Academic Programs

Theology of Popular Culture (TH-550-2)
Winter/Spring 2003

An exploration of what kind of leverage theology can provide for interpreting cultural phenomena that are not ordinarily thought of as religious. We will read “theologians of culture” (Paul Tillich, Ernst Troeltsch, Margaret Miles), and examine popular culture (fiction, movies, journalism, television, tourism, music, public spaces), with the intent of developing ways to discern longings, anxieties, and visions of good and evil that operate below the surface of our common cultural life.

Meeting Day, Time and Dates:
Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 9:20 p.m.

Location: Room205

Professor Kelton Cobb

Contact Information:
(860) 509-9500

Course Syllabus
Class web site


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, and tourism 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. 


  • 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, and tourism)
  • 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



Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul Broughton Coburn, Aama in America Douglas Coupland, Life after God Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith James Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism

Electronic articles:

John Fiske, "Commodities and Culture"


Dominic Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture


1) One 3-page essay 40 points 2/25
2) One 3-page film review 40 3/18
3) Book review (4 pages) 40 4/8
4) Research paper (12 pages) 100 5/16
5) Attendance and participation 30

250 points


1) Write a 3-page (typed and double-spaced) reflection paper on Douglas Coupland’s Life after God, in which you make use of Paul Tillich’s concept of “ultimate concern” as a lens through which to make sense of the story and musings in Life after God. It is due on February 25.

2) Write a 3 page review (typed and double-spaced) of either the movie, Fight Club OR the movie, Chocolat. Both are relatively new releases available at any video rental store. Watch the movie with themes and arguments from James Twitchell’s book, Lead Us into Temptation, in mind, and make sure the content of your review reflects this. This is due March 18.

3) Read one of the books listed on the bibliography that will be distributed in class and respond to it in the form of a 4 page (typed and double-spaced) book review. The review should outline the material presented in the book, 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. This is due on April 8. 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 library. Plan ahead, using the bookstore, library, or Inter-library loan.

4) For your final paper (12 pages) you are to put to work the theological “tools” surveyed in class to interpret some phenomenon within popular culture. There will be more about this later. This is due by May 16.

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. Artifacts from popular culture (ads, commercials, movie or TV show clips, music CDs, postcards of tourist attractions, etc.) that manifest themes from the weekly readings and topics and can be displayed to the class are welcome.


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 move within each grade level, and thus 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:

250pts | 100pts | 40pts | 30pts 

A= 250-200 100-80 40-32 30-24
B= 199-150 79-60 31-24 23-18
C= 149-100 59-40 23-16 17-12
F= 99-0 39-0 15-0 11-0


Note: The readings indicated for each class date are to be read for that class.


January 28:

Overview: Interpreting the Theological Content in Popular Culture

February 4:

Theological Tools: Myth, Cosmogony, and Millennialism

Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, pp.1-74, 139-145, 162-193
Eric Mazur, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” in Mazur, pp.299-315

February 11:

Theological Tools: Ultimate Concern and the Holy

Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pp.1-83

February 18:

Theological Tools: Religious Symbols and Types of Faith

Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pp.85-147  
Wade Clark Roof, “Blood in the Barbeque,” in Mazur, pp.109-121

February 25:

Theological Tools: Truth and Mystery

Douglas Coupland, Life after God, pp.1-360

Assignment due: 3pp essay: Comment on how the concept of ultimate concern manifests itself in the reflections found in Life after God.



March 4:

Schools of Cultural Studies

John Fiske, "Commodities and Culture"

Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul, chps 3, 5
James Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation, pp.1-49

March 11:

The Culture Industry and Market Populism

James Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation, pp.50-89, 123-158, 197-232


March 18:

Materialism, Fashion, and Identity

James Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation, pp.233-286

Assignment due:  3pp analysis of either Fight Club or Chocolat in terms of Twitchell’s argument.

March 25:

The Religious Archaeology of Rock and Roll

Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul, chps 1,7,8,10-13
Kate McCarthy, “Deliver Me from Nowhere,” in Mazur, pp.23-45

April 1:

The Religious Trajectories of Rock and Roll

Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul, chps 14-21
Robin Sylvan, “Rap Music, Hip-Hop Culture,” in Mazur, pp.281-297

April 8:


Elijah Siegler, “God in the Box,” in Mazur, pp.199-215
Jon Stone, “A Fire in the Sky,” in Mazur, pp.65-82
Suzanne Holland, “Our Ladies of the Airwaves,” in Mazur, pp.217-230
Lisle Dalton,, “Homer the Heretic,” in Mazur, pp.231-247

Assignment due: 4pp book review

April 22:

Sacred Sites and Tourist Destinations

Broughton Coburn, Aama in America, pp.1-137

Assignment due: Typed preview of final paper, with bibliography (1p)

April 29:

Sacred Sites and the Great American Road Trip

Broughton Coburn, Aama in America, pp.139-272
Sarah Pike, “Desert Goddesses,” in Mazur, pp.155-176

May 16:

Assignment due: Final paper due

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