Friday September 30, 2016

Apocalypse Wow

A new course this fall at the University of Dayton focuses on Satan and hell. As you might guess, every seat is full.

“The Road to Hell: The Apocalypse in Classical and Contemporary Forms,” an upper-level communication and religious studies course, looks at depictions of the apocalypse in literature, film and speech with special attention to the rhetorical dimensions of those messages. The syllabus spans everything from the ancient Egyptian funeral ceremony text, The Book of the Dead, to the star-studded 2013 movie, This is the End.

The course is taught by Meghan Henning, assistant professor of Christian origins in the department of religious studies, and Joe Valenzano, associate professor and chair of the department of communication. They developed the course after discovering an overlap in their respective research interests.

Henning specializes in the New Testament and early Christianity, and holds degrees in religion and Biblical studies from Denison University, Yale Divinity School and Emory University. She is the author of Educating Early Christians Through the Rhetoric of Hell, a 2014 book that explores the rhetorical function of the early Christian concept of hell, based on her doctoral dissertation.

Valenzano, co-author of the book, Television, Religion, and Supernatural: Hunting Monsters, Finding Gods, has a deep interest in contemporary portrayals of religion.

“I wrote an email to Dr. Valenzano, saying, ‘Hey, do you want to talk about apocalypses together,” Henning recalled, laughing.

Henning and Valenzano developed the course during a series of lunches and an intense, two-day summer session to create the syllabus that they refer to as “Hell Camp.” They did so with the support of both Dan Thompson, associate professor and chair of the department of religious studies, and Jon Hess, former chair of the department of communication, who is now an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The course links religious studies and philosophy with relevant contemporary questions,” Thompson said. He also praised Henning for her “interdisciplinary ability” in creating the course with Valenzano.

“The Road to Hell” is part of the Common Academic Program, which introduces undergraduate students to important topics across a wide range of academic disciplines, so they learn to value and synthesize diverse points of view and to examine issues critically, yet with an open mind.

The course also explores classical and contemporary literature, as well as modern pop culture sensations such as television’s Supernatural, through guided analytical labs. At the end of each lab, students are invited to evaluate the way that apocalyptic perspectives have been used to deliver ethical messages or to critique society.

“I think the purpose in teaching a class like this is not simply to analyze ancient apocalypses or to watch fun movie clips, though that is our method, but to think critically about something for a sustained period of time and in different contexts - that really stretches your mind,” Henning said.

Valenzano’s hope is similar: “Students should see the world slightly different at the end of the term than they did at the beginning.”

Henning and Valenzano said they enjoy team-teaching the course, and credit their collaboration for its success. However, Henning will teach the course solo during the spring semester, with Valenzano presenting a guest lecture. The course may be team taught again in the future with a different combination of faculty to remain collaborative.

Valenzano praised Henning for her willingness to work across academic disciplines, and said she is a shining example of University faculty.

“Meghan does an exceptional job at being open to ideas that aren’t in her discipline, and that allows courses like this to happen,” he said. “That’s the type of institution that we are and that we want to be, and so working with her has been a tremendous pleasure.”

“The Road to Hell” might lead to publication. Valenzano and Henning plan to co-research and release a paper about the rhetorical dimensions of the portrayal of Satan in contemporary media.

- Nikki Kamp '17

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