101 – Introduction to the Study of Religion

Ken Koltun-Fromm
Gest 201
Office hours: Monday/Wednesday, 2:15-3:15 pm
610-896-1026 (office); 610-645-8324 (home)

Spring, 2017
Monday/Wednesday, 9-10:30
Gest 101


An introduction to the study of religion in America through six categories of analysis: (1) religious experience, (2) sacred space, (3) religion and culture, (4) religion, ethics, and society, (5) religion, literature, and representation, and (6) theories in the study of religion. Although these areas of analysis should help us engage the multiplicity of religious perspectives, we should also be skeptical of the ways they shape our understanding of religion. Even as we think about “sacred space,” for example, we want to question the adequacy of that rubric for critical analysis. About every other week, class will meet in seminar style meetings with professors in the department of Religion. These Wednesday seminars will take place in Gest 101, Gest 102, Gest Lounge, and Stokes 119.

Film Series

The Religion department is hosting a religious film series during the semester. Each student in Religion 101 must view at least two films and write a short 1-2 page response paper. These response papers can take the place of blog responses or reflection papers (see below), and are not graded. They should be handed in as a hard copy directly to me in class. All films will be shown in Gest 101 on a Sunday at 4 pm.

    • Devil’s Playground (February 5)
    • A Serious Man (February 26)
    • Witness (March 19th)
    • When we were Kings (April 2)
    • Go Tigers (April 23)

      Course Requirements
    • Class blog responses (for weeks without seminar meetings). I will provide a prompt for your blog responses. You can respond to my prompt, to comments from your peers, or offer your own reflections on a separate issue. These blog responses are not graded, but due count toward class participation.
    • Two-page reflection papers for each seminar meeting to be turned in to your seminar leader at the end of the seminar meeting. These papers are not graded but due count toward class participation.
    • Two five-page papers (due Feb 17 and March 24). The first paper may be rewritten and turned in for a revised grade.
    • Final six to eight-page paper due the last day of class, April 28.

My Policy on Technology in the Classroom

You must bring all readings to class and be prepared to read, cite, and engage those texts. Some of you may prefer to bring in computers or other technology to access these readings (instead of printing them out as hard copies). For those who wish to use computers or other devices in the classroom, you may not use those devices for anything other than engaging in and committing to the class. When we step into the classroom, we become a community of intellectual learners, and this community requires commitment and attention. If computers or other technical devices interfere with that learning process then I will no longer allow those devices in the classroom. This means that if your use of a computer or similar device prevents you or any of your peers from fully engaging the class, then you will be required to remove your device from class. Only under special conditions, previously discussed with me, may you use a cell phone for communication in the classroom; normally these devices must be turned off or left outside the room. The basic premise is this: when technology enables intellectual commitment to the seminar, then we should use it; when it undermines that commitment, we should leave it alone. Please come and see me if you have concerns about using technology in the classroom.


Haverford College is committed to supporting the learning process for all students. Please contact me as soon as possible if you are having difficulties in the course. There are also many resources on campus available to you as a student, including the Office of Academic Resources (https://www.haverford.edu/oar/) and the Office of Access and Disability Services (https://www.haverford.edu/access-and-disability-services/). If you think you may need accommodations because of a disability, you should contact Access and Disability Services at hc-ads@haverford.edu. If you have already been approved to receive academic accommodations and would like to request accommodations in this course because of a disability, please meet with me privately at the beginning of the semester (ideally within the first two weeks) with your verification letter.


I hope that your work improves as the semester progresses, and so your final grade for the course will reflect that trajectory. I do not evaluate each task with percentage accuracy (your final work is not worth, say, 30% of your grade, for example). Instead I examine all your work as a piece, and provide a grade that I hope fairly expresses the work and attention rendered to the class assignments, your peers in class, and your class participation. This process also allows me to take into account improvement during the course of the semester. I have posted a Grading Rubric for Papers as a reference guide as you write your own papers. All requests for extensions must be first vetted by your academic dean. If your academic dean believes your request is reasonable, the dean will then pass that request onto me for my consideration. Facing too much work is not an excuse for an extension.

Required Texts

  • James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
  • Patti Smith, Just Kids


Religious Experience

Week One

Week Two

  • Monday, Jan 23
    • Martin Buber, Moses, 56-59
    • William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 28-31, 47-52, 78-93, 127-165
  • Wednesday, Jan 25
    • Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals, 7-12, 56-70
    • T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 132-156

Week Three

  • Monday, Jan 30
    • James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
  • Wednesday, Feb 1 (Seminar #1)
    • Two-page reflection paper
  • Sunday, Feb 5
    • Devil’s Playground (Gest 101 at 4 pm)

Sacred Space

Week Four

    • Monday, Feb 6
      • Robert Orsi, “Crossing the City Line,” 1-12, 36-58
      • Discuss first paper
    • Wednesday, Feb 8
      • Jonathan Walton, Watch This!, xi-xv, 1-17, 19-46 (recommended), 75-102
      • W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” 3-13 (recommended)
      • T. D. Jakes and Canton Jones videos (here) (here) (here)

Week Five

  • Monday, Feb 13
    • Frances Trix,  “Blessing Cars:  A Classic Sufi Play on Ritual in Immigrant America,” 109-129
    • Charles Mann, New Revelations, pp.  277-304
  • Wednesday, Feb 15 (Seminar #2)
    • Two-page reflection paper (initial draft of paper)
  • Friday, Feb 17
    • First five-page paper due, 5 pm
      • For this paper you want to engage an account in the study of religion, and explore or extend that account by engaging in another text that discusses religious experience or sacred space. This may take the form of reading Baldwin, for example, through the lens of James’s sick soul or second born, or you might want to explore how Bender works with but ultimately revises James’s account of religious experience. But whichever issue or text you choose, you want to offer a close reading that moves me to read the text differently, or suggests how I ought to read that text.

