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Great World Religions: Christianity

Great World Religions: Christianity

Course No.  6101
Course No.  6101
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

As the world's largest religion, with more than two billion members, Christianity is "one of religion's great success stories," notes Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, himself a former Benedictine monk. But Christianity is more than large and popular—it is extremely complex and often highly contradictory.

Christianity's Central Creeds: Difficult to Fathom

Uniquely, Christianity asserts that its central figure, Jesus Christ, was not only a man but also God. The central elements of its creed—that there are three persons in one God, for example—are often difficult to accept or understand.

It emphasizes belief rather than law and ritual practice. And it is highly susceptible to paradox:

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As the world's largest religion, with more than two billion members, Christianity is "one of religion's great success stories," notes Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, himself a former Benedictine monk. But Christianity is more than large and popular—it is extremely complex and often highly contradictory.

Christianity's Central Creeds: Difficult to Fathom

Uniquely, Christianity asserts that its central figure, Jesus Christ, was not only a man but also God. The central elements of its creed—that there are three persons in one God, for example—are often difficult to accept or understand.

It emphasizes belief rather than law and ritual practice. And it is highly susceptible to paradox:

  • Bearing a message of peace and unity, it has often been a source of conflict and division.
  • Proclaiming a heavenly kingdom, it has often been deeply involved with mundane politics.
  • Rejecting worldly wisdom, it has claimed the intellectual allegiance of great minds.

These apparent contradictions arise from the complex character of Christianity's claims about God, the world, and above all, Jesus of Nazareth, whose death and resurrection form the heart of the good news proclaimed by this religious tradition.

"The lectures concentrate on the basics," says Professor Johnson. "They seek to provide a clear survey of the most important elements of this religious tradition and a framework for the student's further study."

Professor Johnson is the author of several hundred articles and reviews as well as 21 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (1996).

In his course, you will consider fundamental issues including:

  • Christianity's birth and expansion across the Mediterranean world
  • The development of its doctrine
  • Its transformation after Christianity became the imperial religion of Rome
  • Its many and deep connections to Western culture
  • Tensions within Christianity today.

Discover a Great World Religion

This course introduces Christianity as a world religion. The obvious first questions to ask are: "What is a religion?" and "What is a world religion?"

The word religion can be defined as "a way of life organized around experiences and convictions concerning ultimate power."

A world religion has experience and convictions that successfully organize a way of life beyond local, ethnic, or national boundaries.

By any measure, Christianity must be considered a world religion because:
  • It claims more adherents than any other religion and is the dominant tradition among many diverse populations.
  • It has 2,000 years of history, making it younger than Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but older than Islam.
  • It is complex both in its internal development and in its engagement with culture.
  • It is remarkably various in its manifestations, existing not only in three distinct groups (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant), but in thousands of specific styles.
  • Much of the world operates on a dating system that has as its central reference the birth of Jesus: B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno Domini, or, the year of our Lord).

Beginning as a sect of Judaism in an obscure province of the Roman Empire in the 1st century, it became the official religion of the empire by the 4th century and dominated the cultural life of Europe for much of its history.

Although Christianity's influence has declined in Europe and North America, it continues to expand worldwide. In the First World, Christian fundamentalism struggles with modernity. Yet, in the 21st century, Christianity is poised for a possible renaissance in developing nations, where millions of new followers are drawn to its central and powerful claim: the resurrection of Christ.

Manifestations of Christianity

Professor Johnson's synthetic approach provides first an overview of the Christian story, how it understands history from creation to new creation—and the relation of scripture to that history, and the Christian creed: what Christians believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the church.

He explains Christian practice as expressed, in turn, by the structure of the community and its sacraments, by the struggles of Christians to find a coherent and consistent moral teaching, and by various manifestations of Christianity's more radical edge in martyrs, monks, mendicants, missionaries, and mystics.

Professor Johnson's lectures also deal with internal and external conflicts:

  • The division of Christianity into three great families: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.
  • The centuries-long struggle to find an appropriate role within the political structures of society.
  • Christianity's past and present engagement with culture and the life of the mind, with particular emphasis on the impact of the Enlightenment.

Christianity's Distinct Character and Possibilities

By the end of this course, students will have a grasp of:

  • Christianity's distinctive character
  • Major turning points in its history
  • Its most important shared beliefs and practices
  • Its sharp internal divisions
  • Its struggles to adapt to changing circumstances
  • Christianity's continuing appeal to many of the world's peoples.

Harold McFarland, editor of Midwest Book Review, writes about this course: "If you want a good understanding of Christianity from a historical perspective—where it came from, where it is going, how its doctrines have come about and how they have changed, this is one of the best places to acquire that knowledge."

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    Christianity among World Religions
    This first lecture introduces Christianity by locating it among other world religions and providing basic facts: its number of adherents, their geographical distribution, the variety of lifestyles they follow, and the length and complexity of its history. Christianity is compared to other major religious traditions with respect to its founder, form of community, sacred texts, doctrine, ritual, moral code, and mysticism. x
  • 2
    Birth and Expansion
    How did a small sect within 1st-century Judaism become a world religion? This lecture considers some of the components of an answer in Jesus of Nazareth and the earliest writings of the Christian movement. x
  • 3
    Second Century and Self-Definition
    This lecture traces the story of Christianity from the state of the small and persecuted communities at the beginning of the 2nd century to the emergence of a well-organized and well-defined church at the start of the 3rd century. x
  • 4
    The Christian Story
    Christianity is both deeply historical and mythical in its way of seeing the world. The Christian story provides a comprehensive narrative that extends from the creation of the world to the end of time. The basis of this narrative is found in Scripture, made up of the Old and New Testaments. x
  • 5
    What Christians Believe
    Belief, or doctrine, is more important to Christianity than to other religious traditions, such as Judaism or Islam, in part because of Christianity's origin as a sect within Judaism. This lecture sketches the origins and development of the creed, touches on its continuing controversial place in Christianity, then focuses on the central tenets of faith expressed by the 4th-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. x
  • 6
    The Church and Sacraments
    One of the results of Christianity becoming the imperial religion under Constantine in the 4th century is that its structures expanded to meet its new place in the world. The church grew from small local assemblies into a worldwide organization with a hierarchical structure, extensive material holdings, and substantial social obligations. x
  • 7
    Moral Teaching
    Every religious tradition demands of adherents a manner of living consonant with its understanding of the world. Unlike Judaism and Islam, however, Christianity has struggled to formulate a consistent moral code. This is partly due to its ambivalence concerning law and partly to its emphasis on internal transformation. Over time, elements from Scripture have been supplemented by other sources, such as Greek philosophy. x
  • 8
    The Radical Edge
    From the very beginning, the tension between conservative and radical tendencies can be seen in the ministry of Jesus, in the writings of Saint Paul, and in the Book of Revelation. As Christianity in both the East and West adapted itself to the structures of society, certain Christians maintained the radical edge in their manner of life: the martyrs, the monks, the missionaries, and the mystics. x
  • 9
    Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant
    Despite its ideal of unity, Christianity has always experienced divisions from within, some of which persist to this day. This lecture identifies the historical circumstances of the two greatest moments of division: the schism between Orthodox and Catholic in the 11th century and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. x
  • 10
    Christianity and Politics
    Christianity began as a minority intentional community that was socially marginalized and persecuted by imperial power. Over the centuries, it became closely associated with state power, and the shadow of the Constantinian era continues until today. The American, French, and Russian political revolutions ushered in the Post-Constantinian era, which poses fresh challenges to Christians. x
  • 11
    Christianity and Culture
    At its beginning, Christianity rejected philosophy and was regarded by the sophisticated as a form of superstition. This lecture describes how, through the centuries, Christianity shaped and was shaped by every development in culture. The secularization of culture that began with the Enlightenment has progressively severed culture from Christianity, and modernity increasingly challenges the rationality of Christianity itself. x
  • 12
    Tensions and Possibilities
    Christianity faces a number of challenges. Especially in the First World, Christians are deeply divided about how to respond to modernity, politics, and the intellectual life. A variety of religious impulses throughout the world indicate that, despite many premature obituaries, this ancient and complex religious tradition remains lively and, for many, life-giving. x

Lecture Titles

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Luke Timothy Johnson
Ph.D. Luke Timothy Johnson
Emory University

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson has taught at Yale Divinity School and Indiana University, where he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium in Teaching, and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award for teaching. At Emory University, he has twice received the On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the Candler School of Theology Outstanding Service Award. His most recent award is the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for the ideas set forth in his 2009 book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Professor Johnson is the author of more than 20 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is widely used as a textbook. He has also published several hundred scholarly articles and reviews.

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Rated 4.2 out of 5 by 21 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by Verbose, critical, biased presentation I feel that this course gets seriously bogged down very early on, when the professor, a former Benedictine monk and Roman Catholic priest (married in 1974), goes into great detail about the books that did NOT make it into the New Testament, and pontificates on the various groups which had totally different views of Christianity than what eventually won out and became "orthodoxy". I would venture to say that most Christians today are not at all aware of the rejected writings or of the many "non-orthodox" sects of the 2nd century. Strange that after spending so much time on the early diversity of Christian belief, Dr Johnson does not, in later lectures, mention, for example, today's 7th Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Amish, or Mormons. Dr Johnson loves to use fairly obscure terms and to delve into minutiae, but this approach can easily become obfuscating in this kind of course which is, in effect, an introduction to Christianity, an explanation of how the religion came about and what it's about. This course should present the Christian religion as simply as possible... NOT go to pains to show the various divisions which existed and exist... NOT wallow in sometimes vague philosophical and intellectual considerations... NOT to be so verbose. For anyone not reasonably familiar with the beliefs of Christianity, the first few lectures must be inordinately confusing and potentially off-putting. How many Christians have heard of Nestorianism, Docetism, the Dialogue with Trypho, Cosmic Dualism, or the Letter of Diognetus? Btw, Dr Johnson's insistence on making a guttural sound for the "h" in Mohammed I find very irritating. I know that this lecturer is a personal favourite with many Great Courses reviewers, but to me he comes across as smug and pompous, exudes an air of superiority and even disdain. Lecture 6 proved amusing, as the professor explains the development of Christian church-building and the liturgy in what he calls "the imperial religion" (after Constantine). In lecture 7, he seems to miss the point that Jesus Christ came to start a NEW religion; he registers great surprise that Jesus did not keep and promote all the existing Jewish laws! Jesus was teaching something NEW! That is a very basic tenet of Christianity... Jesus introduced a NEW way of thinking, he did not come to confirm all the old Jewish laws and rules! Dr Johnson's love of big words comes to the fore again in this lecture when he speaks of an "antinomian" theme. I bet not one person in fifty has ever heard that word! And right after that comes the word heteronymous, which he applies to the law, as being "a norm outside of us". Hmmm. Then we're told that the ten commandments "had an enduring normative for us." Increasingly, Dr Johnson is a harsh critic of Christianity, becoming very emphatic in his delivery and stating that the New Testament is counter-cultural. The impression I had from all this was that Dr Johnson himself had some personal issues that were flavouring his talk, that he had an axe to grind. And on he goes to highlight contradictions in the New Testament. Now he's REALLY on his soapbox -- at this stage I became utterly disenchanted with the course, but I continued on to the end. Definitely NOT recommended. July 5, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Competent, clear but nothing new I belong to a group of retired people who take great courses together. We have studied, art, history, music and now religion. This time around we decided to do ALL of the Worlds Great Religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. I am going to leave our overall rating for each course in each of the five reviews I am writing here. Our final order as it turned out is the same order in which we viewed the courses: Judaism (4 Stars), Christianity (3 Stars), Islam (3 Stars), Hinduism (1 Star), Buddhism (No Stars). Our group, 12 of us, are "church" people. A mix of Christian denominations quite knowledgeable of the history of the Christian Church, and steeped in the creed, code and cult of that faith. The course was a good review but for anyone with more than a passing knowledge/experience of Christianity Dr. Johnson will be just a comfortable companion as you refresh your memory. February 15, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent introduction This 12-lecture course is a very efficient and effective overview of Christianity as a world religion. Prof. Johnson is energetic and articulate, and each lecture is very thoughtfully constructed. The course requires focused attention because Prof. Johnson covers a lot of material in each lecture and moves each lecture along at a brisk pace. The Teaching Company has an impressive inventory of religion courses in general and on Christianity in particular, and I think this course is a great place to start for an interested student. All in all, a very worthwhile course. Highly recommended. April 6, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent, Largely Historical, Summary [Audio] I bought this as a part of the "Great Religions" series. So far I've listend to the Islam part and this one, and this is much better than the one on Islam. Professor Johnson is very clear and easy to listen too. He presents an objective appraisal of the history of the rise of Christianity, Christian doctrine, and its place in the world today. As a non-religious person myself, I am intrigued as to why so many of the best and brightest throughout history have devoted so much time to theology - why there has been so much work attempting to justify something (to me) so implausible. This is not a theology course, so it doesn't really address THAT particular question (and doesn't claim to), but what it does get to cover in 12 lectures is clearly expressed. I expect much of the content would be new to many who are of the Christian faith, as well as those, like myself, raised in a Christian country but not observant. I notice that the TC does offer a theology course, but as it's taught by Prof. Cary, it puts me off, due to my experience in trying to follow his reasoning in the "Great Ideas" course. If only they had hired Prof. Johnson for the job! March 20, 2013
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