Religious studies takes on “Rings”

Arthur Vong

Daily Sundial

Imagine dressing as a hobbit named Frodo, fully decked out in The Lord of the Rings attire, going to a “Lord of the Rings class” with a fake ancient ring on your finger to understand the meaning of religion and life.

Well, that hasn’t happened here. Yet.

Robert Goss, a second semester CSUN religious studies professor, teaches an introduction to religious studies class incorporating J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, “The Lord of the Rings” as a backdrop to grasping religious knowledge.

It was the second day of his 8 a.m. class where Goss students could be seen soaking in knowledge of world religions.

Looking around the Sierra Hall classroom, no student was dressed as hobbits, elves or wizards to find a deeper understanding of the religious intricacies of the trilogy.

The so-called “Lord of the Rings class” has not received a popular following from CSUN students as opposed to his previous classes on the same subject Goss taught at Webster University.

“When I taught this at Webster, the class almost taught itself because they were fanatics of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ” Goss said. “Some (Webster students) even dressed in costumes of characters when they came into class, but I don’t expect that to happen here.”

When Esteban Ruiz, sophomore business major, heard of “The Lord of the Rings class,” he said he would probably take the class because he is a fan of the movies, and also fulfills his general education requirement.

“I’m sure it would be a crowded class when people hear of Lord of the Rings, though,” Ruiz said. “They’re going to take the class no matter how hard or easy the class will be.”

Although Goss would not mind getting more fans of the novel and movies to take the class, the goal of the class is to get every student, fan or foe of “The Lord of the Rings” to intellectually discuss how it progresses religion.

Goss said he hopes to change the ways in which students view religion, using the power of imagination through science-fiction, as a vehicle to enhance their knowledge of the subject.

“Students have grown up with very narrow views of religion and this class widens it,” Goss said. “Imagination is key to understanding religion.”

He said he would like to give a more vivid description on how the power of imagination can guide people to seeing all aspects of religion.

“The notion of imagination with fundamentalism is very narrow,” Goss said. “The more I’m fighting against fundamentalism, the more I see it teaches people how to use their imagination.”

As the class ended, Goss gave an assignment to study the history of the character Sauron and to buy J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of “The Lord of the Rings.” One of the students said he had no background of the text or of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. Goss said he better get the books and start reading the novels.

Goss said he fell in love with “The Lord of the Rings” when he was in high school because it spoke of meaning and conflict. He said his favorite character would probably be Gandalf, the wizard.

“It may be the silver hair and beard,” Goss said of the physical similarities and why he identifies with Gandalf more than the other characters in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Goss received a doctorate of theology in comparative religion from Harvard University. He is also a pastor and theologian at the Metropolitan Community Church in North Hollywood.

Goss won the 2000 Templeton Course Prize in Religion and Science and has published seven books published. He wrote and co-wrote such books as “Jesus ACTED UP: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (1993),” and “Dead, But Not Lost: Grief Narratives in Religious Traditions (2005).”

Goss spoke of how “The Lord of the Rings” broadens the horizon of religious aspects to students.

“(The Lord of the Rings) deals with religious themes, addiction of the ring, hope and despair, the notion of fate,” Goss said. “J.R.R. Tolkien wrote this as a way for people to come to an understanding of religion, in fact he believes strongly that God used the unconscious creativity of storytelling to bring reality in myth.”

Goss would later get into the broad side of science fiction in correlation with religion and apply it to the meanings to life.

“I find that science fiction and fantasy is a form of religious language that people can appropriate for themselves and talk about,” Goss said. “We have to live by stories to find meaning in life so religious stories, fantasy and sci-fi stories provide some of the meaning.” ?

As far as how he grades a students’ knowledge of religious concepts, Goss said he does not believe in testing memorization.

“Generally, you memorize all these facts and you forget them the following week,” Goss said. “For me what I do for exams is a take-home essay because then you would have to organize your thoughts into a logical credible argument.”

To understand the religious concepts through science-fiction, such as “The Lord of the Rings,” Goss furthered his point of his way of getting the best out of all his students.

“I’m interested in testing thinking, I’m not interested in regurgitation of facts,” Goss said. “In my point of view, I want people to think for themselves and that’s one of the goals for introduction of religious studies.”

Arthur Vong can be reached at city@csun.edu.