Popcultured: A Review

Turner, Steve. Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media, and Entertainment. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013. 254 pages.

I grew up with Focus on the Family telling me what I could watch or listen to without becoming demon-possessed or a drug dealer or (perhaps worst of all) sexually active. Well, maybe that’s a bit much, but that’s certainly the impression I had of popular culture. The dominant image I had of the secular world was Lady Folly from Proverbs: popular culture was a seductress, who was actually luring me to my doom. But rather than gaining wisdom or learning discernment, Focus on the Family’s Plugged In publication (which, admittedly, does have some decent analysis from time to time) taught me to depend on an authority – to let a trained professional take the risk of pre-viewing pop culture for me, counting all the cusses and references to sex and drugs, and then suggest a “Christian” band or film that I might like instead, in case this one is hiding any evil influences that could lure me down to Sheol. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold anything against my youth groups, pastors, and parents, all of whom were just trying to look out for me. Their approach probably came largely from the fact that when they were kids they didn’t need to be media-savvy or discerning about what they watched on television, because there were regulations on what could be shown in the media that made sure that there were no cusses, nudity, or graphic violence, and that priests and pastors were always shown in a respectful light. Leave it to Beaver requires no moral filters. In the absence of such regulation from the government and industry, Christians have tried to set up their own regulation, and it’s led to another generation of Christians who are just as naive about pop culture as their parents – and who, like their parents, rebel and secretly do all of the stuff they’re not supposed to anyways, but without discernment.

This is why Popcultured is such a necessary book. It approaches culture as a fact of life and a gift from God, rather than as a gateway to Hell. It’s realistic about the dangers of uncritical absorption of media – Turner’s very clear on the necessity of discernment – but it doesn’t shrink away from the world. It’s focused on developing Christians into people capable of living in the world of culture while still standing out from the crowd, rather than serving as a gatekeeper regarding which elements of culture are okay to be let in to our Christian sub-society. It’s critical of the ways in which Christian subculture has uncritically mirrored the secular culture we’ve supposedly rejected, and provides a vision (and example) of Christians who are not only able to embrace pop culture, but to enhance their faith, lives, and even their representation of Christ through pop culture.

Popcultured is not a unique book. There are many books out there that look at the way Christians interact with culture (e.g., Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture by communications professor William Romanowski, which I’d also recommend), or find Christian or theological themes in pop culture (a host of books on finding God in, for example, The Matrix, Superman, Harry Potter, etc.), or share visions for Christians producing culture (I’m partial to Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art). Popcultured does all of these things. It stands out, first of all, because it’s the newest of the bunch, and pop culture is always changing. But more than that, it stands out from most of these books because most of these books are written by communications scholars, philosophers, sociologists, pastors, etc. And while all of those people are probably excellent at engaging critically with culture and media, very few of them have Steve Turner’s experience in creating culture.

Steve Turner is a journalist, focusing on popular culture. Other writers talk about it, but he lives it. A lot of people can talk about how carefully a star crafts their public image and persona, but Turner’s analysis of celebrity culture begins with

When I was working on a rock magazine in the early 1970s, aspiring singers and songwriters would try to persuade me to see them in concert or hear playbacks in a studio. One of the most persistent was a young man living in Beckenham, Kent. I liked his songs, and on May 5th, 1971, I went to his home for a meal. He met me at the station in a battered old sports car. He had shoulder-length hair, was unshaven and wore jeans. We spent several hours together and had a great time. His name was David Bowie. – p. 97

Not just an armchair critic, when Turner wrote his book The Gospel According to the Beatles, he interviewed them. His experience as a pop culture journalist gives him authority and credibility that years of academic study just can’t compare to (unfortunately, for nerds like me!). I’m a big fan of the CBC, and I love listening to George Stroumboulopoulos because he knows so much about new music – but when you listen to Randy Bachman’s show Vinyl Tap, he not only knows a ton about the music he plays, but he has stories about when he played with the legends of rock and roll! Strombo’s great in his own way, but if you want an authority on music, stick with Vinyl Tap. In the same way, Steve Turner can talk about how Christians should interact with and contribute to popular culture because he’s been doing it for over forty years – and he hasn’t been dragged down to Sheol yet.

