The followers of Jesus, who came to be called Christians, have practiced and preached their beliefs for centuries. Their actions and achievements, their abilities and energies, have changed the course of history and the nature of belief. Many are well known, but many more are obscure or even nameless. The Lives of Great Christians will introduce you to some of Christianity's luminaries. You will know once you meet them why they are great, and you will be interested and inspired by the many ways they found to live lives of faith.
You will stand spellbound in the crowd, listening to Bernardino and Augustine preach and teach. You will visit the solitary cells and see the visions of Bernard, Clare, and Catherine. You will witness the negotiations as Gregory VII and Leo IX reform the Church. You will hear the verdict of heresy against John Hus and Martin Luther. You will cross the Egyptian desert to seek the wisdom of Antony, and you will keep company with saints, missionaries, and martyrs. And as you do, you will learn what Christians believe, how that belief has shaped world history, and what these stewards of faith can tell us today.
Christianity is more than doctrine or theology, and even more than prayer. For many it is the daily effort to live one's faith in every time and place. The Lives of Great Christians introduces you to those who have done so over the centuries and shows the many paths they found. You will learn about real lives that exemplify Christian faith in action:
- Bernard brought 30 friends and relatives along to enter the monastery with him.
- Clare ran away to follow Francis and created a new form of spiritual community for women.
- Antony lived alone in the desert for 87 years, reading the Book of Nature and communing with God in solitude.
- Maximilian Kolbe took the place of a family man condemned to death in Auschwitz.
- The monks of Athos live as hermits as well as in communities, dedicating themselves to a life and place largely unchanged since the 10th century.
If you are a student of history, you will understand more about Christianity's role in it. Christianity didn't just change believers; it defined all of Europe, eastern as well as western, and set many of the world's nations on a course still apparent today. Your appreciation of these eminent Christians' lives will rise with illuminating examples of Christianity's role in world history and culture, as well as intellectual and political contexts:
- The Crusades: Efforts to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims often included persecuting the Jews at home.
- The Plague Years: Recurrent epidemics decimated populations and caused political and economic instability and labor shortages. Many blamed Church corruption and saw the plagues as God's punishment.
- The Church of England: When Henry VIII divorced the pope so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon, he set the stage for centuries of continuous dissent.
- The Reformation: When the Church cracked down on dissidents, Brother Martin Luther took his stand.
If you are curious about the future of Christianity, you will find out how dynamic it has always been—and still is. Christianity has never been a monolithic and unchallenged set of practices and beliefs but a community with a long history of growth and change that continues today. From that community have come inspirational leaders such as Mother Teresa, who called loneliness the greatest problem of our time. She acted on her belief that no one, no matter how poor or sick, should die alone, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. And Gustavo Gutiérrez, the founder of Liberation Theology, declared that the Church's highest duty was to the poor, a belief that has changed the nature of Christian ministry in Latin America and beyond.
Luminaries of Christianity
The Lives of Great Christians is a wide-ranging chronological survey. Dr. Cook, a vigorous and articulate lecturer, defines Christians as followers of Jesus, and considers especially the lives of those who have sought the virtues of humility, faith, and charity. How does a Christian life combine action, thought, prayer, and contemplation? How are Christian lives different in different times, places, and situations? "What does it mean to be a great Christian?" Dr. Cook asks. "There are an awful lot of answers, and some of them may surprise you."
The course ranges across 21 centuries, five continents, and several denominations. Dr. Cook, a medieval historian with a special interest in the history of Christianity, calls on his scholarly knowledge and also on personal experience to introduce us to those he calls "superstars of faith."
We learn about real human beings with real difficulties and imperfections—Paul the impatient, Augustine the lusty, Catherine the stubborn, Martin Luther the intolerant—who have achieved spiritual distinction. Many, like Augustine, Bernard, Francis, and Clare, have changed the nature of Christianity itself. They spring to life against a backdrop of Church history, culture, and politics.
We come away with a vivid sense of the world these believers lived in—how they were part of their time, as well as how they transcended their times. When Clare ran away to follow Francis rather than marrying, for example, her family lost a chance to make an economic alliance. And when Bernard preached against persecuting the Jews during the Crusades, he stood against prevailing opinion. As we follow Christianity's institutional and political development we come to understand the continuing role of reformers: Bernard, John Hus, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, churchmen themselves who followed their faith and found themselves bitterly at odds with other churchmen.
Human, Imperfect—and Faithful
This course will give you a clearer understanding of how Christianity has developed and changed. You will see Christianity in action, whether the action is Antony the hermit moving deeper and deeper into the desert as seekers and askers overrun him, or Benedict working out his rules for monastic life.
Dr. Cook starts by sharing his perspective: "I'm a Christian. I'm a Catholic. I'm an active Catholic." Eloquent, knowledgeable, amusing, and warm, he calls on his broad understanding of history and culture and on his personal and spiritual experience to examine "people whose lives are eloquent testimonies to the struggle … to live an authentic Christian life."
Dr. Cook shows us human beings with imperfections and inadequacies: Bernardino hunted witches and hounded homosexuals; Bernard preached death to Muslims in the Second Crusade; Martin Luther urged the persecution of the Jews; and Thomas More wrote fierce attacks on Luther. Nevertheless, they put aside their selfishness and resistance as best they could to follow Jesus, sometimes in harmony with the Church but sometimes despite it.
How Have We Loved?
"How did I make judgments in putting together a course about who the great Christians are?" asks Dr. Cook. "To me, the 17th-century German Lutheran Johann Arndt said it best: When we stand before Christ the judge, Christ is not going to ask us what we know. He is going to ask us how we have loved."