Hillsdale College online course of Genesis with Prof. Justin Jackson

After launching 24 online courses, Hillsdale has released the first bib­lical lit­er­ature course in its history. It’s the Genesis story.  

The five-lecture online class was launched at the end of July — and it’s unlike any­thing Hillsdale has offered before, said Justin Jackson, pro­fessor and chair of the English Department and the class’ teacher. More than 10,000 people have enrolled in the class since its release. 

“We are known as a place where one studies the Con­sti­tution,” Jackson said. “So to have an English pro­fessor talking about the lit­erary qual­ities of Scripture, and to do it seri­ously and aca­d­e­m­i­cally is to say, ‘This is what we do on this campus, and we are liberal-minded enough that we can actually have stu­dents who can take the class and appre­ciate it and grow from it.’”

The college mission has four com­po­nents: freedom, char­acter, learning and faith. According to Hillsdale College Pres­ident Larry Arnn, the course does exactly that. 

“To call yourself a wholly thoughtful person, you’d have to do some thinking about God, and that’s what we think here at Hillsdale College,” Arnn said in the course intro­duction video. 

Kyle Murnen, director of online learning, said Hillsdale is a Christian college so the­o­logical courses have become essential to the online course library. 

“One of the central pur­poses of the college is to teach the pre­cepts of the Christian faith,” Murnen said. “A close study of the first book of the Bible serves this purpose well.”

It all started last Feb­ruary. Jackson was in the middle of teaching Genesis in his Great Books course — his eigh­teenth time — when Murnen con­tacted him about teaching a bib­lical nar­rative course. 

At first, they toyed with the story of David. 

“There are all sorts of hiccups and problems from approaching the David story from a lit­erary per­spective, so I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do Genesis simply because there are these nice nar­rative units that everybody knows?’” 

The lecture series is a com­pi­lation of the classic Genesis nar­ra­tives, including the fall of man, the sac­rifice of Isaac, and the Joseph story. The course cur­riculum was years in the making, Jackson said.

It’s a cur­riculum from all sorts of tra­di­tions and teachers. Whether bor­rowing a reading from a medieval rabbi or incor­po­rating teachings from a scholar he knew in grad school, Jackson uses all sorts of textual inter­pre­ta­tions. 

“My first incli­nation isn’t to push a single the­o­logical nar­rative on the text,” he said. 

Everyone has their own the­o­logical beliefs in the back of their minds, Jackson said, but he encourages each student to bring them to class. 

“Use your imag­i­nation from your own hypothesis and wrestle with these details I’m pointing out to you,” Jackson said. “People may not agree with me, but now what they have to do is wrestle with those images and see what they have to do with their the­o­logical hypothesis.”

He’s invited stu­dents to dig deeper into bib­lical nar­rative for more than 18 years now, and it’s a journey that stu­dents have found — sur­pris­ingly —  spir­i­tually ful­filling, he said. Mikaela Herndon, a senior and former student of Jackson’s, said the bib­lical lit­er­ature portion of the course sur­prised her. 

“Taking Bib­lical Nar­rative with Dr. Jackson is like picking up some­thing you think you know, only to realize that you’ve never really looked at it before,” Herndon said. 

Not only that, added sophomore Vic­toria Nunez, but Jackson inte­grated her two pas­sions.  

“He taught me to cross a love of lit­erary works with my love of the Bible, to see how they interact with each other, and how they came into con­ver­sation with one another,” Nunez said. 

It’s a course for the imag­i­nation, Jackson said, but leave it to him to show you himself. 

“The point of college isn’t always to give stu­dents what they always know, but to give them some­thing dif­ferent, he said. “Some­thing new.”