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Devoutly with-it

10 January 2014

A discussion of pop culture leaves Mike Starkey wondering

Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about style, media and entertainment
Steve Turner
IVP £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code CT604 )

STEVE TURNER knows pop culture from the inside. As a rock journalist, he has written books on the likes of U2, Eric Clapton, Marvin Gaye, and Johnny Cash, and has interviewed countless celebrities in the national press, from John Lennon to the Simpsons creator, Matt Groening. Turner is also a believer, concerned with encouraging a credible Christian witness in the world of music and the arts. This found clearest expression in his last book, Imagine: A vision for Christians in the arts (IVP).

Now Turner shifts his focus from the producers and shapers of contemporary culture to its consumers. In particular, he writes for young Christians who are keen to assess popular culture from the perspective of their faith. An early chapter on the Bible and culture includes a discussion of how the apostle Paul related to the culture and arts of his day. It also includes the illuminating point (obvious once you think about it) that pop culture as we know it did not exist for most of human history, as it was made possible only by electricity.

Then follow chapters on cinema, journalism, celebrity culture, fashion, advertising, and other key aspects of pop culture. Turner gives a brief history of the medium in question, and then offers an ethical critique and pointers towards what a Christian response might look like. He even-handedly highlights much that is good in pop culture, as well as the excesses and trivialities. He reserves particular criticism for Christian film-makers and songwriters who are fuelled more by propagandistic zeal than a proper understanding of their artistic medium, and for those Christians who shun popular culture entirely.

On this latter point, Turner's case would have been helped significantly by a survey of historical Christian responses to popular culture. Notably absent is any discussion of the debate surrounding Niebuhr's seminal Christ and Culture, with its theories of why believers have been so polarised in their responses to the culture of their day. Turner's Evangelical stance is clear in his laudable desire to hold pop culture in one hand and the Bible in the other. But he never really engages with the equally intriguing question what it is about people's theology of culture which makes one person condemn all pop music as a tool of the devil, and another scream gutteral vocals in a death-metal band, both in the name of Jesus.

The Revd Mike Starkey is Tutor at the Church Army College in Sheffield, and a freelance writer.

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