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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Popologetics" (Ted Turnau)

TITLE: Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective
AUTHOR: Ted Turnau
PUBLISHER: Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012, (368 pages).

This book argues for the urgent need for Christians to engage popular culture thoughtfully, meaningfully, and lovingly. It begins with the question, "Why should we study popular culture?" The author then argues that we need to, simply because popular culture has become "something of a rudder of the spirit, a touchstone for our deepest desires and aspirations." Moreover, popular culture is getting more pervasive. More importantly, the author is convinced that popular culture is becoming a key worldview changer or influencer. Apologetics is to find a connection between the messiness and the meaning, and to make a case for the Christian worldview. The key question that drives the entire book is this: "How can Christians engage non-Christian popular culture?" The key purpose of this book is thus to learn to read popular culture with Christian eyes, to learn to respond appropriately as a Christ-follower. The biggest value from the book is how Christians can constructively engage people in popular culture comfortably through open conversations. It is meant to be an invitation to discuss rather than something to dumb down.

Part One describes some basic definitions and frameworks used for engaging culture. Here are some of the author's working definitions for the two major players.

  • "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)
  • "A worldview is the perspective from which you understand reality, your view of the world." (8)

Using a "worldview tree," Turnau sees "presuppositions" as roots, "world-story" as trunk, "life-philosophy" as branches, "applied beliefs" as the leaves, and "fruits" being the life practices. What makes popular culture so powerful is that it connects with us and takes us to new places. They can directly assault any passive minds to craft out new meaning in shaping our own worldviews. A worldview apologetic engages these by not allowing popular culture to be the primary shaper of us. Apologetics is about standing up for truth. We cannot settle with simply the facts, but how we interpret them. He then points readers to a basic understanding of Christianity 101 through the Creation, Fall, and Redemption model. Trudau carefully tiptoes over many facets of popular culture by telling us not to diss or trample the many good themes such as true love, justice, reconciliation, peace, and blessings that popular culture can point back to God. He urges readers not to be distracted by "swear words" and concentrate on understanding the worldview presented. He reminds us that popular culture is also a form of narrative that we can identify with. He teaches us that what we see out there is a lens to the understanding of the world. Christians need to learn to shed meaning, especially from the rich truth of God's Word.

Part Two lists five ways that have been used to engage popular culture. The first is the non-response approach or apathy that simply shrug a why bother attitude. The second is the total rejection approach that disses and condemns popular culture. Such an attitude alienates us from the rest of the world. The third is the superiority complex approach, or elitist. It dichotomizes life into good vs bad instead of looking to affirm or to redeem. The fourth is the presumed all-bad approach, something that is shoot-first-talk-later approach. Trudau calls this "Imagophobic" and critiques people like McLuhan and Postman for the culturally negative outlook. The fifth is the only positive approach, which is the cautiously affirmative approach. It is evident that Turnau sees more good than bad in popular culture.

Part Three is where the author sets out his proposal for engagement. He is for the idea that we engage popular culture because real people that God loves are living in there. Instead of having a skeptical of separatist mindset, we need to have a missional heart that seeks to reach people where they are. Instead of riding on the bandwagon of trying to change culture as a first step, Turnau reaches back and argues that there is another phase before culture creating. This is what he calls "critical imagination." This is the first phase of his engagement model, that begins with listening to existing culture and argue with it before any creating endeavour. The second phase is to remind ourselves to see the people in popular culture more as friends rather as foes. The third phase is to adopt a holistic approach. This approach is understood through five revealing questions.
  1. What's the story?
  2. Where am I (the world of the text)?
  3. What's good and true and beautiful about it?
  4. What's false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)?
  5. How does the gospel apply here?
My Thoughts

This is one of the clearest and well laid out book on how to engage popular culture from a Christian perspective. It is an optimistic one that gives Christians an impetus to go out into the world to engage popular culture. It is also redemptive and puts a lot of faith in the naturally good part of the world. One can easily tell that Turnau begins with a "half-full" perspective of popular culture. Perhaps, the push to engage culture in apologetics may have tilted Turnau's hand in providing more optimism in his approaches. He seems to have a disdain over cultural critiques like Postman and McLuhan for reasons mentioned. If Turnau can be faulted, it will be his over-enthusiasm for the good in popular culture may have blurred his sensitivity over some of the nuances that McLuhan and Postman have written extensively about. For example, on the phobia of images, there is a particular principality that philosophers like Jacques Ellul have pointed out, that is on an offensive against Christianity and whatever good that Turnau has said. They are on the attack against truth. They are not misguided or passive elements in popular culture. Instead, they have an evil agenda. Turnau has described popular culture so optimistically that he may have underestimated this evil.

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.

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