This article was originally posted at my site. I’m married with three children, an SBC pastor, a PhD student at SBTS, and an average Southern Baptist. I’ve authored two books. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube.
Ted Turnau (PhD in Apologetics from Westminster) is a college lecturer who teaches Cultural Studies and Religion in Prague, Czech Republic. He’s married with three children. He recently wrote a book titled Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective. I appreciate his approach to popular culture. Instead of Christians enjoying popular culture uncritically or rejecting popular culture altogether, Turnau offers a more biblical approach. I think you will find his answers to these seven questions helpful:
1. Tell us about your home life, how you came to Christ, your education, and current ministry.
This is going to be a little long – there’s no short and sweet way to tell it. I was raised in a Christian home by two strong Christian parents. My Dad had been to seminary (Westminster), and my Mom had been an exchange student in Switzerland when Francis Schaeffer started L’Abri in the mid-1950s. She went there a few times, enjoyed it, but after a while felt selfish about going so often. So she made a vow that she wouldn’t visit again unless she brought a non-Christian friend with her. My Dad used liked to say that my brother and I were raised on “mother’s milk and Schaeffer” (the apologist, not the beer).
I grew up mostly in a small town in Pennsylvania. Our home church growing up belonged to a denomination that was not scripturally faithful (the PCUSA), but the church itself was evangelical and faithfully taught the Bible. That was important to us, so we drove 17 miles every Sunday to another town just to go to this church (same church that Tim Keller went to as a college student, by the way). It was at this church that a Sunday School teacher told me when I was 4 that if I believed in Jesus, I would go to heaven. If I didn’t, I’d go to hell. I remember afterwards going to my Mom and asking her if this was true. She said that yes it was. I pushed farther, lawyer-like “You mean, all I have to do is say that I believe Jesus, and I’ll go to heaven?” She answered that it was basically true, but a little more complicated. I figured that it was a pretty sweet deal and I’d be a fool not to accept, calculating little worm that I was. So I “prayed the prayer” that night, some seven times, just to be sure it “stuck” (cause I didn’t feel a warm glow or anything). That was how I signed on the dotted line before the Lord. The rest of my life (especially high school and college) has been about getting around to reading the fine print on the contract I’d signed as a kid.
I remember especially an InterVarsity retreat where our chapter leader made it very clear that God didn’t want a part of our lives, but the whole enchilada. And I remember thinking, “What? Everything? Are you serious?” And he was. I had sort of known that, but never thought through the implications. And I knew I was in for some serious struggle during my college years. I toyed with disobedience, never enough to really break away from God, but never whole-heartedly putting sin behind me either. At the same time, I started having intellectual doubts about whether God even existed. I was taking a lot of philosophy and literature classes at U.Va., and they were raising lots of questions that I couldn’t really answer. I avoided religion classes like the plague, as they had a reputation for undermining Christian faith. But I did take Greek to satisfy my foreign language requirement. The second year of Greek was New Testament Greek, and the teacher insisted on teaching us not only Greek, but the wonders of higher criticism as well, just to show us that there were problems with trusting the Bible. We even read Nietzsche on Paul’s Damascus Road experience (turns out Paul was a hypocritical, guilt-ridden, epileptic Jew who ingeniously found a way, during an epileptic seizure, how to pin all of his sins onto a guy who’d been recently executed in Jerusalem). Fortunately, there was a teacher-in-residence at the church we attended who was a wonderful resource, an ex-president of Westminster Theological Seminary named Edmund Clowney (he was actually the president there when my Dad attended). He patted my shoulder, gave me stuff to read, and basically kept me sane during my senior year (by that time, I was married to Carolyn, my wife – she did a lot to keep me sane too).
By the time I came to the end of my college years, two things became really clear: 1) that I had been living on my parent’s faith, and could do so no longer; I had to find out if God was real, and if the Bible was trustworthy. 2) I needed a safe place to ask hard questions. After searching around for a while, I decided that Westminster was the place I needed to be at. The admissions counselor there got me to buy Van Til’s book on apologetics, and it absolutely blew my mind. I knew I had to go and study there. So, in essence, my own questions and apologetical need pushed me into seminary.
