Lives of Great Christians

Course No. 6481
Professor William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
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Course No. 6481
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Course Overview


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."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction—What Makes a Great Christian?
    This lecture discusses the difficulties for Christians in ascertaining how to follow Jesus today. Scripture in translation may not accurately convey Jesus' words and thoughts, and without that guidance, it's hard for them to find their own paths. x
  • 2
    Paul and the First Christian Missionaries
    The apostles were the first missionaries; Paul was the greatest. This lecture traces Paul's travels throughout the world and gives us a sense of the man who was possessive of "his" converts, tireless in spreading the Gospel, impatient with delays, and eloquent in writing and preaching. x
  • 3
    The Early Martyrs
    This lecture examines the reasons why Christians have often died for their faith, and introduces us to the martyrs. Among them are Polycarp, Stephen, and Felicity and Perpetua, who were persecuted before Constantine's conversion, which made Christianity the faith of the Roman Empire. x
  • 4
    St. Antony, the First Monk
    Some early Christians lived communally, and some were hermits. Antony, who withdrew to the desert alone at 18 and died at 105, was the first monk. This lecture looks at his life, his discipline, and his insights about the value of solitude, labor, stability, and prayer for those who would follow Jesus. x
  • 5
    The Desert Fathers and Mothers
    Monasteries began in Egypt. Desert monks like Pachomius, Basil, and Evagrius left records of their wisdom; some monks were women. Their writings are full of tough-minded wisdom gained in the struggle against themselves. x
  • 6
    Augustine is one of the most important Christian writers. His life, and especially his conversion, infuse his writing. This lecture shows us who Augustine was and how he found faith. x
  • 7
    St. Patrick and the Conversion of Ireland
    Patrick, born in Britain and raised a Christian, was abducted by the Irish as a teenager and enslaved. He escaped and returned to spread the Gospel. He brought the gift of faith to his captors and made Ireland a Christian stronghold. x
  • 8
    St. Benedict and His Rule
    Monasticism spread throughout the West, but monks' lives were various and disorganized until Benedict, who began as a hermit, transformed monastic life with what is now called The Rule of St. Benedict, written about 530. It combined strictness and flexibility, as well as wisdom, and became the universal guide for Western monks. x
  • 9
    Leo IX, Gregory VII, and Church Reform
    By the mid-11th century, the papacy and other ecclesiastical institutions had become secular and corrupt. By asserting papal authority over local churches, prohibiting the lay choice of bishops and abbots, and at least on occasion asserting general papal overlordship of the world, the great reform popes of the 11th century, most importantly Leo IX and Gregory VII, sought the general reform of the Church. But papal reform also caused the split between the eastern and western branches of Christianity. x
  • 10
    Bernard of Clairvaux and Monastic Reform
    Because monasteries had become wealthy by owning land, monastic life was also intertwined with secular values by the mid-11th century. Then came the great reformer Bernard, the monk, mystic, and leader who founded a Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux and ultimately made the Cistercians the first real religious order with cen¬tralized authority and a common practice. x
  • 11
    Francis of Assisi
    Francis came from a wealthy merchant family but chose a life of poverty, giving away all he had, including his clothes, and standing naked at the square in Assisi. His call was not only to poverty but to rebuild the Church. This lecture shows Francis's character—the joy he took in poverty—and his humility and faith, the virtues on which he founded the Franciscan order. x
  • 12
    Clare of Assisi
    Clare, who was born into the aristocracy, ran away from home to follow Francis; he supported her effort to found a Franciscan community for women. As men joined Francis, women joined Clare. They lived out the values of the Franciscans but did so as women, living in a cloistered community of poverty and faith. x
  • 13
    Catherine of Siena
    Catherine, one of only three female Doctors of the Church, was extraordinary in being active in Siena at a time when women didn't go into the streets alone. She nursed the sick and became a counselor to all kinds of people, including a condemned criminal, a prostitute, and the pope, whom she advised boldly and directly to return to Rome—advice he took. x
  • 14
    Bernardino of Siena
    Bernardino is considered one of the most influential Christian preachers and a noted Franciscan reformer. He preached sermons that interpreted Christian principles for the rising merchant class. x
  • 15
    John Hus and the Hussites
    At the end of the 14th century, a moral reform movement began in Prague. Reformers preached in Czech throughout German-dominated Bohemia, calling for a return to God and frequent communion. When John Hus, who questioned papal authority, became their leader, he was excommunicated. He appealed, and was marched out and burned at the stake. The Hussites were eventually forced back into orthodoxy; however, their reforms survived only in the Moravian Brethren, who later influenced John Wesley. x
  • 16
    Thomas More
    More was born into privilege, highly educated, cosmopolitan, politically well connected, and apparently quite worldly. But he was a man of strong and humble faith. When he refused to recognize Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, Henry executed him. x
  • 17
    Martin Luther
    Luther was a prolific and insightful commentator on scripture, an Augustinian friar, and a teacher at the University of Wittenberg. Certainly he was the first Protestant and the father of the Reformation, but he was also a man of extreme faith burdened by his failings, and a man of courage who proclaimed the truths of Christianity as he understood them. x
  • 18
    John Wesley and the Origins of Methodism
    When John and Charles Wesley were at Oxford, they founded the Holy Club in response to what they considered Anglicanism's empty formalism. They wanted to study scripture methodically, not just go to services or superficially believe. Their club, and their approach, eventually grew into a new denomination, which drew from the Moravians' ideas on faith and love. x
  • 19
    The Monks of Mount Athos
    For 1,000 years, Orthodox hermits and communities have lived on Mt. Athos in Greece. Today they live as they always have, in a place outside time, with no electricity, roads, or women. What do these men, in this remote and protected enclave, have to tell us about Orthodoxy and about contemporary Christian practice? Dr. Cook recounts what he's learned on his own visits to a place most people can never go. x
  • 20
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe
    Modern Christians, too, still die for their faith. The Nazis jailed Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, and transported Max­i­milian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan, to Auschwitz. This lecture recounts these 20th-century Christians' lives and deaths at the hands of the state they opposed. x
  • 21
    Damien of Molokai and Teresa of Calcutta
    A central call of Christian life is to care for "the least." Father Damien and Mother Teresa are two great Christians who answered that call. Damien's mission was to help Hawaii's lepers, and Mother Teresa's was to help India's poor. x
  • 22
    From Slavery to Martin Luther King
    Africans brought to America as slaves were baptized and instructed in Christianity. But the faith of African American slaves stressed freedom and justice. This faith, evident in slave spirituals, persisted in black churches, and gave rise to the civil rights movement. This lecture shows why social justice was a deeply rooted religious goal in Martin Luther King's life and work. x
  • 23
    Gustavo Gutierrez and Liberation Theology
    Christianity today flourishes in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, the Philippines, and South Korea. Poverty is a great concern; Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez believes that pastors must minister first to the poor because the poor need them more. This lecture introduces us to Gutiérrez's liberation theology and to its implications for Christian practice. x
  • 24
    Defining the Christian Life
    Now, with much more background, we can revisit the question of what makes a great Christian and decide what our superstars have in common. The answer is simple but profound: the greatest Christians love most greatly. x

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Your professor

William R. Cook

About Your Professor

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses...
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Lives of Great Christians is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 79.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course! So glad I purchased this course. Very Interesting. This course is suitable for Christians or non Christians. The history was fascinating and I really enjoyed Professor Cook.
Date published: 2020-10-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good Professor Cook is highly knowledgeable and gives a fascinating introduction and perspective to the lives of these Christians.
Date published: 2020-06-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Following Christ's Example I found that this course gave me a greater appreciate for what it takes to be a real follower of Christ. Actions speak louder than words and people like the Desert Fathers, Kolbe, St. Francis and Mother Teresa all committed to lives lives as close to the Christ-like idea of its founder. The best thing about this course is that it is making look hard at my own faith to see how I can create a better world for everyone.
Date published: 2020-02-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Conversion (Paul) to Liberation (Gutierrez) To begin, I am not at all sure why this course exists. It offers no consistent intellectual, academic or even theological theme. Just a series of short “life and times” of several “Great Christians”, at least as defined by Professor Cook. Perhaps it was a passion of his and he sold the teaching company on the idea, or it is possible that as he is one of the more well received instructors in the TC stable, he was asked to go to well one more time. No matter as I quite like Dr. Cook as an instructor and thought picking it up worth my time and money. What I got for my purchase was a decided mixed bag. In many cases the lectures were not quite bios, but rather a description of a group of Christians at a certain time and place (e.g. “The Desert Fathers and Mothers). In other instances, such as Clare of Assisi Dr. Cook comes closer to a straight biography, albeit one focused on her Christian works and life. The course layout is mostly chronological, beginning with Paul, going through the early church, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and on up to the modern era and ending with the Liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez. (not really a Marxist in the capitalist pejorative sense). A pretty standard approach that would work well if only there were an overall unifying theme, (other than the obvious one in the course title). For example other than all of these persons being significant Christians, I was not convinced that the jump from Thomas More to Martin Luther was smooth, nor made much sense. To be fair, sometimes the move from lecture to lecture worked well as in the case of Francis of Assisi to Clare of Assisi. I was initially puzzled by some of Dr. Cook’s choices for inclusion (Bernardino of Siena for example), but after listening to the accompanying lecture I was satisfied that the choices were reasonable. Those with a reasonable background may not find much new in some of the lectures. Time of course dictates somewhat of a surface approach in many cases. For example, Augustine gets one lecture hardly enough to cover much given the amount of material available (TTC alone as two courses just on him). Still in the main I found something new in almost every lecture and a few covered new ground (for me). As always Professor Cook has a spirited and enthusiastic delivery—it is clear that he enjoys his subject and the joy comes across. As I took the course in audio, I only missed his colorful collection of ties, shirts and jackets. Otherwise I think the audio is good enough. Recommended, but you might give this a miss if you already know much about those being discussed, or wish a more academically structured course.
Date published: 2020-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Examples This course offers many great examples of people who lived outstanding Christian lives. The course surprised me, in a good way, in the amount of time given to analyzing what it means to be a great Christian. Not everyone has the same definition of what makes a great Christian, and the professor does a great job explaining the different approaches and criteria. The professor also presented many compelling and inspiring lives.
Date published: 2020-02-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Prof. Cook Course I have bought three Lives of Great Christians. Yes, it's that good. Prof. Cook is a wonderful teacher -- informative, interesting, and humorous at times. I think I've bought every course he has taught.
Date published: 2019-04-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some Insight into Great Christian Lives This is the 4th course that I have completed from the Great Courses. Of course, while listening to it you tend to compare it to the other ones that you have finished. This one doesn't quite rank as high as the others, however it is not a bad course at all. Professor Cook's delivery and speaking style are pretty good, I didn't have too much of an issue with that, other than at times he could get kind of monotone. His choices for his lectures were pretty interesting, although you could tell his favorites were Catholics from the 1100's-1500's, especially Saint Francis of Assisi, which is fine, every professor has a right to his own preferences. Some of the lectures were very good, I especially liked the lectures on Damien of Molokai, John Wesley, Clare of Assisi, and St. Patrick. I tended to enjoy the lives of the Christians that I knew less about. Some of the lectures did not go very deep and I'm not sure that I learned too much from some of the lectures. My wife also listened to the first half of these lectures with me and she said that they were fairly surface. So those who are hoping for really profound insights may be disappointed. I felt these were just overviews of their lives, which if they are new to you, this can be exactly what you are looking for. So, of course, it depends upon what you bring to these lectures. I did find it valuable to have a chance to hear more about the Christians that I hadn't studied much of before, so that made it worth it, for me.
Date published: 2019-04-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The professor made a good selection. I really enjoyed this course - but I have yet to read the booklet.
Date published: 2019-02-16
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