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Saints vs. Sinners: Juniata Course Explores \'Good vs. Bad\'

(Posted October 23, 2006)

Don Braxton, professor of religion

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently called President George W. Bush "a devil," he wasn't literally calling the President a source of evil, but rather establishing himself as "a hero for the folks back home." says Donald Braxton, professor of religion at Juniata College.
Braxton used the recent Chavez-Bush name-calling incident to illustrate that all cultures have to establish a "good vs. bad" morality to ground the behavior of the people within that culture. Braxton is illustrating how all cultures set parameters of behavior through religious or cultural beliefs in his course "Saints and Sinners: Religious Biographies and the Construction of Demons," which runs through fall semester.
"This course is interesting for college students because the 18 to 22 age group is just beginning to understand who they are and what they want to be," Braxton explains. "So the process of finding out what makes you a saint or a sinner is very real for students."
Braxton does not use many references in the course to Christian saints such as John the Baptist or Saint Peter, instead he uses the more colloquial examples of comic book heroes, tales of demonic possession and the "coming-out" stories of gay men and women to make his points about modern saints and sinners.
"Superman must always have a nemesis that is an opposite, and those enemies often reflect the times in which we live," Braxton explains. "The saint and sinner create each other. The most long-term popular parallel is in the James Bond films, where the sinner started out as Russian evil geniuses and now James Bond fights the North Koreans or nameless terrorist cells."
Braxton has his students learn about the Christian tradition of saints by reading Saint Augustine's "Confessions," in which Saint Augustine discusses how he has readjusted his life from sin to goodness.
The theme of remaking a life to conform to a set morality runs through the entire course, as Braxton shows how different cultures use demons or saints to teach lessons about behavior. The idea of demonic possession or exorcism is not based in scientific fact, yet many cultures are fascinated with such a concept because it allows artists to address forbidden concepts in a public setting.
"Demons are captive to their own appetites, which are often sexual, and they pursue them in ways that are socially unacceptable," Braxton explains. "It's a way to recognize that there are a lot of things going on in the basement of our minds and using these 'demons' is a creative way to talk about what is unacceptable."
Braxton says this fascination is mirrored in his students' choices for a final research paper where students are required to analyze a major sinner or saint. "A huge majority choose the sinners -- Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Charles Manson -- rather than Mother Teresa," he says. "It's the same reason people will opt to see a horror film than a movie about Mother Teresa -- it's more dramatic."
By analyzing "coming-out" stories, Braxton discusses how gay men and women think of themselves as saints and sinners and how they approach ways to understand what is their place in the world. The personal look at how individuals struggle with their belief in what kind of behavior is right or wrong, compared to society's definition of what is right or wrong brings the course full circle back to the idea that there cannot be saints without sinners.

"My experience is that people do not model their own lives on the lives of the saints. Instead they are looking for ways to lead good lives."

By using religious themes and popular culture to give students a guide to understanding behavior, Braxton hopes to give voice to a new understanding that saints and sinners are not extreme examples of good and evil, but rather people who seek their place in the world.
" My experience is that people do not model their own lives on the lives of the saints. Instead they are looking for ways to lead good lives," he says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.