“Popologetics” for Evangelicals: Ted Turnau’s Missional Defense of Pop Culture

Image Credit: Seth Hahne

One of the first notes I made when reading Ted Turnau’s book, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, was that he struck me as a missionary delivering a message tailored to reach fellow evangelicals. The structure of his argument primarily orbits around this question: why should we care about, and how should we critique, popular culture? And, if sectors of evangelicalism are his third world country of cultural impoverishment (my explicit assessment—his implicit), the shape of Turnau’s answer strikes me in one sense as strategically savvy; I think Turnau’s book is crafted in terms that most evangelicals will recognize. Put specifically: Turnau sees the pervasive presence of popular culture as a worldview challenge that requires from the Christian a shrewd cultural engagement.

Turnau’s choice to use these sorts of familiar terms is a double-edged sword. In many ways, worldview criticism is for evangelicals a recognizable frame of reference that provides a helpful foundation on which to construct his argument; yet, in using this common parlance, Turnau risks reinforcing some of the common problems that have plagued evangelical approaches to cultural criticism. For much of the book’s duration, then, I went back and forth in my judgment of deciphering which way this double edged sword cuts most sharply. Is this the nuanced, well-informed defense of Christian cultural criticism that will be an important guide for evangelicals? Or might the argument be better served by a reevaluation of foundational terms? As with many either/or questions of this sort, I think the answer is probably “yes.”

2. Popologetics is effectively organized into three sections. The first lays the foundation for, and defense of, using a worldview approach to cultural interpretation and critique. Then, Turnau proceeds to outline and critique five unhelpful approaches to popular culture. Finally, he concludes by laying out his method for cultural criticism.

One of Turnau’s most interesting moves in the first section of his book is when he suggests that the dichotomy between “pop” and “elite” culture is a false one. His contention is that the contours of popular culture are defined more by quantity than by quality. That is, categorizing popular culture has more to do with “access.” His working definition of popular culture reflects this insight: “Popular culture is made up of cultural works whose media, genres, or venues tend to be widespread and widely received in our everyday world.” This is a helpful definition to consider. For instance, it justifies my reviewing, say, the 2011 Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia because it is available for streaming on Netflix—as such, it is in a sense part of the pop-cultural landscape according to Turnau’s definition. So a definition of popular culture qualified by access justifies some of Christ and Pop Culture’s discriminating choices. Plenty of worthwhile cultural artifacts are immediately accessible, and thus, they are on Turanu’s definition “popular.”

But the part of the first section I most want to interact with is Turnau’s use of worldview criticism as a foundation for cultural interpretation and criticism. The first notable assessment we can make is that Turnau has provided a well researched—a wisely researched—book. I was delighted to see folks like Peter Berger, Herman Bavinck, and Kevin Vanhoozer involved. These sorts of references lend a credibility to Turnau’s book as a piece of thorough research, and to Turnau himself as someone who knows great resources to draw from. So, for instance, to supply a definition of worldview, he turns to James Sire, who is undoubtedly one of the best sources for Christians on this subject. Here’s Sire’s careful definition, cited in full in Popologetics:

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundations on which we live and more and have our being.

Turnau wisely uses Sire’s definition to suggest that worldviews “are not simply rooted in ‘the facts’” or in “abstract, analytical propositions,” but are “meaningful through stories.” The suggestion is that people have narrative imaginations and thus, “[Popular culture] feeds our imagination narratively through its songs, shows, movies, magazine articles, games, books, and websites.” This insight is a simple but profound one that often escapes people, and should be a helpful revelation for those who are wont to haphazardly bring a rigid critical grid to stories of various kinds. And, later in the book, Turnau breaks down some of the considerations necessary for effectively interpreting stories—considerations that involve, you know, understanding the essential elements of narrative! Again, this sort of work may sound simple, but it’s anything but when you consider the number of “Christian” reviews out there which, for instance, identify the qualitative “worldview” of a story’s antagonist with the story or storyteller in general.

