Book Review: Popcultured, by Steve Turner
Steve Turner, Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media, and Entertainment. InterVarsity Press, 2013. 257 pages. $17.00.
The weekend I wrote this review included two activities so regular in our household they are almost liturgical. On Saturday, my wife and I ordered takeaway from our usual Chinese restaurant and settled down to watch the finale of X-Factor, the British version of American Idol. On Sunday, we passed through the door of our local Baptist church where we are members. This pattern is so typical that our two-month-old daughter knows of no other kind of weekend.
I imagine that for many Christians such a combination is not unusual. The kind of takeout may differ. The choice of entertainment may vary, and be less embarrassing. But that our lives involve us both in church and popular culture is almost inevitable for 21st-century Christians.
But it raises some questions: are these two areas of life—popular culture and Christian living—related? Does one affect the other in any way? Is watching lightweight TV tantamount to sin, a waste of the precious time that God has given us? Or is popular culture simply a nothing, like an inert, colourless gas, unable to affect anything or change anything due to its inherent weightlessness; harmless but unworthy of serious attention from the Christian?
Steve Turner’s book Popcultured takes issue with both of those perspectives. Turner argues that “it’s possible to understand pop culture using a biblically informed mind and that this doesn’t lessen the appreciation but increases it” (250).
Turner writes from the unusual perspective of a committed evangelical Christian who has firsthand knowledge of creating popular culture. As a professional writer and journalist, he has written books about Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, U2, and Van Morrison, among others. He includes Cliff Richard in his acknowledgements, and his chapter on celebrity begins with a personal anecdote about David Bowie pestering him to attend his gigs in the early 1970s.
None of this means that his insights are above contradiction. But he writes as an artist and as someone who has intimate knowledge of how the creators of popular culture think and work. He is aware of subtleties and details that Christians writing from outside the creative industries may lack. For instance, his section on how the vocabulary of an article will reveal the hidden assumptions of the journalist was particularly illuminating.
Popcultured aims to help the Christian to live in a world surrounded by popular cultural expressions, TV, music, film, games, and more while managing, “the hard task of being simultaneously critical and spiritually engaged” (14). The book begins with three introductory chapters: the first lists ten reasons why popular culture is worth caring about, the second gives a short definition of culture in general and popular culture in particular, and the third a brief biblical framework of how to understand culture.
This is not the book for a detailed, carefully argued theology of cultural engagement. Those looking for that can turn to Ted Turnau’s definitive Popologetics. The strength of Turner’s work is in dealing with specific areas of popular culture: cinema, journalism, celebrity, fashion, thrill-seeking, comedy, and more. These chapters often feature an overview of the subject, an exploration of its historical development, and then an application of a biblical worldview to the topic, concluding with some discussion questions and further reading suggestions.
Not everyone will agree with Turner’s views, but he has given thought to areas that most of us ignore. Consider, for example, his critique of some Christian approaches to fashion and clothes:
Some Christians have resisted the dictates of fashion by not caring about their personal appearance, but this too communicates a message. Christians have often been not merely out of step with fashion but dowdy, boring and unadventurous. Their clothes suggest that they have no pride in their bodies, are content to be disconnected from the times they live in, don’t value creativity or imagination and have no desire to provide aesthetic pleasure for those they meet….If…clothes are “the furniture of the mind made visible,” what do shabby and dull clothes tell us about the minds that choose them? (123)
I quote this not because I think it’s the key insight of the book but because I had never thought about clothing in that way before—as my wardrobe choices will testify. All of us make daily choices about what to wear, yet how many of us consider whether we are allowing God’s word to shape those choices? Are we sure that God has nothing to say to those choices?
Popcultured is that rare thing, a book full of original thought that challenges our complacency and slothfulness in thinking about popular culture. It would be wrong to give the impression that Turner’s book is simply a condemnation of Christian disengagement with popular culture. He is well aware of the sin and rebellion that is displayed and glorified by popular culture and the dangers that it poses for Christian discipleship. But, ultimately, it is the call of Christian discipleship that requires us to engage with these topics.
I imagine that many pastors and elders will see a book like this as a kind of “nice-to-have book” perhaps a little light diversion from the latest Puritan paperback from the Banner of Truth. I would argue it is much a more vital book than that. Ask yourself, what’s the ratio between the amount of journalism, advertising, photography, fashion, comedy that you or your congregation consume, and the amount of thoughtful Christian teaching you’ve heard on those topics?
To put popular culture in the category of adiaphora or indifferent things is a double mistake. It blinds us to where the Devil has laid traps for our affections and stops us from giving glory to Christ for the beauty, truth, and goodness we see in it that is rightfully his.
Some may see Popcultured as another example of what one celebrity Christian blogger called the “trendy Christian infatuation with cultural interaction.” But cultural interaction, particularly popular cultural interaction, is precisely where Christ’s call of discipleship must find its expression.
Unless I know how, or whether, to watch the X-Factor, or read the local paper, or laugh at the stand-up comedian in the name of Jesus, then I am failing to obey the “whatever you do” of 1 Corinthians 10:31. In his magisterial Doctrine of the Knowledge of God John Frame argues, “When one lacks knowledge of how to ‘apply’ a text, his claim to know the “meaning” becomes an empty-meaningless-claim.” Unless we know how our theology applies to the myriad of popular cultural expressions so ubiquitous in modern life, then we cannot claim to really understand it. For those looking for help with that, Popcultured will be a valuable resource.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987), kindle location 949-950.