Each chapter examines a different area of pop culture: leisure and culture in general, cinematic art, journalism, celebrity culture, fashion, sensationalism, comedy, advertising, technology (internet, with a too-brief section on video games), photography. In each of these areas, Turner examines the culture, points out its pitfalls but also its strengths and beauty, shows that we’re already engaged with this area of culture, and then makes suggestions for how to do it well, with discernment and excellence. Each chapter has recommended readings about that medium, both from secular and Christian sources, scholarly and popular, as well as websites to check out. There are discussion questions and suggestions for action, which would make this book an easy pick for a small group or introductory course (it could write your syllabus for you, and actually be an interesting class).

It IS an introductory book at a popular level. You won’t find the finer points of theology, aesthetics, or cultural theory here (though you get the impression that Turner could talk shop with the best of them). What this book does provide is the answer to Lady Folly – the call of Lady Wisdom to seek discernment and wisdom. It’s the answer to Christian parents and youth pastors who are concerned about what their kids are watching or listening to. It’s a call to Christian excellence in culture and society – something we’re all called to as representatives of Christ in the world.


Book Review: Just Spirituality

Cannon, Mae Elise. Just Spirituality. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 208 pages.

In Just Spirituality, Mae Cannon undergirds our efforts toward social justice with the essential practices and spiritual disciplines that give those efforts a solid foundation and longevity. In an age when activism is cool, this is a necessary and welcome approach!My own experience with the book is perhaps the opposite of what was intended. I was immediately drawn to the book because, while I tend to be passionate about issues of justice, I struggle with spiritual disciplines. While Cannon seems to want to enhance our activism through spirituality, I found myself more interested and engaged in spirituality because of its connection to activism.

In the book, Cannon profiles seven famous Christian leaders of the 20th century, pairing each of them with a particular spiritual practice that enhanced their ministry, and then comparing them to a contemporary Christian leader. This approach has strengths and weaknesses.

The weakness is that there is far too much material to be covered in a short chapter, making the connection between the particular practice and the person’s biography seem vague and overly simplistic: we know that Mother Theresa practiced many spiritual disciplines, and it isn’t clear that silence stood out or influenced her work any more than any of the others. Cannon acknowledges this by discussing the spiritual life of the subjects of her book more widely, but that de-emphasizes the particular practices that she means to emphasize. The connection between the historical and the contemporary subjects also seems quite thin at points for the same reason. Ultimately, Cannon is summarizing a person’s life, ministry, theology, and spiritual practices on a handful of pages, making it come across as a teaser, and perhaps a bit shallow.

The strength of Cannon’s approach is that it serves as an accessible entry point into the lives and stories of people of faith, both exalted heroes and everyday saints. It’s one thing to point to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prayer life as exemplary, but it’s quite another to compare myself to him! Cannon’s inclusion of contemporary examples makes such practices seem much more accessible and realistic, and serve to remind us that it was Bonhoeffer’s practice of spiritual disciplines that made him a saint, not his saintliness that made him able to practice spiritual disciplines.

I appreciate Cannon’s variety: while I was very familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story, and generally familiar with Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa, I had only vague notions of Oscar Romero’s story, had only heard the name of Watchman Nee, and had never heard of Fairuz at all. These seven heroes come from all over the world (no two from the same global region), and all served in different movements and conflicts. Amidst their differences their similarities stand out all the more, as they are all defined by their spiritual discipline and commitment to care for others.

On the other hand, Cannon’s contemporary examples seem to come from a much narrower field. I appreciate that they were all examples that she has a personal connection with, but at times it almost seems like a commercial for Willow Creek. Her writing style was somewhat repetitive; at 208 pages it’s hardly a long book, but it could have been shorter. This style made reading more than one chapter at once a bit of a trial, but the content of the book is much better digested one meal at a time: read one chapter per day, or better, one per week, and then try out the practices recommended at the end of each chapter. I found that doing so gave me a sense of practicing the discipline with the person. I intend to revisit the chapters, one at a time, and make a more concerted effort to implement the disciplines described.

Ultimately, this book works best as an introduction, a teaser, into both the lives of these important Christian figures and the disciplines they practiced. It’s an excellent book to read in a small group setting, where each chapter can be discussed and elaborated upon and other sources can be brought into the discussion. Disciplines are usually more difficult to practice alone (particularly the discipline of community!), so a small group setting would be a perfect place to explore these disciplines and integrate them into your life.

Overall I give it a B. For what it is, it’s quite good; for what it could be, it’s disappointingly short and simplistic. Read it with friends.