Turnau offers another helpful nuance to the worldview approach in his brief “limits of the worldview model” section. He’s quick to recognize that “worldviews do not come fully formed. Rather, they develop as we interact with the world and culture around us.” In other words, he acknowledges that how a person maintains a worldview is messy, and when we Christians package unique individuals into neatly ordered systematic beliefs, we often do both them and ourselves an unhelpful disservice. Our worldviews are both uniquely formed and continually in the process of forming. This fact, in itself, necessarily puts unsophisticated, unsubtle approaches to worldview criticism on their heels.

These sorts of clarifications come as a breath of fresh air amidst a subculture of Christian criticism often operating from a place of worldview approaches to criticism. But that it’s a relief gives me pause. Despite Turnau’s laudable presentation of an informed, consistent, and nuanced worldview approach, I can’t help but wonder if we would benefit more from a reevaluation of the worldview approach as the foundation we use for cultural interpretation and criticism. Is there a better conceptual model? With the caveat that I think Turnau himself avoids many, if not most, of the potential pitfalls of worldview criticism, I wonder 1) how many currently existing publications offering Christian cultural criticism operate on a worldview model, and then 2) how many of those “worldview” based publications would fit within one of Turnau’s five unhelpful approaches to popular culture if we were to scan their content?

To press further, I’d love to see Turnau interact with James KA Smith (Desiring the Kingdom) and James Davison Hunter (To Change the World)—particularly their specific criticisms of the worldview model, and how these criticisms might impact his employment of the worldview model as his foundation. One of the most compelling sections in the book, for me, was a footnote at the bottom of page 17, in which Turnau recognizes that Smith offers a unique challenge to the worldview model. Notably, Turnau admits that he “came across [Smith’s] book too late to fully engage with it.” Smith (and Hunter, for that matter) contends that worldviews are about ideas in a way that is not effectively reflective of how human beings are oriented and shaped in and by the world. Turnau appreciates the insight, but concludes that we don’t need to “eschew a worldview approach,” but instead should consider “ways of reformulating worldview that take into account the roles of desire and imagination[.]”

In short, my contention—and possibly my biggest criticism of Turnau’s book (if only because it’s one of a very few!)—is that while he has an often effective offering of a reformulated worldview model, he seems to me too dismissive here of the possible shortcomings of the model. If he’s going to maintain the model, then I think a second edition would be greatly helped by interaction with Smith, Hunter and their cohorts. And, if he comes to find that the worldview model may actually reinforce some of the more unhelpful approaches he’s trying to avoid, then perhaps his model doesn’t best fit his conclusions, even if worldview should be part of the conversation.

One brief example to consider in closing this point: what if a worldview model is, to some extent, responsible for many evangelicals’ ignorance when it comes to the form of various cultural artifacts? Does worldview criticism, if not formulated in some of the helpful specific ways Turnau explicates it, have the unfortunate effect of unhelpfully narrowing our focus on content, a content that is inevitably shaped formally in ways that we ignore or don’t recognize? Again, to be clear, Turnau himself avoids these pitfalls—he even has a helpful section on content and form—but I’m genuinely unsure if his baseline terminology is the best fit for his task.

3. The second section of Turnau’s book addresses five unhelpful approaches to popular culture. His five unhelpful categories can be summarized as careless consuming, pop culture-as-dirty-pollutant, elitist superiority, fear of images, and a too-embracing postmodernism. Turnau has specific examples in mind with each of these approaches. The “Imagophobia” section, for instance, is mostly concerned with Marshall McLuhan and his offshoots. This approach is helpful to those who are familiar with the cultural criticism landscape. And to Turnau’s credit, he is, on the whole, careful to acknowledge that the subjects of his criticism have been helpful to varying degree. In each section, Turnau offers incisive criticism of these approaches. But briefly, I want to concern myself with one in particular: the “we’re above all that approach,” which features significant interaction with respected Mars Hill Audio critic, Ken Myers.

Confession: when I first inquired about writing for Christ and Pop Culture, I felt an underlying nervousness about associating myself with a webzine primarily concerned with “popular culture.” And, I confess, much of this hesitation stemmed from the influence of Myers’s book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. To some degree, I suppose this speaks to Turnau’s major concern with Myers: that he inspires a sometimes unhelpful and unwarranted elitist attitude toward popular culture. Turnau first makes an extensive argument suggesting that Myers’s high-versus-low view of culture, while helpful in some ways, has been historically based on a premise that can unjustly value the culture of the elites in a way that has inherent racial and class prejudices. Insofar as Turnau provides a critique of the historical narrative of high versus low culture that Myers draws from, I think it would be helpful if Myers provided a response—something he’s yet to do.