Westminster was by no means easy. It was the most intense academic experience I had ever faced. And during the first two years, I felt suspended over a bottomless pit. I wasn’t sure what I believed. The more questions I asked, the more unsure I felt. The apologetics prof. at the time (Edmund Clowney’s son, David) kept throwing roadblocks in my way. I wanted to build a fool-proof philosophical argument for God’s existence. He knew enough philosophy to know that it couldn’t be done. I said I’d do a 5-year critical study of philosophers to show that their systems weren’t true, and then I could believe. He said that there were always more philosophers and belief systems out there. I told him I’d just obey, and maybe that’d be enough. He told me that according to praxis psychology, acting according to certain beliefs gives a feeling that those beliefs are true, but it doesn’t prove that they are. I see now that he wanted to make sure that my ultimate trust was in the Lord, not in this or that proof. But at the time, it felt like torture.
One day, I was in a pretty desperate state. I needed to talk to someone, anyone. I went to the library basement, where David Clowney’s office was. He was out. I knocked on the door of the office next to his. It was Vern Poythress‘, one of the New Testament profs there. He opened the door and asked what I wanted. I told him I needed to talk, and proceeded to tell him the whole story of my time at Westminster, why I’d come, what I was looking for. I said, “I just want some solid, logical proof that God exists. Then I could believe in him.” Vern thought for a moment, and then said, “Let’s say that the phone rings. It’s your Dad. You talk for a bit, and then hang up. I ask you who it was, and you say, ‘It was my Dad.’ And I say back to you, ‘Prove it. Give me an airtight, logical proof that you were just talking to your Dad.’ You wouldn’t be able to. And yet you know that you were talking to your father. How? Because you know your father’s voice. Well, that’s exactly the experience of Christians when they read the Bible. They know their Father’s voice.” And I said, “Oh,” and a light bulb came on over my head (just like the cartoons). And all of a sudden, the pressure was off. I could respond to my Father’s voice, even if there were no neutral proofs, because I recognized it as my Father’s voice. I cannot describe how freeing that was. There’s a lot more that apologetics can do, but that, I believe, is the proper starting point for apologetics: hearing God’s voice, and seeing the world through those lenses. Then you notice all sorts of confirming evidence.
All this time, we were going to a great church, and I was involved with a couple of really good mentors. I still had (and have) struggles with sin, but I was growing and learning and walking with God. Some people might be tempted to ask (I know that I am): Did I become a Christian at 4, and God was just incredibly patient with me, or did I become a Christian at seminary? And I don’t really know. I don’t really care. I prefer to believe the first one, because it highlights God’s faithfulness and patience with undeserving rebels like me. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I wasn’t a Christian sometime in the past, and I am one now.
As I neared the end of my M.Div. studies, I decided that I should really pursue graduate studies somewhere. I started looking for some good philosophy of religion departments. At around this time, Bill Edgar was promoted to full professor of apologetics at Westminster, and I went to his inaugural lecture. It was about postmodernism, and it was entitled, “Nailing Jello to a Tree.” I don’t remember much about it, except that at one point, I remember him saying, “It is time that we apply Van Til’s apologetics not just to theologies and philosophies, but also to the arts and popular culture.” And again, a light bulb turned on over my head, and I knew where I was going to do a Ph.D. I wanted desperately to study with this guy who thought that presuppositional apologetics should be applied to popular culture. I did. And I’m so glad I did.
How did we get to Prague? That’s a long story, too. I knew about a Christian organization that placed believing professors in secular colleges and universities during my time at Westminster. It’s called the International Institute for Christian Studies (or IICS). They visited the campus, and I was attracted to that model of ministry. It seemed tailor-made for nerds like me. But the timing wasn’t right. My Dad was dying of colon cancer, for one thing. My family eventually moved down from Philadelphia to Winston-Salem, NC, so that we could be with my Dad and help my Mom out during this horrible dying time. It was right for a classmate of mine, a dear friend named Richard Smith. He signed up and took off for this weird-sounding place called Prague (rhymes with frog). He’ll figure in this story later on. But for me and my family, we were overwhelmed with my dying father.
The church we attended, Redeemer PCA, was terrific. Loving support all around. They’d been praying that we’d come down to help my folks, and a group of them met us at my parents’ house ready to unload the moving truck. They were great. And more to the point, the church was really excited about having an apologetics Ph.D. student in their midst. Rick Downs, the pastor at the time, asked if I’d be willing to do a series on Wednesday nights about apologetics. I was happy to. Rick liked what he saw, and he informed Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte that he had a guy in his church that they might be interested in. Thus I got my first professional teaching gig. I taught a class called “Church and World in the 20th Century,” and I focused on how to interact with culture. The class, to put it mildly, was a disaster. I packed too much stuff into it, too much reading, too much information. I had yet to learn that less is more. Anyway, I taught two sections: one group at my home church in Winston, and one in Charlotte. The Winston group knew me, so they let me get it out of my system, but the Charlotte students panicked. Of the 11 who signed up, 7 soon dropped out. The administration was very unhappy, and I thought that I had ruined my career before it had begun (any recommendation for a future job would include an admin who would remark on my ability to scare away students). I figured that someday, I would look back and be able to laugh about it, but at the time, it was really humbling and painful. I decided just to forget about it and go back to writing my dissertation.
My wife noticed that InterVarsity’s big mission conference, Urbana, was happening that year, and she suggested that I go and pass out my resumé. Since many Christian colleges and seminaries would be represented there, I agreed. “But,” she said, “I know how your mind works. You’re going to get all excited about missions. You may not sign anything until you check with me. Understand?” And I said I did. Urbana that year was amazing. I got excited about opportunities in Japan, and thought God was calling us there. I called my wife and told her so, and her first words were, “I knew it! Did you sign anything?” I didn’t, because it didn’t look like it would work out – they weren’t willing to let us go short-term as a family because of space issues. We’d have to be housed with missionaries already on the field, and space is at a premium in Japan.
The more important thing that happened at Urbana is that I was humbled, and I realized that I really wanted to serve God somewhere. I remember going to some broom closet and praying, “God, I know I messed up the only real teaching opportunity you’ve given me, and I’m sorry for that. It wasn’t on purpose. But I just want you to know that I want to serve you. I don’t care how or where, I just want to work for you. It could be cleaning toilets in deepest, darkest Africa. I really don’t care. Just please let me do something for you. By the way, I really do think I can still teach, but that’s just FYI. No demands on my part. Just do something with me, please?” And then Urbana was over, and we all went home. And nothing amazing happened. So I just sort of shrugged my shoulders and returned to working on my dissertation.
About two months after this, I got a call from the president of IICS. My friend Richard Smith was teaching in Prague (we sent a little money each month to IICS to support his work there). His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he wanted to come back to the States to be with her through her treatment (cancer treatment in the Czech Republic at that time was pretty basic). But he was teaching two classes. It was the middle of the spring semester, and it would make IICS look really bad if they had to cancel his classes. Could I come over and teach in his place? They needed me for 2 ½ months, and they needed me to leave in about 2 weeks. Could I do it? I said that I’d pray about it (which is the Christian way of saying “No”). But my wife and I did pray about it. We asked our church if they could help with childcare, since I was the one who drove our kids to and from school, as my Mom and wife both worked full-time (my Dad was dead by this time). The church responded instantly, and in two or three days, we had every hour filled. So I was cleared to go.
Those months in Prague in the spring of 1997 were especially intense for me. I’d never been away from my wife and family for more than a week. And I was literally writing classes during the day to teach that evening. But I was also getting to know college students in the most atheist nation on earth. It was like being on the front lines, and I absolutely loved it. I had an epiphany one evening during a lecture. I said to myself, “Hey! I know what I want to do when I grow up! I want to do this, just what I’m doing now!” And so I came back home, discussed it with Carolyn, my wife. She wasn’t convinced until she went with me on a second short-term trip (a January term course on Cultural Theory), and she saw me interact with students. Then she said, “Yeah, this is where God wants you.” I finished my dissertation, did some support-raising, and as a family of 5 we moved here in August of 1999. And we’ve been here since.
