ICS Calendar Title: Neon Bibles and Broken Hallelujahs: Soundings in Theology and Pop Culture

ICS Course Code: ICSD 132401 W16

Instructor: Brett David Potter

Term and Year: Winter 2016, Distance

Last Updated: November 24, 2015

1. Course Description

2. Reading Schedule

3. Course Learning Goals

4. Course Requirements and Description and Weighting of Elements to be Evaluated

5. Required Readings

6. Some Recommended Readings

1. Course Description

Popular culture is a “matrix of meanings”: a complex network of texts, images and “memes” characterized above all by its mass accessibility. In contemporary, media-saturated society, television, music, movies, sports, fashion and social media constitute much of the cultural atmosphere in which we live, breathe, and are formed as individuals – a social reality almost impossible to circumvent. In particular, a younger generation growing up in an age of ubiquitous social media, streaming video and various portable devices is saturated with music, images and information in a way unprecedented in human history. Moreover, pop culture is constantly evolving, with its constant emphasis on what is “in” always threatening to leave the less savvy on the margins. Theological engagement with “pop” or “mass” culture has traditionally been characterized by 1) avoidance; 2) a dismissal of popular culture in favour of “high” culture; or 3) a lack of vocabulary with which to discuss its patterns of meaning. However, a number of books over the course of the last decade have sought to creatively engage Western pop culture from a Christian perspective. Taking as methodological approach the idea that theology must always mediate between living Christian faith and a cultural “matrix,” this course aims to explore the nature of a dialogue between theology and pop culture, looking for theological “signs of life” in popular culture while effectively “mediating” the Christian gospel in a fluid social environment.

2. Reading Schedule

WEEK ONE (January 11): Popologetics: Why Study Pop Culture?

Detweiler/Taylor, “Introduction: Postmodernity in the Marketplace” (pp. 15-28); Dawkins, “Memes: the new replicators” in “The Selfish Gene” (pp. 189-201, available from http://www.rubinghscience.org/memetics/dawkinsmemes.html); Van Sloten, ch. 1 The Day Metallica Came to Church

WEEK TWO (January 18): Pop Goes the World: Pop Culture and Worldview; Pop Culture(s) in Global Perspective

Turnau, ch.1 “Puzzle Pieces: Popular Culture and Worldview” (pp. 3-18); Romanowski, ch. 3 “Terms of the Trade: Studying Popular Art and Culture” (pp. 57-74); Smith, “Making the Familiar Strange: A Phenomenology of Cultural Liturgies” in Desiring the Kingdom (pp. 19-35)

WEEK THREE (January 25): Weapons of Mass Distraction: A History of Pop

Romanowski, ch. 1 (pp 27-42); Forbes/Mahan (pp. 75-98, 252-269); Theodor Adorno, excerpts from “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

WEEK FOUR (February 1): Rainbows for the Fallen World: A Theology of Cultural Activity

Romanowski, ch. 2 “The Smoke Goes Upward: Faith and Culture” (pp. 43-56); Andy Crouch, Culture Making (pp. 17-36); Seerveld, Rainbows for the Fallen World (excerpt); Paul Tillich, On Art and Architecture (pp. 129-140)

Supplementary reading: Potter, “From Paul Tillich to Project Runway

WEEK FIVE (February 8): The Culture Industry: Art for the Masses; “high” vs. “low” culture; celebrity culture; Methodology

READING WEEK February 15-19 (no class)

Romanowski, ch. 5 “Mapping Reality: Popular Art and Culture” (pp.89-104); Detweiler/Taylor, ch. 1 “Methodology: A Matrix of Meanings” (pp. 29-60); screening, “Teenage Paparazzo” (clip)

READING WEEK February 15-19 (no class)

WEEK SIX (February 22): Screening the Sacred: Film and Television

Johnston, Reel Spirituality (pp. 41-116); Clive Marsh, “On Dealing with What Films Actually Do to People” I Reframing Theology and Film (pp. 145-161); Johnston/Detweiler, Don’t stop believin’ (excerpt)

WEEK SEVEN (February 29): Broken Hallelujahs: Signs of the Sacred in Pop Music

Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs (pp. 15-74); Walsh, Kicking at the Darkness (pp. 25-56); Gilmour, “Arcade Fire’s Parodic Bible 

Supplementary reading: Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Marsh, Personal Jesus (ch. 1, 2, 10, 11)

WEEK EIGHT (March 7): The Miseducation of Don Draper: Advertising and the Theology of Desire

Dyrness, ch.1 “Prelude to Aesthetic Theology,” in Poetic Theology (pp. 3-36); Turnau, "Popular Culture, Apologetics and the Discourse of Desire" (journal article in Cultural Encounters); Cavanaugh, “When Enough is Enough

Supplementary reading: Potter, “Mad Men and the Pursuit of Happiness

WEEK NINE (March 14): Stop Making Sense: Faith and Doubt from Emily Dickinson to David Bazan

Romanowski, ch. 7 “Popular Art as Art”  (pp. 125-140); David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse (pp. 9-26) and The sacredness of questioning everything (pp. 69-94)

WEEK TEN (March 21): Walk This Way: Pop Culture and the Ethical Life

Romanowski, ch. 6 “Measuring Christian Distinction: Moral, Ideological and Theological Approaches” (pp. 105-124); Dyrness, ch. 3 “Poetic Stewardship of Life” (pp. 71-98)

WEEK ELEVEN (March 28): “Body Piercing Saved My Life”: Christian Pop Culture and the “Subaltern”

Andrew Beaujon, Body Piercing, ch. 1-2 (pp. 1-44); Hartse, Sects, Love and Rock & Roll, ch. 1 (pp. 9-20); Brown, “Selling Faith

WEEK TWELVE (April 4): Friday Night Lights: Sports, Ethics, and Celebrity

Matt Morin, “Confessions of a Cage Fighter: Masculinity, Misogyny, and the Fear of Losing Control,The Other Journal; Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport, ch. 7; Robert Ellis, The Games People Play, ch.1, 2, 4 (pp. 1-81, 123-144)

WEEK THIRTEEN: Come What May: Conclusions

Screening: Moulin Rouge (2001, dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Supplementary readings (from online publications such as Christ and Pop Culture, The Curator, ThinkChristian, and The Other Journal) will be made available on the course website.

3. Course Learning Goals

Students will be able to:

  1. understand the motivations and methodologies behind the recent interest in relating Christianity and pop culture well enough to write an article about pop culture for one of the many weekly Christian publications now emerging in this area;
  2. evaluate the benefits and shortcomings of a “worldview” approach to Christian engagement with popular culture in order to write a compelling essay on the subject.
  3. learn to carefully and critically discern meaning in individual texts (films, music, media) from pop culture in order to be able to blog about them effectively.
  4. become familiar with the vocabulary of cultural studies in order to be able to lecture about them at an introductory level.
  5. develop tools for creatively engaging aspects of pop culture from their own theological and vocational contexts in order to design an adult education unit for a church Sunday school, youth ministry, cell group etc.

4. Course Requirements and Description and Weighting of Elements to be Evaluated

  1. Weekly reading (# of pages): [minimum 30 pgs./wk] [1250 for course including paper research] See course schedule
  2. In-seminar leadership:


Weekly Reading/Viewing Journal (20%)


Each week, students will write a brief summary (200 words) of one of the

scheduled readings (their choice) as well as a brief (approx. 200 words) written

engagement with one pop culture “text” – eg. a film, television show, song/album, Internet meme or other artefact. Pop culture texts which are “current” (ie. “pop culture” as of the time of the course) are preferred.


Students will post their weekly pop culture analysis class online every Tuesday before midnight as part of the participation component of the course. It is also expected that students will read one another’s work and engage with it online. The breakdown is thus as follows:


                            Posting (12) weekly reading and viewing journals – 15%

                            Engaging (via comments, etc.) with other students’ posts – 5%


It is expected that student comments online will be posted in a hospitable and collegial manner in keeping with the institutional values of ICS and the interactive nature of this course.

Pop Culture Text Presentation and Short Paper (30%)

Students will select one of the weekly theological engagements with a pop culture text (film, song, TV show, etc.) they have written about to expand into a short presentation for the class. Creativity is encouraged!


Since the class is online, the recommended structure for a presentation is as follows:

1)  a link, where possible, to multimedia viewing/presentation of a short clip or    
segment from the film, episode, song, website etc. in question.

2)  a brief blog post (500 words) and powerpoint presentation engaging the text from a theological perspective. Another option is to make a short “video essay” or “vlog” which creatively interacts with the material.

3)  discussion questions for the class to consider.


This presentation can be creative, and may be presented from a personal (ie. first-person) perspective. Due halfway through the term on Friday, February 26. These will be shared with the class.

Major Paper (50%)

        Students will be required to write a major paper dealing with the intersection of

        Christianity and pop culture. This could take the form of a sustained theological

        engagement with a particular aspect of pop culture - eg. patterns of meaning in

        a particular film or television show, the songs of a particular artist, significant aspects

        of a genre of music, the perils of celebrity culture, Adorno’s critique of the “culture

        industry” in Christian perspective, etc. Alternatively, students may wish to apply

        insights from popular culture back onto themes in Christian theology (sin, salvation,

        eschatology, etc.). A helpful guideline for the academic style of this paper is to  
        examinepapers from the online
Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 

        (http://utpjournals.metapress.com/content/122213). Papers must consult at least 6

        appropriate books and 5 scholarly articles on the topic, totaling 850 pages of research.

Topics to be approved by the instructor. Due Friday, May 20 (6 weeks after the  end of class). Length: 3000-4000 words.

  1. Description and weighting of elements to be evaluated:

        i. Class Participation: Weekly Reading/Viewing Journal  (20%)

        ii. In-Seminar Leadership: Pop Culture Text Presentation (30%)

        iii. Research Project: Major Paper (50%)

5. Required Readings

Detweiler, Craig and Barry Taylor. A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. [Trinity College Library: BR115 .C8 D42 2003]

Romanowski, William. Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007. [ICS Library: BR526 .R64 2001]

Turnau, Ted. Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective. Philipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2012. [Robarts Library: BR115 .C8 T87 2012X]

6. Some Recommended Readings

Beaujon, Andrew. Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock. Cambridge, MA: De Capo, 2006.

Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy. Garden City: Doubleday, 1967. [ICS Library: BL60 .B42 1969a]

Breen, Tom. The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches From the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008. [Knox Library: BR115 .C8 B74 2008]

Cavanaugh, William. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008. [Trinity College Library: BR115 .E3 C38 2008]

______, “When Enough is Enough.” Sojourners (May 2005). Available online from:


Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. [ICS Library: BR115 .C8 C77 2008]

Culbertson, Philip and Elaine M. Wainwright. The Bible In/And Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter. Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2010. [Robarts Library: BS538.7 .B525 2010X]

Dark, David. Everyday Apocalypse: the Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002. [ICS Library: BR115 .C8 D37 2002]

______. The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. [Robarts Library: BT1103 .D37 2009X]

Dyrness, William A. Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011. [Robarts Library: BR115 .A8 D97 2011X]

Ellis, Robert. The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. [Robarts Library (1964 ed.): HM291 .B394]

Forbes, Bruce David and Jeffrey H. Mahan. Religion and Popular Culture in America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2005. [Robarts Library: BL2525 .R4613 2005X ; UofT e-resources: http://go.utlib.ca/cat/4799533]

Gilmore, Michael J. “Arcade Fire’s Parodic Bible.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture Volume 21 (2009) [UofT e-resource: http://go.utlib.ca/cat/7726994]

Hartse, Joel Heng. Sects, Love and Rock & Roll: My Life on Record. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011. [Not in the UofT Library system]

Harvey, Lincoln. A Brief Theology of Sport. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. [Not in the UofT Library system]

Johnston, Robert K., Craig Detweiler, and Barry Taylor, eds. Don’t Stop Believin’ : Pop Culture and Religion From Ben-Hur to Zombies. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. [St. Michael’s College Library: BR115 .C8 D665 2012]

Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. [ICS Library: PN1995.5 .J64 2006]

Lynch, Gordon, ed. Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. [Robarts Library: BL60 .B424 2007]

______. Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. [Robarts Library: BR115 .C8 L96 2004]

Marsh, Clive. “On Dealing with What Films Actually Do to People.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Edited by Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007. [Trinity College Library: PN1995.5 .R43 2007]

______, with Vaughan S. Roberts. Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. [Trinity College Library: ML3921.8 .P67 M27 2012]

Mattingly, Terry. Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture. Thomas Nelson, 2005. [Robarts Library: BL65 .C8 M365 2005X]

McClure, John S. Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011. [Emmanuel College Library: ML3921.8 .P67 M33 2011]

Romanowski, William D. Pop Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American Life. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996. [ICS Library: BR526 .R65]

Scharen, Christian. Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2011. [Knox College Library: BR115 .C8 S2645 2011]

Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows for a Fallen World. Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980. [ICS Library: BH39 .S432 1980]

Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. [ICS Library: BV178 .S63 2009]

Tillich, Paul. On Art and Architecture. Edited by John and Jane Dillenberger. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989. [ICS Library (1987 ed.): N68 .T55 1987]

Turnau, Ted. “Popular Culture, Apologetics and the Discourse of Desire,” Cultural Encounters 8:2 (2012).

Van Sloten, John. The Day Metallica Came to Church: Search for the Everywhere God in Everything. [Grand Rapids, Michigan] Square Inch, 2010 [ICS Library: BT180 .P6V36 2010]

Walsh, Brian. Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011. [ICS Library: ML420 .C6116 W35 2011]

Wood, Robert, ed. Evangelical Christians and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel. Praeger, 2012. [Robarts Library: BR115 .C8 E895 2013X v.1-3]

Media clips and samples will be used throughout the course, primarily through the online platform.

Students with diverse learning styles and needs are welcome in this course. In particular, if you have a disability/health consideration that may require accommodations, please feel free to approach me and/or Student Services as soon as possible.

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