Academics and Research

Professor incorporates role-playing games into study of religion

Gregory Robbins takes a unique approach to teaching the history of Christianity and the scriptures, as evidenced by two of his most popular classes: Science and Religion in Dialogue: The Case of Darwin, an advanced seminar course that engages students in interactive role play, and Jesus on the Silver Screen, a religious studies course on the life of Jesus with a film studies twist.

Robbins, associate professor and chair in the religious studies department, has integrated role-playing games into his advanced seminar on Darwin for the past several years.

In the games, students are assigned roles that either commit them to specific sides of major historical events or allow them to play the parts of undecided characters, open to persuasion by their fellow players. Each character has specific victory objectives that can be won by researching historical issues or persuading others to vote with them on particular issues, or through intrigue related to the play of the game.

“I see markedly improved research, writing, speaking and leadership skills,” Robbins says of students who complete the course. “They come to appreciate what it means to engage in important texts and history creatively and responsibly and build a community in which all participants are simultaneously teachers and learners. I’d like to think it’s a classroom experience they’ll never forget.”

Robbins plans to incorporate a newly released game, “Kansas 1999: Evolution and Creation Science,” to his spring advanced seminar. The game is based on the decision in 1999–2000 by Christian conservatives on the Kansas Board of Education to delete macroevolution and Big Bang cosmology from the state science curriculum.

“I’ve long been interested in the dialogue between science and religion in Darwin’s own time, in 19th-century England,” Robbins says. “I’m equally interested in how Darwin and Darwinism have fared in America. This game raises questions about the role of religion in American society, the power of religious fundamentalism in the modern world and the nature of science.”

Robbins’ course Jesus on the Silver Screen unites his passion for film studies with the academic study of religion. The course approaches the life of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels and as reflected in film.

“This is a course about how Jesus films serve to convey modern cultural assumptions,” Robbins says. “Jesus films provide a marvelous lens through which to view the relationship between film and culture, especially the ways in which films serve to shape culture and the way history is recollected.”

Robbins has a PhD in history of Christianity from Duke University. He has taught at DU since 1988 and has directed the Anglican Studies Program at the Iliff School of Theology since 2003. In 1990 he received the Burlington-Northern Award for Teaching Excellence, and in 2010 was named Outstanding Teacher by the Joint University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Ph.D. Program Student Association.

“Religion is a key ingredient in many of the puzzles we must solve if we are to understand our contemporary world,” Robbins says. “College students trying to negotiate the world in which we live could do no better than to broaden their knowledge of the world’s religious traditions. If we are willing to grapple with them on the basis of a generous, disciplined study, we come away with a depth of historical, political and social understanding few are able to match.”

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