Academic Programs 
      

Theology of Popular Culture (TH-642)  
Fall 2008

This course will explore various theological and religious meanings that are carried in popular culture, and specifically in phenomena that are not ordinarily thought of as religious. Through reading several "theologians of culture," we will examine contemporary novels, films, music, television, advertising, and popular representations of the afterlife with the intent of developing ways to discern transcendent longings, anxieties, and visions of good and evil that operate below the surface of our common cultural life in the U.S.

Meeting Day, Time and Dates: 
7:00-9:20 Thursdays

Kelton Cobb
Professor of Theology and Ethics

Contact Information:

phone: 
(860) 509-9513
email:
kcobb@hartsem.edu

 

Course Syllabus


PURPOSE OF COURSE: This course will explore various theological and religious meanings that are carried in popular culture, and specifically in phenomena that are not ordinarily thought of as religious. Through reading several "theologians of culture," we will examine contemporary novels, films, music, television, advertising, and popular representations of the afterlife with the intent of developing ways to discern transcendent longings, anxieties, and visions of good and evil that operate below the surface of our common cultural life in the U.S.

AIMS OF COURSE:
• to inventory key theological and religious concepts that are useful in interpreting culture
• to consider the revelatory and the iconographic powers of popular culture from a theological perspective
• to become familiar with several current theories about the role of popular culture in a society
• to engage in theological reflection on several fronts of popular culture (novels, film, music, TV, advertising, branding, visions of the afterlife)
• to reflect on the ways in which religious identities are constructed in our culture
• to begin to develop habits of analysis with which one might read cultural events and phenomena theologically

COURSE TEXTS:
Required:

Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul
Kelton Cobb, The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture
Ron Currie, Jr., God is Dead
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith
James Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism

Handouts:
Victor Turner, “Variations on a Theme of Liminality”

COURSE REQUIREMENTS:
Due

One 3 page film review 15 points 9/25
One 3 page essay 20 points 10/30
One 2 page book review 15 points 11/20
Research paper (12-14 pages) 100 points 1/15
Participation 50 points  
  200 points  

EXPLANATION OF REQUIREMENTS:

  1. Write a 3 page review (11-12 point font, 1” margin, and double-spaced) of the movie Chocolat. Watch the movie with themes and arguments from the pages you have read of James Twitchell’s book, Lead Us into Temptation, in mind, and make sure the content of your review reflects this. This is due on September 25.

  2. Write a 3 page (11-12 point font, 1” margin, and double-spaced) reflection paper on Ron Currie’s God Is Dead, in which you make use of two (and no more than two) of the “theological tools” that have been considered so far in class—including, but not limited to, those covered in chapter 4 of Cobb’s Theology and Popular Culture—to offer a theological analysis of Currie’s novel. This is due on October 30.

  3. Read one of the books listed on the 8 page “Bibliographies for Theology and Popular Culture” that was distributed in class and respond to it in the form of a 2 page (11-12 point font, 1” margin, and double-spaced) book review. The review should briefly recap the author’s central argument and isolate some feature of the book where, using your own powers of analysis, theology and popular culture intersect, and explain why. Select a book from one of the first two sections (“Bibliography of Books on Theology and Popular Culture” or “Bibliography on Zones of Popular Culture”), but not including books that are already required reading for this course. It is recommended that you review a book that will be relevant to the topic of your final paper. Note: Not all of these books are in the Seminary library. Plan ahead, using the Seminary bookstore, an online bookstore, the Seminary library, your local library, or Inter-library loan. This is due on November 20.

  4. For your final paper (12-14 pages) you are to put to work the theological “tools” surveyed in class to interpret some phenomenon within popular culture. Scrupulously follow the Hartford Seminary General Guidelines for Research Papers handout (available online at http://www.hartsem.edu/student/forms/researchpaperguide.pdf). In writing the paper, on form, follow the letter of the law. I’m picky about this. This means using sources, citing them properly, proofreading what you’ve written, using very few quotations, 11-12 point font, 1” margin, double-space, proper margins, footnotes or parenthetical references, bibliography—everything. Do not use Wikipedia or other unrefereed Web sources, except as gateways to dependable websites—unless these unrefereed Web sources are the raw material you are analyzing. This paper is due by January 15.
    NOTE: A one-page, typed preview of your final paper is to be turned in by December 4. This preview should identify your cultural artifact(s), the theological tools you will be using to analyze it, a rough indication of your argument, and a brief working bibliography. All of this on ONE PAGE. I will return these with comments the following week.
  5. Students are expected to be present at each class, to read the assigned texts by the scheduled dates, and to participate actively in class discussions.
    Students are encouraged (but not required) to bring to the professor’s attention any promising artifacts from popular culture (ads, commercials, movies or TV shows, music CDs, novels, or even postcards/brochures of tourist attractions, etc.) they come across that manifest themes from the weekly readings and topics.

