A Cultural Theology of Salvation
- ISBN: 9780198811015
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: December 2018
Clive Marsh’s A Cultural Theology of Salvation is an eminently accessible and richly reflective exploration of how Western society today might find the Christian account of salvation both relevant and appealing. As a particularly learned commentator on the religious questions of popular culture, Marsh demonstrates well the strength of his conviction that “All theology is thus cultural theology” (31). While this book is something of a thought experiment, he seeks to make the classic Christian articulations of salvation both intelligible to modern ears and viable in the current marketplace of ideas.
Such a project, however, must acknowledge the challenge for theology of Christianity’s both conspicuous and ambiguous presence in contemporary culture, for, as Marsh explains, “Religion has far from disappeared, and Christianity remains explicitly within the mix of what Western citizens encounter merely by virtue of living in the West. But such engagement does not deliver an easily identifiable, coherent theological message” (36). He notes this condition and thus undertakes his exploration in a decidedly sensible and open-ended manner. In this way, Marsh serves well his guiding convictions that, “Ultimately, a doctrine of salvation has to be for living. It has to give structure and meaning to life” (188).
Unfolding in three parts, Marsh’s book begins with a careful discussion of his method for cultural theology, proceeds to in-depth consideration of his selections, and in the end draws fresh conclusions for a contemporary theology of salvation in light of his findings. He opens by acknowledging that the language of salvation (i.e., happiness, redemption, and flourishing) resonates throughout contemporary culture, but at the same time, he questions the degree to which these themes maintain roots in explicitly theological understandings. For this reason, he seeks to redefine cultural theology considering both the advances of figures such as Paul Tillich and the problematic nature of such approaches for today. Marsh identifies five characteristics of such approaches to avoid in favor of a cultural theology that is religiously specific, communicative, broad and dialogical, critical, eschatologically orientated, gospel focused, and politically and ethically responsible (50–54).
After setting new aspirations for cultural theology, Marsh narrates various accounts of salvation from his selections, which include Grüenwald’s Isenheim altarpiece, Handel’s Messiah, the film Crazy Heart, television’s Breaking Bad, the influence of positive psychology in counseling, the sitcom Big Bang Theory, and modern capital. While these examples display a range of artistic mediums and everyday categories, Marsh admits that these are decidedly not the “best” examples but rather meaningfully ready-to-hand and democratic (162). Such engagements offer him the chance to make broader and more evaluative inferences, as in: “Unless it is felt, salvation cannot be known and experienced in personal terms” (78).
While each of his selections provides a different vantage point on the larger questions related to salvation today, Marsh reserves his most poignant interrogations for the chapter on capital and money. Here, he invites a more penetrating level of questioning: “In what sense do all human beings have to be freed from poverty and undue concerns for the basic needs of life if salvation is to make much sense? To what degree is it almost immoral and unjust to be speaking of salvation for anyone so long as many people go without?” (137).
In the final section, Marsh attempts to unify the study’s insights around a “Christian Template of Salvation” that addresses the complex dimensionality of the doctrine (i.e., salvation from, salvation for, salvation by which, and salvation into). Along with a set of seven conclusions gleaned from his disparate selections, the author provides a list of ten headings for salvation in light of contemporary concerns: ultimate well-being, health, acceptance, being forgiven, forgiving, safety, celebration, happiness, contentment, and blessedness. Such headers allow him to elaborate thematically on the emphases that emerged through his investigations of popular culture, and all such reflections are in service of addressing salvation to a more holistic picture of human flourishing.
As the author confesses, his project produces a “theological phenomenology of the experience of salvation” (214). In this way, the book showcases the familiar calling cards of Marsh’s method, wherein he identifies unlikely sources of theological speculation and develops rich, timely insights that are consonant with central aspects of the Christian tradition. His posture of careful listening delivers time and again as he entertains at length lines of inquiry inherent mainly to his peculiar case studies (e.g., Breaking Bad contributes to an appreciation of original sin). Relatedly, the depths of his interrogations often move the narration into spaces of doubt and probing self-critique. More than once, Marsh faces the paradoxes of his own tradition with incisive transparency. For instance, he writes, “Salvation, of course, costs both nothing and everything” (149).
The lingering questions seem even more poignant around the subject of modern capital: “Can one truly flourish as a human being with nothing? Perhaps salvation is free, but flourishing costs” (150). Similarly, Marsh brings the church itself under scrutiny. Under the heading “Church Is Essential, but Not in the Ways We May Assume,” he admits, “But its public role is to declare what it cannot even embody itself” (206). While considering salvation as participation in Christ beyond connection to church may strike some as problematic, it indicates the lengths that Marsh is willing to go to in his efforts to make a Christian account of salvation palpable for today. Along the way, his presentation remains thoroughly practical for an uninitiated or nonacademic audience and yet faithfully serious for co-heirs of his tradition. With sentiments such as, “Whilst salvation may always have a spiritual focus, the incarnational emphasis of Christian faith will never permit salvation to be a merely spiritual matter,” Marsh applies his authentic and integrative approach to Christian salvation with remarkable consistency and inviting candor (151).
Taylor Worley is visiting associate professor of art history at Wheaton College.Taylor WorleyDate Of Review:January 30, 2022