summary at the end of Part 2, and then all of Part 3. The book is well worth it. Part 2 is like a book on its own, and you can go back and read that as a bonus later.
First the author does some grounding: what are popular culture and world view? And what does theology says about popular culture? Creation, fall and redemption revisited. In the second part he gathers 5 possible, but not so helpful approaches to popular culture:
1. What, me worry? Issues concerning popular culture aren't even a blip on your radar screen. Problem? What problem?
2. Ew-yuck! Popular culture is a breeding ground for spiritual pollution. Stay away from the dirt!
3. We're all above that. Dismiss and criticize popular culture as trivial and inferior compared to "real culture."
4. Imagophobia. You don't reject popular culture because it is popular per se, but because you fear that an image-based culture will undermine our collective social and intellectual health.
5. Cheerleaders of the postmodern. It's all good. God and the Spirit move in mysterious ways. Let's listen to them speaking to us through popular culture, and forget about the #1 position of the Bible as only source of truth.
In part 3 Turnau puts his own cards on the table and presents a more balanced approach to popular culture. He has a method of how to watch (or play or listen to or read) popular culture, and how to respond apologetically. Calling that approach popologetics it gives a way to explore how we ought to relate our faith to popular culture as cultural consumers, and how to respond thoughtfully to the worldview challenges presented in popular culture.
1. What's the story?
2. Where in the world am I?
3. What's good, true and beautiful in this world?
4. What's false, ugly and perverse in this world (and how can I subvert it)?
5. How does the Gospel apply here?
Turnau practices concrete examples of popologetics by examining the rock song Heartache Tonight by The Eagles, the documentary Grizzly Man (2005) by Werner Herzog, the Japanese anime series One Piece, the blockbuster family movie Kung Fu Panda. And finally, a nonnarrative example, the online social network Twitter. Learn how to approach popular culture wisely, separating its gems of grace from its temptations toward idolatry, and practice some popologetics to be an influence of your own.
His method or roadmap for engaging popular cultural texts should be very helpful for Christians who have no purposeful strategy when they encounter a culture that seems so overtly hostile to their values. He doesn’t use the phrase I don’t think in the book, but the explanatory power of the Biblical story makes mincemeat of the idols of culture who think they can play God.
I was so impressed by the book that I taught a class last night at my church about engaging popular culture and used the book as my text. I got some excellent reviews and hopefully helped sell a few more of Ted’s book.
I have one minor caveat from the lavish praise I heap upon this book, and it would not keep it from getting five stars. In the third chapter, “What is a worldview Apologetic?” I was reminded of my time at Westminster Seminary and the seemingly endless arguments about presuppositional vs. evidential vs. classical apologetics. It got to really annoy me because there is no one right way to defend the Christian faith. People the world over have come to faith in every way imaginable, and it’s all good.
In this chapter, Ted sets up a straw man and tries to knock him down. The straw man is that there are apologists who believe in neutral “facts,” and that if just presented clearly enough people will come to faith. He says the Christian worldview is so much more than a set of facts or propositions. Really? Who would disagree with that? The apologists he describes are coldly rational who believe in the autonomous power of reason don’t really exist. I’m not sure why he thinks they do.
I learned about Ted and his book from an interview he did with Brian Auten at Apologetics 315, I’ve probably listened to maybe 70 or 80 of those interviews of a variety of people involved in apologetics, and I doubt one of them would fit the straw man profile Ted puts up. My step brother-in-law is J.P. Moreland, and he’s written some amazingly complex and deep philosophy about the existence of God and morality and so on, and he would never say worldviews don’t matter, or presupposition don’t color a person’s interpretation of the arguments. But the arguments are relevant and need to be made, and some people will either come to faith because of them (by God’s grace and power; I am Reformed after all) or their faith will be strengthened.
That said, I hope this book has a big impact on the Church as it makes its way through an increasingly hostile culture.