IMPORTANT: In all assignments it is assumed that what is submitted is the student’s own original work. Plagiarism is strictly forbidden. As described in the Hartford Seminary General Guidelines for a Research Paper, plagiarism occurs when students “submit another person’s work, lift paragraphs, sentences, or even a choice phrase from another writer, or make use of another person’s ideas (even if the student puts these ideas into his/her own words) without acknowledging the source. A related kind of dishonesty is to resubmit a paper which was done for a different course, even if it is the student’s own work. These practices are not permitted at Hartford Seminary. They will be reported to the Dean’s Office and may result in disciplinary action.” If a paper is found to contain plagiarism, even in a single sentence, the minimum penalty will be failing that assignment, with no opportunity to rewrite. If you are unsure of the line between plagiarism and legitimate uses of sources (e.g., quotation, paraphrase), see one of the Seminary’s Writing Consultants.

Hartford Seminary Writing Consultants
Hartford Seminary offers all students the services of a Writing Consultant. The Writing Consultant is to help students improve their command of written English, and to help organize essays and research papers.

Two Writing Consultants available: Sara Jane Munshower and Jean Blanning. PLEASE NOTE: There is a required amount of lead time that is required for the Writing Consultants to be able to review your work. The lead time is as follows:
o Reflection paper (1-3 pages) 2 days
- Submit to WC at least 5 days before paper is due.
o Book review (5-7 pages) 3-5 days
- Submit to WC at least 8 days before paper is due.
o Research paper (10-12 pages) 10 days
- Submit to WC at least 14 days before paper is due.

Contact information:
Sara Jane Munshower
Sara Jane may be contacted by email or phone.
Her phone number is: (860) 633-1408.
Her email is: revsaja@cox.net Jean Blanning
Jean prefers to be contacted by telephone.
Her phone number is: (860) 233-0376.
Her email is: jmblanning@earthlink.net

For more information, see http://www.hartsem.edu/student/writingassistance.htm

GRADING:
The grading formula used in this class follows an unconventional pattern. The interval between letter grades is 20%. This scale allows for more room to discriminate within each grade level, and thus for more careful distinctions within each level. Within letter grades, there will be +’s and -’s. Every assignment and the course grade will follow this scale:

200pts
100pts
50pts
20pts
15pts
A=
200-160
100-80
50-40
20-16
15-12
B=
159-120
79-60
39-30
15-12
11-9
C=
119-80
59-40
29-20
11-8
8-6
F=
79-0
39-0
19-0
7-0
5-0

SCHEDULE OF TOPICS AND READINGS:
Note: The readings indicated for each class date are to be read for that class.

September 11: Overview: Interpreting the Theological Content in Popular Culture

FIRST SEGMENT: CULTURAL STUDIES
September 18: Schools of Cultural Studies: The Frankfurt School
Kelton Cobb, Theology and Popular Culture, pp.1-71
Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul, chps 3, 5

September 25: Schools of Cultural Studies: Market Populism
James Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation, pp.1-89, 123-158
Assignment due: 3pp analysis of the film Chocolat in terms of Twitchell’s argument.

SECOND SEGMENT: THEOLOGICAL CONCEPTS
October 2: Theological Tools: Ultimate Concern and the Holy
Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pp. 1-46, 85-113
Cobb, pp. 72-100, 101-109

October 9:

Theological Tools: Religious Symbols and Types of Faith
Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pp. 47-83, 115-147
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, pp. 8-18, 162-167
Cobb, pp. 109-124

October 16: Theological Tools: Myth, Sacred Space and Sacred Time
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, pp. 20-113, 184-213
Victor Turner, “Variations on a Theme of Liminality”
Cobb, pp. 124-132

THIRD SEGMENT: THEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF CULTURE
October 23: Images of God
Cobb, pp. 135-176
Ron Currie, God Is Dead (begin reading)

October 30: Images of God
Ron Currie, God Is Dead (finish reading)
Assignment due: 3pp essay: Offer a theological analysis of Ron Currie’s book, God Is Dead, as a work of “God fiction.” Make use of two (no more than two) of the “theological tools” we’ve studied in the course.

November 6: Human Nature
James Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation, pp.197-232, 271-286
Cobb, pp. 177-210

November 13: Sin
Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul, chps 1,7-11
Cobb, pp. 211-228

November 20: Providence
Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul, chps 12-17
Assignment due: 2pp book review

READING WEEK: No class November 27

December 4: Salvation
Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul, chps 18-21
Cobb, pp. 229-261
Assignment due: Typed preview of final paper, with bibliography (1p)

December 11: Life Everlasting
Cobb, pp. 262-294

January 15: Assignment due: Final paper due. Postmark on the following day is fine if you are mailing the paper.



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