Way back in the 1990s a conversation began, one driven by the mandate to reach what was described as a new postmodern generation in the West. Yet strangely, this twenty-year conversation has produced very few books which offer a genuine framework for sharing the gospel with actual postmodern people. This is what makes Ted Turnau's new book Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective (P & R Publishing) such a unique and interesting work. Turnau writes from the fusion of Western liberalism and post-communist atheism that is the Czech Republic, where he teaches cultural studies at a liberal arts college in Prague. Daily immersion in one of the West's most secular cities has obviously given him a keen eye for exploring the cultural ground into which the gospel must be communicated.
An American apologist writing from the heart of Europe will no doubt invoke memories of Francis Schaeffer in the minds of many readers. Yet whereas Schaeffer addressed the commanding heights of the arts, philosophy, politics, and science, Turnau is concerned with the way that popular culture implicitly and explicitly molds our behavior and beliefs. While many Christians would question the worth of exploring the worldview implicit in, say, World Of Warcraft, Turnau reframes Schaeffer's quote about modern art for those wary of engaging popular culture: "Dare we laugh at such things?....Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation." Thus the impetus behind Popolgetics is a call for Christians to be serious about popular culture if we are to be serious about mission.
Turnau recognizes that part of the challenge of doing apologetics in the West is that our worldviews are in flux and thus often remain unnamed. In the absence of a clearly articulated and defined Western worldview, individuals develop their own life philosophies. Turnau writes, "More typically, people express their life philosophy in what we could call a street philosophy, some informal statement that captures the gist of one's perspective on reality."
Conventional apologetic frameworks often ignore these street philosophies, yet popular culture definitely shapes them, and our worldviews in turn. Following on the insight of Kevin Vanhoozer that cultural works do not challenge our beliefs and behaviors overtly, but rather "colonize our imaginations," Turnau encourages the reader to understand that popular culture "influences us by inviting us into imaginative worlds, allowing us to try out different perspectives." Whether these imaginative worlds are a Nora Ephron romantic comedy or a Radiohead album, such worlds carry a creative vision of how life should be. They are alternate gospels.
We enter into these imaginative worlds not with our rational minds, but with our emotions and our hearts. And so, "Over time, without critical engagement, popular culture can even change our very character, shaping the habits of our heart." This is where Turnau departs from the territory of conventional apologetics, which historically has concerned itself with engaging intellectual frameworks. Treading similar ground as James K. A. Smith's recent work Desiring the Kingdom, Turnau believes that culture is understood through an exploration of the direction and misdirection of the desires of the heart.
Never Black and White
Like Smith, Turnau also builds upon the work of the Dutch Calvinists who viewed worldview through the lens of the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Turnau encourages us to view popular culture through this same matrix. Thus, as image bearers of God's creativity and fallen beings with desires that are often misdirected, "The quasi-worship of popular culture is never simple, never black and white. It consists of a messy mixture of grace and idolatry, truth and truth-twisting."
Turnau wishes us to have patience with popular culture, to appreciate its complexity, to wrestle with the way that it mirrors the confused state of the human heart. It is therefore no surprise to find Turnau firing off a salvo at Christian thinkers who, in his view, wish to force popular culture into one of two extremes that ignore its inherent messiness. Turnau shows particular frustration with both Kenneth A. Myers, author of All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, who "consistently casts popular culture in the role of cultural villain," and—at the other end of the spectrum—Craig Deweiler and Barry Taylor, authors of A Matrix of Meanings, for whom "popular culture has the first and last word in their theological model."
In contrast to these models, Turnau offers a framework for examining and entering into popular culture's imaginative worlds. His framework encourages the apologist to sift through what is redemptive and what is unhelpful in the narrative structures of cultural works. It is here where Turnau shines, applying his apologetic method to pop culture works as diverse as animated children's film Kung Fu Panda, The Eagles single Heartache Tonight, and Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man. His cultural examination of the imagined world of Twitter is itself almost worth the price of the book. Popologetics is an important guide for those wishing to share the gospel with genuinely unchurched people who swim in the ocean of contemporary popular culture.
Mark Sayers is a pastor and cultural commentator. His latest book is The Road Trip Which Changed The World: The Unlikely Theory that will Change How You View Culture, the Church, and Most Importantly, Yourself. (Moody).
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