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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Eugene Webb
RELIG 570
Seattle Campus

Religion and Literature

The relation of religious thought to the study of imaginative literature. Includes both critical theory and practical criticism of exemplary texts.

Class description

Religions have many aspects, but one that many would consider fundamental is that they ask and sketch out answers to basic questions about the nature of the universe and the meaning and goal of human life. Sometimes they explore these questions very freely and imaginatively, but often in their very seriousness about these issues they develop a consensus about answers that inhibits further exploration. The central idea we will explore in this seminar is the way literary creations, by pressing against the boundaries of prevailing orthodoxies, can counter the rigidities that religious traditions tend to develop over time and can thereby help to keep them open to further exploration. We will begin by considering an approach, in my own The Dark Dove, drawing on the phenomenology of Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, that explores the ambiguity of the sacred, especially in the poetry of W.H. Auden. Then we will read two comparatively recent works that have religious themes but deal with them in rather non-traditional ways. Finally, we will turn to the main tradition of religious symbolism of the West: the Bible and its heritage. First we will read Northrop Frye's The Great Code: The Bible and Literature for its theoretical analysis of literary modes and their relation to Biblical themes and symbolism and the ways in which they have structured the "imaginative universe" or mythic framework within which the literary tradition of the West has largely taken form until recently. Then we will examine closely the ways Thomas Mann's magnum opus, the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, draws on Biblical stories and symbols while transforming them to express a vision of his own and to illustrate his own conception of mythic meaning.

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Discussion, led primarily by student discussion leaders.

Recommended preparation

Previous experience in the study of literature is most important. Previous experience in the study of religion is next most important.

Class assignments and grading

The assignments, by week, will be as follows: Week 1 Eugene Webb, The Dark Dove: The Sacred and Secular in Modern Literature, chs. 1, 8, 9. Week 2 David James Duncan, The River Why Week 3 Shusaku Endo, Silence Weeks 4-5 Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature; Webb, review of History, Myth, and Music: Thomas MannŐs Timely Fiction, by Susan von Rohr Scaff. Week 6 Thomas Mann, Tales of Jacob and Young Joseph Week 7 Mann, Joseph in Egypt Week 8 Mann, Joseph The Provider Weeks 9-10 Concluding discussions and presentation of student papers. In addition, students will write papers, as follows: Students will be asked to write short response papers on four of the readings. These will be due at the beginning of the week when the readings are scheduled to be discussed. At the end of the quarter they will turn in a longer paper (about 15-25 pages) on a topic related to the course theme.

The short response papers will not be graded, but failure to turn them in on time will result in a penalty on the final grade. The final long paper will be the main basis for the course grade (70%) along with participation througout the quarter and the final paper in class presentation (30%).


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Loryn R. Paxton
Date: 02/16/2000