Classroom Moviegoings: Watch and Learn

This is a detailed outline I originally wrote for a 3-hour college-level honors course, but it is certainly adaptable as a model for any number of purposes. It could be modified in unlimited ways in terms of my reading and viewing selections with similar results, or stripped of some of its more rigorous elements (graded work, for example) and used as fodder for a small discussion group. Anyone may feel free to appropriate the following for their own use. Keep in mind that I would appreciate notification and credit regarding any borrowed elements.

Exploring the Gospel in Modern Film: A Syllabus

Required Books:
-Roy M. Anker, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005).
-Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, (Harper San Francisco, 1st edition, 1977).
-Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz, Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction, (Blackwell Publishing, 1997).
-Clive Marsh, Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology (Studies in Religion and Culture Series), (Authentic Media, 2004).
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
-Herman Melville, Billy Budd.
-C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
-Burton Raffel (Trans.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (Signet Classics, Reissue edition, 2001).
-Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, (Noonday Press, Reissue edition, 1996).

Course Objectives:
– This course is designed to introduce students to some of the classics of modern film, encourage them to connect their viewing with supplementary readings from important works of modern literature, and inspire them to examine these films critically through the lens of a deep commitment to the truths of Christian doctrine. In particular, they will learn to to explore connections between the films, the literature, and their faith. Students will be expected to:
o Process a broad body of literature, film, and film criticism
o Demonstrate an understanding of critical thinking, viewing, reading, and writing skills
o Use course material and the above skills to produce their own body of theologically-based film criticism
o Gain an understanding of various viewpoints on the ongoing dialogue between the entertainment industry and the Christian community

Major Paper: Each student will write an 8-12 page, typed and double-spaced paper due at the end of the class. This will count as the course’s final exam. For this paper, students should choose at least one film (note that this is a minimum, not a maximum) over which they will conduct a scholarly theological analysis following the example of the course texts. Students should engage in an appropriate amount of research into the background and existing scholarship of their selected topic, however there is no maximum or minimum number of sources required. (A bibliography with at least 5 sources is recommended.)

Short Papers: Four times during the semester, a 4-6 page, typed and double-spaced paper will be due. This paper should examine the connections between the films, the readings, and the discussions of the preceding three weeks of class as they pertain to the theological topic under consideration. All four topics are listed under the dates on which the related short paper is due in the course schedule. Further information can be found in the course text Catching Light.

Weekly Discussion: Each week there will be a discussion open on Blackboard dealing with the topic of the latest class period. The instructor will supply one discussion question, and each participating student will post at least one observation. This observation should be considered an opportunity to develop any thoughts raised in class discussion (or introduce any that did not), as well as prepare for the broader discussion required in the short papers. Observations from any participants who wish to receive the full grade that week should be posted no later than midnight Thursday. In addition, one response to another student’s observation is required, to be posted no later than midnight Sunday. Finally, a response to the instructor’s opening question should be posted by class time on Tuesday.

Papers not turned in on the day specified in the syllabus will depreciate at the following rate: 1-2 days late = 1 letter grade; 3-6 days late = 2 letter grades; beyond 7 days = 3 letter grades.

Reading assignments should be completed by class time on the date they are listed in the course schedule.

– Computation of Final Grade and Grade Scale:
1 Major Paper-20%
4 Short Papers-15% each
14 Discussion Boards-2% each
A = 100-90
B = 89-80
C = 79-70
D = 69-60
F = below 60

Course Schedule: Calendar of Class Activities, Weekly Reading, and Assignment Due Dates

Week 1 – Introduction and Syllabus. Video: “Hollywood vs. Religion” (1994, Michael Medved).

Week 2 – Reading: Heart of Darkness (1st half), Catching Light pp. 1-66, Explorations pp. 9-43.
Movie: The Godfather.
Due: Discussion Board 1.

Week 3 – Reading: Heart of Darkness (2nd half) Catching Light pp. 67-91.
Movie: Chinatown.
Due: Discussion Board 2.

Week 4 – Reading: “Young Goodman Brown” (handout), Telling the Truth pp. 25-48.
Movie: Apocalypse Now.
Due: Discussion Board 3.

Week 5 – Reading: Billy Budd (1st half), Catching Light pp. 119-123, 162-190.
Movie: The Mission.
Due: Short paper – “Darkness Visible,” Discussion Board 4.

Week 6 – Reading: Billy Budd (2nd half), Catching Light pp. 191-214.
Movie: Babette’s Feast.
Due: Discussion Board 5.

Week 7 – Reading: “Barn Burning” (handout), Telling the Truth pp. 49-72.
Movie: The Apostle.
Due: Discussion Board 6.

Week 8 – Reading: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1st half), Catching Light pp. 215-243.
Movie: Star Wars.
Due: Short paper – “Light Shines in the Darkness,” Discussion Board 7.

Week 9 – Reading: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2nd half), Explorations pp.73-86.
Movie: Edward Scissorhands.
Due: Discussion Board 8.

