Material Religion (Chesick)

Material Religion in America

Ken Koltun-Fromm
Haverford College
Gest 201
610-896-1026 (office) 610-645-8324 (home)

Sarah Horowitz
Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts
Head of Special Collections

Miriam Pallant
Teaching Assistant

M/W 9-11:30, Thursday 1:30-4; Stokes 118K (Office of Academic Resources)


This class will explore the ways in which Americans express, explore, and negotiate their religious identities in and through material objects, rituals, and performance. The course is divided into five themes: 1) The Practice of Material Religion, 2) Material Religion in Text and Home, 3) Religious Objects and the Marketplace, 4) Religion and Food, and 5) Religion, Play, and Sport. We will explore theoretical literature to help us think well about material practices, and interrogate various texts in literature, anthropology, sociology, history, and religion to better appreciate the diversity of material practices and the models to study them. As a writing intensive course, we will attend closely to the process of writing, especially the construction of lucid, creative, and rhetorically polished essays.

Books to Own

Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America
Marie Romero Cash, Living Shrines: Home Altars of New Mexico
Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America


Preparation for class discussions is required and necessary. You should be fully prepared to engage the course material, and offer reflective analysis upon the reading assignments as well as the comments by others in class. Once during the summer you will present the readings for class discussion. This 10 minute opening discussion could take the form of a focused attention on a difficult passage, a guiding question that troubles or concerns you about the reading, or some other way of engaging your peers in what you think matters most about the texts.

You will write three, doubled-spaced essays, together with a final portfolio during this five-week summer session, and present your off-campus and archival research in a public symposium.


You will write three (all double-spaced) essays over the course of these five weeks that follow the same preparatory structure: you will turn in a draft on Monday and a final draft on Friday. All drafts (initial and final) will be turned in electronically on the Moodle site for this course in the appropriate folder. The process works like this: I will discuss in our Wednesday class the paper assignment due on Monday. You will meet with Barbara Hall, Lecturer in the Haverford College Writing Program, during this week to discuss your draft, and again meet with writing tutors on Sunday to prepare your first draft due on Monday. I will return your drafts on Tuesday (one day after you turn in your draft), and we will have time on Thursday to discuss writing and revision. Your revised, final essay will be turned in on Friday. All three essays follow this structure, but note that as you revise one paper you will also be thinking about the next; on the day after I return your drafts I will also discuss the next writing assignment.

Your first essay will be a 2-3 page textual analysis paper. In this paper you want to focus on a specific passage of the text and analyze it in a way that helps one become a better reader of the text. To do this you want to focus on what the text means and not on what it says. Think about peeling away layers as you go deeper into your analysis. Your introduction should be a concise summary of your argument (consider writing this last), and your conclusion should open up you paper to related issues not fully covered in your argument. You want to err on the side of ever increasing details that draw out the nuances of the text,  and try to refrain from general observations.

Your second essay will be a 3-4 page textual analysis paper like the first one, but will include critical engagement with secondary sources; and your third essay will be a 4-5 page synthetic, broader thesis paper that includes textual analysis and secondary sources.

Your third essay, as I mentioned on Monday, is more of a thematic paper in which I want you to pursue a thesis that derives from analysis of various texts read in class. So you might want to write a paper on Commerce and Religion, and explore those issues by looking at Schmidt and McCarthy Brown. Or you might want to think of Religious Visual Culture and bring various images from different texts to think through the way images work to reflect and/or inform religious practice. Simply, I want you to take an idea that interests you (but one directly related to our discussions in class), and explore that idea through the texts we have read in class.

I will discuss in detail these assignments during our Wednesday classes, and then post to this web syllabus the collective sentiments gleaned from our discussion as a reference guide.

Final Portfolio:

Due on the very last day of the Chesick program (Friday, August 1st), you are to turn in your collective work over the five week class with a 2-3 page reflective analysis. You will bring together all three essays, analyze them as primary source material, and offer a critical, reflective account of the strengths and weaknesses of the work as a whole with an eye to what you have accomplished over the course of the program.

