SOCIOLOGY 20610: SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION                                              Fall 2012


Professor Christian Smith, Flanner 816                                                             Class Meeting: TR 11:00am– 12:15pm

Prof Office Hours: by appointment (email me to schedule:              Classroom: DeBartolo 131

TA: Hilary Davidson (, Flanner 820; Office Hours: Mon 10:45am-12:15pm (or by appointment)


Course Description

This course provides an introduction to the sociology of religion, an important field in the discipline of sociology. Religion is one of the most powerful forces of social cohesion, order, meaning, disruption, and change in human societies, both historically and today in the modern world. Sociology provides a particular disciplinary perspective and analytical tools and theories for describing, understanding, and explaining the nature and influence of religion.


The course will engage the following kinds of questions. What is religion? Why is religion so primordial and prevalent in human societies? What do different religions teach? Why are people religious or not religious? What causal role does religion play in human personal and social life? How does the sociological study of religion differ from a theological or psychological study of religion? Why and how do religious organizations grow and decline? How, for example, did an obscure, early Jesus Movement manage to become the largest religion in the world today? How and why do people convert to a different religious faith or lose their faith entirely? Is modernity secularizing? What are the religious and spiritual lives of 18–23 year-old Americans today like? Why has the Islamist movement become so powerful in recent decades? What is happening today at the global level when it comes to religious movements and their social, cultural, political, and economic impacts?


On the surface, this course seems to be highly focused on one topic: religion. That is correct, in a way. But this course will do more, which will provide an opportunity to explore many dimensions of sociology as a discipline and human social life as a subject of study. Methodologically our readings and discussion will expose us to many different research approaches: surveys, interviews, ethnography, historical research, comparative analysis, and more. Theoretically we will be working through an assortment of different perspectives in social science: cultural sociology, rational choice theory, social constructionism, symbolic interactionism, and political and organizational theory. Geographically, we will focus not only on the United States, but also the classical Mediterranean world, Latin America, and parts of Africa and Asia. Our studies will also engage us in religion believed and practiced in different social classes, including successful and wealthy citizens of a major world city, middle class people in suburbia, and impoverished groups living on the margins of the Global South. Our levels of analysis will cover the full range, from interpersonal interactions (micro), to organizations and institutions (meso), to national societies (macro), and to international relations across the world (global). We will also learn about a variety of crucial analytical concerns in social science, such as social structure, group cohesion, collective identity, interests, power, conflict, cooperation, rationality, tradition, modernization, globalization, emotions, gender, social class, legitimacy, alienation, and more. Pedagogically, our course will rely on readings, discussions, lectures, field trips, movies, writing exercises, and more. Substantively, we will focus on a variety of religions, including Catholicism and Protestantism, but also Pentecostalism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and more. Finally, to get a better grip on the sociology of religion as a particular discipline-based approach to gaining knowledge, we will at times explore its boundaries with theological inquiry and belief, moral philosophy, with historical research and political science, and in the process think some about the philosophy of social science. In short, our investigation into the sociology of religion specifically will provide the springboard to engage a host of broader, important issues, problems, methodologies, and questions relevant to sociology and other social sciences beyond.


To get started, we need to see that religion exists in a social context, and always is shaped by and shapes its social context. Religion itself is also always (at least in part) a socially constituted reality—that is, its content and structure are always formed, at least partially, out of the “stuff” of the socio-cultural world (language, symbols, groups, norms, interactions, resources, organizations, etc.). The sociology of religion is interested in understanding both the “social-ness” of religion itself and the mutually influencing interactions between religion and its social environment. We will begin by learning about major world religions, emphasizing their comparative differences. Then we will examine the distinctively sociological approach to studying religion. From there we will explore processes by which individuals acquire religious beliefs and identities, the functions religion serves for its adherents and for society, changes in the organizational structure of religion, the mutual influence between religion and other specific social institutions and practices, the capacities of religion to inhibit and facilitate social change, and the dynamics of religious decline and growth in modern societies.