Week 10 – Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Telling the Truth pp. 73-98.
Movie: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Due: Discussion Board 9.

Week 11 – Reading: The Complete Stories: “A Stroke of Good Fortune” & “The Enduring Chill,” Catching Light pp. 315-317, 345-363.
Movie: American Beauty.
Due: Short paper – “Fables of Light,” Discussion Board 10.

Week 12 – Reading: The Complete Stories: “Good Country People” & “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Catching Light pp.364-402.
Movie: Trois couleurs: Bleu (Blue).
Due: Discussion Board 11.

Week 13 – Reading: The Complete Stories: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” & “Revelation.” Movie: Tsotsi.
Due: Discussion Board 12.

Week 14 – Reading: Explorations pp. 115-139.
Movie: The Passion of the Christ.
Due: Short paper – “Found,” Discussion Board 13.

Week 15 – Reading: Cinema and Sentiment pp. 1-162, Explorations pp. 235-256.
Due: Discussion Board 14.

Week 16 – Final paper due.

Syllabus Supplement

Detail of Course Required Reading:

Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies

Anker’s approach forms the basis of both the outline of this course and the selection of over half of the films to be viewed. He examines movies divided into four categories by theological characteristics (his terminology borrowed for short paper titles, summaries oversimplified here but explained in much greater detail in the book):

1) Darkness Visible – This section examines the proposition that the natural human condition is one of darkness. The films examined take evil seriously, positing that things must get worse before they can get better. Humanity is surrounded and overwhelmed by the consequences of the Fall and cannot pull themselves into the Light.

2) Light Shines in the Darkness – The films in this section embrace a Christian understanding of redemption from evil, beginning in dark circumstances and travelling towards a state of grace for their characters. They end “well,” but not necessarily “happily.” They are stories where Christian love beats the odds, although the outcome may be unexpected for everyone involved.

3) Fables of Light – The sort of story that falls under this popular heading is one where anything is possible. Some feature the forces of good battling the forces of evil in epic and fantastical style. Most attempt to impart a sense of wonder to their audiences. Stories such as these are often full of Christian imagery and symbolism (whether intentionally or not) and can be theologically enriching to examine.

4) Found – The characters and stories of the final section exist in a markedly secular society. Redemption and light break out in their lives, hitting them from nowhere. The manner in which this sudden epiphany appears is generally shocking, and the results are always surprising (at least to those involved). These people have received God’s grace which they have not asked for or sought, at a moment when it might least be expected.

The readings from Catching Light as they appear in the course schedule are (in order):

1. “Introduction,” “Darkness Visible,” & “Utterly Lost: Michael Corleone’s Descent in The Godfather Saga”
2. “‘The Design of Darkness to Appall:’ Metaphysical Evil in Chinatown
3. “Light Shines in the Darkness” & “The Laughter Beyond Tears: Love’s Redemptive Call in The Mission
4. “‘In the Regions of the Heart:’ The Meeting of Art and Belief in Babette’s Feast
5. “Fables of Light” & “Tracking the Force: Meaning and Morality in the Star Wars Saga”
6. “Found” & “The War of the Roses: Meaning and Epiphany in American Beauty
7. “The Sound of the Color of Love: The Construction of Meaning in Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

Roy Anker cites this book as the inspiration for his own categories, with the addition of “Found” made by him. Buechner addresses the gospel in terms of the above three literary genres, providing a basis for both broadening and strengthening the connections being made between the films and the literature in the course and the various theological aspects they address. The three readings found in the course schedule correspond to the chapters in the book entitled, “The Gospel as Tragedy,” “The Gospel as Comedy,” and “The Gospel as Fairy Tale,” respectively.

Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction

This collection of essays by several authors provides some valuable entries for both introductory and conclusory ruminations on the topic of film and theology. It forms the basis of the inclusion of two films in the course. It should also serve as a valuable springboard for the examination of several films not touched on in this course, in particular aiding students in their search for a topic for their major papers. The readings from Explorations included in the course schedule are (in order):

1. “Film, Movies, Meanings,” “Film and Theologies of Culture,” & “The Uses of Film in Theology” (ch. 1-3)
2. “Edward Scissorhands: Christology from a Suburban Fairy-tale” (ch. 6)
3. “Jesus Christ Movie Star: The Depiction of Jesus in the Cinema” (ch. 9)
4. “On Systematizing the Unsystematic: A Response” & “Theology Beyond the Modern and Postmodern: A Future Agenda for Theology and Film” (ch. 17-18)

Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology

Written by the editor of Explorations, this should serve as a concise summary of the philosophy behind this course, a coda which will inspire discussion of what has been learned and where pursuit of the topic could and should lead. Its positing of a healthy dialogue between theology and film in the readings of the final week is the destination of a journey which begins in the first week of the course with Michael Medved’s declaration of open war between the two in “Hollywood vs. Religion.”

The Literature

Simply put, all other required reading for this course is designed to establish literary connections within the category from Catching Light which is receiving the class’s attention at the time.

2 Responses to “Classroom Moviegoings: Watch and Learn”

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