Elves, sorcerers and hip-hop poets are steering college students to God and the meaning of life. A New York professor plays scenes from...

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Elves, sorcerers and hip-hop poets are steering college students to God and the meaning of life.

A New York professor plays scenes from “The Lord of the Rings” movies to illustrate the philosophical principles in J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary work. An Indiana professor shows how the gritty rhymes of fallen rap legend Tupac Shakur relate to religious text. “Star Trek,” Madonna, Harry Potter and other entertainment phenomena also have been recruited for a higher purpose.

Colleges across the country are applying popular culture to religion and philosophy, drawing a media-aware generation of students to those potentially intimidating subjects.

“Basically, it’s a kind of a seduction,” said John Davenport, associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University in New York.

Davenport developed a course called Fantasy and Philosophy, drawing from his love of Tolkien and capitalizing on the popularity of the film trilogy.

Fordham senior Geoffrey Walter, 21, of Garden City, N.Y., got hooked. “I was … extremely excited about having a course about a subject I was already a fan of,” he said.

During a recent class, Davenport discussed a weighty essay about the nature of building and dwelling.

“Building is a fundamental human activity; it’s not merely a means to an end,” Davenport told the students. “It’s part of our nature to make a life world, a place to live in, a place to feel at home in.”

Davenport related the idea to Tolkien and showed film clips of the dwellings of hobbits, elves and other inhabitants of Middle-earth.

The method may be engaging, but is it proper for teaching philosophy?


Music phenomenon Madonna and the late rapper Tupac Shakur are grist for college philosophy classes.

“I have gotten that reaction, and I have had to defend the seriousness of this kind of endeavor,” Davenport said in an interview.

And Patrick Shade, associate professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., has encountered criticism in his use of the television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“While Buffy isn’t Homer or Shakespeare, many of my colleagues are receptive to the ways philosophical ideas have been treated in poetry, plays and literature,” he said.

Scholars cite potential drawbacks to enlisting entertainment.

“As with most introductions to philosophical ideas and theological dogmas, there is a danger of making things seem too simple,” said the Rev. Guillermo Garcia, director of graduate religious studies at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles. “Subtle nuances may be sacrificed in favor of accentuating the simple and appealing.”

But Garcia and others say such scholarship has value.

“You have to frame it; that’s a key part of using media culture,” said Tom Beaudoin, author of “Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X.”

As an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California, Beaudoin has used scenes from the Robert Duvall film “The Apostle” and MTV’s “Jackass: The Movie” to explore religious conversion and intimacy as spiritual issues. He said media can prod zealous discussion and deep contemplation.

Maria Galeano, 21, of Queens, N.Y., a student of Davenport’s, admits his class is more challenging than she anticipated: “I wasn’t expecting to read so many other sources ranging from (the epic poem) ‘Beowulf’ to [philosopher Martin] Heidegger in this class. But I think it’s a real eye-opener.”


Tupac Shakur

Davenport is using an age-old trick with his students: He’s speaking their language. These young consumers grew up with cable television and movie rentals. Music evolved from vinyl to digital in their lifetimes.

“You have to reach the students where they currently are” intellectually, said Quinton Dixie, assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, who plays tracks from hip-hop’s Shakur, KRS-ONE and The Notorious B.I.G. in his “Religion and Culture” class.

Dixie likens hip-hop’s music sampling and lyrical layering to the Bible’s structure and composition. As hip-hop and R&B dominate music charts, stoked by young listeners, Dixie links to his students.

Ronda Krontz, 29, of Columbia City, Ind., said taking Dixie’s class inspired a greater interest in religion. She added, “As a fan of R&B and hip-hop, I find that since this class, I analyze the messages represented in the music.”

Through media, the courses urge students to see religion and philosophy in everyday life.

“What students need to learn is to become much more (media) literate,” said Bjorn Krondorfer, associate professor of religious studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City.

To help, Krondorfer created a course that examined the concept of devotion through the Virgin Mary and her pop-icon namesake, Madonna. It focused on how to look critically at art and music while juxtaposing the classic and contemporary.

Students say such connections captivate them. And the courses seem just as rewarding for the teachers.

Lynn Schofield Clark, director of the Teens and the New Media@Home project at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said today’s professors — largely from the baby boom and Generation X — also grew up amid evolving media and attitudes. They believe education should relate to life.

Meanwhile, Clark said, the scholars themselves are fans of the media they employ, so they have “shared turf” with their students.

That’s how William Irwin approached teaching. His philosophy students at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., could identify with examples from one of his favorite television shows, “Seinfeld.” In class, he likened Greek philosopher Socrates’ use of irony to comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s sarcasm: saying one thing, but meaning another.

Irwin said that when the series ended in 1998, “Not only was I losing a show that I loved, but I was losing a teaching tool.”

He persuaded fellow scholars to write essays for a book — “Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing.” The venture turned into a series, digging into the philosophical undercurrents of “The Simpsons,” “The Lord of the Rings” and other pop-culture giants.

Such books, written for a general audience, have become required reading in various culturally minded classes. Students insist these materials, however unconventional, count.

“What really matters in an education is what you walk away with, what resonates with a student and what they retain for the rest of their lives,” said Fordham senior Alexandra Fernandes, 21, of Yonkers, N.Y. “If using these modern sources creates a better technique of retention, then why not use them?”