Course Goals

This course is designed to:


1. Cultivate in students an understanding of the distinctively sociological approach to studying religion. There are many approaches to studying religion—historical, psychological, theological, anthropological, etc. Since in this class we take a distinctively sociological approach, a basic goal is to develop an understanding of and appreciation for the kinds of questions sociologists ask and the kind of explanations they offer when analyzing religion.


2. Familiarize students with the histories, beliefs, and practices of the world’s major religions. In order to do sociology of religion, we have to actually know something about real religions—which many people don’t. We will devote some time near the start of our course to learn about some major religious traditions.


3. Familiarize students with some of the major issues, problems, and findings in the sociology of religion as a field. Students will have the opportunity to learn some of the theoretical and substantive content of the sociology of religion, to deepen their sociological knowledge of such things as religious conversion, shifting church attendance rates, religiously inspired political activism, the emergence of new religions, and secularization.


4. Introduce students to basic skills of field research. Sociology is an empirical discipline that constructs theories and draws conclusions based on evidence that can be observed. Students in this class will go beyond merely reading about religion, to actually doing simple participant-observation through field trips at local religious groups, involving first-hand observation, analysis, and brief written reports. (Details below.)


5. Improve cognitive & communication skills. This course aims generally, through its exercises and requirements, to enhance students’ abilities to read, analyze, discuss, and write skillfully.


To summarize in performance-oriented terms, students who have successfully completed this course ought to be able to: (1) know how to go about analyzing religious beliefs, experiences, practices, and organizations sociologically (as distinct from, say, theologically); (2) know enough about different world religions to think and talk somewhat intelligently about them; (3) carry on an informed and informing conversation with others about the religious issues and problems we will study in this class; (4) have a basic idea about how to go about conducting field research on a religious group or institution; and (5) read, think, discuss, and write more skillfully than when they entered the course.



The five required books (reading schedule below) are available in ND’s Hammes Bookstore, but you can also order all from or another online source:


Robert Brenneman, 2011, Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America, Oxford.

Lynn Davidman, 1991, Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism, California.

Christian Smith, 2009, Souls in Transition: the Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Oxford.

Rodney Stark, 1997, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, Harper Collins.

Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah, 2011, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, W.W. Norton.


Four specific chapters are also assigned from Nancy Ammerman, 2006, Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, Oxford University Press. You may either (a) buy the book or (b) photocopy the chapters from the copy on reserve in Flanner 811, which you may borrow from Dr. Heather Price there. 


Course Requirements


1. Class Attendance & Participation: I expect students to attend class regularly and to participate in class discussions, exercises, and group projects, as required or appropriate. I presume students can and will attend all or almost all classes, but may occasionally have a legitimate reason to miss one class in the semester (extremely sick, family funeral, etc.). I am not interested in adjudicating random doctors’ notes and other excuses. Just come to class, and don’t miss more than one, if any. If you get seriously sick, let me know, and we can work out a plan. Otherwise, an unreasonable number of absences from class will hurt one’s final grade. Perfect attendance could make a positive difference in final grades in borderline cases.


2. Reading Quizzes: There will be short, announced (the class before or by email) quizzes covering particular readings given at the beginning of class, to provide an incentive to complete the readings fully and on time. The quizzes will cover basic materials that anyone carefully reading and comprehending the assigned readings should understand and retain. Altogether, the quizzes are worth 14% of the final grade. Do not fall behind, but keep up with the assigned readings!


3. Midterm Exam: There will be one midterm exam given during class meeting time on October 4, covering the reading and lecture materials of Weeks 1–7. The midterm exam is worth 31% of the final course grade.


4. Self-Guided Field Trips: Students must choose two (2) unfamiliar religious groups or organizations to visit and observe on self-guided field trips during the semester, and write 2-page reports for each. Typically, this will involve attending religious services or gatherings and taking field notes. Students may not do religious tradition(s) within which they were raised or with which they are quite familiar. The two trips/reports are together worth 14% of the final course grade (7% each). Details on expectations, recommended procedures, and report requirements will be provided in a separate handout. Please use this as an opportunity to do something interesting and different.


