This is by way of a rave recommendation. If you have any taste for podcasts, or radio, there is a spectacular new series available on the history and symbolism of religion. Free!
Some years ago, Neil MacGregor did a wildly successful series called A History of the World in 100 Objects. (I had the pleasure of being the expert commentator on one of these objects). The list of MacGregor’s original 100 objects that appears on the Wikipedia page I linked to here is a fascinating compilation in its own right. Some of the choices were inspired. A single medieval Korean roof tile supplied the basis for a detailed and informative discussion of kingdoms and urban civilization in Korea at that time, together with its technology.
That show in turn sparked a range of imitators and knockoffs. The Smithsonian offers 101 Objects That Made America, there is A History of New York in 101 Objects, and Lord knows, any number of others as well. MacGregor himself went on to make an excellent similar series about the history of Germany, drawing from landscapes and art as well as “objects” per se. By the end of the series, you had a knowledge of German history that was really quite detailed, and all absorbed in an easy and attractive way. If you follow the link there, you can download all those programs as well.
MacGregor now has a follow-up called Living with the Gods, on BBC, and you can access the episodes here:
This is like the 100 Objects series, but with a much more specific focus on religion and spirituality. There will be thirty programs in all.
Each episode takes a theme in the history of religious thought, usually focused on one or two objects or events. Some themes so far include Living with the Dead, Water of Life and Death, Here Comes the Sun, Fire and State, and so on. Each also draws on a range of academics and experts. To quote a news report, “Neil MacGregor traces ‘40,000 years of believing and belonging.’ The 30-part programme, broadcast daily over six weeks, will feature objects drawn from the British Museum archive to explore how religion has shaped society.”
I have a special interest in all this, as I have blogged repeatedly on the subject of the common themes and foundations of religion, and of all religions, what I call the building blocks. MacGregor takes these basic themes (fire, water, etc) and takes them across faiths. He is scrupulously fair to all the religions and traditions he discusses
Just as an intellectual exercise, it would be interesting to do a series like that specifically on Christianity, but with the caveat that there should be a strict quota on the number of texts allowed, rather than material objects. You could discuss objects like an early papyrus gospel fragment, but with a focus on the object and the world that created it, rather than the particular words on the papyrus. That would have the advantage of making people think about Christian history less as a sequence of authors and books, rather than religious practices. Hmm, there’s a challenge…
Having grown up with talk radio, I find such audio programs and podcasts a very attractive means of learning. I suspect, though, that there is probably no way you could get a college class to sit and listen to such non-visual things.