R S 346 • Religion and US Pop Culture-W
3:00 PM-6:00 PM
In the past half century, as Western Europe has entered what can only be called a "post-Christian" age, religion has remained a vibrant and vital culture component of American culture. It can even be argued that this fact is one of the most important differences between the United States of America and the rest of the industrial, democratic West in our times. Perhaps the most important source of the abiding power of religion in American culture has been the fact that over the past century and a quarter religion and popular culture have developed a remarkable symbiotic relationship that has kept both forces central to America culture.
The proposed course will argue that Lew Wallace's best selling novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, has been crucial to the development of that relationship. Published in 1880, Ben-Hur was first a best-selling novel; with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-selling book other than the Bible in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was then a block-buster stage play that between 1899 and 1919 was seen on three continents by more than twenty million people. In 1925 it was made into a moving picture that was perhaps the most spectacular of the epic films that marked the high point of the silent film era. And the sound cinematic version of the novel in 1959 won eleven Academy Award, a record that stood until it was recently tied by Titanic. In the more recent past, Ben-Hur has become especially popular with the increasingly numerous and powerful evangelical Protestant version of American Christianity and has been produced in several animated versions intended especially for that growing market. Finally, one could argue that Gladiator, which won the 2000 Oscar for Best Picture, is, in fact, Ben-Hur without Christians. The course will study each of these sequential incarnations of the novel and will use them as lens through which to investigate that developing symbiotic relationship between religion and popular culture. We will read the novel and the stage play and then view each of the cinematic incarnations. We will study the way in which, at each incarnation, artists, producers and directors and the institutions of the growing entertainment industry in America used Ben-Hur to appeal to a growing number of religious Americans. But we will also investigate the ways in which religious America used those incarnations of the novel to legitimate the reading of novels, attending the theater and cinema and, finally, using novels and film as legitimate instruments of evangelization.
Class attendance and participation will account for a full forty per cent of the course grade. The journal will count for ten percent of that grade. And the term paper will constitute the remaining half of the course grade.
Bruce D. Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, eds., Religion and Popular Culture in America Colleen McDannell, Material Culture: Religion and Popular Culture in America Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, ed. David Meyer (Oxford University Press) Substantial amounts of additional readings--chapters of books, essays, articles, etc.--will be provided throughout the course of the semester