2. What is “Popologetics,” and why did you write a book on this subject?
“Popologetics” is my term for understanding and apologetically engaging with non-Christian popular culture. I wrote the book because I think Christians typically do not respond to popular culture well. We don’t know what to do with it. We’re tempted to just reject it, surround ourselves with Christian culture, and live in our little bubbles where it’s warm and safe for us and our kids. Or we’re tempted to just dive in without thinking about it, and enjoy it as if there were no dangers or risk involved. Both options are bad. Both are, in my opinion, sub-Christian. We are called into our world, but not to be conformed to our world. We are called to understand our non-Christian friends and neighbors, and that means understanding the world they live in. And a big part of that world is shaped and informed by popular culture. As I see it, popular culture is a mission field all around us. We just cannot afford to live in our Christian subculture, and we cannot afford to just enjoy it uncritically. We’ve got to be prepared to engage the wider culture in a way that brings us closer to the hearts of our non-Christian friends and neighbors. We need to be able to speak their language.
But there’s another reason I wrote the book, quite apart from any evangelistic concern. I believe that enjoying popular culture is very human. Popular culture, in part, reflects God’s glory, fractured and distorted though it be. And when we cut ourselves off from that, we cut ourselves off from a very human enjoyment. It diminishes us somehow, as well as distances us from those around us. So I wrote Popologetics as a way to give permission to Christians, to say that the thoughtful enjoyment of popular culture was OK, wasn’t sinful.
3. What do you say to those who believe Christians should separate themselves from popular culture: “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV) (1 Thess. 5:22)?
To start off, I wouldn’t want anything I say about popular culture to have the effect of encouraging a Christian to violate their conscience, or to put themselves in the way of temptation. I want to be clear about that. However, there are other things to say here as well.
1. The first is that I’ve got to disagree with the King James’ translation of 1 Thess. 5:22 here. There are really good reasons to believe that it should have been translated “every form of evil” rather than appearance. A good article on this verse can be found here. Taken as “appearance,” it puts too heavy a burden on the Christian, not just to avoid evil, but to avoid anything that anyone would suspect of being evil. And that can lead to all sorts of abusive, legalistic behavior that’s just not good for churches and Christian witness.
2. But let’s say then that 1 Thess. 5:22 wasn’t about appearances, but about actual evil. Should we avoid popular culture then, since it’s evil? Well, I certainly think that some people ought to avoid some types of popular culture, for exactly the reason I said above: Christians shouldn’t be violating their consciences by doing something they know is sinful. But that’s not going to be the same for each and every person, and we ought to recognize that.
One of the things I say in Popologetics is that evil is not in things, like a virus we could catch if we stand too close to it. Rather, evil is a dynamic between the things of this creation and the idols of our hearts. If a piece of popular culture digs at the idols of your heart, leaving you feeling vulnerable, drawing you away from God, then stop. But your idols will not be the same as your Christian brother’s or sister’s idols. They may struggle differently, to a different degree. You cannot make your own struggles the standard for what Christians in general may or may not watch or listen to or play or read. It’s not that simple.
Let me give you a really striking example. A mentor of mine had a friend. He was a missionary of sorts. He would go into a strip club and witness to the girls who worked there, trying to share Jesus with them, trying to persuade them to come out of that really degrading lifestyle. He said that the nudity and environment just didn’t bother him. He wasn’t fazed by it, not tempted to lust by it. Now for me, that would not be a good mission field, because I would be tempted by it. I think 99.97% of men should not follow this man’s example. It would just be feeding idolatry and drawing them away from God. But if this guy is really telling the truth, who am I to say to him, “You can’t do that!” God may have specially gifted him, and it’s not my place to shoo him away from the field where God has called him. I think he needs encouragement, support, prayer, not judgment.
Granted, that’s an extreme example, but I think it’s helpful in setting out the principle: it is ultimately about our hearts before God, and not about other people’s standards, or what other people think. If you honestly are not tempted or degraded by a piece of popular culture, then I say enjoy it thoughtfully, reflectively.
3. There’s another thing I’d say to those who quote 1 Thess. 5:22, and that is that popular culture is not simply evil. It is also a gift from God. Let me explain. As I argue in the book, every piece of popular culture is attractive because of the goodness, truth and beauty that God allows to exist in his world. I call them “fragments of grace.” As Christians, we ought to be on the lookout for these grace fragments, and accept them gratefully. That’s the point of 1 Tim. 4:4-5: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” Popular culture draws upon the goodness of God’s good creation and ought to be received thankfully, prayerfully, and in accordance with God’s word.
