Topic outline

  • Topic 1

    B1—September 12    Introduction

    Review of syllabus, assignments, and grading. We'll discuss the purpose of the academic study of religion: not to proselytize or to debunk but to develop empathic and critical understanding of this important dimension of human experience.


      B2—September 14   READING: Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 15-69

      Religion is tied to the apparently innate human quest for meaning or purpose in life. We begin the course by examining a classic account of the struggle for such meaning amid the worst possible conditions, the Nazi death camps. The author’s discovery that a sense of meaning was key to survival and recovery sets the tone—and the challenge—for the course.

      • Topic 3

        B3—September 22   READING:  Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 70-115

        Locating Frankl’s existentialist assumptions, we will consider the extent to which his model is universal or time-bound.

        • Topic 4

          B4—September 24   READING:  Brooks, The Road to Character, ch 2.

          A selection from a very recent updating of Frankl’s basic message, aiming to speak to conditions of postmodern meritocracy. Is this the context of your life?


          B5—October 2           READING:  Holm, Sacred Place, 33-61

          The quest for meaning takes religious expression most regularly in collective rituals at places deemed to be holy. This section of the course analyzes the principles behind and examples of sacred sites in the three monotheistic religions that have historically dominated the Mediterranean basin. We begin with Christianity, the now-dominant faith on the Iberian Peninsula where all three of these religions have had a major historical presence.

          • Topic 6

            B6—October 4          READING:  Holm, Sacred Place, 115-48

            An exploration of how notions of sacred place in Judaism have altered with the ebb and flow of Jewish history.

            • Topic 7

              B7—October 11        READING:  Holm, Sacred Place, 88-114

              An examination of the theology behind and aesthetic principles of Islamic architecture.


              • Topic 8

                B8—October 13        READING:  Malcolm X, Autobiography, chs 17-18

                Some holy places are distinguished as pilgrimage sites—not places of routine but of extraordinary worship and meaning. Reviewing some classic examples, we will consider in more detail a famous recent pilgrimage, that of Malcolm X to Mecca.

                • Topic 9

                  B9—October 21        READINGS:  Knight, Power & Paradise in Walt Disney’s World, 24-43

                                                                           Pahl, Shopping Malls & Other Sacred Places, 83-102         

                  A consideration of the phenomena and meanings of the #1 site of American pilgrimage today, Disney World, looked at from both a friendly and a critical perspective.

                  • Topic 10

                    B10—October 23      READING:  Heschel, The Sabbath, 1-24

                    A classic argument from one of the USA’s greatest Jewish theologians that the truly venerable belongs to sacred time, not space.

                    • PART III: RECOMBINANT RELIGION

                      B11—October 26      READING:  Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 93-108

                      Introduction to religion as a cultural system helping us understand collective systems of meaning, from a seminal essay in the academic study of religion.


                    • Topic 12

                      B12—November 2     READING:  Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 109-25

                      Further consideration of religion as a cultural system.


                      • Topic 13

                        B13—November 4     READING:  Prothero, God is Not One, 203-41

                        The principal features of Yoruban religion, characteristic of the West African source of the European slave trade and carried over to the Western Hemisphere where it recombined with different forms of Christianity. In Brazil this takes the form of Candomblé.

                        • Topic 14

                          B14—November 7     READING:  Turner, The Ritual Process, 94-112, 125-30

                          Another classic from academic anthropology, laying out key concepts for our understanding of religious ritual, especially as performed in Candomblé.

                          • Topic 15

                            B15—November 9     READING:  Glassie & Shukla, Sacred Art, 9-25, 336-53

                            The artistic productions of Candomblé devotees and public processions.

                            • Topic 16

                              B16—November 17     READING:  Barrett, The Rastafarians, 103-45

                              Introduction to Rastafarianism in Jamaica, the second recombinant religion we will consider.

                              • Topic 17

                                B17—November 19  FIELD CLASS PROJECT due; class presentations         


                              • Topic 18

                                B18—November 22  Field Class presentations

                                • Topic 19

                                  B19—November 25  READING:  MacNeil, Bible and Bob Marley, xi-xvii, 1-19

                                  A close analysis of the ways that Bob Marley used specific biblical materials in his music, giving us some practice in the religious practice of hermeneutics.

                                  • Topic 20

                                    B20—November 27  READING:  Goldman, The Book of Exodus, 209-44

                                    Analysis of the theological messages of the album that Time magazine deemed the greatest of the 20th century. Here we will give more attention to the musical uses and context of texts.

                                    • PART IV: SELF-REFLECTION

                                      B21—November 30  READING: Wright, Very Worst Missionary, chs 1-8

                                      As we enter the last phase of our voyage, we will read and discuss the ironic and self-critical autobiography of an American missionary to Costa Rica, our last port of call. This will prompt our own reflections upon our semester’s experience abroad.

                                      • Topic 22

                                        B22—December 8     READING: Wright, Very Worst Missionary, chs 9-14



                                        • Topic 23


                                          B23—December 10  READING:  Wright, Very Worst Missionary, chs 15-20

                                        • Topic 24

                                          B24—December 17    READINGS:  Wallace, “This is Water;” Brooks, “The Ultimate Spoiler Alert”

                                          Two college commencement addresses that will further prompt reflection on life goals.

                                          • Topic 25

                                            B25—December 20  FINAL PAPERS due    1200 words

                                            This paper should arc back to the Autobiographical Reflection you wrote at the start of the course and consider how your sense of things has been changed, deepened, or reinforced by your experiences on this voyage. Your grade will be enhanced by the extent to which you

                                            • interact specifically with the assigned readings and class discussions for days B19-B24 of the course;

                                            • incorporate more generally the methods and materials learned in this course.