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A Cultural Theology of Salvation, by Clive Marsh

24 May 2019

John Saxbee reflects on tracing this theme in the West today

IT HAS been said that there are only six stories in the world, and they’re all in the soaps and they’re all in the Bible. Soap operas process issues such as sin, redemption, faithfulness, betrayal, hope, and happiness familiar to theologians and embedded in religions’ key texts. So, searching for theology implicit in contemporary Western culture as expressed in art, music, film, TV, and economics is an inviting prospect — and Clive Marsh proves to be an engaging and able advocate.

He focuses on the doctrine of salvation filtered through the lens of phenomena familiar to cultural studies, but also rooted in our day-to-day experience. “This book is all about how it is possible to speak of salvation in the present in the West, when salvation-type language is in wide use and may or may not be being used in theologically conscious ways.”

Part One explores how the Enlightenment led to seeing happiness as symptomatic of being saved — a fact that theologians in search of “a more robust, contemporary definition of salvation” ignore at their peril.

Marsh outlines a cultural theology based on the observation that “all theology is encultured, and always has been”. If it is not to fall into the trap of being the Church simply speaking to itself, theology has to be a public discipline.

Unsurprisingly, Tillich is a key point of reference for Marsh, but, significantly, he wants to go beyond Tillich’s correlational approach to the relationship between Christianity and culture. For March, cultural theology, especially a cultural theology of salvation, must have an integrity of its own that is neither in thrall to received tradition nor a form of “theological ventriloquism”.

Part Two contains a series of case studies citing, inter alia, Handel’s Messiah, the film Crazy Heat, the positive-psychology movement, and the TV series The Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad, to show how themes with distinctively soteriological implications are communicated with little or no explicit religious inferences.

These examples are drawn from his own interests and experiences, and he invites readers to use his interpretative tools to work on their own cultural choices. This case-study approach works well, and a methodology emerges that any consumer of contemporary culture can usefully deploy. Visiting an art gallery or watching TV may never be quite the same again.

Marsh posits a Christian template of salvation — “from”, “for”, “by”, “into” — as the basis on which to analyse the findings from his case studies. He concludes that a serviceable theology of salvation today must broaden the definition of sin, involve affective experience (i.e. feelings), and affirm humanity’s own contribution to salvation, including inter-personal relationships. If these are the lessons to be learned from his cultural analysis, however, he also cautions against contemporary culture’s neglect of both salvation as into life-enhancing communities, and the salvific action of God in Christ.

This is a controversial and not entirely convincing enterprise, but as the final chapters demonstrate, it has positive practical implications that might just save salvation from the threat of cultural incoherence — or even irrelevance.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

A Cultural Theology of Salvation
Clive Marsh
OUP £60
Church Times Bookshop £54

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