But, as I said above, that doesn’t give us license to enjoy forms of popular culture that are going to violate our consciences. We’ve got to balance 1 Tim. 4:4-5 with 1 Thess. 5:22. The thing I love about Paul’s instruction in 1 Tim. 4:5 is that it guards our hearts against doing something stupid with our freedom to enjoy what’s good on this earth. It is very possible to enjoy a secular song or movie, thanking God for the truth and beauty that God has allowed this cultural creator to put in his work. (There were a few times while watching The Avengers that I remembered praying, “God, thank you for allowing Joss Whedon to write that line. That was awesome.”). But you cannot give thanks and pray if you’re engaging with something that’s clearly violating you and drawing you away from God. You cannot prayerfully watch something that’s trashing your heart and feeding your idols. So be careful. Be wise. Don’t violate your heart and feed your idols. But don’t reject the fragments of grace that God has allowed to be woven into popular cultural works.
4. Though we may have to avoid some types of popular culture (depending on our heart’s idols), I have a problem with folks who use 1 Thess. 5:22 as an excuse for ditching non-Christian popular culture as a whole. And I’ve already spelled out the reason: the non-Christians around us live in a world suffused with popular culture. They speak the language of popular culture. They think in its categories. If you are going to be an effective witness to them, a gracious and loving friend to them, you’d better learn their language and patterns of thought. And there is no better way of doing that than actually watching some secular television shows, listening to secular music, playing the secular games, reading the secular books. And enjoying them enough to talk about them with your friends. If you shun popular culture as a whole, you are throwing up a wall between you and them. Don’t be proud that you are “different” from them. The kind of godly difference that shines is the fruits of the Spirit the comes from a true apprehension of the gospel. Godly difference comes from the mercy of God, and the gratitude the flows from that. Avoiding popular culture doesn’t produce “difference.” It produces isolation, and perhaps a judgmental attitude towards those who don’t share your cultural preferences. I am convinced that such an attitude actually harms the witness of the church of Christ, and it cripples our evangelism. So please, I’m begging you, rethink your position. Enjoy and engage with the popular culture you can, and connect with the non-Christians using that.
4. What do you say to those who believe Christians are free to participate in popular culture for the purpose of “mere entertainment”?
Well, on the one hand, I’d say they’re right: there’s nothing wrong with participating in popular culture for entertainment. There’s nothing un-Christian about having fun, listening to music that resonates in your soul, seeing a deeply moving movie, watching an awesome story on television, playing a gripping and absorbing video game. None of these things are sinful in and of themselves.
On the other hand, I’d also have to challenge the phrase “mere entertainment.” Entertainment is never “mere.” The pathways of pleasure and desire and play run deep, far deeper than we realize. If you want to know the real heart of a person, or a society, find out what entertains them, what delights them. We need to be aware of our own hearts as we expose them to the currents of popular culture. Entertainment is serious business, friends (and I’m not just speaking about money).
Furthermore, as Christians, we don’t belong to ourselves. Our hearts, so to speak, are spoken for. So we are not at liberty to let something else capture our heart in a way that is going to compete with our fundamental loyalty to God and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
I’d say that we are free to enjoy popular culture, but we are never free to enjoy popular culture uncritically. We always must guard our hearts, understand where we are vulnerable, what idols we shouldn’t feed, what entangles us so easily (see Hebrews 12:1). We don’t have the right to mess up our walk with God. Of course, we serve a forgiving God, and we foolish humans do find ways to go wrong in our cultural consumption. But our aim should be a wise enjoyment of popular culture. Anything less is sub-Christian and lazy…and potentially spiritually dangerous.
5. What do you say to pastors and Christians who think your approach to popular culture is too hard for Christian children, teenagers, and adults to understand?
