Review: The Pop Culture Parent
Ted Turnau, E. Stephen Burnett, and Jared Moore, The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ. New Growth Press, 2020. 277 pages.
Scripture makes clear that stories are a vital discipleship tool.
The annual Feast of Passover was an opportunity for Israelites who never lived in Egypt to enter the story of God’s deliverance of His people. Joshua commanded that stones be stacked in the midst of the Jordan River so that future generations could hear the story of the Lord’s continuing faithfulness and understand themselves better within that story. King David was laid bare and brought to repentance through the story of a poor man’s little ewe lamb. The story of a man who was glad to sell all he had in order to attain a field and the treasure within it tells believers of every age how we are to value The Kingdom. And every time a local church gathers around the Lord’s Table its members are reminded they are part of the story of Jesus and that story will continue into a feast they will dine at with Jesus in His Father’s house.
C.S. Lewis knew the power of story to affect image bearers in a way that is not simply rational. To be clear, the author of Mere Christianity knew the importance of propositional truth. He also realized that human beings required narratives as well as propositions and that we should not be surprised by these different assets affecting men and women in different ways. Writing about his work in the Narnia series for The New York Times in 1956 he said:
I thought I saw how [fairy] stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
Harnessing the Disciple-Making Power of Stories
Seeing the power of stories to shape humans and, in doing so, serve the aim of discipleship requires us to ask whether or not this power can be used by those who would make disciples of someone other than Jesus. The obvious answer is yes.
You may remember Planned Parenthood calling for a story of a princess “who’s had an abortion.” Why does Planned Parenthood think a story about a princess having an abortion is so important? They know story has the power to form the moral imagination of every little girl who hears the story and finds herself imagining what it would be like to twirl in the princess’ dress.
Think about the contrast between Disney’s 1973 animated film Robin Hood and their later 2016 Zootopia. Robin Hood presents a vision of the good life that involves standing up against those who mistreat the helpless, doing so in the context of a joyful band of brothers. In Zootopia the bad guys push the idea that “nature matters” when it comes to identity and its outward expression. The paradisiacal Diverse City (where animals live in harmony, spending their days singing and dancing in a miles-wide party) is achieved through transcending our nature and learning to “try everything” (as the lyrics of the theme song encourage). What kind of person emerges on the far side of being caught up into those respective stories? Is the contrast not sharp enough that conscientious pastors want their people well equipped to navigate these waters?
Indeed, the advanced modern West is a veritable sea of stories, one constantly crashing new waves on the shores of Christian minds and hearts. This is why Dr. Robert Banks has said, “Popular culture has become the environment in which we live, move, and have our being.” The authors of The Pop Culture Parent understand the power of stories, for good and ill. They want to help Christians take full advantage of the stories believers encounter which foster greater obedience to Christ while also learning to reject any story that would make them disciples of some other master.
Resources for Believers of All Vocations
The title of The Pop Culture Parent suggests a resource for parents and it is just that, offering needed guidance to parents seeking to shepherd their children well through the world of pop culture. Parents are encouraged and equipped to jump – all the way and with gusto – into the eternally consequential calling to be their child’s first teacher:
Our children won’t stay children forever… Even after your children grow to become adults, you and your children will not pursue family life, vocations, and new-family raising forever. All these life stages will end. After all this—family, career, aging, and death—will come eternity.
If our children are redeemed in Christ, they are destined to rule this world as God’s regents. They will be ambassadors of the King. Imagine that reality! Imagine the children you helped disciple for eighteen-plus years on this earth redeemed eor eternal life in that future new creation! You will literally rule alongside your children in the eternal kingdom…
How will today’s parenting relationships resonate into eternity? We cannot know for sure, but we do know that our present identities and memories will continue… we get to keep the good habits we have taught our children in this life… Remember: none of your efforts now will be wasted in the new creation.
Nonetheless, the book is more than a manual for parents hoping to serve their children well. The Pop Culture Parent is a practical theology of culture. Believers of every age and vocational calling will find help in cultivating allegiance to Christ through enjoying the enduring creational goodness of God’s word in such a way they swim, rather than drown, in our sea of pop culture. Consider this appetizer for the approach the book offers parents, yes, but really believers of all stripes:
…even now, we find goodness reflected in culture because it is created by people made in the image of their Creator. Humans may bend and distort and even deny God’s image, but we cannot erase it. Nor can we avoid reflecting the beauty, love, power, and awesomeness of God in the culture we create.
Popular culture is not popular because people are lazy, ignorant, and wicked. It is popular because our works include awesomeness that reflects our awesome Creator and Redeemer. People hunger for that grace without knowing quite what it is they truly hunger for. Popular culture is popular precisely because of the grace to be found in it, however distorted. We and our children can find this grace if we are willing to look for it.
True, these reflections of grace are twisted by sin. But even then, we can train our children to expose these false gospels by comparing them with Jesus. In the light of his glory and grace, idols will grow strangely dim as the true gospel light shines in our imaginations. Whether a popular entertainment reflects grace or reflects idolatry—either way—we and our children can respond by exploring the gospel more clearly. We can actually catch glimpses of God’s glory through popular cultural works.
Resources for Church Members and Those Who Shepherd Them
Fellow pastors, make no mistake: the members of your church have spent recent years wondering if their appetite to join in the conversation at work about Game of Thrones was something their Christian conscience could tolerate. Or, worse, they have watched the show in secrecy, sheltering a world of powerful story wedded to imagery that will shape their character. Others have spent dark hours wondering if the nihilistic journey of Breaking Bad gave a more realistic presentation of human life than the Garden-to-Exile-to-City story of Scripture. The question of whether or not Steve Rogers or Tony Stark had the right approach to government power in Captain America: Civil War took place in your church foyer, parking lot, or fellowship hall. Your members are wondering if they spend too little time reading or too much time playing the video games they increasingly worry eats too much of their time. They are also wondering how, if they have these questions, will they ever help the children the Lord has blessed them with answer similar questions and practice healthier habits.
Give your people The Pop Culture Parent. Bring the conversations about the pop culture stories already shaping your people more openly into the life of your congregation. Help them connect their appetite for good stories to the Great Story of Christ’s Kingdom. Help them help the children they are caring for. The stories of pop culture are hard at work attempting to disciple the members of your church on behalf of diverse masters, none of which is worthy of their allegiance. Let The Pop Culture Parent help you help your members more fully connect the stories of the imaginary kingdoms of popular culture to the true story of the One True King whose kingdom that will never end.
 Lewis, C.S. “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said”. The New York Times, 1956, https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2014/01/27/sometimes-fairy-stories/. Accessed 21 Oct 2020.
 From Dr. Banks’ 2003 endorsement of Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor’s A Matrix of Meaning: Finding God in Pop Culture, printed.
 The Pop Culture Parent, pg. 240-241.