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.”