SOCS 638
Religion in Film

Peter Gottschalk

Course Syllabus

Please note: many readings and some films must be completed or viewed before the first weekend of class.  Please note the questions posed at the beginning of each reading list as these should read each book or article partly in an effort to answer these questions for yourself. 

Also note: Given that some films may not be available at your local library or video rental store, I suggest joining Netflix to acquire them.

Required Texts

Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Chaim Potak, In the Beginning
Reader -  (Available at Pip Printing, Main Street, Middletown.  You must order your volume online before obtaining it from the store)

Course Schedule
September 5

What is a myth?  What distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative?  How is it that Christians can portray the life of Jesus in such starkly divergent ways? 

Please prepare before class weekend:
Film: "Star Wars: Part IV, A New Hope" (Lucas, 1977; i.e., the original film)
Reader: "The Magic of Star Wars" (38pp)
Reader: Margaret Miles, "Moving Shadows: Religion and Film as Cultural Products" (20pp)
Reader: Bruce Lincoln, "The Politics of Myth" (12pp)
Reader: Sandra Sizer Frankiel, "Structures of the Christian Life" (28pp)
Reader: selections from On The Passion of the Christ, Paula Fredriksen, ed.. (60pp)
Reader: selections from After the Passion is Gone, K. Shawn Landres and Michael Berenbaum, eds. (22pp)
Reader: Wendy Doniger, "Other Scholars' Myths" (15pp)
Reader: David Jasper, "On Systematizing the Unsystematic: A Response" (10pp) 

Please prepare the night before class:
Reader: Bill Moyers, "Of Myth and Men" (4pp)
Reader: Nikos Kazantzakis, from The Last Temptation of Christ (4pp)
Reader: selections from popular media coverage of The Last Temptation of Christ (20pp)

Preliminary paper A due 

We will watch these together in class
"The Last Temptation of Christ" (Scorsese, 1988)
"The Passion" (Gibson, 2004)

September 6

How have modern ways of knowing affected the ways in which humans understand the cosmos?  What distinguishes a myth from scientific fact?  How do both figure into paradigms? 

Please prepare before class weekend
Film: "Inherit the Wind" (Kramer, 1960)
In the Beginning (432pp)
Summer for the Gods (Introduction, chs. 1-7) (267pp) 

Please prepare the night before class
Reader: Genesis chs. 1-16 

We will watch these together in class
"Monty Python's Life of Brian" (Jones, 1979)
"Contact" (Zemeckis, 1997)

September 7

How does Hollywood influence Americans in their understanding of non-Christian religions?  What dynamics of comparison are at work?  Are they implicit, explicit, or both?  

Please prepare before class weekend
Film: "The Message"(Akkad, 1976)
Reader: John Esposito, "Muhammad and the Quran: Messenger and Message"(31pp)
Reader: from Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad Is His Messenger (40pp)
Reader: Bernard Lewis, "The Revolt of Islam"(13pp)
Reader: Edward Said, "Islam and the West"(33pp)
Reader: Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, "Islam and Gender: Dilemmas in the Changing Arab World"(25pp)
Reader: Orville Schell, from Virtual Tibet (30pp) 

Please prepare the night before class
Reader: Jonathan Z. Smith, "Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism"(19pp)
Reader: Margaret Miles: "Not without My Other"(10pp)
Reader: Pico Iyer, "Lost Horizons"(3pp) 

We will watch these together in class
"Not Without My Daughter"(Gilbert, 1991)
"Seven Years in Tibet" (Annaud, 1997)

September 19

How do imaginations and expectations of the future reflect concerns of the present?  How do they shape the present?  What is it that makes us human?  In comparison with who or what? 

Please prepare before class weekend
Film: "Left Behind II: Tribulation Force" (part 1 is recommended)
Reader: The Revelation of John
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (110pp)
Reader: H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (60pp) 

Please prepare the night before class
Reader: from The Laws of Manu (18pp) 

Preliminary paper B due 

We will watch these together in class
"Blade Runner" (Scott, 1982)
"The Matrix" (Wachowski brothers, 1999)

September 20

What are the bounds of religion?  Can it be separated from politics and economics?  When does religion become culture?  When does religion become dangerous and require external control? 

Please prepare before class weekend
Film: "The Godfather" (Coppola, 1972)
Reader: Roy M. Anker, "Utterly Lost" (42pp)
Reader: Bruce Lincoln, "Culture" (12pp)
Reader: Talal Asad, "Multiculturalism and British Identity in the Wake of the Rushdie Affair" (20pp)
Reader: Talal Asad, "Religion, Nation-State, and Secularism" (15pp) 

Please prepare the night before class
Reader: James D. Tabor, "Religious Discourse and Failed Negotiations" (16pp)
Reader: David Koresh, "The Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation" (10pp)
Reader: "Transcript: David Koresh and FBI Negotiators", April 16 and 18, 1993 (10pp) 

We will watch these together in class
"The Apostle" (Duvall, 1997)
"My Son the Fanatic" (Prasad, 1997)


Participation represents a critical component of the class.  Informed conversation serves everyone in the class by providing each student the opportunity to voice their understanding and contribute new perspectives for the deliberation and debate of the rest of the class.

Preliminary Papers

One preliminary paper of 1200 words (about 4-5 pages) will be due at the beginning of each weekend of classes.  Each of the two papers must answer one of the questions provided below.  Answers must be well argued and draw explicitly from the arguments of the authors mentioned.  The papers offer the opportunity to actively engage the reading and apply them to the selected films. 

Each essay will be graded according to the (a) success of its argument, (b) its use of class reading material, and (c) accurate reference to aspects of the film under consideration. 

No quotation of longer than one or two lines may be used.

Final Papers

Two film analyses of 1500 words (about 5-6 pages) will provide the chance to apply the theory, critique, and historical background to films of one's own choosing.  For each film, one or two (but no more) films must be chosen and a well-argued analysis made of it/them.   

The analysis will be evaluated according to (a) its use of class materials, (b) the strength of its argument, and (c) its creative engagement with both film and theory.  There will be two deadlines, one for each paper.  The first is due on October 2 and the second on October 16. 

No quotation of longer than one or two lines may be used.


The following components determine the final grade: participation (20%), preliminary papers (10% each), and final papers (30% each).

Preliminary paper A questions for September 5 weekend

1. According to Bruce Lincoln's definition, does "Star Wars" represent a myth for Americans?  Why or why not?  Answer with reference to the role of the film in contemporary America. 

2. How did the religious contexts of the protagonist of In the Beginning and the evolutionists in Summer for the Gods differ?  How were they the same?  What were the common and divergent concerns in each case of those who saw the new views as threatening to the Bible? 

3. What does "The Message" - a film directed by a Muslim - attempt to convey about Islam?  In what ways does it attempt to address the criticisms of Muslims and Islam that Lewis and Said identify?

Preliminary paper B questions for September 19 weekend

1. Some myths deal not with the past but also the future.  How do the producers of "Left Behind" attempt to, in Lincoln's words, construct society through the adaptation of the Book of Revelation to the near future?  What anxieties about the present do they project in doing so?  What contemporary concerns about the present most inform Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

2. Drawing on any of the readings, explain the role of religion in "The Godfather." How and when does religion play a part in the film?  How is this meant to contribute to the film's major themes?    

Do not hesitate to email me with any questions you might have.