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Reviews

Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about style, media and entertainment

Andrew Graystone

Steve Turner

IVP, 254pp

 

My saintly evangelical grandfather lived well into his 80s but never visited a cinema. He felt that 'the pictures' were the devil's handiwork. His understanding of Christian holiness demanded that he should pretty much set himself apart from popular culture. But he changed his mind. In later life he owned a TV, and even came to terms with drama in church.

If he were still alive I would give my grandfather a copy of Steve Turner's very readable Popcultured, which aims to help us 'think Christianly' about style, media and entertainment.

Steve Turner's understanding of Christian approaches to popular culture owes an unacknowledged debt to the US theologian Andy Crouch. Turner's final chapter borrows its headings directly from Crouch's CultureMaking. But the tone of the two books is very different. Crouch's book celebrates creativity as a core facet of the image of God in every human. On the basis of that, Crouch encourages Christians to be joyfully creative, taking the material of the culture around us and cultivating it into new forms.

Turner's tone is far more cautious. He offers a path through popular culture, but warns us to be very careful where we tread. Christians need to be vigilant, he says, because the devil is active in 'low' culture. And the devil's influence is insidious. 'The first time we see a film with people behaving in ungodly ways and getting rewarded, we may be disturbed. The second time, less so. By the tenth or eleventh time we may be so unmoved that we start to accept what we see as normal.' There's a truth here of course. Our engagement with all forms of culture needs to be active and critical - but not quite this paranoid. We need a theology of entertainment that offers the possibility of transcendence as well as dogma, and allows an artwork to critique us, not just us to critique it.

The dominant note of warning extends to Christians who work in the creative industries. 'Those who enter the entertainment industry as Christians frequently find their faith eroded by a combination of antagonism from others, compromise and the demands of a busy schedule. It's easy to find people who became actors or directors with a grand vision to change the world, only to find themselves unexpectedly enchanted by the world they'd come to change.' Again, there's some truth here. Popular culture is a challenging professional environment for Christians. But so is medicine, or education, or banking. In fact the same erosion of faith often occurs in those who enter the church as a profession, except that they are more likely to become unexpectedly disenchanted by the context rather than the reverse.

Perhaps the problem is with that 'grand vision to change the world.' It implies that there is a discernable divide between sacred and secular in popular culture, and that the two are in conflict. Turner wants to avoid this dualism, but he can't help himself. He concedes that we may find nuggets of innocence or even sacredness in the work of the ungodly artist and also that we may find the taint of secularity in Christian sub-culture. He is not afraid to encourage his readers to 'sit through some bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff.' But the whole tone is about assessing which expressions of culture carry an evangelical imprimatur. The aim of the book is to help us identify them. The chapter on fashion, for example, is largely about what clothes it is appropriate for Christians to wear. My grandfather would have approved. But sadly my grandfather has been dead for 20 years.

Popcultured has been produced for a US audience. The spelling has not been adjusted for British readers, prices are listed in dollars and most of the references are from the US. It also seems to have been written for a previous generation. This is emphasised by Turner's rather patronising habit of addressing his readers directly. 'I wonder what you first think of when you hear the word culture,' sounds like the opening of a sermon I'd rather not hear. In the chapter on photography he chooses to focus on images of Churchill and Che Guevara made in 1941 and 1960. The chapter on comedy has an extensive section about George Carlin, who may be unfamiliar to British readers. He's also been dead five years, and did his most innovative work in the 1970s. Carlin was a key figure in 20th Century popular culture in the US, and undoubtedly laid the foundations on which comedians like Russell Howard and Frankie Boyle are standing. But he's a strange choice for a consideration of contemporary pop culture.

There are some glaring omissions. In a book about style, media and entertainment there's no mention of Simon Cowell. The text is structured around considerations of cultural forms, but there's no chapter on music. When Turner says that 'an interesting study could be carried out on the rise of tattoos and piercings over the last forty years' I wanted to shout out that it has been, many times over. There are also some gross generalisations. According to Turner, in contemporary films and TV 'Christians are shown as joyless, mean-spirited and uptight. Unable to come to terms with the power of their own sexual desires, they seethe with resentment towards those who appear able to sin with impunity.' Well yes, sometimes. But has he not seen Rev, or Philomena or Broadchurch, where the portrayal of Christians is far more nuanced? It's true that Ned Flanders and Rev Lovejoy are figures of fun in The Simpsons. But so is everybody else. Christians can choose to receive this as an attack on our faith, or we can choose to laugh at ourselves, and then perhaps ask why we are so laughable. And that's rather the point of it. There's a fundamental confusion here about what art is supposed to do, and what Christians are supposed to do with it. Surely our primary task is not to judge popular culture against some rather ill-defined Biblical norms for the protection of our souls, but to learn from it, be enriched by it, and for God's sake enjoy it.