5. Movie Viewing: Students are required to watch outside of class three (3) different movies, some of them classics that any well-educated person ought to have seen, selected from the list below, and to write a 1–2 page response describing a religious theme or scene or plot issue in the movie in relation to a sociological concept, perspective, or theory. Details on expectations, recommended procedures, and written-response requirements are provided below. Movie viewing and reports are worth 3% each, totaling to 9% total.


6. Final Exam: There will be a final exam given on Wednesday, December 12 at 1:45–3:45 PM, covering the reading and lecture materials of Weeks 8–15 only (it is not cumulative). The exam questions may be a combination of true–false, multiple-choice, short-answer, and essay questions, and may also include a take-home question component. This is worth 32% of the final course grade.


Grades for the semester will be calculated and assigned based on the following distribution and scale:

            31% = Midterm Exam                                                 90–100% = A-, A

            14% = Reading Quizzes                                                           80–89% = B-, B, B+

            14% = Field Trips/Reports                                           70–79% = C-, C, C+

             9% = Movie Viewing/Responses                                60–69% = D-, D, D+

            32% = Final Exam                                                        <60% = F


Honor Code

All provisions of the ND Honor Code—which prohibits giving or receiving unauthorized assistance on graded course work—will be in effect for all exams and written assignments. You will be required on each quiz, report, and exam to sign your name to the Honor Code. If you have any questions about the application of the Code in a specific situation, please talk with the TA, Hilary, or Prof. Smith beforehand. Please study ND’s Honor Code information at


Course Reading Schedule: 


WEEK 1: AUG 21 – Start Smith

AUG 23 – Read Smith


WEEK 2: AUG 28 – Read Smith

AUG 30 – Read Smith


WEEK 3: SEPT 4 – Finish Smith

SEPT 6 – Read Brenneman


WEEK 4: SEPT 11 – Read Brenneman

SEPT 13 – Read Brenneman


WEEK 5: SEPT 18 – Finish Brenneman

SEPT 20 – Read Stark (skip Ch 6)

WEEK 6: SEPT 25 – Read Stark (skip Ch 6)                               

SEPT 27 – Read Stark (skip Ch 6); movie assignment #1 due at beginning of class


WEEK 7: OCT 2 –Finish Stark (skip Ch 6); first field trip report due at beginning of class

OCT 4 – EXAM #1                              


WEEK 8: OCT 9 – Read Davidman

OCT 11 – Read Davidman



WEEK 9:  OCT 23 – Read Davidman

OCT 25 – Read Davidman


WEEK 10: OCT 30 – Finish Davidman

NOV 1 – Read “Davie” in Ammerman (Ch 1)               


WEEK 11: NOV 6 – Read “Pace” in Ammerman (Ch 2)                            

NOV 8 –  Read “Levitt” in Ammerman (Ch 6); movie assignment #2 due at beginning of class


WEEK 12: NOV 13 – Read “Munson” in Ammerman Ch 7

NOV 15 – Start Toft et al.; second field trip report due at beginning of class


WEEK 13: NOV 20 – Read Toft et al.




WEEK 14: NOV 27 – Read Toft et al.; movie assignment #3 due at beginning of class                                                     

NOV 29 – Read Toft et al.


WEEK 15: DEC 4 – Read Toft et al.

DEC 6 – Finish Toft et al.



Ø  1:453:45 PM






Assignment: During the semester watch any three (3) of the following films of your choice (although they must be ones with which you are not already familiar—have never seen or not seen for a very long time) at your convenience. Feel free to watch with friends, but please do concentrate on the film.


Written Responses: Then write a 1-2 page (double-spaced) response that seems most interesting to you. Your response MUST engage some sociological question, perspective, concept, or theory of the religious aspect of the film. Think about the movie sociologically. You may rely on some of the questions suggested below or engage your own questions and thoughts. You do not have to slavishly follow and answer the questions offered below; feel free to write about what strikes you as most interesting and important. 


Grading: Responses will not receive perfunctory good grades simply for being written, but will be graded according to these criteria: (a) relevance of the discussion to the film, (b) quality, insight, and creativity of the sociological reflection offered in the response, and (c) quality of writing mechanics, punctuation, diction, etc. Write good, thoughtful, well-composed responses—printed, double-spaced, 12-point Times New Roman font, and STAPLED (!), with your name on them and signed affirmation that you honored the Honor Code.


