Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: Ancient Messiahs, Modern Cults: Studies in Religious Leadership

Instructor: James Brewster

This course will define leadership and authority in several religious traditions, including the figures of Mohammed, Buddha, and Jesus, especially because of recently uncovered controversial "gospels," The daVinci Code and challenges to religious truth from atheist writers. The course will also focus on the unique history of the leaders (and followers) of religious cults and movements in the United States.


Jenkins, Phillip (Distinguished Professor of History and Religion, Penn State University.) Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in America.

During the first class, students will select one of these books:

  • Christopher Moore: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff or
  • Anne Rice: Jesus Christ: Out of Egypt

Assumptions of the instructor:

  1. Given the frictions and conflicts which occur among people of faith with different histories and viewpoints, it is important to understand the founders of religious traditions and their particular expressions of leadership.
  2. The history of religion has included many different prophets, messiahs and leaders. The instructor remains "neutral" regarding the various traditions to be studied and no one religious figure will be considered of more "value" than any other.
  3. This course is an academic study of the historical meanings and applications of the word "Messiah" as it relates to various religions and religious movements.
  4. It is assumed that one shall respect all the religious traditions that are considered in the course. It is also assumed that students shall respect each other and their viewpoints.
  5. The students' personal religious views are not on the agenda for the course, nor will there be any effort to use the time in class to convince other students regarding these views.

Introduction to the Course

  • Overview of the Syllabus, including the purpose of the course and outline.
  • Student expectations and instructor's assumptions.
  • Judeo-Christian perspectives re: definition of "Messiah. Since these are more accessible and familiar, they will form the base of our study of several other understandings.

Defining "Messiah"

  • Classical definitions of "messiah", including theological terms, "theophany," "incarnation," "charisma," "blasphemy," "sacred," "secular," "prophet"
  • Discussion regarding both Hebrew and Christian perspectives. Review of Jesus' understanding of the word "Messiah." Introductory materials: Mohammed's understanding of his role as "prophet" in Islam, and biography about Buddha and his role as the founder of Buddhism.
  • Excerpts from the Jewish scripture re: various understandings of "Messiah"
  • The Gospel of John, outlining Jesus' perspective on "Messiah"
  • Excerpts, the Qur'an
  • Commentary from Buddha and Buddhist scholars

The Authority of Scripture

Investigating the importance of scripture regarding the "Truth" of "messiah" and religious tradition.

  1. Examining how the New Testament story of Jesus was drawn together and the principlesregarding which writings would be included or excluded in the final text.
  2. A brief survey of the Qur'an as "scripture" and a comparison and contrast with the texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
  3. The discovery and authority of the "Book of Mormon" in the 1800's. (Jenkins: sections on Latter-Day-Saints and Joseph Smith)
  • Handout from the instructor: Quotations from the Qur'an. and the early Buddhist writings
  • "Introduction" to The Book of Mormon, 1830 (Joseph Smith)
  • Film: "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essene Community" (VHS)

Archeology: Authority from the Past

Class discussion re: the inclusion of controversial gospels into the Christian scriptures. The discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hamadi challenge the traditional and orthodox ideas about Jesus and the messianic expectations of the Jews in the early centuries.

  • The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene
  • The Gospel of Judas
  • The Infancy Gospel of Luke
  • Films:
    • "The daVinci Code"
    • "The Infancy Gospel of Luke" (Banned from the Bible series, History Channel, VHS)

Jesus, Meet Mohammed

Those acquainted with Jesus will find Mohammed a completely different religious authority figure. We will examine the life of the Muslim prophet and look at his place in the culture of the Mideast. We will also deal with the concept of "blasphemy" in religious traditions, including the call for the assassination of Salman Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses (1988) and the more recent riotous response to the cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting Mohammed. An American "Christian" anti-Islam effort ("Flush the Koran") that originated here in North Carolina will also be examined.

  • Excerpts from The Qur'an describing Mohammed, the place of scripture, and the figure of Jesus, from an Islamic perspective.
  • Excerpts: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988)
  • Newspaper accounts: The Mohammed Cartoon series/freedom of the press, and an American (Protestant, North Carolina) response to Islamic scripture

Buddha, Meet Jesus

Two iconic pictures frame this session: first, the crucifix, at the center of many Christian churches, that depicts the agony and pain of the last moments of Jesus' life, and second, the sleeping Buddha, a popular statue, often of epic proportions, showing a reclining Buddha in meditation and peace just before his death. Jesus and Buddha? A strange comparison, yet these icons suggest a differing understanding of "messiah." and religious leadership.

The contemporary Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, envisions his role as a peacemaker, attempting to reconcile various religious and political viewpoints. In spite of major differences between Jesus and Buddha, Hanh shares a unique avenue of communication between the adherents of these major faiths.

  • Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

"Pop" Messiahs: Secular Challenges to the mystery of Messiah

Beginning in the 1960's, an effort to clarify the role of Jesus for those outside traditional organized religion resulted in musical productions--- the most notable a "pop" opera "Jesus Christ, SuperStar" (Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1970) followed by "Godspell (1973) Leave it to BBC's television company "Monty Python" to tackle the same issue as well. Their sardonic humor was expressed in a film, "Life of Brian," (1979) called "a timeless epic that's only 93 minutes long."

  • Excerpts from Jesus Christ SuperStar (DVD) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (DVD)

Contributions from popular writing

In writing Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein established himself, in 1969, as the first master of science fiction, a book that some say is the best science fiction novel ever written. The novel describes the arrival of Valentine Michael Smith to earth from Mars, where he was born, and his adjustment to a brand new culture. With his miraculous ability and Martian philosophy, he eventually becomes a messianic preacher. Since then, the idea of "messiah" has been popular theme in politics and religion. Tonight's class focuses on the insights gained from two authors, one uninvolved in religious matters (Christopher Moore) and the other, a writer of popular fiction (Anne Rice) who sees herself on a personal and important spiritual journey.

  • Reports from students re: Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff and Anne Rice's Jesus Christ: Out of Egypt

Taking Atheists Seriously

In 2004, an Italian atheist sued a local Roman Catholic priest for alleging that the Church, in general and the local congregation, in particular, for perpetrating a major hoax regarding the figure of Jesus and living off the results of what he called an unsubstantiated hoax.

In 2008, the institution of religion has taken several hits from several authors, including Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) who questions the reality of God and the institutions of faith. Class discussion will include the historicity of religious figures including Jesus and Mohammed.

  • Richard Dawson's The God Delusion, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co, 2006)

American Messiahs: The unique religious history of the United States

Discussion of opening chapters in Jenkins including his definition of cults and fringe religions and the multiplicity of these movements particular to the United States in the early 1800's.

  • Jenkins, Chapter 1: Overrun with Messiahs, and
  • Chapter 2, False Prophets and Deluded Subjects

Cults and Recent Histories

An examination and discussion of leaders/followers in the most recent past, including the story of Rev. Jim Jones, Peoples' Temple and eventual Jonestown, Guyana tragedy, David Koresh's Branch Davidian, cult, resulting in the Waco raid and fire, Scientology, with special emphasis on Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentialist Latter Day Saints.

  • Jenkins, Chapter 8: The New Boom, 1960-1980, and
  • Chapter 9: Cult Wars, 1969-1985, and
  • Chapter 10: Devil Cults and Doomsday Cults, 1980-2000, and
  • Chapter 11: Teeming with Faith

Last Update: September 8, 2017