Ted Turnau, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2012. 368 pp. $19.99.
I know readers often skip to the bottom of a review, scanning for the words “in summary” or “therefore, I think . . . .” But I’m going to go ahead and give you that takeaway up front: Read this book. If you’re one who scoffs at pop culture, read this book. If you’re one who thinks you have a grasp on pop culture, read this book. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Turnau's book become a classic in its genre, perhaps on par with James Sire’s The Universe Next Door. Not only was I privileged when The Gospel Coalition asked me to review this book, but as I read it, I was also privileged to read a work that carries so much potential to make a difference.
While the average Christian may see a need for apologetics, I believe he underestimates the importance of popular culture. Turnau argues, “Apologetics needs popular culture—simple as that” (39). “Engaging popular culture might not save the world [or] feed the starving . . . [but] it will allow you to enter into the broader cultural conversations” (xix) with the hopes of spreading the gospel. And Turnau is certainly suited to tackle this broad subject, as teaching fellow at the International Institute for Christian Studies and professor of cultural and religious studies at Anglo-American University and cultural studies at Charles University in Prague. Not only is his passion clearly demonstrated throughout the book, but the clarity and care with which he conveys his message is likewise commendable.
It is easy to see Turnau is a gifted teacher who wants to ensure that his students not only learn but apply. The structuring of his book reveals this purpose. At the end of each chapter and section, for example, he provides excellent summaries to assist the reader in moving forward. Popologetics is divided into three sections: “Grounding,” “Some Not-So-Helpful Approaches to Popular Culture,” and “Engaging Popular Culture: Why Critique Popular Culture?” From the outset, Turnau says the book is designed for the reader to “delve into” its various section. In my estimation, the opening four chapters, which make up the first section, seem to drag a bit, but are excellently researched and written to make sure the reader is properly grounded in worldview, apologetics, and popular culture. Though somewhat tedious, they are necessary to ensure topics encompassing so much are clearly defined.
Turnau states that his work is “not primarily intended for scholars of apologetics or cultural studies” (xvii). However, his near exhaustive research of the topic at hand would lead most to read with considerable pause. Not only does Turnau ground us in various spheres, but he provides some important nuances as well. Entertainment, for example, is typically thought of as something you “seek when you don’t want to think too hard” (74). But “when popular culture entertains, it invites a response that borders on worship” (75). There’s a sense, then, in which the more entertaining something is, the more religious it is, too.
The second section, “Not-So-Helpful Approaches,” will prove to be highly insightful and challenging for any reader. Each will find his identity tied up in one, or many, of the various spheres of thought. For example, Turnau pointedly challenges Ken Myers's classic All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (a book I enjoyed and benefited from). He suggests that those, such as Myers, who hold high culture as superior to popular culture ground their arguments in racial and class prejudices (113). Turnau also wins the argument, in my estimation, with Douglas Wilson and others.
Even though the second section of the book challenges flawed interaction (or non-interaction) with popular culture, Turnau does so with gentleness, giving credit to each approach—with the exception of the “What, Me Worry?” approach, concerning which he remarks: “For anyone who cares deeply about following Jesus, apathy regarding popular culture is simply not an option” (86).
In the third section, Turnau brings his work to a close by providing practical application to various works of popular culture. He looks at a classic rock song, a documentary, a Japanese anime series, Kung Fu Panda, and Twitter, using five basic questions that encompass his “popologetics” approach (ch. 11). Additionally, Turnau clearly communicates the gospel.
No doubt many readers want to know, “How is this work on popular culture different from others? Does Turnau bring Christians any closer to understanding how to rightly engage and interact with popular culture?”—to which I would give an emphatic yes! I believe “popologetics” is an aspect of creation that will always remain difficult to define, as Turnau himself concedes: “Even people who get paid to engage popular culture cannot hope to master every type of popular culture” (319). Nevertheless, Turnau’s book will be an excellent aid in the Christian’s call to be in the world but not of it.
Turnau assists believers in deep reflection on areas of life that aren’t often pondered. His insights into pop culture, worldview, apologetics, and entertainment are exceedingly helpful. His argument that, spiritually speaking, there isn’t much difference between high art and low art is surprising and clarifying. In sum, Popologetics tackles many relevant areas of our everyday lives, and while it may not always pin them to the ground, it wrestles with them in such a way that greatly assists us in our pilgrimage.
John Perritt is the youth pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, Mississippi, where he has served for eight years. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing his biblical counseling certificates through the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. He blogs on film and theology at www.reel-thinking.com. John and his wife, Ashleigh, have three children, Sarah, Samuel, and Jillian.