130 – Material Religion in America

M/W 1-2:30 Stokes 10, Spring 2015

Ken Koltun-Fromm
Haverford College
Gest 201
610-896-1026 (office) 610-645-8324 (home)
Office hours: Wednesdays 2:30-3:30 in CPGC cafe (except 1/21, 1/28, 2/11, and 2/18)

Research Guide


This class will explore the ways in which Americans express, explore, and negotiate their religious identities in and through material objects, rituals, and performances. 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. Students will work on their final projects throughout the semester, and create (multi-media) posters as part of the Material Religion Fair on May 1.


Preparation for class discussions is required and necessary. You should be fully prepared to engage the course material, and offer reflective comments on the reading assignments as well as on the comments by your peers in class.

I have created a blog for the course to record your thoughts, questions, and ideas as they arise during the semester. The blog is also the place to post material related to your final projects. I would like each of you to participate actively in this blog, but you must post at least once every week. This is the place to upload images, movies or links of all sorts as you discover them in your class work and research. In this way, all of us can see and comment upon your final projects as they develop during the semester. Please visit the blog here.

You will write three papers during the semester, and produce a creative, dynamic, perhaps multi-media poster for your final project as part of the Material Religion Fair. The fair will be held on Friday, May 1st, and it will allow you to present your final projects to the general community–a project that focuses on some material aspect of religion studied in class. Your poster presentation should reveal an in-depth, reflective analysis of material features of religion in America, and it will also include a review essay. The due dates for the papers are as follows:

First paper: Friday, February 6th at 5 pm (2-3 pages) (option to turn in revision)
Second paper: Friday, March 6th at 5pm (3-4 pages)
Third paper: Friday, April 10th at 5 pm (4-5 pages)
Poster: Friday, May 1; Review Essay (3-4 pages) due Saturday, May 9th at 5 pm for Seniors or Friday, May 15th at noon for everybody else.

All papers must be turned in electronically on our class Moodle site. Your paper will be marked down for each day late.

Alongside the readings for this course, you will engage in two additional projects: investigation of one religious object found in the Bible collection or Special Collections in the library, and a visit to one off-campus site in which you explore its material features (architectural structure, material display, physical surroundings, visual culture). We will visit the library to see various Bibles and other texts; you will choose one text/object for your research, and discuss your object in class for about ten minutes (this object will also be the focus of your second paper). Regarding your visit to an off-campus site, you will create a Voice Thread of about five minutes and present it in class. Some possibilities are:

The National Shrine of St. John Neumann
They give tours–call one week in advance to schedule. They are available Thursday afternoons and a tour usually lasts 1.5 hours. There is no fee. You can also come in and walk around on your own time or attend a mass. (Jeff Ainsley)

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. Contact Yvette and her email is yc1622@verizon.net. (Brad, Annika, Peter, Dan, and Maddie)

St. Jude Shop (Jeff McGeehan, Dominique, Danielle, and Alex)

Harvard Pluralism Project

Christian Book Online Site

Garland of Letters (527 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147) (Zoe, Nava, Tionney, Vaso, Daniel Bordi, Bek, Caroline, and Ben)

Home Sites (Jason and Anyi)


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 paper 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. Your grade for the Material Religion Fair will be partially based upon how much time and effort you invest over the course of the semester, and how well you have worked through issues of presentation, development, and content.

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 Disabilities Services (https://www.haverford.edu/ods/). If you think you may need accommodations because of a disability, please contact Gabriela Moats, Coordinator of Accommodations, Office of Disabilities Services at hc-ods@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 (within the first two weeks if possible) with your verification letter.

Texts to Purchase

Marie Cash, Living Shrines (buy at Amazon.com, not in our bookstore)
Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America
Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America

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 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.


The Practice of Material Religion (Blog)

Wednesday, January 21

  • Overview of Course
  • Kelman, “Reading a Book like an Object: The Case of The Jewish Catalog,” 110-112

Monday, January 26

  • Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” in Gods and Demons, 1-3
  • Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, 1-18

Wednesday, January 28

  • Pérez, “Crystallizing Subjectivities in the African Diaspora,” 175-194
  • Grumett, “Dynamics of Christian Dietary Abstinence,” 3-4

Monday, February 2

  • Special Collections (visit with Sarah Horowitz)/Bibles

Wednesday, February 4

  • McDannell, Material Christianity, 1-16
  • Yale Photogrammar Project
  • McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, 1-20, 36-78

Friday, February 6

Material Religion in Text and Home (Blog)

Monday, February 9

  • McDannell, Material Christianity, 67-102

Wednesday, February 11

  • Kelman, “Reading a Book like an Object: The Case of The Jewish Catalog,” 109-128
  • Special Collections/Bibles

Monday, February 16

  • Cash, Living Shrines, 43-115

Wednesday, February 18

  • Turner, Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars, 27-59
  • Presentation of religious object (Special Collections/Bibles)

Monday, February 23

  • Stolow, Orthodoxy by Design, 1-29
  • Artscroll
  • Presentation of religious object (Special Collections/Bibles)
    • Caroline, Tionney, and Alex

Wednesday, February 25

  • Joselit “A Set Table: Jewish Domestic Culture in the New World,” 21-68
  • Writing 2
  • Presentation of religious object (Special Collections/Bibles)
    • Olivia, Bek, Molly, and Anyi

Monday, March 2

  • Orsi, “Crossing the Line,” 1-78
  • Presentation of religious object (Special Collections/Bibles)
    • Daniel Bordi and Vaso (co-present), Peter, Zoe, and Dan Hopkins

Wednesday, March 4

  • Presentation of religious object (Special Collections/Bibles)
    • Jeff Ainsley, Maddie, Jason, Ben, Jeff McGeehan, Jeremy, and Michaela
    • Midterm Evaluations

Friday, March 6

  • Second Paper Due (3-4 page analysis of religious object)
    • For this paper you want to use your class presentations as the basis for an argument about some material feature(s) of the biblical text or Special Collections text. This could mean an analysis of style (font, color, layout, image/text), of audience (the front and back covers, hints of intended readership or buyers), of publisher, of maps or other specific content within the covers. The most important thing is to explain this text as an object: what kind of object is it? how does it present itself as this kind of object? how would a reader interact with it? All of your presentations have concerned one or more of these aspects of material religion, so you want to now articulate in writing a thesis about your text as religious object.

