Ordained Servant Online



Form and Message: A Response

T. David Gordon

Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, by Theodore Turnau. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012, xviii + 346 pages, $19.99, paper.

The typical review of a book takes the book on its own terms and describes its basic content and contributions, and I would be happy to do so for Turnau’s Popologetics. Others have undertaken such general reviews, and if I were to write one, it would be largely favorable, because I had so appreciated Turnau’s articles in Christian Scholar’s Review and Calvin Theological Journal,[1] and I also benefited significantly from this recent book. In the tradition of William Edgar, T. M. Moore, and Aaron Belz, Turnau has provided a volume that greatly assists believers who wish to learn about reality from the artistic products of unbelievers. Turnau’s instructions on this point are extremely helpful and extremely judicious.

One part of the book, however, consists of a critique of other Christian approaches to the arts, and on this point I was not only unpersuaded; I was troubled that three “schools” or “approaches” to pop culture appear to have formed, whereas I would have preferred three “perspectives,” or complementary approaches. I was especially disappointed in Turnau’s critique of Ken Myers.[2] I found little in Turnau’s critique of Myers that had not appeared already in William Edgar’s review in the Westminster Theological Journal,[3] and each shares three problems (Turnau adds a fourth and a fifth):

1. Each appears to misunderstand Myers’s reference to C. S. Lewis’s distinction between the idea of “using” art and “experiencing” it, found in his An Experiment in Criticism.[4] Perhaps Myers should not have assumed people knew Lewis on this point, and perhaps he should have explained the matter further, but both Turnau and Edgar appear to think that Lewis/Myers object to any “using” of art; neither of them did. Rather, each described a fundamentally different approach to art-in-general (not to any specific work). Lewis would not have objected to “using” the singing of a hymn to rock a child to sleep; he only objected to those whose approach to art-in-general excluded the desire or ability to “experience” art.

2. Each claims that Myers’s view is “elitist,” without giving any compelling reason to find elitism objectionable from a theistic point of view. A plain reading of Philippians 4:8 would appear to commend elitism: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Especially in light of the fact that Myers quotes this passage, I would have preferred that at least one of them (if not both) engaged in an exegetical or theological argument with him. I am self-consciously elitist, vigorously and vocally so. If one definition of “elite” is “the best or most skilled members of a group,” why wouldn’t all humans aspire to be their best and most skilled? I realize that, in an egalitarian culture, the terms “elite” and “elitist” have become pejorative, but they need not be so, and especially not thoughtlessly. Plato seriously argued (in his Republic) that the wisest members of society should rule it; and I still have difficulty finding an error in his reasoning. So if one definition of “elitist” is “someone who believes in rule by an elite group,” then Plato was an unquestionable elitist. If I am wrong, someone needs to explain to me why it is wrong to pursue (or approve) what is better and what is best. Further, in one of his essays, Myers actually argues that it is pop culture that is elitist; a very small group of people make the decisions about what they believe will be financially successful, and they impose these on the unsuspecting market: “For the most part, popular culture rarely comes from the people. It comes from elites more decisively than does high culture.”[5]

3. Turnau does not appear to notice that Myers’s view is formalistic; Myers engages the forms of particular aspects of pop art, and the sensibilities those forms encourage. Edgar does recognize the matter, but (naively?) seems to reject McLuhan/Postman/Myers outright: “Christians need to realize that the problem is not the medium, but the way it is used” (379). I will say more about why I regard this as naive below.

4. Turnau refers to his labeling the Myers view the “We’re-Above-All-That” view and notes that some may object, to which he offers the following explanation: “I use these labels because they are easy to remember. They nicely sum up the attitudes of their proponents.” (133n53). Well, this simply won’t do at all, on two grounds. First, one is not entitled to misrepresent a viewpoint in the interests of mnemonics. Myers’s approach is a formalist approach; he believes that certain forms of art have different capacities and potentials, and therefore (ordinarily) certain affects that differ from other forms. This view may be right or wrong, in part or whole, and is certainly a matter for public discussion. But it simply is not accurate to describe the view as “We’re above all that.” Myers’s view is not a view about Myers; it is a view about pop culture, and it misrepresents the view to suggest that it says anything about the author. Further, how does Turnau know what Myers’s attitude is? What he should describe is Myers’s position, reasoning, or evidence, not his attitude. Those of us in the Westminster tradition observe that our Larger Catechism (q. 145) regards as a violation of the ninth commandment (among other things): “misconstructing intentions, words, and actions,” and I would suggest that guessing about someone’s intentions/attitudes virtually guarantees that one will occasionally misconstrue them.

5. Turnau simply misrepresents Myers by suggesting that Myers made a comprehensive claim where he only made a potential and qualified claim:

What Turnau says Myers said:

What Myers actually said:

“After all, popular songs, movies, and television shows ‘are not capable of being enjoyed; their only power may be to titillate and distract.’ Popular culture as a whole is clearly something that we are to grow up and out of.” (109)

“Books, plays, films, painting, television, music, and sports can all be better appreciated once we approach them as we ought. Of course, we may find that some of the more popular songs or television programs or books are really not capable of being enjoyed; their only power may be to titillate and distract.” (183, emphases mine)

I do not suggest that Turnau’s misrepresentation is intentional; to the contrary, I believe he is simply a little tone-deaf to formalism. Some people seem to be simply resistant to the idea that certain artistic forms have certain strengths/weaknesses, certain competences/incompetences, certain assets/liabilities. Such people are very resistant to formalist criticism, because they wish to “redeem” every art-form equally.

Some who function in the redeem-the-culture paradigm appear to be ideologically unwilling to appreciate what it means that God made the created order materially, and that different materials have different properties. Myers and those like him do not ordinarily refer to “redeeming” creations but to “creating” creations; not to redeeming art but to creating art. The redeem-the-culture paradigm, by contrast, is defective, because even the redemptive paradigm in Scripture restores the created order (or aspects thereof) to their original created purpose and intention. That is, artistic activity is perfectly justifiable on a creationist paradigm; it does not need a redemptive paradigm. Humans, as Imago Dei, create analogously to God’s creating, not analogously to God’s redeeming. We do not need to “redeem” sonnets; we just need to write them. We do not need to “redeem” plays; we need to create them. We do not need to “redeem” novels; we need to write them. We would have created had we never fallen; as God’s image, we would have made things that were “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (beautiful and practical, artist and artisan) just because God had done so and made us like him on a creaturely scale. So a Christian aesthetic is much better grounded (in my opinion) in creation than in redemption. And even a Christian criticism or critical theory (also in my opinion) is better grounded in creation than in redemption; the goal of criticism is to observe what is in a given artistic work, and a proper understanding of creation permits that adequately. If we observed a particular work of art, and if the artist who produced the work happens to have been an unbeliever, and if we learned something about reality from that artist, I suggest that the ordinary language for such an event is this: “I learned a good deal from that work of art.”

The creationist paradigm of art tends to be formalist. It acknowledges and submits to God’s created order, and acknowledges therefore the material properties of the various aspects of God’s order as “good.” These material properties are not “limiting” until/unless we attempt to make them do more than they are capable of doing. It is not “limiting” that the dolphin cannot fly or that the hawk cannot swim; this is simply a reflex of the material properties God gave them. God gave fins to one and feathers to the other. Similarly, the various material properties of the various human arts that have developed are not plenipotentiary. We can never make a dynamic/kinetic art out of statuary; but statuary is three-dimensional in a way that painting or film is not.[6] The material properties of a given art-form need not be thought of as limits; they may be thought of as potentials, and it is the human creator’s duty to discover and explore these (divinely-given-in-creation) potentials. To deny the differing potentials of water color painting and oil painting is to deny the created, material difference between oil and water. God made both, as properties inherent in the material order, and the artist’s duty is to do with each what can best be done with each.

Discovering and exploring the various material properties of various art-forms, however, necessarily makes one a formalist. The kazoo has different acoustic properties than does the pipe organ, for instance, and the kazoo cannot be “redeemed” to play Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (nor would the organ ordinarily be as appropriate to play at a five-year-old’s birthday party). The trumpet will not be able to do justice to the Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1, and the cello will not do justice to Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary. Nor do we need to “redeem” the one to do what its material properties do not permit it to do; we need merely understand their respective acoustic properties and respect their material distinctives.

If we return to the critique of Ken Myers, then, “redeemers” just do not appear to understand “creators.” They appear unwilling to accept the material limits/potentials[7] that God has invested the created order with. Some art-forms have different creative potential than others. Commercial television, for example, cannot do some of the things film can do, because film is not interrupted by commercials every six minutes. Therefore, a skilled screenwriter can work with pacing, whereas a television-writer really cannot do much with the same (imagine writing a symphony that has interruptions every six minutes and you’ll get the point). So one can write for television or one can write for film; but one cannot do everything with commercial television that one can do with film. Think of the languishing pace of so much of the film, “A River Runs through It,” and imagine how frustrating it would be to watch the same film disrupted by commercial messages. Television cannot be “redeemed” to morph into film; it simply has different properties.

Listening to pop/rock music in the 1970s, we realized that commercial radio had similar limitations. Due to the demand for commercials every six to nine minutes, longer pieces were never aired on the radio, and we had to purchase LPs in order to hear things such as Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” The very form of commercial radio limited the length of music that was composed for it (this has largely changed now, of course).

Ken Myers’s critique of pop culture is a formalist critique, a critique that takes into consideration the forms of pop culture (not merely its content, and not merely the creator’s intent to “redeem” the form), including those forms essential to commercial success. Such formalist critique may surely be augmented by other critiques (and Myers does acknowledge them), but the converse does not appear to be so. The Edgar/Turnau/redeem-culture approach does not appear to recognize the validity of the formalist critique, and it is therefore short-sighted. I regard it as almost breathtakingly naive that a pianist with the skill of Bill Edgar can say, “Christians need to realize that the problem is not the medium, but the way it is used.” Edgar must surely realize that the vast literature of piano music cannot all be played on the harpsichord. Indeed the piano-forte was invented/developed precisely to avoid/evade the perceived dynamic limits of the harpsichord, to permit an expressiveness unattainable on the harpsichord. So the problem, in this case, is precisely the medium; the harpsichord simply cannot do some of what the piano can do.[8] Its limits/potentials simply differ, because the material properties (plucked strings v. hammered strings) of the two instruments differ. The world’s most skilled harpsichordist simply cannot produce Debussy’s Clare de Lune. Only if one rejects the material nature of created reality, or if one rejects that such material nature is “good,” does one regard the varying potentials of varying materials as a limit to be overcome (“redeemed”) rather than a potential to be explored.

At this moment, I perceive three “schools” of evangelical approaches to the arts (and especially to pop art), which I call “content analysis,” “intent analysis,” and “formal analysis.” The first was/is largely concerned with the content of art, and was/is largely negative: too much violence, profanity, or sexuality. The second was/is largely concerned with the intent of the creator or viewer to perceive reality properly through the art-form; Turnau’s book[9] is an excellent (and extremely helpful) guide to this approach. The third was/is largely concerned with addressing the formal properties[10] of a given art-form, and how this determines what can be done with that art-form. In my judgment each is legitimate, and each corresponds, roughly, to John M. Frame’s tri-perspectivalism. Content criticism is normative; intent criticism is existential; and formal criticism is situational. From my point of view, then, each is legitimate, and each is necessary to a comprehensive critique. I have no interest in entering what I regard as a bit of a skirmish between the content-critics and the intent-critics, who appear to have little to do with one another. And I have no interest in saying which of the three types of analysis is better or more important, because I believe all three are important. Theodore Turnau, William Edgar, T. M. Moore, Aaron Belz, and many others, have ably demonstrated in their essays the keen insight into the human condition that can often be gleaned by the artistic endeavors of unbelieving artists; and I am genuinely grateful for their labors. Similarly, I join nearly all Christian parents in wishing that pop culture did not so frequently glorify violence, casual sex, and profanity. I also have gained much insight from formal analysts such as Ken Myers, who have aided me in learning to appreciate from any art-form what it is likely to do better or best. So I embrace and employ all three analyses, and only object when one or the other of those three appears unwilling to recognize the value of the other two.

Endnotes

[1] “Reflecting Theologically on Popular Culture as Meaningful: The Role of Sin, Grace, and General Revelation,” Calvin Theological Journal 37 (2002): 270–96; and “Popular Cultural Worlds as Alternative Religions,” Christian Scholars Review (Spring 2008): 323–45.

[2] All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989).

[3] Westminster Theological Journal 53, no. 2 (Fall 1991): 377–80.

[4] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (London: Cambridge University Press, 1961).

[5] Myers, “Is ‘Popular Culture’ Either?”, accessed at http://www.modernreformation.org/pub/mr/mr97/1997.01.JanFeb/mr9701.km.popular.ht

[6] And Frederic Remington, curiously and interestingly, created bronze statuary that “froze” kinetic activity. Using a non-kinetic form, he created fascinating sculpture of kinetic activity.

[7] I often say “limits/potentials” or “potentials/limits,” because, for me, the two are merely two sides of a coin. Whatever an art’s peculiar potential is “limits” it from doing what other art-forms can do better; but the converse is also true. Whatever “limits” an art-form from doing what another art-form does better becomes its distinctive potential, to be explored and appreciated. The car-chase scene in Steve McQueen’s 1968 film “Bullitt,” for example, reaches its potential in film projected in a theater. A novelist could not make one’s stomach jump, and an iPhone’s screen is simply too small. So film displayed on a large screen simply has different potential than novel or poem (and the converse is true).

[8] Though the potential runs better the other way. Murray Perahia’s piano interpretation of the Bach Goldberg Variations for harpsichord is lovely.

[9] And his equally-stimulating earlier aforementioned articles in Calvin Theological Journal and Christian Scholars Review.

[10] These formal properties are themselves, of course, often determined by commercial considerations; and no analysis of pop culture is complete without considering the commercial interests that drive it.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, February 2013.

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