Help in analysis/writing: You may not rely on Internet interpretations of films to inform your own analysis. Do not engage in quasi-plagiarism. These are not research papers. Use your own brain to write your papers.


Focus: Keep your response focused on the religious aspects of the film (which, depending on the film, may be more or less subtle), as they might be considered sociologically (as opposed, for example, to psychologically or theologically or personally).


Due Dates: The first film response is due in class Sept 27 (or before); the second is due in class on Nov 8 (or before); and the third and last in class on Nov 27 (or before). Late papers will have points deducted. Feel free to do this assignment and turn in your papers early.


Borrowing: One copy of each of the DVDs is available for borrowing from my Center Assistant Director, Heather Price, whose office is in 811 Flanner Hall, during work hours. You must sign out DVD copies through her, on either a time-reserved or walk-in basis. Or, of course, you may obtain your own copies of the films through Netflix, computer streaming, or perhaps the Hesburgh Library. Please view the films on adequately large screens, in any case, however. Do not wait until the afternoon before their due dates and come to Heather in a panic; we cannot guarantee availability, especially at the last moment.


Which to Watch: You may watch any 3 films listed below that most interest you. You may not watch a film with which you are already familiar, since one of the points of this assignment is to stretch your film-watching repertoire. Films especially recommended by Prof Smith if you have not already seen them before are marked with an asterisk (*) below, but any should be good to watch.


Care for the DVDs: The borrowed DVDs are the property of Prof Smith and the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Please take particular care not to scratch or break them; care for them as if they were your own.


Alternatives: If you know of a good film that would also be appropriate for this assignment but which is not listed below, feel free to propose it to Prof Smith—well ahead of time—for his possible (but not guaranteed) approval.




*Amazing Grace (2006): Biography, drama, history. Rated: PG (for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language). 117 minutes. Based on historical events, MP William Wilberforce maneuvers his way through Parliament, endeavoring to end the British transatlantic slave trade. Ioann Guffedd.

                Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

Q: Why do religious people of the same faiths sometimes have or engage such different attitudes or actions?

                Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change?


The Apostle (1997): Drama. Rated: PG-13 (for thematic elements and some violence). 134 minutes. After his happy life spins out of control, a preacher from Texas changes his name, goes to Louisiana and starts preaching on the radio. Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash.

                Q: How does the normative social role of a Protestant pastor interact with the difficulties of everyday human life?

                Q: In what ways does religion shape life for the better and in what ways for the worse?


Babett’s Feast (1987): Drama, music, romance. Rated: G. 102 minutes. In 19th century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honored pastor of a small Protestant church that is almost a sect unto itself. Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel.

                Q: How are religious organizations changed by the passage of time?

                Q: What are some of the particular features of sectarian religious groups?

                Q: What processes are involved in religious renewal?


Black Robe (1991): Rated R (for strong violence and sensuality). 101 minutes. In the 17th century a Jesuit priest and a young companion are escorted through the wilderness of Quebec by Algonquin Indians to find a distant mission in the dead of winter. Lothaire Bluteau, Aden Young, Sandrine Holt.

                Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?
                Q: What social processes are involved in religious proselytizing?


*Chariots of Fire (1981): Drama, history, sport. Rated: PG. 124 minutes. Based on real events, the story of two British track athletes, one a determined Jew,  the other a devout Christian, who compete in the 1924 Olympics. Ben Cross, Ian Charleston.

                Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

                Q: How do religious values and commitments interact with secular ones?

                Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change?


*Dead Man Walking (1995): Crime, drama. Rated: R (for depictions of rape and murder). 122 minutes. Based on real events, a Catholic nun, while comforting a convicted killer on death row, empathizes with both the killer and his victim’s families. Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon.

                Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

Q: Why do religious people of the same faiths sometimes have or engage such different attitudes or actions?

                Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change?


End of the Spear (2005): Drama, adventure. Rated: PR-13 (for intense sequence of violence). 108 minutes. Based on real events, when five young missionaries are speared to death by the Waodani in 1956, a series of events unfold to change the lives of not only the slain missionaries’ families, but also the natives. Louie Lenardo.

                Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?
                Q: What social processes are involved in religious proselytizing?

                Q: How can and are cultures changed by the introduction of religious worldviews?


*Fiddler on the Roof (1971): Drama, family, musical. Rated G. 181 minutes. In pre-revolutionary Russia, a poor Jewish peasant must contend with marrying off his three daughters while anti-Semitic sentiment threatens his home.

                Q: How does religion interact with ethnicity and otherness to help construct collective identities?

                Q: How does the coming of modernity force religion and other human relations to reshape itself in new ways?

                Q: What has been the experience of being Jewish in Europe (Western and Eastern)?


Gandhi (1982): Biography, drama, history. Rated: PG (for some violence). 191 minutes. Based on true events, biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolts against the British rule through his philosophy of non-violent protest. Ben Kingsley.

                Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change? How and why exactly?

                Q: How are religion and politics sometimes mixed up together?


Le Grand Voyage (2004): Drama. Rated: NR. 108 minutes. Summoned to accompany his father on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Reda complies reluctantly - as he preparing for his baccalaureat and, even more important, has a secret love relationship. The trip across Europe and the Near East in a broken-down car is also the departure of his father: upon arrival in Mecca, both Reda and his father are not the characters they were at the start of the movie. Avoiding the hackneyed theme of the return to the homeland, the film uses the departure to renew a connection between two generation. Nicolas Cazalé, Mohamed Majd and Jacky Nercessian.

                Q: Why do humans do religious pilgrimages? What do pilgrimages accomplish in human life?

                Q: What about Islam seems to compel followers to dedication and commitment?


Journey into Buddhism: Dharma River, Prajna Earth, Vajra Sky Over Tibet (3 Parts), (2007): Non-fiction documentary. Rated: NR. 81, 85, and 89 minutes, respectively. Slow (on purpose) but visually impressive cinematic pilgrimages to renowned places in Southeast Asia and Tibet. Filmmaker John Bush shares the nature of these ancient Buddhist cultures. Dharma River is a journey through legendary rivers to the greatest Buddhist temples and mystical sites of Laos, Thailand, and Burma, offering an experience of lost civilizations, sacred spaces, and ancient traditions. Prajna is the Sanskrit word for radiant wisdom, and yatra is the word for pilgrimage or spiritual journey. A cinematic pilgrimage exploring the lost civilization of Angkor in Cambodia, including the largest temple in the world, the magnificent Angkor Wat. The journey continues to sacred sites of the natural world, Hindu Bali, jungles of Java, and discovering Buddhist Borobudur. Vajra is the Sanskrit word signifying the thunderbolt of illumination. This third part offers a cinematic pilgrimage to central Tibet, bearing witness to the indomitable faith of its endangered Buddhist community and the imminent threat to its very survival. Not a narrative film, but a good introduction to anyone interested in Buddhism and Buddhist culture, for students particularly interested in learning about Buddhism. Students viewing this film must watch Dharma River and either Prajna Earth or Vajra Sky Over Tibet (their choice on the second to watch).

                Q: What kind of social, cultural, or economic effect might one expect Buddhist culture to instill into a people?

                Q: How and why do religions and religious beliefs become embedded in material symbols and bodily rituals that express meaning and devotion?

Q: (Re: the Tibetan segment) How and why does religion (Buddhism) interact with culture (Tibetan) to form national identities, and how and why do they possess the power to resist powerful political and military intrusions and oppressions?


*Of Gods and Men (2010): Fictionalized true story. Rated: R (for a momentary scene of wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language). 122 minutes. Under threat by fundamentalist terrorists, a group of Trappist monks stationed with an impoverished Algerian community must decide whether to leave or stay. Lambert Wilson.

Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

Q: What motivates religious martyrdom?

Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change? What are the limits?

Q: What is the relationship between religion and violence?  


*Let the Church Say Amen (2004): Documentary. Rated: NR. 90 minutes. Over the course of a year, this film chronicles the daily life surrounding World Missions for Christ Church in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Like many urban communities that haven't benefited from America's prosperity, these citizens face immense challenges for any U.S. city, let alone that of the nation's capital: Rampant drug abuse, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and violence. Yet the strength of this community comes from the powerful faith of a storefront church of modest resources but great spiritual power. Years ago the space was a corner store, now it serves as a sanctuary where members gather every Sunday to sing, pray, testify and work through faith to change the community.

