My review of Popologetics and some thoughts on gospel contextualisation in general

The aim of this essay is to offer a review and critique of Ted Turnau’s book, Popologetics. I will begin by outlining a brief synopsis of the book, before spending more time on what I found helpful and not so helpful in terms of the content within. I will then give some concluding thoughts.

Short synopsis

Popologetics is split into three sections. The first sets some foundations in place as to what one means by ‘popular culture’ and ‘worldview’ while also laying out a brief theology of popular culture. The second offers a critique of some ‘not so helpful approaches to engaging popular culture’ – it’s here Turnau analyses earlier books penned by Christians on the subject. In the third and final part, he submits his own framework for engaging popular culture, applying this model to five such examples.

What I found helpful

Worldview

I was particularly grateful for Turnau’s explanation of the term ‘worldview.’ While I did already have a decent enough understanding of the expression, he further clarified my thinking by helping me realise how one’s worldview affects:

  • How we see the world
  • What are the terms of debate within our world
  • What we live for – i.e. what is worth pursuing in the world
  • How we define and value the things of ‘our worlds’
  • What is and is not up for discussion in the world, and
  • Who we are as individuals and groups

High vs Low culture

I was also thankful for Turnau’s point that just because something may be termed ‘popular culture’ (as opposed to ‘high culture’), it does not mean that it isn’t of considerable cultural and artistic value. He explains how popular culture – whether it be pop music, blockbuster films or TV shows has much to offer in this regard, and as such, how it can help us see what the world values. I also agree with Turnau that popular culture influences (or at least does so potentially) societies and it’s the dominant worldviews and ideas within them just as much, if not more so, than ‘high’ culture.

Related to this, I was helped by Turnau’s historical analysis of how the concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture developed in some cultural contexts. I found it interesting to learn of part race played in deeming Jazz music as popular, or ‘low’ culture and therefore as being of lower value than ‘high culture.’ Indeed, from a technical standpoint, Turnau compellingly argues that Jazz music is just as complex as other genres of music adjudged to be part of ‘high’ culture. Further, I found his explanation of how certain social levers such as the price of participation have been used to keep certain cultural pursuits (the opera for example) as ‘high’ culture. In short, whether something is deemed as high or low culture has at least something to do with the barriers attach to participating in that activity, and not necessarily its complexity or ability to convey complex ideas about a culture, society or anything else.

Enjoying Pop Culture

I was also glad to be reminded that there is a great deal of good to be enjoyed in what God created – pop culture included. Whether it’s a TV programme, film or pop song, Turnau rightly states that it is right not only to enjoy these things as part of God’s good creation, but also when enjoying such culture to worship God as the one who gives animators, musicians, writers the creativity and talent to craft it. He also usefully adds that as much as popular culture should lead us to worship, it should also remind us that we live in a fallen world corrupted by sin, whether that be through the false and damaging ideas portrayed through popular culture or it’s use of these things as idols.

What I found unhelpful

Contextualisation

The main weakness of Popologetics can be found in part 3, whereby Turnau turns his attention to how we should biblically engage with pop culture.

In brief, he recommends that to engage both and with our non-believing friends and family who partake in pop culture, we should, essentially, seek to first understand pop culture and then engage evangelistically on these terms.

To help explain this some more, here’s an extract from the book (p.211) which suggests how to critically engage culture from a Christian perspective:

‘We need to listen to our culture and argue with it for a bit before we are ready to speak creatively into it. Further, we need to remember that the culture (including popular culture) that surrounds us is the worldview of our friends, our neighbours, our children, and ourselves. We need to be able to understand the cultural world around us if we are going to speak the gospel meaningfully into the lives of others, or even our own lives. Popular culture is, in many cases, the point of contact with the hearts and minds of those whom God has called us to love. The shows, websites, songs, games and movies that circulate in our culture show something of the landscape of the hearts of those around us (and our own hearts as well). If we would love these people intelligently, we would be well advised to pay attention to that landscape, to be able to decipher its meanings and respond persuasively to the siren call that makes it to our desires.’

Turnau goes onto recommend five core questions to ask when engaging with pop culture:

  1. What’s the story?
  2. Where am I (the world of the text)?
  3. What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
  4. What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that?)
  5. How does the gospel apply here?

Now before I go any further, I want to say that despite having never met the bloke, it seems like Turnau is a genuine brother in Christ, who sees Jesus as Lord and who loves the Bible, which is great. Further, I am not saying his approach is wrong per se – if the gospel is shared (in whatever way), then that’s a great thing. What I am saying though is that to my mind, his approach does have flaws which I’d like to explore – not so as to ‘have a dig’, but to help us all think about how to fulfill the glorious Great Commission (Matthew 18:16-20) which we’ve all been given.

My main issue with Turnau’s methodology is that he recommends a kind of ‘bottom up’ approach. That is (and as the above extract from the book makes clear), we should engage popular culture by framing our gospel proclamation in reference to the piece of popular culture in question or popular culture more generally. Whilst I agree that this method might be helpful, I’m far from convinced that other approaches aren’t as, if not more helpful and biblical in regard to engaging popular culture.

Correspondingly, Turnau didn’t do enough to convince me from scripture that his approach was preferable compared to others – throughout the book there is very little in the way of expository textual analysis. This (even in rudimentary form) would have helped give more credence to what he was advocating.

