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Cult Classics: New course gets serious about biblical interpretation



By Emma Saddler

Assistant Content Director

Imagine a class where students talk about:

  • Charles Manson’s religious affinity toward the Beatles.

  • Mormon brothers in Salt Lake City who claimed God told them to kill their sister-in-law.

  • The idea that heaven is actually another planet in our solar system.

This fall, Rochester University introduced a new course for honors students that does just that.


The Bible in Society: Cults, Social Discourse and Pop Culture class taught by Dr. Greg Stevenson, professor of the New Testament, allows and encourages students to examine ways that the Bible is used for both good and evil within our society.


In a three-part analysis, this class covers a history of different cult’s biblical interpretations, political and social movements that use biblical principles, and how the media and creative arts are influenced by the Bible.


This course addresses the heavy topics in our society in which students can hesitate to engage, such as the pro-life/pro-choice debate, Republican vs. Democrat political affiliations, and the psychology of cult leaders and members.


Even though the course deals with sensitive subject matter, Stevenson said discussing and studying such issues is valuable.


“This class is a testimony to the need for biblical literacy,” Stevenson said. “It demonstrates how significant a role the Bible plays in our culture and the need to both recognize that and be able to evaluate it. Paying attention, in particular, to misuses and misinterpretations of the Bible makes us better interpreters by teaching us what to guard against.”


Stevenson said he created the class because he thought it would be “both fun and educational to explore the use of the Bible outside of mainstream religion, particularly with reference to misuses and abuses of the Bible.”


Students in the course believe that having a safe and open line of communication to discuss these type of topics helps them gain perspectives about how Christianity and society mix.


“In the first days of class, we debated if the Bible can be considered a dangerous book,” said Daniel Cordova, junior pre-pharmacy major. “While I was at first hesitant to make such a bold statement, the lectures truly opened my eyes to how people can twist the words of the Bible to make any choice, opinion or act seem like the ‘correct’ one.”


Jaiden Hornbuckle, a junior business management major, said when she registered for the class she was “hoping to learn how to discern false biblical teachings from truth.”


Stevenson said the process of equipping students to be aware and discerning through their Christian walks, is also important for the larger society.


“With the rise of evangelical influence in American politics, the Bible is playing a much bigger, though not always positive, role in public debate,” he said. “The overturning of Roe v. Wade has led to an explosion of theological discussions across our society with the Bible being pulled in as support for both sides of the issue. It’s also been fascinating (and a bit puzzling) to observe how what started out as simple medical advice during the pandemic (wearing masks, getting vaccinated) morphed into a theological debate.”


The Bible in Society: Cults, Social Discourse and Pop Culture class, while still in its infancy, is challenging students to remove the blinders they may have from their own Christian walks, and see the world in a deeper way.


Stevenson said after the class is over, he wants his students to recognize “the vital role that the Bible plays in our culture and how important it is to train ourselves to be responsible interpreters of it because in irresponsible hands, the Bible can become just as dangerous as it is inspiring.”


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