RELST 250 / WES 200: Religion & Popular Culture


This class is designed to introduce students to the role religion plays in creating and maintaining culture through such popular venues as motion pictures, television, sports and fashion, as well as the impact religious values have on popular cultural expressions. As a system upon which cosmos construction and maintenance is dependent, religion in the form of religious actions and values are expressed in everyday behavior. This manifestation of religion is the subject of this investigation into how and why it is such an integral part of popular expression, and why it is often overlooked. Time will be spent exploring the nature of contemporary society for clues explaining this phenomenon. Much of the instruction will depend on the investigation of examples of religion in contemporary popular culture, though historical and theoretical grounding will be provided in the readings and class discussions. Emphasis will be placed on specific examples explored in class, though you will be encouraged to draw from materials that you encounter outside the classroom, including music, motion pictures, print media, and television episodes.

In addition, because this course is listed as both RELST and WES200, you are reminded that the Wesleyan Seminars are an immersion into liberal arts education. Within the seminars, students will learn how to identify complex problems and issues, consult expert sources, question assumptions, consider disparate points of view, develop complex personal positions, and present conclusions. The three seminars are progressively more sophisticated in their approaches and expectations.

Seminars are not merely places where knowledge is imparted, but where it is exchanged and created. To successfully complete a seminar, you need to engage actively with the course material, me, and your classmates. As a community of learners, we will work together to explore and consider our topic from a number of different perspectives. Each person’s participation is crucial.


By the end of the semester, you should be:

familiar with a variety of methods used in the study of religion and culture;

able to recognize the way in which culture expresses traditional religious symbols and ideas;

able to recognize how religion has adjusted to accommodate cultural changes in late twentieth-century American society; and

able to recognize the pervasiveness of religion as a mechanism for culture-building and culture-maintenance.

Because this class is listed as both RELST & WES200, you should also achieve “AAC&U [Association of American Colleges & University] milestone level 3 standards”:

“Critically consider an issue or problem”;

“Consult sources and consider expert opinions”;

“Question assumptions and attend to relevant contexts when presenting a position”;

“Develop a specific position while acknowledging different sides of an issue”; and

“Articulate conclusions effectively before an audience.”

NOTE: WES Seminar II courses may be used to count towards a major; however, if you do so you will have to complete another Seminar II to complete your general studies requirements.

Texts & Readings

We will be reading the following texts. You may purchase them wherever you wish, but you are solely responsible for purchasing the correct titles (and edition).

  ⇒ Routledge Companion to Religion & Popular Culture., edited by John C. Lyden and Eric Michael Mazur.

Barbie Culture, by Mary F. Rogers.

[You may purchase Barbie Culture if you wish; it is available used through for $70.00. However, an electronic version of it is available to borrow for free (1 hour at a time, renewable) by clicking here to take you to, an online academic book database. Here’s a brief downloadable tutorial for Using]

Additional materials may be assigned as the course progresses.




Class Participation (15% + 15% = 30%)

Your grade in this category will be evaluated in two ways:

Attendance (15%): You are expected to attend all scheduled classes. Your grade will be calculated by dividing the number of classes attended by the total number of classes. There are no exceptions; there are no excuses.

Discussion participation (15%): You are expected to participate fully in regular discussions, and engage the materials in class. Regular and thoughtful participation in class, as well as enthusiastic participation in the assignments, will be rewarded in this category. Mindless blather will not.

The Barbie Project (20% + 20% + 10% + 20% = 70 points)

You will be building an analysis of a pop. cultural product using the tools and instruction provided in class.

Part I (20%): “Text” analysis: For Part I, you are expected to analyze Barbie (the film) as a “text”—a cultural product that communicates more than just the story seen on the screen.

PROMPT:   In what ways can we interpret Barbie (the film) as more than just a story, but also a representation of symbols and worldviews (of any kind) relevant to contemporary culture?

This is not a review of the film, but an analysis of the film’s visual presentation, symbolism, and overall messaging. It is expected to be approximately 3 pages long (or about 900 words, double spaced, 1″ margins, 12 point font), and is due on the date indicated on the “Schedule of Readings & Assignments.

Part II (20%): Method / Theory analysis: For Part II, you are expected to analyze Barbie using one of a set of specific cultural theorists. (See list, “Schedule of Readings & Assignments.”)

PROMPT:   How might the theorist analyze Barbie (the film) or Barbie (the toy) as a symbol / symbolic narrative in relation to contemporary culture?

This is not to be a reading response but a thoughtful engagement with the ideas of the theorist. It is expected to be approximately 3 pages long (approximately 900 words, double spaced, 1″ margins, 12-point font), and is due on the date indicated on the “Schedule of Readings & Assignments.”

Part III (10%): Presentation: For Part III, you will be delivering an oral presentation (roughly 10 minutes) based on a draft of your final paper (described below, Part IV). It is understood that the presentation is of an unfinished, rough version of your paper, which will be refined before it is submitted at the end of the course.

PROMPT:   How can I best explain to my classmates the ideas of the theorist that I read (but that they have not) and how those ideas could be applied to an analysis of Barbie (the film) or Barbie (the toy)?

Part IV (20%): Final Report: Part IV is the culmination of the Project; as such, it is expected to be a written integration of Part I (“‘Text’ analysis”), Part II (“Method / Theory analysis”), Part III (“Presentation” – as well as the comments / suggestions provided by your audience), the “Religious critiques,” my comments / suggestions on your submitted written work, and any / all additional course materials relevant to your final analysis.

PROMPT:   How can I best explain the religious critiques of Barbie (the film) based on the work of the theorist I selected, as well as the readings assigned in class?

Part IV is expected to be approximately 9 pages long (approximately 2700 words, double spaced, 1″ margins, 12-point font), to integrate all of the components of the course (listed above), and is due on the last scheduled day of instruction (see “Schedule of Readings & Assignments“).

The final report needs to demonstrate student engagement with the Wesleyan Seminar objectives (listed above).

Schedule of Readings & Assignments

Classroom Policies