Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture

Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture studies the interactions of the religions with cultural forms and practices, with particular reference to art. It pursues this study utilizing the tools of poetics, aesthetics, and theories of interpretation to understand both the ways that the religions harness the human imagination, and the ways that the human recourse to imaginative expression often – some would say always – engages religion. 



Robert Bird, Philip V. Bohlman, Jas' Elsner, Sarah Hammerschlag, Karin KrauseRichard A. Rosengarten, Christopher J. Wild

Although this phenomenon is arguably concurrent with all of human history, the academic enterprise of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture is by comparison young. It took its initial explicit form in response to the conviction, articulated most forcefully by Paul Tillich in the mid-twentieth century, that in order to understand religion we must engage our “cultural condition.” In its relatively short life the field has witnessed the more widely recognized shifts in the study of religion that had their advent just as Tillich’s own remarkable career was concluding, and the field has since aimed toward more self-conscious engagements with comparison (both within a culture and across cultures) and with history. We recognize the texts and artifacts we study to be both more knowingly pluralistic, and often more intentionally eclectic, than had been assumed. We aim to address the pressure this exerts on conventional rubrics of cultural study such as nation, language, “high art” and – not incidentally –the self-proclaimed provenances of the religions. As a consequence a comparative frame of reference, both within a culture and across cultures, has become essential. This broader compass of cultural practice has also led to a revision of the area’s interests in the history of interpretive theory, to engage not only literary criticism but hermeneutics, biblical interpretation, and aesthetics. The area seeks to be interdisciplinary in its work, so that students pursue sustained work in other areas of study in the Divinity School and in other departments and committees of the University as informed and directed by the area’s emphasis on the acquisition the skills of close, sustained interpretive analysis and broad engagement with issues in the theory of interpretation.

Progress Conference format

The progress (or pre-exam) conference is normally held in the spring quarter of the second year, or the fall of the third year.  In Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture, the progress conference is held with the student's panel of examiners for the qualifying examinations, and will normally include assessment of coursework to date, cogency of the course of study petition, readiness for qualifying examinations, and development of the dissertation project. A report from the advisor and a timeline for the qualifying examinations is submitted to the Dean of Students following the conference. 

Written Examinations

1. History of Criticism and Literary Theory
2. Classic Texts in Religion and Literature
3. Genres of Literature

Brief overview (pdf)

Complete Area Overview and Exam Information (pdf)

Selected Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture Courses

RLIT 30000 Introduction to Religion and Literature. Rosengarten
RLIT 30600 Novel Comparisons. Rosengarten
RLIT 31500 Travelers on the Silk Road. Murrin
RLIT 36101 Victor Hugo. Meltzer
RLIT 37600 Theory of Literature: The Twentieth Century. Rosengarten
RLIT 40100 Subject/Subjectivity. Meltzer
RLIT 40500 Theory and Autobiography. Rosengarten
RLIT 41400 History of Criticism and Hermeneutics, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries. Rosengarten
RLIT 44100 Blake: Theo-Poetics of Image and Text. Rosengarten
RLIT 50200 Baudelaire, Benjamin and Blanchot. Meltzer


Why Chicago?

Sarah Hammerschlag, Assistant Professor of Religion and Literature, discusses her path to Swift Hall and the Divinity School's situation in both the University of Chicago campus and the academic study of religion.

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