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New honors course examines Christian message in popular culture (buffy mention)

Monday 29 August 2005, by Webmaster

The violence and vulgarity of today’s popular culture may offend some Americans, but Campbell University professors, Jaclyn Stanke and Elizabeth Rambo, think movies like “The Matrix” and “The Terminator” are really trying to tell us something. Their new honors course, Popular Culture and the Sacred, offered for the first time this fall, explores Christian themes and imagery found in popular movies, television and music, and operates on the premise that some times to be an effective witness, you have to meet people where they are. Assistant professor of history, Dr. Jaclyn Stanke has an interest in popular culture, primarily the area of how Americans perceive the Cold War. Dr. Elizabeth Rambo, associate professor of literature, is a medievalist and an expert on the television series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” After Rambo’s paper, “Yeats’ Entropic Gyre and Season Six of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’” was presented at an international scholarly conference on “Buffy,” she was invited to become a member of the editorial board of “Slayage: the Online International Journal of Buffy Studies.” It was almost inevitable that their mutual interest would bring Stanke and Rambo together. “We started talking about using popular culture to get across God’s message,” said Stanke. “It’s there, but some times we just don’t see it.” One thing led to another and the professors developed a proposal for an honors course that would combine the use of scholarly works on the subject, movies, television series and music as curriculum materials. “The best of popular culture-music, movies, television-is much more than just entertainment,” they stated in the course proposal. “Just as Sidney wrote to ‘defend poesy’ in the 16th century, Christians are taking a thoughtful look at these works of art dismissed as merely popular or actually evil. However, if we think that pop culture is unimportant or dismiss it as evil, something to be ignored, thoughtlessly absorbed or avoided, we run the risk of either ‘amusing ourselves to death’ (in the words of Neil Postman) or losing an opportunity for ministry and possibly, losing an opportunity that all art offers us-that of gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world, the world created by God.” Both Stanke’s and Rambo’s position is that the church today as a whole doesn’t seem to be reaching younger people. “The big question is why?” Stanke said. “It’s a very complex world, is the church missing it? Are these kids crying out for something and are we not answering?” Rambo emphasized that ignoring popular culture is a missed opportunity for evangelism. “There is the possibility that popular culture is the language of today’s world,” she said. “Familiarizing ourselves with it can be a link to reaching students. In a way it’s analogous to what missionaries do. They go to other countries, study the primary religion and find ways in which Christianity and the religion are similar. Then they use those similarities to communicate Christ’s message to the people.” For example, the television show, “Joan of Arcadia,” is filled with theological questions, Stanke said. “This show brings obvious references to God in a Christian perspective and confronts questions like, ‘Why is this happening to me? and why are we here?’” Stanke and Rambo are planning to team teach the honors course, which will take the form of a seminar requiring students to write response papers and think pieces on movies like “Hotel Rwanda, “The House of Sand and Fog, “Moulin Rouge” and “X-Men;” television series like “The Simpsons” and “Joan of Arcadia;” and texts such as “Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons and Other Pop Culture Icons,” by David Dark, and “A Matrix of Meaning: Finding God in Pop Culture,” by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor. The students will use these materials to define popular culture and evaluate it from a Christian perspective, to determine how useful popular culture is in understanding our lives and how and to what extent popular culture reflects, informs and teaches us about Christian values. “We want students to start thinking about material they may have only thought about as entertainment or evil and ask if some aspect of God’s grace can be found,” said Rambo. “We share a common need for redemption. Even at their worst, people have a longing for salvation. Few people, if any, want to be doomed.” Dr. Jaclyn Stanke is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington State University and holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. In addition to an undergraduate degree in Political Science, Stanke holds a B.A. in Russian. She has pursued research in both Great Britain and Russia and has made a number of presentations concerning U.S.-Soviet relations. Before coming to Campbell, she taught at Emory University and Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis. Dr. Elizabeth Rambo received a bachelor’s degree in English from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C. She went on to earn a master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She received her doctorate degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before coming to Campbell, Dr. Rambo was an associate professor of English at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. Her paper, “’Lessons’ for Season Seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” appears in issue 11/12 (April 2004) of “Slayage.” Dr. Rambo also presented a paper at the Southeastern Medieval Association’s annual conference in 2004, “‘Anchoress’ vs. Anchoresses: Medieval Holy Women in Film and Fact.”

Photo Copy: Campbell University professors, Elizabeth Rambo, left, and Jaclyn Stanke, hold curriculum materials for their new honors course, “Popular Culture and the Sacred.”