Religion, Media, and Popular Culture (Spring 2018)


Professor John Schmalzbauer

Office: Strong Hall 263

Missouri State University


Phone: 836-5918


Course Description


This course explores the relationship between the sacred and the secular in film, sports, politics, popular music, and the comics. Examining the presence of religious stories and symbols in popular culture, it pays special attention to the influence of different religious traditions (Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) on the media while recognizing the internal diversity within each tradition.  As much as possible, it relates the study of religion and popular culture to Springfield and the greater Ozarks region.


Course Goals


1. Discern the subtle influence of religion in American popular culture

2. Uncover the presence of religious stories and symbols in film, music, and sports

3. Explore regional expressions of popular culture in the Ozarks

4. Discuss the ways that Americans use popular culture to make meaning

5. Understand the diversity of religious imaginations in popular culture


Required Textbook and Electronic Reserve Readings 

  1. S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World (London and New York: Wallflower, 2008).
  1. Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).
  1. Julie Byrne, O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  1. Teresa L. Reed, The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003).
  1. Amir Hussain, Muslims and the Making of America (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).
  1. Arie Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2008).


Attendance Policy:  Attendance is required at all class meetings.  The only acceptable excuses for absences are emergencies (please contact the instructor in such cases). 


Class Participation (20 points): Students will be evaluated on their participation in class discussions, familiarity with the readings, and the quality of their comments.

Reflection Paragraphs (80 points):  Many times in the semester, students will be asked to write 1-2 paragraph reflections on the readings.  This is an opportunity for the instructor to see how students are processing the readings.  It is also an opportunity for students to express their opinions. Paragraphs will be graded on the extent to which they show familiarity with the readings and for their thoughtfulness.


Examinations (600 points total; 300 points each): There will be two examinations in this course.  They will test students only on the unit leading up to the examination.  Examinations will be a mixture of short answer and essay questions. 


Oral Presentation on Research Project (30 points—see below)


Two Meetings with Instructor About Project (20 points—see below)


Research Paper (250 points for final product):  Undergraduate students will complete a 12-13 page research paper (18-20 pages for graduate students) focusing on religion and popular culture in the Ozarks.  Possible topics include:  a) Religion and Film; b) Religion and Popular Music;

c) Religion and Comics; d) Religion and Sports. Many other topics that fit the course may also be appropriate.  Papers must incorporate original research drawing on one or more of the following techniques: one-on-one interviews, field observations, or analysis of contemporary or historical primary sources (newspaper stories, videos, sound recordings, books or documents from libraries/archives, etc.).  Students who wish to use their papers outside of this course must wait until our class receives approval from the Institutional Review Board to begin their observations.


Step One: Meeting with Instructor on Topic and Data Collection (10 points)

Students must meet with Professor Schmalzbauer about their research topics and methods of data collection by Monday March 26. Students must bring a four paragraph description of their topics and methods of data collection to the meeting.  Professor Schmalzbauer will make suggestions on scholarly books/articles to read for background.  You may need to schedule an additional meeting or email the instructor about your methods of data collection (questionnaire, field observations, etc.).  Professor Schmalzbauer will guide you in developing a solid research strategy.


Step Two: Data Collection

As soon our class projects are approved by the Institutional Review Board (probably in early February), you should promptly begin your research.  If you are doing any research for your project that does not involve human subjects (or if you plan to never use your data after this course), you can begin your data collection sooner. 


Step Three: Oral Presentation on Research Paper Projects (30 points)

Each student must make one oral presentation based on research for the paper.  These presentations will be held between April 30 and May 9.  The instructor will pass out a sign-up sheet for time slots.  Presentations should be 8-10 minutes in length (no longer). The presentation should not attempt to summarize your entire paper.  Rather, it should present your analysis of a single piece of evidence.  This might be an excerpt from an interview, a primary document from a library, a video clip, a photograph, or field notes from an observation of a single event.


Step Four: Meeting with Instructor on Research Paper Outline (10 points)

Students must meet with Professor Schmalzbauer by Monday April 30 to discuss the structure and argumentation of their research papers.  Students must bring a one page outline of the research paper to the meeting.

Step Five: Turn in Research Paper

Papers are due Friday May 11 in Strong Hall 263 (under the door is fine).  If a paper relies on interviews, the student must submit signed consent forms from all respondents.  If a student completes an interview, she/he must also submit a copy of the recording (an electronic file is fine).


Additional Requirements for Graduate Students: Graduate courses are more rigorous than undergraduate courses. Students taking this course for graduate credit must:

-Read three additional books and write a two page response paper for each (three papers)

-Complete an 18-20 page paper (undergraduate papers are only 12-13 pages)

-Use at least 10 secondary sources in the research paper (not counting required reading)


Grading: Grades will be calculated using the following point system:

Grades will be calculated using the following point system:

Class Participation: possible 20 points

Reflection Paragraphs: possible 80 points

Examinations: possible 600 points (300 points each)

Research Paper Oral Presentation: possible 30 points

Meetings with Instructor: 20 points

Completed Research Paper: possible 250 points

Three Response Papers for Extra books (Graduate Students Only): 100 points


Total Number of Points: 1,000 (1,100 for Graduate Students)

The following grading scale will be used:

4.0 A: Outstanding Work (93-100%)

3.7 A- : Excellent Work (90-92%)

3.3 B+: Near Excellent Work (87-89%)

3.0 B: Very Good Work (83-86%)

2.7 B-: Good Work (80-82%)

2.3 C+: Slightly Above Satisfactory Work (77-79%)

2.0 C: Satisfactory Work (73-76%)

1.7 C-: Slightly Below Satisfactory Work (70-72%)

1.3 D+: Passing Work (67-69%)

1.0 D: Minimum Passing Work (63-66%)

0.0 F: Failed—No Credit (0-62%)

0.0 I: Incomplete


If a student is on the border of a grade, the instructor will take into consideration the overall performance of the student, class participation, and amount of improvement.


Academic Honesty Policy: Missouri State University is a community of scholars committed to developing educated persons who accept the responsibility to practice personal and academic integrity. You are responsible for knowing and following the University’s academic integrity policy plus additional more-specific policies for each class. The University policy, formally known as the “Student Academic Integrity Policies and Procedures” is available online at and also at the Reserves Desk in Meyer Library. Any student participating in any form of academic dishonesty will be subject to sanctions as described in this policy.


Non-Discrimination Policy: Missouri State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution, and maintains a grievance procedure available to any person who believes he or she has been discriminated against. At all times, it is your right to address inquiries or concerns about possible discrimination to the Office for Institutional Equity and Compliance, Park Central Office Building, 117 Park Central Square, Suite 111, 417-836-4252. Other types of concerns (i.e., concerns of an academic nature) should be discussed directly with your instructor and can also be brought to the attention of your instructor’s Department Head.   Please visit the OED website at

Policy on Disability Accommodations: If you are a student with a disability and anticipate barriers related to this course, it is important to request accommodations and establish an accommodation plan with the University. Please contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC) (, Meyer Library, Suite 111, 417-836-4192, to initiate the process to establish your accommodation plan. The DRC will work with you to establish your accommodation plan, or it may refer you to other appropriate resources based on the nature of your disability. In order to prepare an accommodation plan, the University usually requires that students provide documentation relating to their disability.  Please be prepared to provide such documentation if requested. Once a University accommodation plan is established, you may notify the class instructor of approved accommodations.  If you wish to utilize your accommodation plan, it is suggested that you do so in a timely manner, preferably within the first two weeks of class. Early notification to the instructor allows for full benefit of the accommodations identified in the plan. Instructors will not receive the accommodation plan until you provide that plan, and are not required to apply accommodations retroactively.

Dropping this Class: It is your responsibility to understand the University’s procedure for dropping a class. If you stop attending this class but do not follow proper procedure for dropping the class, you will receive a failing grade and will also be financially obligated to pay for the class. For information about dropping a class or withdrawing from the university, contact the Office of the Registrar at 836-5520.


Cell Phone Policy: As a member of the learning community, each student has a responsibility to other students who are members of the community.  When cell phones or pagers ring and students respond in class or leave class to respond, it disrupts the class. Therefore, the Office of the Provost prohibits the use by students of cell phones, pagers, PDAs, or similar communication devices during scheduled classes. All such devices must be turned off or put in a silent (vibrate) mode and ordinarily should not be taken out during class. Given the fact that these same communication devices are an integral part of the University’s emergency notification system, an exception to this policy would occur when numerous devices activate simultaneously. When this occurs, students may consult their devices to determine if a university emergency exists. If that is not the case, the devices should be immediately returned to silent mode and put away.


Emergency Response Statement: At the first class meeting, students should become familiar with a basic emergency response plan through a dialogue with the instructor that includes a review and awareness of exits specific to the classroom and the location of evacuation centers for the building. All instructors are provided this information specific to their classroom and/or lab assignments in an e-mail prior to the beginning of the fall semester from the Office of the Provost and Safety and Transportation. Students with disabilities impacting mobility should discuss the approved accommodations for emergency situations and additional options with the instructor. and


Mental Health and Stress Management: As a student you may experience a range of personal issues that can impede learning, such as strained relationships, increased anxiety, alcohol/drug problems, feeling down, difficulty concentrating and/or lack of motivation. These mental health concerns or stressful events may lead to diminished academic performance and may reduce your ability to participate in daily activities. You can learn more about free and confidential Missouri State University Counseling Center services available to assist you at


Title IX Policy: Missouri State University has a Title IX policy that guides our response to instances of sexual violence. Sexual Violence includes: Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual Misconduct, Sexual Discrimination, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Stalking, Sexual Harassment and Pregnancy issues. The Title IX policy can be located on the MSU Title IX website at This website is also a good resource for any questions or issues involving Title IX and contains contact information for the MSU Title IX Office and staff.  Read an overview of the Title IX office. If an MSU student discloses a Title IX related issue to a MSU faculty or staff member who is deemed to be a “Responsible Employee” under the policy, that faculty or staff member is required to report such disclosure to the Title IX Coordinator. A responsible employee includes any employee who has the authority to take action to redress sexual violence; who has been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual violence or any other misconduct by students to the Title IX Coordinator or other appropriate school designee; or whom a student could reasonably believe has the authority or duty to take action.


Chosen Name Policy: A student may choose a name other than their legal name to identify themselves at Missouri State University. A chosen name is different than the student’s legal name. Refer to the Chosen Name policy for more information. Students can provide their chosen first and middle names in the Profile tab of My Missouri State.


Statement on Religious Accommodations: The University may provide a reasonable accommodation based on a person’s sincerely held religious belief.  In making this determination, the University reviews a variety of factors, including whether the accommodation would create an undue hardship. The accommodation request imposes responsibilities and obligations on both the individual requesting the accommodation and the University. Students who expect to miss classes, examinations, or other assignments as a consequence of their sincerely held religious belief shall be provided with a reasonable alternative opportunity to complete such academic responsibilities. It is the obligation of students to provide faculty with reasonable notice of the dates of religious observances on which they will be absent by submitting a Request for Religious Accommodation Form to the instructor by the end of the third week of a full semester course or the end of the second week of a half semester course.


Religion at a State University: Consistent with Supreme Court decisions regarding the teaching of religion at public institutions (Abington v. Schempp in 1963), this course approaches the study of religion from a non-confessional standpoint.  We will focus on describing and analyzing the place of religion in American culture, rather than arguing for one religious tradition or another. Students are free to express or not to express their own beliefs in class.  

Introducing Religion, Media, and Popular Culture

Wednesday January 17: Defining Religion—Coca Cola, Baseball, and Rock ‘n ’Roll

Optional Reading: David Chidester, “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock 'n' Roll.” (on campus only)



Unit I: Myth and Ritual on the Silver Screen

Friday January 19: Myth and Ritual in Film, Part I

Reading: S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film, vii-17. Available online at


**Watch Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV) over the weekend**


Monday January 22: Myth and Ritual in Film, Part II
Reading: S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film, 18-27 in first edition or 38-49 in the e-book of the second edition.


Reading: Bill Moyers, “The Mythology of ‘Star Wars’ with George Lucas,” available at


Discussion: Star Wars and myth.


Wednesday January 24: Myth and Ritual in Film, Part III

Reading: Matthew Cressler, “Star Wars as American Religion.” Available at


Reading: Patti McCarthy, “Why Do So Many People Find Meaning in Star Wars?”


Reading: Chaim Saiman, “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious.’”


**Watch The Matrix before Friday's class**


Friday January 26: Myth and Ritual in Film, Part IV

Reading: S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film, 27-37 or 49-58 in the e-book of the second edition.


Reading: James L. Ford, “Buddhism, Christianity, and The Matrix.”


Reading: Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel L. Wagner, “Wake up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix.”


Discussion: The Matrix and myth.


Monday January 29: Myth and Ritual in Film, Part V

Reading: S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film, 38-58 or 59-82 in the e-book second edition


Wednesday January 31: Myth and Ritual in Film, Part VI

Reading: S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film, 78-91 or 170-196 in the e-book second edition


Friday February 2: Myth and Ritual in Harry Potter

Reading: Michael Gerson, “Harry Potter and the Power of Myth.” Available at


Reading: Abby Ohlheiser, “Fans of Action: How Harry Potter Inspired a New Generation of Activists.” Available at  


Reading: Sara Boboltz, “Why Two Harvard Academics Talk About ‘Harry Potter’ Like It’s The Bible.”


In-Class Podcast: Episodes from Harry Potter and the Sacred Text

Paragraph Due Today: How does Harry Potter resemble religion? Discuss myth, sacred texts, and social activism.

Monday February 5: Myth and Ritual in J.R.R. Tolkien

Reading: J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 1-27. Available at


Reading: Christopher Howse, “The Hobbit Unearths a Hoard of Myths.” Available at


Wednesday February 7: Myth and Ritual in the Wizard of Oz

Reading: Evan I. Schwartz, “Matilda Joslyn Gage: The Unlikely Inspiration for the Wizard of Oz.” Available at


Reading: John Alego, “Oz as Myth and Mysticism.” Available at


Reading: Peter Steinfels, “Following the Yellow Brick Road, and Finding a Spiritual Path.”



Unit II: Conspiracy Theories, Myth, and "Fake News" 

Friday February 9: Culture of Conspiracy, Part I

Reading: Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, ix-38.

Paragraph Due Today: Identify a contemporary conspiracy theory. To what extent is it a form of "stigmatized knowledge" (Barkun's term)?

Monday February 12: Culture of Conspiracy, Part II

Reading: Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, 39-98.


Wednesday February 14: Culture of Conspiracy, Part III

Reading: Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, 99-158.


Friday February 16: Culture of Conspiracy, Part IV

Reading: Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, 159-217.


Wednesday February 21: Culture of Conspiracy, Part V

Reading: Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, 219-239.


Friday February 23: The Paranoid Style and Political Conspiracy Theories

Reading: Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”


Reading: Kurt Andersen, “How America Lost Its Mind.”


Reading: Emmett Rensin, “The Smug Style in American Liberalism.”

Paragraph Due Today: Discuss the relevance of Hofstadter, Andersen, and Rensin for analyzing public discourse in contemporary America. Who gets it right?


Unit III: Religion  in American Sports

Monday February 26: The Religious Roots of Basketball

Reading: Jayson Jenks, “The Rules of the Game.”


Reading: Richard Sandomir, “Basketball’s Birth, in James Naismith’s Own Spoken Words.”


Reading: Coach Andrew McDonald, “What Reward?” in the Southwest Standard.   


Reading: Paul Putz, “John Wooden’s Homespun Creed Was Not So Homespun.”


Wednesday February 28: Catholic Basketball, Part I

Reading: Julie Byrne, O God of Players, xi-54.


Friday March 2: Catholic Basketball, Part II

Reading: Julie Byrne, O God of Players, 55-112


Monday March 5: Catholic Basketball, Part III

Reading: Julie Byrne, O God of Players, 113-141.


Wednesday March 7: Catholic Basketball, Part IV

Reading: Julie Byrne, O God of Players, 142-211.


Friday March 9: Examination #1



Unit IV: Religion and American Popular Music

Monday March 19: A Conjoining of Ancient Song?

Reading: “Black America's musical links to Scotland.”


Reading: Willie Ruff, “The Line Connecting Gaelic Psalm Singing & American Music.” 


Reading: Simon Johnson, “Rap music originated in medieval Scottish pubs, claims American professor.”


Reading: Terry Miller, “A Myth in the Making: Willie Ruff, Black Gospel and an Imagined Gaelic Scottish Origin.”


In-Class Documentary: A Conjoining of Ancient Song (2013).

Paragraph Due Today: Discuss the debate between Ruff and Miller. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each position? Make sure to read all of the articles.

Wednesday March 21: Stomping the Blues

Reading: Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues.,%20Stomping%20the%20Blues.pdf


In-Class Documentary: The Last of the Blue Devils (1979)


Friday March 23: Religion and Black Popular Music, Part I

Reading: Teresa Reed, The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music, 1-38.


Monday March 26: Religion and Black Popular Music, Part II

Reading, Teresa Reed, The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music, 89-112


Wednesday March 28: Religion and Black Popular Music Part III

Reading: Teresa Reed, The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music, 113-147.


Monday April 2: Hip Hop Theology

Reading:  Teresa Reed, The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music, 149-160.

Reading: Miguelito, “Praise & Questions: How Kendrick & Chance Talk to God in Different Ways.”

Reading: Andre E. Key, “‘Don’t Call Me Black No More, I'm an Israelite’: Kendrick Lamar, Black Hebrew Religion, and Black Suffering.”


Wednesday April 4: Southern Evangelicalism and Rock n’ Roll

Reading: Charles Reagan Wilson, “‘Just a Little Talk with Jesus.’” Southern Cultures. (on campus)


Friday April 6: Queen City Music

Reading: Rick Kogan, “A former newspaperman's scoop: Springfield, Mo., has a music scene too.”


Reading: Dave Hoekstra, “Dreams Come True in Springfield, Missouri.”


Reading: Dave Hoekstra, “The Last Barn Dance in America.”


Reading: Dave Hoekstra, “The American Beat of Bobby Lloyd Hicks.”


Reading: Dave Hoekstra, “The Sound of Springfield, Missouri.”


In-Class Documentary: Songs of an Unsung America (trailer).

Paragraph Due Today: What's religious about popular music in Springfield, Missouri? How does the religious history of the Ozarks shape music in the Queen City?


Unit V: Islam in American Popular Culture—Sports, Music, and Architecture

Monday April 9: Islam and American Popular Music

Reading: Amir Hussain, Muslims and the Making of America, 39-59.


Wednesday April 11: Islam and American Sports

Reading: Amir Hussain, Muslims and the Making of America, 61-79.


Friday April 13: Interfaith Friendship in American Sports

Reading: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflects on his enduring friendship with UCLA Coach John Wooden.”


Reading: Amir Hussain, “A Muslim Reflects on Christian Theologian (and UCLA Coach) John Wooden.”


Reading: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “A Year of Turmoil and Decision.”


Monday April 16: Islam and American Architecture

Reading: Amir Hussain, Muslims and the Making of America, 81-103.


Reading: Omar Khalidi, “Fantasy, Faith, and Fraternity: American Architecture of Moorish Inspiration.”


Reading: Kaitlyn McConnell, “History shines through Springfield’s Shrine Mosque.”


Paragraph Due Today: How does Islam influence popular architecture? What do you think about the appropriation of Muslim (or pseudo-Muslim) styles by non-Muslim architects? 



Unit VI: Jews in American Popular Culture

Wednesday April 18: American  Jews and the Comics, Part I

Reading: Arie Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton, x-81.


Friday April 20: American Jews and the Comics, Part II

Reading: Arie Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton, 83-159.


Monday April 23: American Jews and the Comics, Part III

Reading: Arie Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton, 161-210.


Paragraph Due Today: Discuss the ways that Jewish artists have responded to anti-Semitism through the medium of the comics.

Wednesday April 25: Test #2


Friday April 27: Student Presentations


Monday April 30: Student Presentations


Wednesday May 2: Student Presentations


Friday May 4: Student Presentations


Monday May 7: Student Presentations


Wednesday May 9: Student Presentations


**Final Paper Due Friday May 11 in Strong Hall 263**