Site and Archival Research:

Alongside the readings for this course, you will visit an off-campus site in which you explore its material features (architectural structure, material display, physical surroundings, visual culture). You will also work in the Special Collections room in Magill library as you focus on one particular religious object and its material dimensions. We will host a public symposium on the last day of the Chesick course (Friday, August 1st), together with Heather Curl’s class, in which you will present your site and archival research. To help prepare for this symposium, you will work closely with Miriam Pallant, our teaching assistant for this course. Miriam will help coordinate site visits as well as offer support for presenting your research.


Your final grade will be based on the above assignments, with significant weight placed on your engagement in class discussions. I do not evaluate each task with percentage accuracy (your final portfolio is not worth, for example, 30% of your grade), but I instead 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 over the course of the semester.

If you require any kind of accommodations due to learning differences please contact me privately early in the summer so we can plan a course of action.

My Policy on Technology in the Classroom:

You must bring all readings to class and be prepared to read, cite, and engage those texts in the seminar. Some of you may prefer to bring in computers or other technology to access these readings (instead of printing them out as a hard copy). 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 seminar. When we step into the seminar room, 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 we 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 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.

Religious Sites:

The National Shrine of St. John Neumann
They give tours–call a week in advance to schedule. They are available Thursday afternoons and a tour usually lasts 1.5 hours. There is no fee, only a free will donation option. Students can also come in and walk around on their own time or attend a mass.
The Peace Mission of Father Divine
They give tours regularly on Sundays, but also are willing to schedule individual tours on Thursdays–we should give them four days notice. There is no fee for a tour, and a tour lasts about one hour. The contact there is Yvette and her email is
St. Jude Shop
Garland of Letters

Week One: The Practice of Material Religion

Monday, June 30

  • Overview of Course
  • How to set up a quote
  • Grumett, “Dynamics of Christian Dietary Abstinence,” 3-4
  • Kelman, “Reading a Book like an Object: The Case of The Jewish Catalog,” 110-112

Wednesday, July 2

  • Pérez, “Crystallizing Subjectivities in the African Diaspora,” 175-194
  • McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, 1-20, 36-78

Thursday, July 3

  • McDannell, Material Christianity, 1-16
  • Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, 1-18
  • Archival work (Special Collections meeting with Sarah from 3-4 pm)
  • Field Research

Week Two: Material Religion in Text and Home

Monday, July 7

  • First paper draft due (2-3 pages)
  • James Gulick presentation on Bibles
  • McDannell, Material Christianity, 67-102
  • Kelman, “Reading a Book like an Object: The Case of The Jewish Catalog,” 109-128

Wednesday, July 9

  • Cash, Living Shrines, 43-115
  • Turner, Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars, 27-59

Thursday, July 10

  • The Centers
  • Field research (Father Divine and Garland of Letters)

Friday, July 11

  • First paper due (2-3 pages)

Week Three: Religious Objects and the Marketplace

Monday, July 14

  • Second paper draft due (3-4 pages)
  • McDannell, Material Christianity, 17-66

Wednesday, July 16

  • Schmidt, Consumer Rites, 105-108, 122-148, 159-169
  • Katz, The Visual Culture of Chabad, 144-173, 204-210
  • Archival Work (Special Collections)

Thursday, July 17

  • Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America, 219-263
  • Jeff Cohen tour of old Philadelphia religious sites

Friday, July 18

  • Second paper due (3-4 pages)

Week Four: Religion and Food

Monday, July 21

  • Third paper draft due (4-5 pages)
  • Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America, 171-218
  • Kugelmass, “Green Bagels: An Essay on Food, Nostalgia, and the Carnivalesque,” 57-80

Wednesday, July 23

  • Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, 1-18, 140-159
  • Primiano, “Father and Mother Divine’s Theologies of Food,” 42-67
  • Visit Woodmont (Father Divine)

Thursday, July 24

  • Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 1-7, 61-97
  • Leonard Primiano visit to class

Friday, July 25

  • Third paper due (4-5 pages)

Week Five: Religion, Play, and Sport

Monday, July 28

Wednesday, July 30

  • Magdalinski and Chandler, With God on Their Side, 1-9, 71-90, 177-190
  • Higgs, “Muscular Christianity,” 89-101

Thursday, July 31

  • Student presentations (practice and trial-runs)

Friday, August 1

  • Symposium
  • Final portfolio due