Yet, this sort of elitism wasn’t the source of my initial angst about a popular culture site, and neither was it my big takeaway from Myers’s book. Rather, it was over a popular culture sensibility that Myers consistently defines and warns against in his book that I’m still wary of, and that I think Christ and Pop Culture wisely avoids. And frankly, I’m still not sure whether Turnau has given this argument enough credibility in his critique or quite presented it as such. Turnau seems to present Myers’s book and approach as if Myers is providing a blanket statement about every popular cultural artifact. But what Myers says on page 180 of his book—in answer to the question of Christian involvement with popular culture—is indicative of how I received his book in sum to that point: “My answer to the question about Christian involvement with popular culture is essentially the same. You can enjoy popular culture without compromising biblical principles as long as you are not dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols.” And, notably, those italics are Myers’s emphasis—not mine.

So when Myers makes a list of tendencies in “popular culture” and in “traditional and high culture,” he’s pretty clearly not making a blanket statement about all popular culture artifacts. Rather, he’s commenting on popular culture as a guiding sensibility—a sensibility which flattens out what is good, beautiful, or true in our overly democratized culture. Myers’s concern is primarily with the many people who are at the whim of popular culture’s shifting, pervasive content without any discriminating taste beyond what happens to be popular. This trajectory of argument still rings true for me. And for our site, titled “Christ and Pop Culture,” the former is the sensibility which guides our interaction with the latter—even in terms of the content we decide is worthy of interaction. So, for instance, we don’t need an episode-by-episode breakdown of  Keeping Up with the Kardashians, its popularity be damned—and this, I think, is at least a kind of faithfulness to Myers’s point, even if he may be a touch more suspicious of Rock n’ Roll than we are as a collective group.

In short, despite my newfound suspicion of “popular culture” as an influential sensibility, I came away from Myers’s book convinced that he would think well of the Christ and Pop Culture project (which, without naming names, can’t be said of other Christian sites dedicated to popular culture), even if I think Myers would do well to follow Chabon’s lead on a less narrow and demeaning definition of “entertainment.” Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps Myers would look at our project with a kind of disdain that Turnau seems to be reacting against. But it still remains that the trajectory of Myers’s book doesn’t leave me feeling as if he is dismissive of all popular culture artifacts as not worth our time.

Further, I can’t help but point out how well read (re: trained, cultivated) Turnau is (or how many of Christ and Pop Culture’s writers come from educated backgrounds in theology, literature, philosophy, politics, etc.), and then wonder if he is (and we are) not illustrative of another of Myers’s main points. Certain cultural activities intrinsically require a kind of cognitive lifting and thus exercise critical faculties in a way that will benefit the person in other less necessarily strenuous cultural contexts. So for instance I have no doubt that, in terms of a baseline critical discernment, studying literature has trained me as a television critic. I still find Myers convincing on this point, then: A popular culture sensibility doesn’t in itself encourage or cultivate this sort of training, it doesn’t in itself encourage discriminating taste (and I mean this in the sense that aesthetics and ethics are inevitably bound together in particular ways), and it doesn’t in itself encourage a deliberate engagement and reception of cultural artifacts. Myers is asking this essential question: what kind of cultural activities cultivate, or necessarily demand a cultivation of, critical, discriminating faculties. I take these to be the main points of Myers’s argument.

To be fair, Turnau does offer this reassuring note toward the end of the chapter: “At the heart of the “We’re-Above-All-That” approach is a deep appreciation of and yearning for creative excellence. It laments culture that is aesthetically shallow. At its heart lies the conviction that truth and beauty are important and worth fighting for. I heartily agree.” To reiterate, I think Turnau has some insightful criticism of Myers here. I’m just not sure that I agree with Turnau’s persistent insinuation that Myers’s critique of a popular culture sensibility is also a critique of all popular culture artifacts, or of popular culture engagement in itself.

