President's Report 2006 | Teaching

New course explores portrayal of religion in pop culture

Harry Potter crept his way into the hallowed halls of Memorial University last year, inspiring at least one professor to include the wildly-popular film and book character into a brand new course.

Religious Studies 2812: Religion and Popular Culture was the brainchild of Dr. Jennifer Porter, a self-confessed Harry Potter aficionado and pop culture junkie. Roughly 60 students enrolled in her class last fall and were required to read the best-selling Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone as part of their coursework. They also discussed the recent films, which have been based on the popular book series.

Dr. Porter used the venerable franchise to examine the portrayal and treatment of religion in popular culture — everything from music and TV shows to material culture and mass-market fiction.

"Harry Potter sparked a lot of controversy in the Christian religious community because there were some fears it was fostering a taste for the occult in children because the books are marketed to children," said Dr. Porter, who spent a year teaching at Memorial's Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook before moving to St. John's in 1993. "Certain Christian conservative groups have feared that their children are going to be led astray and so it became quite a controversy.

"What I want my students to see is that religion is present in pop culture. A lot of people, at a superficial glance, don't see the permeation of religion throughout pop culture but once you start pointing it out to them then they become really aware of it." The Harry Potter book series has topped the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom list of banned books for several years in the U.S. because of its portrayal of wizardry and magic. That contention partly motivated Dr. Porter to create her course.

"With novel No. 6 now on the market there seems to be a re-thinking in certain camps of the Christian community who have begun to embrace Harry Potter and have found within it a lot of Christian themes," she explained. "My course looks at that transformation and that juxtaposition between condemning Harry Potter as an occult phenomenon, to praising him as a Christian one."

Harry Potter isn't the only pop culture icon that was discussed, though. Everyone from Bart and Homer, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are mentioned, even Captain Kirk. Students also examined the relationship between religious communities and popular culture by using examples from the hit Fox animated program The Simpsons. They've also explored religion and secularization as portrayed in programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and movies like Star Trek.

And, they used films such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to examine the mythic dimension of pop culture.

Dr. Porter, who has co-edited Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture, admitted that her classes and material aren't a typical religious studies course.

"One of the things that I feel very strongly about is that to study religion involves more than studying the sacred texts and the traditions," said Dr. Porter. "For me, coming from a social science background, it's very important to study what real living breathing people actually believe and do and say in regards to their religion.

"Very few people in our society are not influenced by pop culture. We watch television, we go to movies, and we download music from the Internet. So to ignore that huge element of contemporary society and to say it's not relevant makes no sense to me. "What's interesting to me is the myriad of ways pop culture deals with religion either by reflecting it, criticizing it or ignoring it."

Dr. Porter doesn't think it's an accident that religion has permeated its way into North American pop culture. She said since major movies and television shows cost so much to make, production companies and networks often have an 'ideological agenda' to promote their own beliefs.

"Virtually nothing happens by mistake in that environment where everything is second guessed and discussed," she said. "I just want my students to actually stop and think about pop culture and its religious undertones."