It seems sadly ironic that having done such a good job exposing how our worldview helps shape our interpretation of the world around us, Turnau goes onto advocate an approach that runs the risk of forcing the gospel to fit into the language, imagery and context of popular culture. It would surely make much more sense, if we really do see scripture as authoritative and sufficient, to speak and share a biblical worldview into the world in which we inhabit (in which popular culture plays a part). I elaborate on this thought below.

A ‘top down’ approach

If scripture is indeed authoritative and sufficient to help us grow in Christ-likeness and glorify our heavenly father (Psalm 19:7-11, Psalm 119:105, Proverbs 30:5-6, 2 Timothy 3:15-16, Hebrews 4:12) then it surely makes sense that we employ a ‘top down’ approach to our evangelism and cultural engagement. That is, we should be confident that when we share scripture faithfully, God will be faithful to work in hearts according to his perfect sovereign will (Acts 17:32-34, Romans 1:16-17, Ephesians 1:11). Put briefly, what scripture from Old to New Testament gives us is uniquely and solely sufficient to help win souls and to sanctify his church, both individually and corporately.

This ‘top down approach’ is very much mandated in scripture. When we look at the apostle’s ministry in the book of Acts (Acts 17) and in the letters thereafter, what we clearly see is confidence in the apostles to share a Gospel message and truth that is directly from God (Galatians 1:11-12, John 14:16). As such, we see that the primary concern of the apostles was not to contextualise a Gospel message so that it might become more appealing or understandable to its listeners, but to share truth, as it is and let God do the work in converting (or not) those who listened. Therefore, if we just concentrate on sharing the gospel, then we can be confident that God will make the gospel and scriptures understandable to those whom he desires.

Indeed, Paul in his letter to the Galatians goes to great depth to tell his audience how they were not to desert the true gospel (which he had been given from God) for an alternative one (Galatians 1). If we believe that the truth of the gospel and Bible has been directly revealed from God to the prophets and apostles and that it is unique in all the ways detailed above, we should be careful to be as true to it as we can when talking to unbelievers.

Observe too how the apostle Paul was so keen to share the unadulterated truth as it was revealed to him that he was willing to be beaten and killed in the process for doing it (2 Corinthians 11:23-28), and even after receiving such beatings carrying on sharing what he had been given from God! Thus, it’s interesting to note how bad reactions to the gospel don’t seem to have had an effect on Paul’s willingness to share the unadulterated truth. I do wonder whether sometimes, our eagerness to contextualise comes down to not wanting to experience a negative reaction when sharing truth with others.

It is true to say of course that Paul and others acknowledged their audience and even some of the cultural artefacts around at the time. Yet in recognising this, we can be sure that they didn’t seek to any extent to contextualise their message. One such scripture that is sometimes used to support the view that Paul did in fact contextualise is 1 Corinthians 9 (‘I have become all things to all men….’). However, notice when reading this chapter how Paul, rather than contextualising the message, is actually saying that he is becoming like men so that he might share the unaltered message that he’s been given. Paul is very keen that he himself would not be a barrier to the message to the gospel.

Applied today, this might look like something my church did recently when it held an evangelistic event. Members of the church were encouraged to invite unbelieving friends and colleagues to an event of craft beer, hot dogs and such like, before a talk on the gospel given by one of our ministers with the opportunity for conversation and follow up thereafter. And so, if this is what we mean by contextualisation, then I’m all for it! That is, removing any barriers relating to food, drink and surroundings so that people might come and hear the true gospel plainly proclaimed and engaging people in conversation so that truth can be shared on a one to one level.

Furthermore, as we seek to read, meditate, pray and apply the Bible to our and others lives and use it as the reference point for all what we encounter in this world (the ‘top down’ approach), we will be able to critically appraise pop culture and engage with it and our non-believing friends and family about it in the way Turnau rightly desires (Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 4:12). Indeed, as far as engaging others is concerned, I’m unsure Turnau’s rubric in part 3 (the five questions detailed above) is more effective than merely talking to a person about their pop culture interests. That is, as we chat with a believer, we will soon gain an idea of what they’re into and what they understand about it, and will be able to share the unfettered gospel/scripture with them lovingly and truthfully.

In closing, I hope to have offered biblical evidence as to why a ‘top down’ approach to cultural engagement may be better than a ‘bottom up’ one, as advocated in Popologetics. Let me be clear, I’m not against holding film nights, video game marathons, or whatever else with the purpose of sharing the gospel – I’m all for them! What I am arguing for though is an approach where we don’t have to explore everything (or even anything) about a particular cultural artefact (film, TV show or whatever) before engaging pop culture and/or sharing the gospel. All we need is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the timeless truth of scripture. When we share this, however feebly or weakly, and in whatever context, God in his grace does his work (2 Corinthians 7). Indeed, as we grow in our understanding of the gospel and scripture through personal bible reading, meditation, prayer and sitting under sound teaching, we’ll find ourselves able to biblically engage pop culture. Thus, while learning about the aforementioned shows might very well be helpful in sharing the gospel, and might provide a way into conversations about Jesus and scripture – I don’t believe they are as preferable or as important as Popologetics suggests.

Popologetics(1)

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