However, I am sympathetic to Turnau’s reaction to Myers in that I think All God’s Children is a bit dated. Turnau has pointed this out elsewhere, and he’s right: more and more people are developing a richer critical vocabulary for popular culture mediums—including, yes, formal analysis. And, yes, more and more people are watching television of a more literary quality, and without commercial breaks, either on dvd or on streaming services. Indeed, it would be helpful if Myers was a bit clearer about, and willing to reiterate, the fact that there are popular cultural artifacts which exhibit an artfulness and qualitative goodness, and which invite an engagement that both doesn’t merely give us what we want and also encourages multiple viewings.  Which is to say, I wish Myers had provided more supportive claim to the mention he makes at the bottom of page 86: “The purpose of such theorizing is not to argue that no work of popular art has any redeeming value. There are numerous films, television programs, rock songs, or detective novels that are splendid productions as entertainment and as art” [emphasis added]. It would be nice if Myers had better championed this sort of statement rather than leave it as a rare caveat to which one might cling. But cling I will, because I think the thrust of Myers’s argument is too important, and, whether Myers would ultimately approve or not, it’s effectively shaped my approach to popular culture.

Ultimately, Turnau doesn’t think Myers would say, for instance, that certain films could be qualitatively “high art,” or part of the “culture of transcendence” that Myers advocates. In short, I don’t think that follows from Myers’s central argument. But Turnau seems to when he says, “[Myers’s] position boils down to this: popular culture is just spiritually bad for you. The good doctor prescribes a dose of Brahms to set you on the path to spiritual health.” I don’t think this sort of summary is quite right insofar as Turnau continually insinuates that 1. Myers is making blanket statements about all cultural artifacts that would qualify as popular, or 2. that “high art” will in itself provide spiritual health (even after Turnau himself has provided the quote in which Myers expressly says that a healthy cultural life is not in itself a spiritual good!). In short, contra Turnau, I do think Myers would advocate “seeking out what is true and good and real in popular culture,” if with the understanding that this sort of discernment isn’t cultivated—or, at least, not well enough cultivated—in a popular culture vacuum. For this sort of seeking bespeaks precisely the hope that Myers has for his readers: attentive discernment, qualitative discrimination, formal concerns, and protracted critical engagement.

4. In his third and final section, Turnau lays out a five step plan for “reading and responding to popular culture.” I appreciate that his plan revolves around questions, which I think shapes the approach in a way that is characterized by humility and listening. His five big-picture questions include: 1. “What’s the Story?” 2. “Where am I (The World of the Text)?” 3. “What is Good and True and Beautiful in This World?” 4. “What is False and Ugly and Perverse in This World (and How can I Subvert It)?” And 5. “How Does the Gospel Apply Here?” He then turns to “work shopping” a few examples, including a Werner Herzog documentary film, an Eagles rock song, and even a work of Japanese manga, One Piece.

While the book necessitates a formal shape—outlining the five steps for each cultural artifact—that might come across as unnaturally rigid and thus potentially limiting or unsophisticated, Turnau shows himself a worthy critic by, to provide two examples, providing consistently sophisticated formal analysis, and asserting that the relevance of the Gospel to popular culture can only make sense once we have a properly big—all-encompassing—sense of what the gospel means for all of life. Small, overly-reductive gospel pictures will not do when it comes to having a sense for what is good, true, and beautiful in God’s glorious creative economy.

Turnau’s last chapter ties up any loose threads and offers some conclusions for “the way forward.” I much appreciated two of his final remarks from this brief chapter. A significant practical application that Turnau puts forward is that this sort of thinking about popular culture happens most effectively and joyously in communal contexts. We need relationships with people who share our concern for delving into these matters. Conversations are what best facilitate interpretation and criticism. Secondly, I appreciate that Turnau emphasizes an interaction with popular culture that is alert and intentional; or, he puts a much-needed premium on pursuing popular culture deliberately. He mentions a number of sites that are helpful in “[sifting] the wheat from the chaff.” For Christ and Pop Culture, I can say that we don’t just strive to offer insightful criticism, but we also implicitly make decisions about what may or may not be worthwhile on the mere basis of publication choices. Which is to say: we don’t just comment on popular culture, we actually seek to manipulate the conversation about what’s popular. So, for instance, I have the freedom as a film columnist to say, if I so choose, that I’m unlikely to review a film that scores lower than, say, 40% on Rotten Tomatoes. We want to exemplify a kind of deliberate perusal of popular culture that is worth our time (and, yes, comedy/entertainment is most definitely worth our time–”worthwhile” is not coterminous with “grimly serious”).

