This book was wayyyyy better than I expected. For at least three reasons, I wasn’t expecting too much insightful substance. For one, I hadn’t heard of the author before I bought the book (which isn’t unheard of for me by any means, but it doesn’t happen as often anymore). Two: The book had a cool looking cover – therefore warning bells instinctively began ringing in my ears. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to be an unwritten rule in the field of Christian theology: The prettier the cover, the more useless and superficial the information. Three, and to make things even worse, it had a coolish sounding title: “Popologetics”. Really, I thought? They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but really, what do they know? Even though a respected professor recommended I read it, I saw the cover and figured I had better things to read.
So, I purposefully stalled. I bought this book three years ago but hadn’t picked it up until now because I figured I should get to the weightier ones first. By that I mean, the other books on the “to read” list which didn’t have trendy titles or cool looking covers (thank God!), and were written by authors who I already knew were respected. As far as I can tell, I don’t have time for riffraff these days. But what a pleasant surprise! This book functions as a Christian primer for popular cultural exegesis – and while I’ve read quite a few on similar topics, I’ve never encountered another work better suited for this task than this one. At over 300 pages the attention to nuance and detail is crucial and extraordinary. This topic is what the author Ted Turnau does for a living, and it shows.
Turnau’s section on pages 7-18 titled, “Seeing the Tree for the Forest: What is a Worldview?” is the most helpful definition and explanation of “worldview” I have ever encountered. “Worldview” is a favorite topic for evangelicals and has been written about ad neauseum with only recent balances to the pendulum from people such as James KA Smith and others. I was both surprised and delighted to find such fresh delineations and insight on “worldview” so late in the game. In these pages Turneau shows the multiple layers within a worldview: including our presuppositions, the world-story, life-philosophy, applied beliefs, and of course, lived behaviors. Then in the next chapter he shows how popular culture influences that same complex, always in-process “worldview.” Again, just really well done. Turnau is a thoughtful writer. He is easy to read, and his examples are constantly engaging and illuminating.
My favorite chapter of the book was Chapter 10, where Turnau puts forward his recommendations for how Christians can and should engage popular culture Christianly. And more importantly, how to cultivate in his words, a “Christian-critical imagination” (214). This chapter should be required reading for every youth pastor on the planet. Part of the reason it’s so good is because he offers good questions to ask of popular culture pieces, including (from page 215):
- What’s the story?
- Where am I (the world of the text)?
- What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
- What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)?
- How does the Gospel apply here?
Additional questions we can ask of popular culture pieces as we seek to exegete them Christianly would be (From pages 229-230):
- What counts as “good” in this world? What counts as “evil”? Is evil real, or only apparent?
- What is beautiful in this world?
- What makes relationships work or fail here?
- Where is God? Or is this even an important question? What is worshipped in this world?
- What makes life worth living in this world?
Turnau’s review in Chapter 10 of what it means to thoroughly ask these questions of a popular culture work proves his expertise and passion. What a helpful model for what it can look like for Christians to engage with the world as salt and light. Of course, all this work is a lot of work. But Turnau would remind us that we are already doing the work of watching the shows and seeing the art. Why not do it in a consciously Christian way? And what is the alternative? When we Christians engage culture in unchristian ways, we do a disservice to the name of Christ (see Turnau’s part two, Chapters 5-9). Speaking of disservice…
I was recently reminded of why it’s so important for Christians to learn how to engage popular culture well. And thus why a book like Turnau’s is so valuable. Because when we Christians don’t engage culture Christianly, it’s embarrassing! Case in point. On August 8th, Kevin DeYoung posted a short article on thegospelcoalition.org titled, “I Don’t Understand Christians Watching Game of Thrones.” Unfortunately, it is an example of the opposite of engaging popular culture in a Christianly way.
While the title is just barely combative and dramatic (and thus cool?) enough to solicit a lot of reads (woohoo!), it got worse when DeYoung admits, ” True, I haven’t seen it. Not an episode. Not a scene. I hardly know anything about the show.” That fact alone should be a big hint to the author of the article. If you haven’t watched show X, you may not want to write an article about show X. (To be fair, this point is addressed in DeYoung’s follow-up article. Unfortunately, DeYoung doesn’t really give any real answer to it).
As well, dude just became the new Senior Pastor of a large church. Like, it just happened. How does DeYoung have time to write condemningly about a show he hasn’t seen to a bunch of people he doesn’t know? And why would he make time for that even if he DID have time for it? Part of me just wants to say, “brother, you are a Pastor, try focusing on just doing that! Is that work not important enough?” Granted, Kevin DeYoung is concerned about all the sex in the show, which, to be fair, IS concerning, from a Christian point of view. But to outright condemn Game of Thrones because of apparent sex scenes is to show an outright lack of expertise in dealing with popular culture in a particularly Christian mode. It is simplistic. judgmental. unhelpful. and just rude. At the least, it is to only ask one question out of the 10 that Turnau would recommend we ask. What would the article have looked like if DeYoung actually watched the show, and took the time it takes to thoroughly exegete it from a Christian perspective, such as how Turnau would recommend? Perhaps there would have been many less “bazillion blogs and Facebook comments later” – which I’m still assuming would be a good thing, right? Or, am I wrong?
Now, I understand what-with-all the American Christian celebrity culture and what-not, that once you write a few books it is a normalized phenomenon for big masses of people to then expect that same author to then (pretend!) to be the authority on everything. But legit Christians should know NOT to buy in to that madness – as tempting as it is. So, for Kevin, who IS a legit dude, to take time to write an article about his exasperation about other people watching a show he’s never seen? Why, but for madness sake?
Here is where I wish a Kevin DeYoung would read a book like one I’ve just read and take it to heart. Because in the book, there is a straightforward format that lays out a much more robust and faithful exegetical formula – and thus if practiced would most often lead to a much more helpful sort of response. While I realize we don’t always have to go through every 10 steps or ask every question Turnau would ask before we can assume we are “properly” speaking Christianly of a cultural piece, I do think people notice when we do. Keller, of course, is a prime example of someone who takes both Biblical and cultural exegesis seriously. And people notice.
I’ve wondered this about other great preachers in the past, and I also wonder it about DeYoung. How can a guy be so thorough in preaching Scripture from the pulpit, and so nonchalant in preaching cultural analysis from the pew? You would wish the level of carefulness in one arena would trickle down to the other. More than that, I wish we Christians weren’t so prone to embarrassing ourselves.
But, praise God, Turnau’s book can help us eliminate some of that embarrassing cultural technique and instead, engage with the world and popular culture in respectful and loving ways. As Turnau says on the last page of his book, when trying to engage with culture, “Giving in to anger only defeats the purpose of your cultural engagement.”