Chapter 6 has an interesting discussion on violence and nudity in popular culture, especially in movies and TV. Turnau argues that context is crucial in evaluating these things. So, when it comes to violence, “the narrative context of the violence and the way violence is used in the story count for a great deal” (91). In other words, “we must be able to see the difference between exploitation and truth-telling” (93). When it comes to violence, I can see that this is a valid approach. A movie that seeks to entertain with its gratuitous violence has to be evaluated differently than one that includes violence as part of the plot, but does not glorify it or portray it in unnecessarily graphic ways.
Turnau argues the same for nudity, but this is far less convincing. He compares two movies to illustrate, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List:
Both contain a lot of female nudity. But can we say that nudity means the same thing in both films? Not really. Both films project very different meanings of female nudity: one in which women are reduced to sexual objects for male viewing pleasure; the other to show realistically how women were humiliated and abused during a historical tragedy. Just because both films have material that is not suitable for children does not mean that both films are morally objectionable. An approach that condemns all nudity and seeks a safe distance is too blunt a tool to be really useful for dealing with popular culture. (93)
Here I have to pause and say, “Not so fast; I’m not so sure.” For us to say, “Nudity is okay, as long as it realistically shows the humiliation and abuse of the naked person,” – that leaves a lot of room for rationalizations in a pornographic society. Turnau tries in this book to be nuanced in his approach to culture, but this is a place where he is not nuanced enough.
But that is even less concerning than his approach to blasphemy. Unfortunately, Turnau does not have much discussion on this. What he does is appeal to filmmaker Brian Godawa and his book Hollywood Worldviews: “He points out that the Bible is filled with references to and descriptions of sex, violent acts, and profanities and blasphemies” (93). The Bible tells the truth about what wicked men do. What matters again is context. In the Bible blasphemers and profaners of God’s Name receive their just punishment. So, for instance, in 2 Chronicles 32, Sennacherib blasphemes the LORD, but he ends up being killed by his own sons as he worships his god. Where does that ever happen in popular culture today? Instead, God’s Name is misused and abused thoughtlessly and repeatedly, with no consequences. I wonder if this is a blind spot for Turnau. When he analyzes the Eagles’ song Heartache Tonight, he offers plenty of insightful critique of the sexuality that pervades the song, but there’s no mention of the blasphemy. For myself, discipled with the Heidelberg Catechism, I can never forget the words of Lord’s Day 36, “We are not to blaspheme or to abuse the Name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor to share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders.” It is a grievous sin that provokes God’s wrath to the utmost. A zero-tolerance policy should therefore be the ideal, though personally I struggle with implementing such a policy with consistency.
In the same chapter, Turnau provides some “Rules of Thumb for Adults” (as well as some for children). His second point is, “Know what offends and degrades.” At the conclusion of this section, he writes that “…different Christians are going to have different sensitivities to darkness and degradation” (102). Some are very sensitive to darkness, whereas have a higher tolerance, but all of us have to learn to respect and love one another. We cannot impose our standards on brothers and sister with different darkness-sensitivities. I do wonder how the author squares these thoughts with what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:10, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Or Romans 13:12, “So then let us cast off the works of darkness…” Could it be that developing a sensitivity to darkness is a sign of growing spiritual maturity?
Those are my most substantial concerns with Popologetics. One other concern is that this book is pitched to people who have the capacity to think deeply about culture and worldviews. Those who read it, persevere with it and learn from it are going to be those readers who are accustomed to more intellectual pursuits. There may not be a simple way to approach popular culture from a Christian perspective. There are simple ways that Christians do it, but they are vulnerable to critique, as illustrated in the book. It’s quite simple to compartmentalize your thinking about popular culture and pretend that it has nothing to do with your Christian faith. It’s quite simple to reject popular culture all together, not have a TV, not watch movies, and only listen to psalms and hymns. But the approach that Turnau proposes requires work and deep thought and, even if the willingness is there, the capacity is not necessarily. The author recognizes that to some degree in his concluding chapter. This is a problem not just with Turnau’s application of Reformed apologetics to popular culture, but a problem with Reformed apologetics itself. It is evidenced in the enormous lack of materials to teach Reformed apologetics to young people. I do not have the answers; I simply pray that we could find a way to address this.
Popologetics is an engaging and thought-provoking book. It deals with a subject with which Reformed believers need to continue wrestling. Oftentimes our approach has been determined by fear, rather than by careful reflection. If not by fear, then by virtual thoughtlessness. The fearful approach is more consistent with an Anabaptist than a Reformed heritage. The thoughtless approach is more consistent with the world than with the church. Somehow we have to navigate our way through cultural engagement in a way that best honours God. Even if he stumbles at some points, Ted Turnau has pointed us in the right direction.