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. This is an excerpt from an interview I did with Turnau last year:
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.