5. I began this review by suggesting the metaphor that, near the beginning of his book, Turnau seemed to me like a missionary bringing a message tailored to a people group whose cultural imagination is stunted. So a grin came over when I reached his very last paragraph, which begins with this bit:

You need to view the territory of popular culture as a mission field—or, better, as several mission fields (as I said, popular culture is too diverse for any one person to engage in all its forms). Think of yourself as God’s missionary to the metalheads, or God’s ambassador to the anime community, Christ’s go-between for computer gamers, his diplomat to the dance club. It will not always be easy, though it is often fun.

Somehow, Turnau’s admonition seems indicative of his approach in speaking to evangelical Christians in a way that confirms my initial description. On the whole, Turnau’s book fulfills its mission in providing evangelical Christians with a thoughtful, thoroughly researched approach to cultural interpretation and criticism from a Christian perspective.

Coincidentally, my Filmwell colleague, Michael Leary, recently offered a worthwhile post titled “A Missional Imagination.” It’s a kind of brief manifesto for film criticism that draws from Wendell Berry and André Bazin in order to suggest a criticism qualified by attentive vision–a “hospitable observance.” Leary suggests that the “missional imagination” refers to “a way of gospel being” in which the functional hermeneutic is one of “preemptive sympathy.” In many ways, Turnau’s form and content aligns with Leary’s parsing of “missional.” Now I just wonder if Leary’s is one small example of a needed larger scale revision of foundational terminologies. Which is to say: I’m not sure that, to this point, the worldview model has encouraged a “preemptive sympathy” in our critical imaginations. Perhaps we need a model less steeped in sometimes inhospitable connotations, and one that more directly reflects the spirit of Turnau’s offering.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne and Tim Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • http://gravatar.com/tedturnau Ted Turnau

    Hi Nick. Thanks for the really thoughtful evaluation of my book.

    Concerning Myers, you’re right in sensing that one of my major complaints is that he does a lot of baby throwing with the bathwater. Your quote from p. 86 of “Blue Suede Shoes” was helpful, but I’d believe him more if he actually cited examples of popular culture done well. I could find none (but perhaps they are there, lurking in the shadows). About Myers being concerned about a “pop cultural sensibility” vs. a blanket statement about every piece of popular culture, I guess I’d have to say that I’m likewise concerned with the elitist sensibilities of too many Myers-inspired Evangelicals. Further, trying to pin down a “sensibility” is notoriously difficult and one always risks over-generalization (which is a problem for Myers, I believe). For instance, where would one put Joss Whedon in such a sensibility? He’s definitely a popular cultural maven (deity of sorts), but his works are not shallow, lack transcendence, etc. I understand what Myers is trying to say, but I think he paints with too broad a brush, and is selective in his use of evidence. All that’s to say, fair point to you, but I’m still unconvinced.

    About engagement with Smith and Hunter, I’ve engaged with Smith in a blog post here: http://www.turnau.cz/node/28. I plan on engaging him further in the next book I’m writing. And I appreciate Hunter’s critique of a worldview approach as well. However, if the aim is not to “change culture” or “change the world,” but simply to enter into the world of the people around us so that we can engage in dialogue, worldview is still a handy tool in that it gives a systemic overview. One must always be aware of the formal and stylistic properties of a piece of popular culture. But it’s good to be asking questions about what is ultimately being worshipped, etc.

    Just some thoughts off the top of my head in response to your excellent piece. Thanks.

    Peace,

    Ted

  • Steve Schuler

    Nick and Ted, I haven’t read Myers’ book, but I’ve been listening to Mars Hill Audio for a few years now, and over the last score of issues or so, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of interviews about pop-culture phenomena–sci fi, zombies, Eastwood films, vampires, film noir, etc. I hope that’s an indication that Myers is beginning to take pop culture a little more seriously than he once did.

  • http://gravatar.com/tedturnau Ted Turnau

    Hi Steve,

    That would indeed be encouraging. Thanks for the heads-up.

    Peace,

    Ted


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