Sunday, November 25, 2007

Interview with Clive Marsh: Theology Goes to the Movies

Clive Marsh studied at the Universities of Wales (Bangor), Tubingen, and Oxford. His doctoral studies, on the theology of Albrecht Ritschl, included three months at the Lutheran School at Chicago. He now lives in Leicester (UK).

After three years in chaplaincy and youth work, he became a lecturer in Christian theology, first (1989-1995) at the Wilson Carlile College (Sheffield, England), then (1995-2000) at the College of Ripon and York (England). He spent seven years as Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church in Great Britain and is now Principal of the East Midlands Ministry Training Course, based at the University of Nottingham (UK).

He has a particular interest in Christology, having undertaken much study of the Historical Jesus early in his academic career. His main concern is to explore how Christian theology works, given its complex place within many different cultures. His interest in theology and film has grown out of this.

He has published a number of books including Albrecht Ritschl and the Problem of the Historical Jesus (Edwin Mellen, 1992), Explorations in Theology and Film (Blackwell, 1997, co-edited with Gaye Ortiz), Jesus and the Gospels (2nd edn., Continuum 2006, co-written with Steve Moyise), Cinema and Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology (Paternoster, 2004), Christ in Focus: Radical Christocentrism in Christian Theology (SCM Press 2005), Christ in Practice: A Christology of Everyday Life (DLT 2006) and his most recent volume Theology Goes to the Movies (Routledge, 2007). He is also a contributor to the new volume edited by Robert K. Johnston, Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline (Baker Academic, 2007).

Dr. Marsh has agreed to share some of this thoughts about our mutual interest in theology and film.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Marsh, thank you making some time to discuss theology and film. As a theologian, can you tell us how you can to be interested and involved in theology and film studies?

Clive Marsh: It was simply a matter of responding to students in a context where I had to teach Christian theology. I needed to enable people who wanted to study theology critically to do so in both an interesting and engaged fashion. The first students I taught knew the Bible pretty well, and had a basic grasp of themes from the history of Christian thought. But even Christian students often found texts from Christian history rather 'dry'. Meanwhile, they were watching films and listening to songs, and there was a constant interplay between these and the beliefs they espoused. So it was a rich basis for theological exploration.

Morehead's Musings: Everyone brings a certain theology of culture and cultural engagement to their interaction with film (or lack thereof). What type of theology of culture serves as the foundation for your interaction with film?

Clive Marsh: If you mean 'what particular theological convictions make the enterprise possible', then it's the doctrines of creation, incarnation and Holy Spirit which are especially important. God is tangled up in the process of creation, and is working with creation all the time. A strong doctrine of incarnation prevents references to 'creativity', 'spirit', 'inspiration' and 'spirituality' becoming too diffuse and divorced from embodied reality. If your question is about which particular theological traditions have helped me get to where I have, then I must admit I owe much first to Liberal Protestantism (Schleiermacher through to Tillich), for helping me see the complexity of how church and world interrelate (and how the former is not always good and positive, and the latter not always bad). From there I have been able to draw on many other movements and traditions in putting together a 'theology of creativity' - using classical texts from early Christianity about incarnation and iconography, and, more recently, the insights of post-liberalism and narrative theology to help me see the importance of community and story in how meaning is discovered or made. The real challenge to contemporary Christian theologies of culture is to explore how such meaning-making happens in contemporary society in a way which respects 'church' as a concept and social reality, without resorting to some stifling form of ecclesiocentrism.

Morehead's Musings: In your recent book, Theology Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Critical Christian Thinking, one of the areas you discuss is the role that cinema plays in late modern Western culture. Can you touch on this for us?

Clive Marsh: Cinemas are significant because they are one place where people 'step outside' the routines of life to engage in an experience which is life-enhancing. I stress that it is one place, and one habit. I am not saying it is somehow especially privileged. Music, theatre, sport are other examples of similar practices and need similar theological (and not just sociological or psychological) attention. It can, of course, easily be claimed that cinema is 'escape' and that people go to the cinema for some light relief, a good night out, some family fun, or whatever. Indeed, that's what lots of cinema-goers say they are doing. But the empirical data being gathered about the place that the cinema plays in many people's lives is starting to show just how significant the practice proves for people. People do 'escape'. But it helps them reflect on life, experience a good emotional shake-up, helps them to focus on something and be attentive in a way they may not be anywhere else, outside of work, during the week. Cinema is, in other words, not simply 'escapism' is a negative sense. This means that it often has some of the functions of religious practice, whether or not people are explicit about the philosophical or theological frameworks within which they do their cinema-going, or consciously 'process' what the film does for and to them.

Morehead's Musings: Is there an increasing need for theologians and pastors to interact with film?

Clive Marsh: Well if what I've just said is true - that cinema is almost a "religion-like" activity - then theologians and pastors cannot but be interested in films and in popular culture generally. Analysts of culture who are unsympathetic to religion are not going to want to come to the conclusion that sociologists of religion are reaching. It is a scary thought for hardened secularists or opponents of religion to consider that popular culture might be having a religious function. But if it is true then it matters hugely what popular culture is doing - whether or not it is religiously inspired or intending to evoke any kind of theological or religious response. One problem is that for me as a Christian theologian to say this is that it may sound as if I'm saying our task is therefore to enable lots of 'good', or 'Christian-friendly' popular culture. That's not what I am saying at all. Popular culture is not to be labelled 'good 'or 'bad' by any simple test of whether it's 'Christian' or not. Yes, there are ways of teasing out good and bad features of all culture (highbrow and lowbrow) - though it's not an easy task, and will always provoke dispute. And it's not best done on theological grounds alone. Theological conversation happens around all culture, Christian or not (and what is 'Christian culture' anyway?). So theologians and pastors simply need to be better equipped to know how to do this, and to help people they relate to in their communities (academic and religious) to do this.

Morehead's Musings: Can you share a few examples with us as to how film is touching on, as you say in your book, "a systematic theology through film," as film touches on God, human beings, and redemption?

Clive Marsh: I naturally simply want to people to read Theology Goes to the Movies! But The Truman Show and Bruce Almighty are two obvious contemporary 'ways in' to discussions about what and who God is. Touching the Void provokes questions about 'spirit', and what a human being is, as does Amadeus. Crimes and Misdemeanors and 21 Grams are great films through which to explore the notion of redemption. The Piano invites reflection about baptism and the sacraments more generally. Will that do for starters? I don't, though, want to leave readers with the impression that I think it's just the theme of a film that makes them theologically interesting. I also want to stress that it's the viewing experience that makes films theologically important and stimulating. Theology is, after all, more than just words.

Morehead's Musings: How might Christian engagement with film be more theologically, culturally, and cinematically informed?

Clive Marsh: If people get excited about film, then I'd expect them to want to know (and therefore investigate) more about the films they watch. That goes for Christian cinema-goers too. Don't be satisfied with just watching a film once. Watch it again. Watch the DVD with all the 'add ons'. Read the reviews (before and after). And then let your believing and theological thinking interact with the way you process the film watching experience. But to do that means probably knowing more about Christian theological traditions than many churchgoers often do. So it means exploring the history of Christian theology a bit. How many churches have classes through which people can dig around in the history of doctrine, to let doctrine come alive as a contemporary framework of thought within which people live their lives? Or how many churches encourage (and financially support) its lay people to take basic theology courses at college or university? Yet that's what the Church as a whole needs. And that's what informed cinema-going needs, in order to be theologically rich.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Marsh, once again, thanks for sharing your insights. I hope that readers seek out copies of your new book and your previous volumes as well.

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