Religion and Culture

Week Six

  • Monday, Feb 20
    • Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 87-125
  • Wednesday, Feb 22
    • Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola, 1-20, 36-78
  • Sunday, Feb 26
    • A Serious Man (Gest 101 at 4 pm)

Week Seven

  • Monday, Feb 27 (with Professor Molly Farneth)
    • Henry Goldschmidt, Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights, 36-75, 116-160
  • Wednesday, March 1 (Seminar #3)
    • Two-page reflection paper

Week Eight: Spring Break

Religion, Ethics, and Society

Week Nine

Week Ten

  • Monday, March 20
    • Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion in a Free Society,” 3-23
    • Cornel West, “The Crisis in Contemporary American Religion,” 357-359
  • Wednesday, March 22 (Seminar #4)
    • Two-page reflection paper (initial draft of paper)
  • Friday, March 24
    • Second five-page paper due, 5 pm
      • For this paper I want you to focus on one text, and dive into one issue within that text. You can bring in a secondary text if you choose, but only if it serves to further your argument. I offer four possibilities below (prompts), but you can choose to write on another issue, and another text, so long as you clear your idea with me.

        Prompt One:

        In “Religion as a Cultural System,” Clifford Geertz focuses on the use of symbols to create a meaningful world for religious believers. This cosmic framework offers that “aura of factuality” to ward off chaos and meaninglessness. For this paper, I want you to focus on Geertz’s appeal to “system” and how that image, or that appeal, works in his argument for understanding religious cultures. How do systems work? Do they change? Can they be manipulated or undone by different voices in the culture? You want to focus this paper on particular claims or specific ways Geertz invokes “system” to explain religion.

        Prompt Two:

        In Kathy McCarthy B​rown’s ​Mama Lola, she walks us through one ritual celebration for Azaka’s birthday at Mama Lola’s house. There are a number of exchanges during this celebration—of money, food, hospitality—that play important roles in Vodou religion. For this paper, I want you to focus on one exchange, or one series of exchanges, and explain what is going on from within the religious ritual. For example, how are certain friendships or familial relations maintained through religious ritual? How does ritual allow for or enable money to circulate? Remember, you don’t want to describe this ritual so much as analyze it; you want to explain how some feature of this religious ritual maintains familial loyalty, or familial obligations, or friendships, or something else entirely.

        Prompt Three:

        How does Kathy McCarthy Brown situate herself as an anthropologist in her study of Mama Lola, and how does she understand her work within the larger field of anthropology? Again here, do not describe so much as analyze how she positions herself within her discipline.

        Prompt Four:

        According to Henry Goldschmidt, why are appeals to culture so difficult and complex ? How do blacks and Jews appeal to culture in Crown Heights (when I state it this way, I do believe the Jews appeal to culture as well, even if Goldschmidt claims they do not)? Why is it so hard to disentangle culture from other features of human experience?

        Prompt Five:

        A topic of your choosing, cleared with me.

        In all of these papers, you want to show me how to read these texts (just like the first paper), and assume I have read and understand the text (just like the first paper). Both of these points should keep you away from description and more toward analyzing the text. You want to ask “how” questions: how does the author present this issue, how does the text discuss culture, how does Brown situate herself within the field, etc.

Religion, Literature, and Representation

Week Eleven

  • Monday, March 27 (with Professor Terrance Wiley)
    • Patti Smith, Just Kids
  • Wednesday, March 29
    • Patti Smith, Just Kids
  • Sunday, April 2
    • When We were Kings (Gest 101 at 4 pm)

Week Twelve

  • Monday, April 3 (with Professor Naomi Koltun-Fromm)
    • Genesis 1-3
    • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible, 10-27
    • Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions, 13-38
    • Recommended: Lucretia Mott, “Discourse on Women”
  • Wednesday, April 5
    • Amina Wadud, “Qur’an and Woman,” 127-138
    • Quranic readings

Week Thirteen

  • Monday, April 10 (with Professor Kameliya Atanasova)
    • The Life of Omar Ibn Said (1831), 58-93
    • Malcolm X and Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “Savior,” and “Mecca”
  • Wednesday, April 12 (Seminar #5) (Passover)
    • Two-page reflection paper

Theories in the Study of Religion

Week Fourteen

  • Monday, April 17
    • Stephen Bush, Visions of Religion, 1-20
  • Wednesday, April 19
    • Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, 1-18
    • Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” 1-3
    • Martin Buber, Moses, 56-59
  • Sunday, April 23
    • Go Tigers (Gest 101 at 4 pm)

Week Fifteen

  • Monday, April 24
    • Paper Workshop in class
  • Wednesday, April 26 (Seminar #6)
    • Two-page reflection paper (initial draft of final paper)
  • End of Finals Period (Friday May 12th at 12 pm; Saturday May 6th at 5 pm for seniors) 
    • Final eight-page paper
      • For this paper you want to focus on the study of religion in a text read for class but not one that you have previously discussed in a paper. I am not asking you to apply a theory to a text, but to use a theory of religion we have read as a way to read through and underneath a text. For example, you might find that Bush’s account of experience, perhaps in conjunction with James’s theory of the sick soul, might be a helpful way of unpacking Buber’s account of prophetic witness or even the notion of revelation. You don’t want to write about Bush/James, then discuss Buber, and then argue: see, what Buber is saying is just like what James is saying. But it might be the case that how the sick soul encounters the world helps to uncover something important about Buber’s account of revelation. The theory of religion should help you become a better reader of text, and here too you want me to become a better reader of the text after reading your paper.