Great World Religions: Christianity

Course No. 6101
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 6101
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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  • 83-page printed course guidebook
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  • 83-page printed course guidebook
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  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Luke Timothy Johnson

About Your Professor

Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
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...
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Great World Religions: Christianity is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 31.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb teaching This is my second course with this lecturer and I am totally impressed with the style and content of his presentations. His descriptions are precise, coherent and a pleasure to hear and there is no “dumbing down” of the content. I highly recommend his courses.
Date published: 2020-09-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from He clearly does not respect Christian or christian Johnson ridicules christian practices throughout the lecture using terms like; Jesus is a failed Jew, Jesus uses the outrageous term Amen, Christian services are bells and whistles, Constantine's conversion to Christianity was an accident, and others. Why did the Great Courses company choose this "failed priest?" They chose a respected Rabbi to conduct the Jewish course. A man who explained Jewish history and practices in a professional and respectful way. I regret ever purchasing the Johnson course. The Great Courses should be ashamed.
Date published: 2020-01-07
Rated 2 out of 5 by from very disappointing possibly useful as a primer for someone looking to be employed in a Christian setting, but otherwise deadly boring. considering that the majority of Great Courses users are from USA, it's amazing that there was little to no coverage (& the little was useless) of the church's role in fostering slavery; the development of Evangelicals & their political involvement; the differences between Italian/Irish/Hispanic Cathalocism; the multitude of Protestant divisions; ....
Date published: 2019-06-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Helpful During the 2018 Easter season I was interested to take up Prof. Johnson's presentation. Prof. Johnson's poses 2 questions to consider at the end of his lectures. First, what do the recent tendencies toward unification and separation reveal about the contemporary challenge to Christianity as a world religion? His presentation indicates that Christianity is still struggling with the same issues raised in original Christianity in the first stage of approximately 250 years. Christianity is again forced to negotiate its identity in a pluralistic world without the support of culture or the state. Second, in light of its history to this point, how realistic is it to speak of Christianity as entering, not the end of its story, but a new and positive stage in its story? Prof. Johnson indicates that contemporary Christianity is struggling to become a true World Religion, and is largely at the end of its story for most people in the world today. Prof. Johnson looks back nostalgically at early Christianity before Jesus became God. And for good reason. A large part of the historical Jesus was lost and has not yet been revealed to most truth seekers. The story of how Jesus became the Christ needs to be revealed and made a part of a new Biblical canon. E.g., Prof. Johnson made an incorrect statement when he said that the prayer beads known as the Rosary are derived from the ancient Islam prayer beads. To my knowledge, the Rosary derived from the Hindu mala of 108 beads which are used to repeat a mantra given by a Guru to a disciple. This is one clue that Jesus went to India between about the age of 12 to 28 and learned metaphysical meditation techniques from India's greatest rishis which he taught to his disciples when he returned to Jerusalem and Galilee. I would encourage Prof. Johnson to check his facts and broaden his scope to learn original Christianity - the yoga of Jesus.
Date published: 2018-04-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Wonderful history Have not listened to it yet, waiting for road trip very soon.
Date published: 2017-09-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Comprehensive History of Christianity This course provides a thorough and comprehensive history of the religion of Christianity. Just to be clear, it doesn't really go into the Christian doctrine, like what it says in the bible, what Christians actually believe, etc. It explains how the religion started and developed and its future. It details all its schisms, controversies, sects and unanswered questions. Although it was very interesting and the professor was most knowledgeable, eloquent, and friendly, I don't feel I can give it 5 stars. He talked way too fast and I was constantly pausing the DVD to take notes on the massive amount of material. He does put important terms and dates for your notes up on the screen--I did like that.
Date published: 2017-06-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 3.5 stars. A good introduction to Christianity. Given the importance of Christianity in Western History, I listened to this course alongside “Foundations of Western Civilization I”. For this purpose I found it useful and would recommend it. However I was also keen to gain a deeper understanding of the differences between the major variations of Christianity. I don't feel the course provided the knowledge I was looking for. I did not find the professor to be biased at all, on the contrary I found him to be very objective. He is a very good speaker and enjoyable to listen too. I listened to the Audio download format.
Date published: 2016-09-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent introduction to Christianity Luke Timothy Johnson offers an excellent introduction to Christianity for Christians and non-Christians alike. He explores Christianity as a world religion, its early history, its basic beliefs and moral teachings, its splintering into three major divisions (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), and its relationships to culture and politics. Prof. Johnson is an excellent lecturer: clear, logical, and well-spoken. I highly recommend Great World Religions: Christianity to anyone who wants to know something about Christianity’s background and basic beliefs as well as how the faith has evolved over the last two millenia. However, if you’re looking for a more in-depth history or exploration of Scripture and beliefs, you should check out some of the other Great Courses offerings.
Date published: 2016-08-26
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