Well, that may certainly be true about children, especially small children who have a hard time thinking abstractly. That’s why they have parents: to guide them, to explain stuff. And I really do believe that a clever and wise parent should have no problem talking to their kids about the spiritual dynamics of popular culture in a way that is age-appropriate. One of my seminary professors said that if you couldn’t explain a concept to a 3-year-old, you didn’t really understand it yourself. I think that’s basically true.
I think teens will have a much easier time with it, if they have had an upbringing where they are challenged to think deeply and consistently in terms of a Christian worldview. That’s a big “if.” A lot of people use the term, but don’t really get it. That’s why I spend so much time on it in the book. But if they have been, if they’ve got a good grasp on the basic concepts of a Christian worldview (creation, fall, redemption, revelation, and all the rest), then there is a lot of fertile territory to discuss with them, a lot of fascinating and fruitful discussions to be had. I remember as a youth pastor in a Korean church when I was in seminary. For our summer Sunday School curriculum, I asked the kids to bring in their CDs, and I’d take them home and listen, and choose some songs to discuss. We were listening to Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, MC Hammer, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others. And the kids were astounded. It was a really liberating experience for them. They were just awe-struck that an adult cared enough to talk about what was already deeply meaningful to them.
As for adults, I can only say that I tried my best to make my approach simple enough to be accessible to the intelligent layman. You shouldn’t need a seminary or graduate degree to get this. However, I know that it can be tricky at parts. I teach a seminary class on this stuff, and I see intelligent young men and women get it wrong in different ways. But it’s like any skill – it becomes sharper with time and practice. And if you feel like you get stuck or didn’t understand something, I understand that the author is still alive. Feel free to send me questions over Twitter (@TedTurnau).
6. What other helpful resources would you suggest for training Christians to engage popular culture for God’s glory?
I think that Bill Romanowski’s book, Eyes Wide Open, remains one of the best Christian approaches to popular culture, though not as apologetics-oriented as I would’ve liked. Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews is really insightful and has been very influential in my own thinking. And I’m just now reading a wonderful good book on video games called Of Games and God by a Christian media and communications scholar named Kevin Schut. Those three are a good starting place.
And there are resources galore on the internet. Christ and Pop Culture (christandpopculture.com), Hollywood Jesus (hollywoodjesus.com), the “Culture Watch” page at the Damaris Trust website (damaris.org/cw/), and Mockingbird (mbird.com). You can also check out my website, as there are some resources there (turnau.cz or popologetics.com, they’ll both get you there). And those are just the Christian resources. There are tons and tons of other sites that have lots of good information on what’s going on in popular culture, Paste Magazine (paste.com), The A.V. Club (avclub.com), Pitchfork (pitchfork.com), and soooooo many others. There’s a lot of ways to find out what’s going on and what’s worth engaging in popular culture.
7. What current projects are you working on, and what are your future plans?
Right now I’m working on a manuscript about the Christian imagination, and what makes a piece of popular culture authentically Christian, good Christian popular culture. How can Christian popular artists make popular culture that is an oasis for both Christians and non-Christians? It’s a harder question to answer than you’d think. And hopefully, the book would help both Christian artists, and the rest of us who seek to support them.
And then after that, I’d love to do a book about fandom, and how Christians should think of that. Fans, both sports and fans of shows/movies/games, etc. are where popular culture becomes most intense. It’s in the fan’s experience that popular culture is most meaningful, and where it becomes most like religion. I’m even going to go to my first fan convention this summer (Dragon*Con in Atlanta, GA). I’ve got some fan/nerd tendencies, and I’d love to think through the whole issue in relationship to Christian faith.
And after that, who knows? Writing while teaching full-time is a really slow process, at least for me. So I’m content to take it one step at a time. My overall goal is to engage with my non-Christian students, as well as provide tools to help my Christian brothers and sisters engage the world around them in ways that are positive and make Christ’s glory shine.
I appreciate Ted for taking the time to answer these questions. Hopefully, Christians will see that uncritical enjoyment of pop culture is sinful and that total separation from pop culture is isolation, and will instead attempt to be in the world but not of the world. Keep on keeping on Ted, for God’s glory alone.
What are your thoughts?
This article was originally posted at my site. I’m married with three children, an SBC pastor, a PhD student at SBTS, and an average Southern Baptist. I’ve authored two books. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube.