Religion as a Window on Culture


Allow time to view the video and review this section of the leader’s guide before meeting with your class. Determine what you will cover in the available class time.  Plan for any of the Optional Activities you would like to use and how you will integrate the work with the class.  Acquaint yourself with the following terms: divine, profane, ritual, sacred, saint, and symbol (see glossary). Take a few minutes to discuss them with the group.  It will be important that the group understand these terms as they view the video series.  Consult with members of your clergy when appropriate.  Finally, duplicate any materials you plan to distribute to the group.

(5 minutes)

Prepare your group to watch the video. (Read or paraphrase)

This episode serves as an introduction to the series and its main themes.  It also begins to address sacred space, and how houses of worship express the values of the people who worship there.  The series begins with space and specifically with traditional houses of worship because people easily recognize churches, synagogues, and mosques as sacred in their communities.   Other kinds of sacred space will be covered in Episode II.

The video illustrates how different religions regard and use space.  In particular, it will demonstrate what kind of space people consider sacred and why.

Use the following questions to engage your group in considering the video’s main concept.

  • What is sacred space?
  • What are examples of sacred spaces?
  • What are some of the qualities of space that you consider sacred?
  • What makes that space sacred?
  • Will people from different faith traditions answer these questions in the same way?

As you watch the video, listen carefully as spokespersons for different religious faiths explain their views on sacred space.  Notice the different ways that various faiths treat space.  These differences might include the shape of the building, the way it is decorated (or not decorated), how the seating (if there is seating) is arranged, who occupies different parts of the space, and what actions are performed in those spaces. Consider why such differences exist.


SHOW EPISODE I  (20 minutes) 

Allow time for members of the group to discuss what they have seen before proceeding with the rest of the discussion.

(10 minutes)

You may wish to use the following questions to lead the discussion.  (The answers to these questions will depend on the experience and knowledge of the group present.  It might be helpful to go over these questions in advance with a member of your congregation’s clergy so that you will be sure to have material to stimulate the conversation and the ability to bring information that those gathered might not know.)

  • How does your building and its architecture reflect the faith of your congregation?
  • What religious ideas are expressed in different parts of the building’s space—both inside and outside?
  • Have some of these ideas changed over time?  How?  If they have, do the physical features of the space (furnishings, pictures, plaques, etc.) make the congregation feel more connected with an earlier congregation, or more separated from it?
  • For your congregation and religious faith group, what makes space sacred?  How does this conception differ from what you saw of other faith groups in the video?

Recall statements from the video: “because a congregation meets there” (James Divita), or “all creation is separate from the creator; the entire world is a place of prayer” (Sayyid Syeed), or “a place where something unique has happened, an appearance, a miracle, or even the gathering of people over a long period of time” (Martin Marty).


Many of life’s most important events are marked by religious observance in a house of worship.  Many of you have had the opportunity to attend these pivotal ceremonies at the invitation of friends, neighbors, co-workers or family members.   You may have attended weddings, funerals, or a ceremony welcoming a new child in religious settings different from your own.

Think about your friends at school, work, or in the neighborhood.  Are the places they express their faith similar or different from yours?

With the examples from the video in mind, consider what simplicity or ornateness in design conveys about sacred space.

What congregations tend to have the most ornate designs?

Consider the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul and other Roman Catholic churches with stained glass windows and statuary of saints, or Joy of All Who Sorrow (Orthodox Christian) with its icons.  Recall the statement about the majesty and power of the divine.

What congregations tend to have the simplest design?

Recall the statement about Protestant churches and the Protestant belief about direct contact between the believer and the divine.  Modest decoration to guard against making “graven images” or “idols”.

What congregations had little to no decoration, including seating?

The mosque was nearly void of decoration except for lighting fixtures.



During the week, you might wish to think about your relationship to the different kinds of spaces in your lives.  How do you feel when you change from one kind of space to another?  Look around your workspace and the different areas of your dwelling space, at outdoor areas, and at the different kinds of space in your place of worship.  You might wish to discuss the use and presence of space with your family or a group of friends.



Ask group members to visit religious structures near your congregation’s meeting place.  Describe how each one is similar and different from your congregation’s building. Consider how the structures affect the congregational patterns of life.

A worksheet to assist group members is provided on the next page as a reproducible hand out, “Session I—Worksheet”.

You can approach this project in one of the following ways:

  1. Assemble a group of persons a few days before and give them this assignment to complete and bring to the session. Its results can provide the basis for discussion following the video.


  1. Use this project as a follow up to Session I.  Have participants report the results at the beginning of your next session.  A short discussion could follow, but the whole exercise of report and discussion should be limited so that it does not detract from the main points of Session II.


List the names of religious structures near your place of worship and note the similarities and/or differences from your congregation’s building.

  1. Congregation Name: ___________________

Features that make this building “look” religious: ___________________

Similarities:  ___________________

Differences:  ___________________

  1. Congregation Name: ___________________

Features that make this building “look” religious:  ___________________

Similarities:  ___________________

Differences:  ___________________

  1. Congregation Name: ___________________

Features that make this building “look” religious: ___________________

Similarities: ___________________

Differences: ___________________

  1. Congregation Name: ___________________

Features that make this building “look” religious: ___________________

Similarities: ___________________

Differences:  ___________________



  • Is there anything in the design or furnishings of your place of worship that is not essential to your worship experience?
  • Could anything be added to make your worship experience more meaningful?
  • Is the space accessible to children, the elderly, and those with disabilities?  If not, does this detract from the sacredness of the space?


  • Have you had the opportunity to visit buildings where other faith communities gather to worship?
    • Was it different from your regular place of worship?  How?
    • What thoughts did you have as you entered them?
    • What thoughts did you have if you participated in a service in the building?
  • In watching the video segments of prayer in the mosque:
    • Who did you see at prayer?
    • Who did you not see at prayer?
  • This is an instance where men and women worship separately.  They are both present in the mosque, but not in the same area.  Permission for video taping did not extend to taping Islamic women at prayer.
    • What might this tell you about Islamic cultures?
    • Are there similar examples in other religions?
    • What are the reasons behind similar examples of segregation in your tradition?



Many congregations do not worship in space they planned or built.  In fact, they might worship in space originally built by a group from a different religious faith.  If this is true of your congregation:

  • How does your building reflect the faith of the congregation that built your building?
  • What relationship does the congregation feel to its space now?
  • What has the congregation done to make the space more reflective of its own personality and religious ideas?
  • How much difference do you think it makes whether a congregation worships in a space it built or space that belongs to or was designed by persons of the same religion?