Spring Break

Religious Objects and the Marketplace (Blog)

Monday, March 16

  • Discuss Midterm reviews and papers
  • Voice Thread Presentations
    • These Voice Thread Presentations should be no longer than five minutes. This is actually a long time, and it would be certainly acceptable if your Voice Thread comes in at three minutes or even less, so long as it focuses on some material feature of your visited site. The point of these presentations is not too dissimilar from your Bible/Special Collections discussions, for in both cases you want to engage material features. But here, you may want to focus on specific architectural design, or the history of a building, or the layout of books or commercial items in a store, or the geography of your site, or the ways that visitors move or engage with your site. You want to explore how some material feature opens up a way to understand what the site does, or how people interact with it. Think of your site as a material text, and pose questions to that text: how does your site present itself as this kind of site? how do viewers or visitors navigate through it? what kind of site is it? what kind of stuff does it hold or produce? if your site has a web page associated with it, does that web design present a particular account of your site to the exclusion of other accounts? You want to be attuned to the site’s material features, and expose them as critical factors for interpreting or understanding your site as a particular kind of religious place.

Wednesday, March 18

  • Schmidt, Consumer Rites, 105-108, 122-148
  • Voice Thread Presentations

Monday, March 23

  • Visit Quita Woodward room in Thomas Hall with Cremins and Galloway (read and purchase Binky Brown)

Wednesday, March 25

  • Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America, 219-263
  • Voice Thread Presentations

Religion and Food (Blog)

Monday, March 30

  • Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America, 171-218
  • Voice Thread Presentations

Wednesday, April 1

  • Kugelmass, “Green Bagels: An Essay on Food, Nostalgia, and the Carnivalesque,” 57-80
  • Visit by Shing Khor (see her food comic here)

Monday, April 6

  • Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, 1-15, 140-159
  • Christian Diet Books (online and library)

Wednesday, April 8

  • Primiano, “Father and Mother Divine’s Theologies of Food,” 42-67
  • Religious Food texts (online and library)

Friday, April 10

  • Third Paper Due (4-5 pages)
  • For your third paper you have three possible topics to choose from:
    1. An analysis of your Voice Thread site. In this paper you would offer a critical analysis of the material features of your site explored in your Voice Thread. This will most likely require additional research and/or appropriating theories or arguments read in class assignments. For example, if you were to focus on the American flag at the Woodmont home of Father Divine, you would want to research the Communist accusations leveled at him in the 1950s. Or if you were to focus on his disavowal of credit cards, then you would want to explain why he would be so distrustful of banks or being dependent upon others.
    2. An analysis of food and religion. In this paper you would focus on particular issues in our readings on food and religion. This may or may not require additional research material. For example, you may write a paper on the notion of nostalgia in the “Green Bagels” essay, or the ways in which food and consumer practices work in American Jewry. But were you to write about a particular cookbook or series of cookbooks, then additional research would be necessary (to contextualize and offer a critical, cultural account of these texts. For the “Green Bagels” or nostalgia paper, the authors already provide a good deal of cultural and historical context).
    3. Thematic paper. In this paper you would analyze an emergent theme in two or more texts–a theme that you believe energizes or furthers our understanding of material religion. Perhaps you have been particularly struck by issues of urban religion, or home decorations, or commercial practices. These could become central themes that organize your paper and allow you to draw critical connections among disparate texts. I would not advise taking on more than three texts for this broader, thematic paper.

Monday, April 13

  • Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 1-7, 61-97

Religion, Play, and Sport (Blog)

Wednesday, April 15

Monday, April 20

  • Magdalinski and Chandler, With God on Their Side, 1-9, 71-90, 177-190
  • Review of Writing (third paper examples)

Wednesday, April 22

  • When we were Kings (movie showing in class)

Monday, April 27

  • Higgs, “Muscular Christianity,” 89-101
  • Prebish, “Heavenly Father, Divine Goalie,” in Sport and Religion, 43-53
  • Mathisen, “From Muscular Christians to Jocks for Jesus,” in The Christian Century, 11-15

Wednesday, April 29

  • Go Tigers (movie showing in class)

Friday, May 1

  • Material Religion Fair (Blog)
    • In addition to your installation you will turn in a review essay of 3-4 pages in which you will critically examine your project or another student’s project. This paper should be a carefully argued critical commentary on the installation in which you articulate how the author conveyed and argued for a particular issue in material religion. You want this review to be detailed, specific, and argumentative–very much like all the rest of your papers for this course. If you write on your own work, you must objectify it and attempt to treat it as a primary source in which you uncover a theme, an argument, or a series of juxtapositions that enable you to say something crucial about the installation. Here too, you want to focus on “how” type questions (how does the author convey her argument; how do colors or textures or placement work to materialize that argument?) rather than “what” questions (what is the argument? what works and does not work?). For seniors, your essay is due Saturday, May 9th at 5 pm, and Friday, May 15th at noon for everybody else.