Foundations: No.66 Spring 2014

Review Article: Pop Culturing For Christians

 

Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media and Entertainment
Steve Turner, IVP, 2013, 256pp, £10.99

 

I can’t imagine many people better positioned to write a book on popular culture than Steve Turner. His job as an established journalist and writer who covers the culture beat, particularly rock music, means that he has rubbed shoulders with the likes of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Cliff Richard, as well as established photographers, Hollywood writers, set designers and the like. He starts out chapter six reminiscing about hanging out with Bowie back in the day. The man has, as they say, street cred.

And he is an accomplished writer. His style is easy and conversational, though it doesn’t lack for depth. His imagery is consistently vivid. This is not a scholar’s tome on popular culture; this is an eminently readable work on popular culture for the masses.

Conversely, those looking for a systematically-stated theology of popular culture are likely going to be disappointed. But they needn’t be; Turner’s strength is in his keen observation of, and insights into, the various media and cultural themes that surround us. Furthermore, he has done significant research and he enters into many of the debates surrounding specific popular media with conviction and elegance.

Even when his remarks seem ad hoc, there really is a guiding structure, a method to his madness. He begins by laying out reasons why we should care about engaging popular culture (chapter 1). He then defines his field, popular culture (chapter 2). And he lays out biblical principles for thinking these matters through (chapter 3). The main body of the book (chapters 4-13) has to do with different media or issues related to popular culture: cinema, journalism, celebrity, fashion, thrill-seeking, comedy, advertising, technology, photography and the portrayal of Christians in television and film. The book closes with advice to consumers, critics and creators of popular culture (chapter 14) and a short appendix, a Q&A session about the author’s personal stake in exploring popular culture.

His overall perspective (articulated in chapters 1-3) is a refreshing alternative to the pietistic dualism that colours so much Evangelical discourse regarding popular culture. Turner has been around popular cultural practitioners and the Christian faith long enough to have a solid grasp on both the benefits and risks of engaging popular culture. A knowledge of popular culture gives us insight into the zeitgeist, the popular mind, and the imagination of our neighbour (20-24). He recognises that a commitment to the universal lordship of Christ means we must be serious about popular culture (18). His emphasis is unflaggingly missional and culture-positive. This is, after all, the same man who wrote Hungry for Heaven: Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Search for Redemption, the first Christian book I ever read that treated rock songs as if they had something meaningful to say.[1]  There is a strong doctrine of creation that lies back of these emphases, as well as a depth of understanding of the academic discourse of cultural theory.

The book is full of surprising insights that should drive Evangelicals to deeper reflection. For example, in wrapping up his discussion of biblical principles that should guide our engagement with popular culture, he mentions the parable of the talents from Matthew 25. He applies this to our cultural life: What caused the unfaithful servant to stumble? Fear. Likewise, it is not a badge of holiness if fear keeps us from interacting with our culture. Rather, fear keeps us from faithfully carrying out the (cultural) task that God has given us (56). Much later in the book he challenges us with a perspective on popular cultural consumption that I have never heard from an Evangelical, but one that should be on the front-burner for Christians: “Rather than thinking of popular culture in terms of what we should avoid, maybe we should start thinking in terms of what we absolutely should consume” (226). The book is full of such moments.

Not that he is always on-target. His discussion of popular culture’s effect on our thought life, specifically his interpretation of Phil 4:8 (“Whatever is noble” etc.), betrays a lingering dualism. He asserts that “Sometimes we have to sit through some bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. That’s true for the Bible as it is for Shakespeare... The point is to have the good things as our benchmark, to want to meditate on the sweet and awe-inspiring rather than the hateful and destructive” (53). I understand what he’s getting at: there is sex and violence in the Bible and Shakespeare, as well as popular culture – things that can tempt us or make us squirm. But I would be rather more hesitant to call anything in the Bible “bad stuff” that we must get past. If the Bible gives a realistic portrayal of sin, and shows how it leads to ruin, I’d prefer to call that “good stuff” as well. If it’s in the Bible, it’s all good. Here, Brian Godawa’s chapter on “Sex, Violence and Profanity” in the Bible, from Hollywood Worldviews, serves us much better.[2]  Godawa calls on us not to be too quick to label cultural contents as “good stuff” or “bad stuff”. Rather, we should consider carefully how these things are presented, in what context, with what inflection. Sex is part of creation. Adultery, violence and profanity are part of our fallen existence. There are legitimate ways of depicting these in popular culture, just as there are in the Bible.

But that is one misstep in the midst of many, many helpful insights concerning popular culture as a whole. When he turns his attention to particular areas of popular culture, there is likewise much to applaud. These chapters (4 through 13) make up the bulk of the book. Typically, a chapter starts off by considering what is laudable and worthwhile in this field (say, fashion). In other words, he starts off by recognising common grace in popular culture. Next, he considers places in this type of popular culture where there are dynamics and motifs that undermine biblical commitments, set up idols and so forth. Finally, he highlights areas where Christians can speak into this cultural arena in a healing, creative, and life-giving way. He ends each chapter with questions to reflect on, resources to pursue, and suggestions for further action.

