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The Lives of Great Christians

For many, Christianity is the daily effort to live one's faith in every moment. This course introduces you to those who have done so over the centuries, those Professor William Cook calls "superstars of faith" Francis and Clare of Assisi, Catherine and Be
The Lives of Great Christians is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 97.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Pleasantries This course is more of a pleasant romp than a scholarly inquiry into lives of prominent Christians. It is a celebration of Christians past and it does not lend insight into the religion itself. Dr. Cook notes that he is a Renaissance scholar and an active Catholic and, as he admits, this course reflects that inclination. At least 5 of the 24 lectures address the monastic tradition while none of the lectures is dedicated to John Calvin, who systematized the Protestant tradition, or to or the Cappadocian Fathers, foundational to Orthodox Christianity. At least six of the lectures are set in the Middle Ages. Further, Dr. Cook’s lecture style sometimes leans more toward sermon than history, assuming that his audience shares his Christian values. Thus, the course provides an “insider’s” perspective (i.e., what do Christians think of themselves?) rather than an objective analysis. Dr. Cook designed this course to look at lives of what he calls “Great Christians” and not to examine theology so I am surprised that he overlooks their families. There is only a passing mention of Katrina, the wife of Martin Luther. There is no mention of John Wesley’s wife. Dr. Cook notes that Dr. Martin Luther King opposed the Vietnam War but makes no mention of Coretta Scott King. It seems that an examination of how a person treats his family would provide great insight into the person’s faith and character. Dr. Cook has a distracting presentation style. He speaks with a mild shout, which detracts from his message. Also, is it just me or did Dr. Cook get a haircut between lectures 8 and 9? And don’t get me started on those ties. The course guide is below average by The Great Courses (TGC) standards. It is in outline format. It averages about 4-5 pages per lecture, which is below average by TGC standards. There are no graphics in the lecture pages. The appendix contains a timeline, a glossary, biographical notes, and a bibliography. I used the video version. The audio would have been just as good. There are no important graphics in the lectures. The course was published in 2007.
Date published: 2024-04-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Learned a lot Covers twenty centuries in 24 lectures and moves briskly. More of a college course than a theology course, but his religiosity comes through in a genuine way. Learned a lot and also about some saints I had never heard of. Well done.
Date published: 2024-02-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from here i am bible=radicalization: scribes, prophets, rabbi's, jesus, hermits, popes, muslims,crusades, louie, me=truth
Date published: 2023-01-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from here i am the arrow my claws, the falcon above my house, all to see, the hill is mine
Date published: 2023-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Some of the Greatest Christians. This course gave greater insight into the lives of some of the people with whom I was familiar, as well as some of whom I had not heard about. A necessarily arbitrarily selection of people, out of a possible canon of thousands. It was enhanced by the enthusiasm of Professor Cook, always a joy the listen to .
Date published: 2022-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tremendous content and presentation I learned a lot, was inspired to improve my outlook on the world. Knowledgeable prof with a great style - I have watched and listened to more than one of his works.
Date published: 2022-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Done...Excellent. I really enjoyed this series. He has done well on explaining each character.
Date published: 2022-07-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pleased! I’m totally enjoying these stories. I’m, also, learning a lot about my church.
Date published: 2022-07-02
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For many, Christianity is the daily effort to live one's faith in every moment. This course introduces you to those who have done so over the centuries, those Professor William Cook calls "superstars of faith" Francis and Clare of Assisi, Catherine and Bernardino of Siena, Thomas More, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.


William R. Cook

In some ways, being detached from the world allows you also to be united with the world.


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 in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.

By This Professor

The World's Greatest Churches
The Cathedral
The Catholic Church: A History
Introduction-What Makes a Great Christian?

01: 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.

34 min
Paul and the First Christian Missionaries

02: 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.

31 min
The Early Martyrs

03: 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.

31 min
St. Antony, the First Monk

04: 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.

31 min
The Desert Fathers and Mothers

05: 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.

31 min

06: Augustine

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.

31 min
St. Patrick and the Conversion of Ireland

07: 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.

31 min
St. Benedict and His Rule

08: 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.

31 min
Leo IX, Gregory VII, and Church Reform

09: 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.

31 min
Bernard of Clairvaux and Monastic Reform

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.

31 min
Francis of Assisi

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.

31 min
Clare of Assisi

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.

31 min
Catherine of Siena

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.

31 min
Bernardino of Siena

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.

31 min
John Hus and the Hussites

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.

31 min
Thomas More

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.

31 min
Martin Luther

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.

31 min
John Wesley and the Origins of Methodism

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.

31 min
The Monks of Mount Athos

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.

32 min
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe

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.

31 min
Damien of Molokai and Teresa of Calcutta

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.

31 min
From Slavery to Martin Luther King

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.

31 min
Gustavo Gutierrez and Liberation Theology

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.

32 min
Defining the Christian Life

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.

31 min