                Q: How does faith provide coping mechanisms for life’s problems?

                Q: How do different styles of church reflect or appeal to different socioeconomic classes of believers?

                Q: How do religious groups build social solidarity through collective rituals and responses to adversity?


*Malcolm X (1992): Biography, drama, history. 202 minutes. Rated: PG-13 (for violence, some drugs, language). Based on true events, the biopic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist Nation-of-Islam leader. (Note: the Nation of Islam is not the same thing as mainstream Sunni or Shia Islam.) Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee.

Q: What capacities does religion have to change people’s identities and behaviors? What about religion can do that?

Q: What social forces, pressures, and dynamics influence religious organizations just like other organizations?

Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change?

Q: How does religion interact with other social and culture factors to attract (or repel) people?

Q: How can religion help people to transcend local and regional contexts and experiences?


A Man for All Seasons (1966): Biography, drama, history. 120 minutes. Rated: NR. Based on true 16th-century events, the tale of Thomas More, who stood up to King Henry VIII when the King rejected the Roman Catholic Church to obtain a divorce and remarriage. Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Orson Welles, Robert Shaw, John Hurt.

Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

Q: What motivates religious martyrdom?

Q: How in Christianity do politics and church relate to each other uneasily?

Q: What social forces, pressures, and dynamics influence religious organizations just like other organizations?

Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change? What are the limits?


The Mission (1986): Adventure, drama, history. Rated: PG (for some violence and nudity). 125 minutes. 18th-century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal. Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro.

Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

Q: What social processes are involved in religious conversion?

Q: How in Christianity do politics/violence and church relate to each other uneasily?


*Pope John Paul II (2005): Biography, drama. 186 minutes. Rated: NR. Following the premature death of his mother, Karol Wojtyla is brought up by his father in the Polish city of Krakow during the first half of the 20th century. When his homeland is invaded by the Nazis in 1939, he and his friends secretly oppose the systematic persecution of their Polish culture. But, with the death of his father and the lacerating solitude which accompanies this loss, Karol's personal “resistance” takes on a new form and he decides to follow a priestly vocation. At the end of the war, Poland falls into the grip of Soviet totalitarianism. The newly ordained Karol is constantly surrounded by young people whom he teaches to safeguard and defend human dignity. He could be considered a serious threat to the regime, but the Communist authorities merely see him as an innocuous intellectual and even encourage his nomination for the position of bishop. Jon Voight, Christopher Lee, Ben Gazzara.

Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

Q: How in Christianity do politics/violence and church relate to each other uneasily?

Q: Why do religious people of the same faiths sometimes have or engage such different attitudes or actions?

                Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change?


*Romero (1989): Drama, fictionalized true story.102 minutes. Rated: PG-13 (for violence). In El Salvador, the new Catholic bishop speaks out against the death squads and the terror campaign the government is using in an attempt to crush the guerilla war that is being waged against them. This is seen as disloyalty and the number of priests attacked goes up and even churches are shut down by the government. Based on a true story, Romero was assassinated in March, 1980. Raul Julia, Richard Jordan. [Note: Romero is portrayed in this film as more prone to anger than he was in real life.]

Q: What about religion motivates action, especially culturally unusual actions?

Q: How in Christianity do politics/violence and church relate to each other uneasily?

Q: Why do religious people of the same faiths sometimes have or engage such different attitudes or actions?

Q: What social processes are involved in the personal religious transformations of believers?

                Q: What potential does religion have to promote social change?

[Note: if you find Romero compelling, you will be interested in a 55-minute documentary on the story of Jean Donovan, Roses in December, one of the four American Catholic missionaries killed in El Salvador in December, 1980, which connects directly to the Romero story. You may borrow that, too, from Flanner 811 to watch, for your own interest, but it will not count as one of the required movies for this assignment.]