What emerges is a balanced, holistic perspective that sometimes cuts against Evangelical expectations, for the good. He is mature and informed enough in his perspective to point out areas where Evangelicals have shied away from developing a type of popular culture to its full potential. My favourite example of this in the book comes from his chapter on comedy:

What few Christians have done is to use comedy to highlight inconsistencies in the way that people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin did. Instead of going on the offensive Christians either do jokes about church in a church context, Bible jokes as a warm-up for an evangelist or inoffensive comedy where the Christian influence is felt in the absence of swearing, blasphemy and references to sex and drugs, rather than the presence of anything. While the market leaders in comedy are creating material out of the hot issues of the day, Christians are known only for being meek and mild.

The most commonly used commendations on the webpages of Christian comedians are “clean” and “family friendly”. Unfortunately, this suggests that no humour can be found in any post-puberty experiences and that Christians are permanently stranded in childhood. It’s hard to take on the ills of the world and the mess of our own sinful lives while remaining cute and uplifting. I accept that churches have responsibilities that don’t apply to clubs and bars, but a Christian Lenny Bruce is unlikely to be house trained. (151)

This is bracing stuff. The man does not mince words. The heart of his argument is that if we had a more robust theology, if we took sin and grace more seriously, then we would produce better comedy. To which all God’s people should respond with a hearty “Amen!” He likewise delivers wonderful insights into all the diverse worlds of popular culture with which he engages.

But again, there are a few places where his insights miss the mark. For instance, I wish he had spent time on the visual languages used in cinema instead of simply discussing story structure (chapter 4), especially given his eloquent reflections on photography and visual culture (chapter 12). Another example: in his chapter on technology, he traces the fascinating story of cyber-culture’s origins in the hippy culture of the San Francisco Bay area. But sometimes his writing takes on the tone of an ageing hippy lamenting “What’s wrong with kids these days?” just like the squares of the 1950s did to his generation:

Relationships with people that are conducted in tweets of 140 characters or less can never be profound, and I doubt that a relationship with God that is conducted with a distracted mind can ever gain spiritual maturity (183).

These kinds of absolutistic pronouncements are commonplace in Christian writing on technology and, for the most part, they are simply unhelpful. They betray a real lack of knowledge of the medium or technology. Are many relationships over Twitter superficial? Yes. But I’ve also had in-depth theological discussions and learned tons (in chunks of 140 characters or less). I’ve become aware of people whose work I appreciate, and sometimes I get to meet them in real life (which I always find fascinating and rewarding). I’ve had Twitter acquaintances become trusted friends. I’ve comforted those who are mourning the death of loved ones. I’ve even had a friend I met through Twitter and never met in person privately confess sin to me and ask me for prayer. Is there a certain thinning of relationships that can take place because of online technologies? Yes, it is certainly a danger of which we must remain mindful. Is there are danger of distraction? Again, yes there is; we must practice discipline. But there is so much potential in these new relational media as well. The real need is for biblical wisdom to speak into these new dynamics, not simply to condemn them as “bad for you”.[3]  I find this to be a problem wherever Neil Postman is embraced uncritically (as he often is) by Christians.[4] 

In the same chapter, he spends a mere 1¼ pages discussing video games. This is nearly an unforgiveable sin in my view. Video gaming is a monster-sized industry whose global sales figures dwarf international movie box office ($24 billion vs. $10 billion).[5]  And that has been the case for years. Further, what little Turner does say about video games betrays a serious ignorance of the medium, lumping all games into a single, undifferentiated blob that overlooks significant differences in genre (e.g. role playing games vs. multi-player online battle arenas), and different gameplay dynamics within genres (e.g. games that have a narrow corridor/rail vs. “sandbox” games that direct the player less). And given the writing and production quality of many of these games, it is hard to play them without feeling that you are in the presence of a popular art form deserving of the most profound attention. Yet he dismisses gaming as a waste of time, something Christians can’t really justify when there are so many widows and orphans to feed. Couldn’t one say the same about television, cinema, music, photography, or any of the other popular arts? He does not, because they are cultural forms that should be enjoyed by Christians (because they give us insight into the popular mind, culture was made to be enjoyed, etc.) – but not video games. In my opinion, this is a significant blind spot in his perspective. Fortunately, there are good resources available to Christians on gaming.[6]  If this book goes into a second edition (and I sincerely hope it does), I implore Turner to give the same rich, detailed treatment to this part of popular culture that he gives to other areas. (By the way, one other serious omission in the book is sport. But since I’m guilty of the same omission in my own book on popular culture, I’m not prepared to complain quite so loudly about it.)[7] 

But again, these missteps are few and far between. If I were to begin reciting all the places I found helpful and insightful, this review would be rejected on account of length, and I’d just end up restating things that he says in the book in clearer and more vivid prose.

Turner concludes the book with practical advice for consumers, critics and creators of popular culture. He is wise to recognise not one, but three different audiences for his book, and he speaks to each in turn. The advice here is sound, generous and biblical, as it is throughout the book (with a few exceptions).

Even with my caveats and criticisms, I do not hesitate to recommend this book heartily. There are precious few good books on popular culture from a Christian perspective, and fewer still that are as ambitious and wide-ranging as this one. Turner provides a welcome addition to a seriously-underdeveloped field, a field that requires more attention than it typically gets from Evangelicals. This book deserves a wide and enthusiastic readership.

Ted Turnau

Lecturer in cultural and religious studies at Anglo-American University and Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and on popular culture and Christian worldview at Wales Evangelical School of Theology