Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, by Ted Turnau. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012. 346 pp. $19.99.
Truly an international academic, Ted Turnau teaches at both the Anglo-American University and Charles University in Prague. Additionally, he is a teaching fellow at the International Institute for Christian Studies. He specializes in culture and religion, and Popologetics is the product of their combination.
In the introduction, Turnau argues that popular culture is both a powerful and widespread influence: “Popular culture has become not only a sign of the times, but also something of a rudder of the spirit, a touchstone for our deepest desires and aspirations” (xii). Then Turnau asks, “How should we as Christians engage non-Christian popular culture?” (xvii). The structure of the book is laid out to answer this important question. Part I, called “Grounding,” defines the terms popular culture, worldview, and apologetics. Part II provides five Christian reactions to popular culture by weighing their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, in Part III, Turnau provides his system of examining popular culture, and to demonstrate this, he provides real examples put through this new paradigm.
Indeed, the book’s structure is its greatest strength. Each part contains a clear, self-contained, purpose, building from the ground up and providing a comprehensive treatment of its subject. In Part I, Turnau defines his terms in a way that is both thorough and easily understandable. After wrestling with different definitions, Turnau arrives at a succinct 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” (6). He defines worldview as “the perspective from which you understand reality, your ‘view of the world’” (8). While this definition is simple, Turnau’s explanation is quite profound as it describes and pieces together the role of presuppositions, narratives, and the application of beliefs. Turnau moves toward a Christian approach to popular culture by concluding, “our relationship to popular culture is rarely simple because it happens on the level of worldview” (23).
The irony of Turnau’s title for Part II, “Some Not-So-Helpful Approaches to Popular Culture,” is that his discussion of these approaches, indeed, are helpful. The first approach, “What, Me Worry?” ignores the importance of the issue altogether. Turnau refutes this by returning to a point from Part I, stating, “Popular culture is, at its core, religious. Being entertained by popular culture is, in a sense, participating in something religious. . . . But such participation in popular culture must always be done critically and reflectively” (85). The second approach, “Ew-Yuck,” describes those that react negatively to all popular culture. Turnau argues that, “If we react only to certain elements . . . without understanding the context within which the contents have meaning . . . we have not really understood the popular-cultural text” (89).
The third approach, “We’re-Above-All-That,” is the tendency to reject popular culture from an elitist perspective. In Part I, Turnau examined the concept of common grace in culture and concluded, “We may take it for granted, but everything that is genuinely good in culture points to the reality of God, and not to our own inherent goodness or excellence” (68). Therefore, he concludes that, in the elitist approach, “There is little room in this perspective, however, for any positive assessment of popular culture, no room for fragments of grace within popular culture” (109). This part felt the weakest in its approach. Rather than grappling with more specific arguments from major proponents of this view, Turnau favors generalizations like “the concept of high versus low cultures has been inextricably tied up with racism and class elitism in American history since the Victorian era” (114). Several of his points are well made, but it seems the intellectual rigor characterizing much of the book is lacking in this chapter.
“Imagophobia,” the fourth approach, occurs when “cultural critics lament the rise of an image-based, image-driven culture” (136). Weighing both the positive and negative sides, Turnau states these critics often “vastly oversimplify and overstate the problem in order to support their rhetoric of woe” (139). Finally, Turnau challenges the postmodern approach that claims everything in popular culture is good. Having defended popular culture against its critics, Turnau is not afraid to acknowledge the real dangers inherent in popular culture. By pointing out the weakness in each of the five approaches, Turnau makes a strong case for his own method, which is unveiled in Part III.
The final section of the book provides the answer to the question posed in the introduction. This is Turnau’s approach to popular culture from the Christian perspective: “Popologetics uses five diagnostic questions, five steps in thinking about a particular piece of popular culture” (215). The questions, “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)?”, and “How does the gospel apply here?”, provide the reader with a comprehensive system to evaluate a popular culture “text” (Turnau’s term for any example of popular culture) (215). Each question is thoroughly explained in a variety of contexts. This clear and effective method for engaging popular culture is reason enough to read this book. When Turnau provides his own examples of the system in the following chapter, the reader should feel the introduction’s question is completely answered.
Popologetics is an excellent book in more ways than one. First, Turnau sufficiently knows and covers his subject. Second, the book offers a real and helpful solution to the problem it presents. Third, the book is easy to read and offers something for both the intellectual and the layperson concerned with popular culture. Although in some places Turnau might over-simplify or generalize to prove his points, this reviewer highly recommends this book. Just as popular culture is worth the effort of study, so this book is well worth reading.
Michael Lee Harland
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX