Art, Religion, and Popular Culture

Lesson Plan

Celia Marshall, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Connie Ambler, Westminster Schools, Atlanta, Georgia

Project Editor's Note: These lesson plans include references and recommendations regarding many valuable curriculum resources. Some of the books and videos (for example, Listening for God: Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith, by Paula J. Carlson and Peter S. Hawkins) and websites (for example, BuddhaNet and Images of Jesus on the Web) are primarily faith-based or religious rather than purely academic in their approach. These materials contain text and especially graphics that can be very useful in the classroom, but teachers in public schools must be mindful of the First Amendment guidelines for teaching about religion and should be sure to select and use curriculum materials in ways that are consistent with these guidelines. These guidelines for public schools, endorsed by a broad range of educational and religious organizations, may be summarized as follows:

"The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional.

The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press for student acceptance of any religion.

The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.

The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.

The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate religion.

The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief."

A Teachers Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, First Amendment Center, Nashville, 1999, p. 3.


We will speak briefly about our goal and the means used to accomplish that goal. We conclude with suggested materials for two modules, plus an introductory unit.

Our goal is twofold:

  • To read visual and literary texts from other cultures looking for what these artifacts tell them (and us) about religion—how others understand the nature, meaning and goal of human existence.
  • To help students “see” (also read, hear) religion all around them in new and unexpected ways.

Our means emphasize class discussion, journaling, and short writing responses.

  1. The discussion “requirement” is one of those sticky wickets. We want the quick verbal types to slow down and show good manners while we want the thoughtful earnest types to have time to formulate their ideas and room to express them. We want to avoid the “human backboard” metaphor, with students lobbing balls as they are able toward the instructor (who bounces them right back or lets them land with a thud). We want the topic/reading/artifact to be the geographical center of the classroom universe with teacher and students together orbiting around the piece.
    • Our favorite question for initiating class discussion is not “What did you think about _____?” but “What got your attention?” Then make sure every student has an opportunity to respond.
    • To encourage this etiquette and this model, we discourage a letter grade for discussion.
  2. We discuss the journal requirement in our annotations. Some instructors key their “Intellectual Journal” assignments to specific readings and grade them accordingly. Here we advocate a “Personal Response” format.
    • We simply require two pages, on time (e.g. weekly, twice weekly, daily), using first person. Entries are counted but not awarded a letter grade.
    • We suggest that instructors provide prompts that may be helpful (to some students) but are not required for entry responses.
    • We stress that journals are not diaries or grocery lists of “What I did today.” Encourage students to use the class as a starting point for reflection and see where that reflection leads them (reminding them that the good stuff doesn’t kick in until after the first page).
    • Encourage students to have a definite audience in mind as they write. Depending on the entry, the audience might be the instructor, a friend or family member, the next generation, themselves at age seven or seventy.
    • The instructor’s “feedback” takes the form of highlighting or underlining and asking a question in response. Keep the conversation going.
    • Finally, give students the option of folding the entry over, vertically down the middle, and dating it on the outside. If a student decides the entry is private and personal, you will respect that and never open a folded over entry.
  3. In the syllabus for his course, “Zen Mind,” Charles Strain of DePaul University gives this guide for short writings:

    “Each paper will focus on a moment in your reading [or viewing] when you came to understand something you did not understand before... The first characteristic of a good response paper is that it will include lots of detailed analysis of specific passages that illustrate your understanding of the text and the issues of this course. Be careful not to use the readings as mere springboards for your own thoughts, touching all readings only lightly before leaping off into your own ideas [Note: This is what journals are for!]. Engage the texts. The second trait of a good response paper is that it exhibits a beginner’s mind. Find zest in exploring something new rather than rehashing what you already know. Push further. What is it about the reading [or visual piece] that really puzzles you? How does the reading raise questions about your own mental framework? The third trait of a good paper is that it responds. A response is much more than an emotional reaction. Bring your own experience and ideas, other readings and the insights of others in the seminar to bear in shaping your own response.”

    Strain returns papers with comments and a hypothetical letter grade; revisions are encouraged. He adds, “At the end of the term you will present an introductory statement explaining what the group of papers reveals about your own journey in this course... The set of papers is graded according to the following criteria: thoroughness of explanations, depth of thought, clarity and creativity of expression, and evidence of movement along the way.”

We are submitting suggestions for materials to be used in two modules, plus an introductory unit, that may be inserted into the secondary schools social studies curricula as the teacher sees fit.

Introduction. Religion—What is it?
Module 1: A Taste of the East
Module 2: Religion in Popular Culture

Introduction: Religion—What is it?

Definitions abound. It is important to begin with students’ assumptions about religion, then move to collaborative “working” definitions that the class generates, validates, and uses in the modules.

Most students are familiar with Gabriele Rico’s clustering method (see Writing the Natural Way, J.P Tarcher, Inc. 1983). Begin with the central balloon word, RELIGION, and ask students to generate individual clusters.

After this initial brain-storming, work together as a class on two broad definitions; (1) Religion “is”_________ [essentialist, descriptive terms from their clusters] and (2) Religion “does”________ [functionalist terms from their clusters]. Get every idea up on the board. Then modify and hone together.

Check these working definitions against those found at the beginning of any one of our suggested textbooks (Exploring Religious Meaning, 6th edition. Robert C. Monk et al. Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN 0-13-092386-9; Introduction to the Study of Religion, Nancy Ring et al. Orbis Books, 1998. ISBN 1570751838; The Sacred Quest, 3rd edition. Cunningham and Kelsay. Prentice Hall, 2001. ISBN 01-30209945). You might want to discuss the root “ligio,” I bind. The Latin “re-ligio” carries the sense of re-joining, re-connecting, re-linking. Ligaments connect bones and support organs. Students love to play with this metaphor as the work on what “religion” means, what connections are made and what supports religion might provide.

Again work as a class to edit, modify, sharpen, and (finally) own and understand what the class will be working with as they proceed to “Religion in Art” modules. Make sure every student has a copy of the class definition.

Module One: A Taste of the East


"I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be... She say, my first step away from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can't miss it." [Alice Walker, The Color Purple, 202-203]

[While it might seem odd to begin a module on religion in Asia with this passage from a text by an African-American author, students love this passage (the entire chapter, read aloud in class, is even better). Celie’s big white man in the sky (“What’d he ever do for you?”) contrasts superbly with Shug’s monism, and students “get it” right away].

If possible, we suggest starting with art and Eastern traditions rather than the more familiar Western world. Right away, students open up to different ways of looking at religion—ways that are not creedal and confessional, paths that tolerate and often encourage pluralism. We introduce the term “monism” and contrast that with monotheism. Both monist and monotheist would say that God is One (mono), but the Eastern monist goes on to say that All is One and by the transitive property, therefore All is God.

The western monotheist hears this and cries “polytheism.” In the West, God is Other, distinct from creation, known in personal ways but not to be confused with persons. And in the West, to say the Godhead takes many forms is idolatrous, polytheistic, pagan.

These are not idols, separate gods and goddesses, a Hindu would patiently explain, but merely pointers to Brahman, the Oneness of the universe. Or as the Buddha said in his “parable of the arrow,” why bother oneself with theological questions—whether there is a God, where evil comes from, where we came from—in the first place? (see "Man Wounded by an Arrow"). “Religion” in the East is a path, a way of life, a way of solving the problems of existence but not in a theological, doctrinal way. And so we turn to art as we look with our students at Eastern perspectives.

It is important to stress that teachers need only their powers of observation for this unit and a desk copy of a textbook. We recommend Michael Molloy’s Experiencing the World’s Traditions (2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, 2002; ISBN: 0767420438) or Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions (4th edition, Prentice Hall, 1999; ISBN: 0130119946) for good introductions to Eastern traditions, and Religions of Asia edited by John Y. Fenton et. al. (St. Martin’s Press, 1983; ISBN: 0312670966) for more detail. You the teacher are not expected to be an authority on sacred texts, historical background, modern developments, current scholarship. Instead, you are to have students explore websites to answer their own questions and pursue their own interests. While the scope of the unit is limited in terms of content, the goal is to give students a “taste of the East” in order to encourage future study, exploration, travel, and appreciation.

Suggestions for Resources

Jeffrey Richey’s "Religions of China and Japan" course is a fine model.

See his “Pedagogical Reflections” for students’ response to materials. He uses Fenton’s Religions of Asia (see above) and short primary source readings from Scriptures of the East edited by James Fieser and John Powers (WCB/McGraw-Hill, 1997; ISBN: 0070210225). The videos he uses: “A Question of Balance” (from The Long Search series), “The Emperor’s Shadow,” “Ososhiki” (The Funeral), and “My America... or Honk If You Love Buddha.”

Moving from East Asia and Chinese religions to India, see K.I. Koppedrayers’ syllabus on “Ritual and the Arts in Asian Religions." She assigns several chapters on Indian art from Richard Lannoy’s, The Speaking Tree, her required textbook. We especially like her Course Description:

In this course we will explore how Hindus, Buddhists and others have expressed their understanding of the nature, meaning and goal of human existence in stories, architecture and ritual. Our approach will be visual: through slides, films and videos that represent selected themes and illustrate characteristic features of the Indian world-view.

For Indians, sacred art is not a serious or solemn affair. It is entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, humorous, sensuous, and even erotic. Myths, symbols and ritual performance provide a veritable feast for the senses, and in turn, express religious sentiments. We will look at the humor, sensuality and aesthetics of religious expression in the Indian subcontinent, to see what they tell us about Indian life. We will also examine the place of art and ritual in the Indian political world, both past and present.

We recommend Witcombe's Art History Resources for art images and resources. Christopher Witcombe (Sweet Briar) has put up an extraordinary range of pages on the web. Use his “Asian Art” links to locate pieces for class discussion. Secondary school teacher Michael Delahunt has a wonderful art history/art dictionary named Artlex. For our purposes, the categories to search are “Hindu Art,” “Buddhist Art,” “Chinese Art,” and “Japanese Art.”

Finally, if your school can spring for the $59.95 cost, the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) has a unit on “Religions and Philosophies in China: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism” that includes five lessons, 37 slides, and four large illustrations.

“Show Me the Money—Give Me a Plan!”

Here’s one way to use a website.

Begin in the classroom with images of the Buddha, your student-generated definition of religion, and no prior “knowledge” on the students’ part (a blank slate is a wonderful thing to have). Display images and ask for clusters (Rico’s method again) or more formal paragraph responses from class members as they react to the art. Using their definition of religion, what do they see? What would they like to know? What gets their attention?

Then use the site BuddhaNet as “free reading” for assignments. Ask students to bring back to class print-outs or written responses to the questions they have generated after seeing the art and exploring the site. Of particular interest are the sections on art and architecture, and the section on iconography. For your purposes, excellent background is located at BuddhaNet which provides secondary schools teachers with seven “work units” and readings.

Use journal and short essay prompts that help students “see” Buddhist perspectives in art, architecture, iconography. Some might be interested in comparing the more familiar images of Jesus with images of the Buddha in a more formal writing assignment. A good site for images (mostly popular) of Jesus.

Module 2: Religion in Popular Culture


Contemporary short fiction pieces are excellent vehicles for exploring religious meaning in what students might think of as “non-religious” (personal and social) settings. Feature length films can be problematic (Do we really have time in the classroom for such? What about films for homework assignments?) and editing clips is cumbersome (again, do instructors have time to do this?). But having the class watch a film together, stopping for discussion (aesthetically an eyesore, but useful for our purposes), is a real advantage. (Another pedagogical method lets students pick from a variety of films and bring their findings back to the classroom and/or to the written page.)

Tony Michael and Ken Derry’s syllabus for “Religion and Contemporary Film” begins with this description:

This course is as much about the use of film to study religion as it is about the use of religion to study film. In other words, we will use different genres of films to facilitate discussion about various dimensions of and issues in religion. And conversely, we will use images, metaphors, and teachings found in religion to discuss the layers and elements visually and audibly portrayed on screen. Through the three critical approaches of theology, mythology, and ideology this course will examine how religion, as variously defined, pervades the modern cinema and how one may engage in dialogue with this phenomenon.

Their course goals:

  1. To think, discuss, and write critically about film from a religious studies perspective.
  2. To broaden understanding of the term "religious" and then to realize its significant role in film plot, narrative, and imagery.
  3. To foster insight into other perspectives through a careful examination of one’s own thinking.

Suggestions for Resources

Michael and Kerry use twelve films (including “Educating Rita,” “Rocky,” "Truly, Madly, Deeply,” “Defending Your Life,” “Hannah and Her Sisters”—the rest are rated R) and suggested readings.

Anne Moore and Kathleen O’Grady’s course, “Religion and Popular Culture: Watching Film Religiously,” use five films (including “Pleasantville,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Before the Rain”) and accompanying readings.

In lieu of print articles, students can explore

Other films we have used in the classroom: “The Color Purple,” “Malcolm X,” “The Razor’s Edge (1984),” “A River Runs Through It,” “The Apostle.”

For short fiction we return to Darren Middleton, this time using the syllabus for his “Images of God” course. He writes:

The Augsburg/Fortress Press series, Listening for God: Literature and the Life of Faith, proved to be an excellent resource. The editors, Peter Hawkins and Paula Carlson, put together a diverse range of writers and forms of writing. In addition, a video guide, featuring 12 minute video vignettes, helped me set up a discussion of each featured creative writer, and a leader's discussion guide offered helpful questions for classroom conversation

(Carlson, Paula J. and Peter S. Hawkins. Listening for God: Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith, volumes 1 and 2, Augsburg Fortress Press, 1994. Each volume has a leader guide, a reader, and a videocassette.)

“So What Do I Do With That Piece?”

Assure students that formal criticism (of film, of fiction) is not the goal. Have them view/ read with their class-generated definition of “religion” before them. Ask them to look for ritual and symbol, for quests and paths, for ways their definition is reflected in scenes and narrative. In their writing, ask them to move from general statements to more specific, detailed, textured observations and applications of their definition to a particular piece. Finally, use journal prompts that invite students to make connections between their own experiences, “religion,” and the film/ fiction piece.