Roses in December


A Separation (2011): Drama. 123 minutes. Rated: PG-13. A married couple in contemporary Tehran is faced with a difficult decision - to improve the life of their child by moving to another country or to stay in Iran and look after a deteriorating parent who has Alzheimer's disease. When his wife Simin leaves him, Nader hires a young woman Razieh to take care of his suffering father. He doesn't know his new maid is not only pregnant, but also working without her unstable husband's permission. Soon, Nader finds himself entangled in a web of lies manipulation and public confrontations. Stars: Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami and Sareh Bayat. (English subtitles.) Winner of an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and six other film festival awards. [To learn about the Muslim teaching on “blood money,” see the Wikipedia article on “Diyya” (].

                Q: How does Islam in the semi-theocratic state of Iran govern social and private life?

                Q: How do Islamic and Persian ideas of justice and honor shape personal life and even social interactions in the movie?

                Q: What is the role of Islamic teachings on “blood money” and how does that shape the plot?

Soul Searching: A Movie about Teenagers and God
(2006): Documentary. 79 minutes. Rated: NR. A documentary film about the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from different parts of the United States and different religious backgrounds—based on sociological research by Professor Christian Smith and colleagues of the National Study of Youth and Religion. Christian Smith and teenagers.

                Q: How do the realities of teenage life in the U.S. today interact with religious faith and practice?

                Q: What cultural differences across religious traditions do you notice that affect teenagers’ experiences of religious faith and practice?


Tender Mercies (1983): Drama, romance. 100 minutes. Rated: PG. A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together. Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Ellen Barkin.

Q: What capacities does religion have to change people’s identities and behaviors? What about religion can do that?

Q: What social processes are involved in the personal religious transformations of believers?

Q: How are family, bourgeois self-discipline, and religion often bound up together in the U.S.?


*The Tree of Life (2011): Drama. 139 minutes. Rated: PG-13 (for some thematic material). The impressionistic story of a Texas family in the 1950s, following the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father and loss of a brother. Jack finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. His breakthrough to a life of grace is stunning. Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain. [Note: this movie is very unusual, not at all “Hollywood,” pretty heavy. You have to stick with it. It also makes much more sense the 2nd time viewed. Most of the important dialogue is also nearly whispered, starting from the very first lines. This is also my (Prof Smith’s) absolute favorite movie of all time. The bigger and clearer screen to see it on, the better—it is an incredibly visual film. Final note: the beach scene at the end is no “heaven,” but an abstract representation of Jack’s spiritual breakthrough.]

Q: What is the role of “nature” and “grace” in life, and how do material nature and social relationships shape people’s capacities to live into those?

Q: What does Christianity teach about justice and reward vs. incomprehensible tragedy and unfairness?

Q: What roles do guilt, shame, desire, and pride play in human life and faith and how are they expressed socially?

Q: How is the built environment of urban modernity contrasted here with the green world of nature?

Q: How is Jack’s struggle with and to know God portrayed in this film?

Q: How are religious “conversion/breakthrough,” the Virgin Mary, and other religious icons symbolized in this film?


Water (2005) Drama, love/romance, tragedy. 117 minutes. Rated: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexual situations [prostitution and rape], and for brief drug use). The film examines the plight of a group of widows forced into poverty at a temple in the holy city of Varanasi, India. It focuses on a relationship between one of the widows, who wants to escape the social restrictions imposed on widows, and a man who is from the highest caste and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Seema Biswas. [Note: This movie was strongly protested by conservative Hindus who thought it portrayed Hinduism in a bad light. The production was forced to move from India to Sri Lanka.]

Q: What role does the Hindu belief that “all of this” is merely an illusion play in the movies’ plot and the people’s experience it represents?

Q: How are religious teachings and practices vs. general cultural traditions often tangled up together? Where, if at all, does the line between a religion and culture exist?

                Q: How does religion relate to socioeconomic inequality and power, in this film and related instances?

                Q: How and why does religion relate to the definition of gender roles and relations?


è  For any of these movies, students may address any other question (besides those suggested above) that interests them, which connects the religious themes in the film with sociological concerns related to class. I may be adding a few movies about Islam after the start of class.


è  Note: I am interested in developing this list, especially with good films about non-Christian religions, so let me know your ideas: