My current in-car project is The New Testament. I confess, it's a subject I've never known terribly well -- my ethnic background is Jewish, and my upbringing largely secular, so it just wasn't too relevant. But it's important enough in the world to be worth learning a bit about, and this course is a real hoot. I suspect that none of this would be surprising to someone who had real religion studies, but it's quite an eye-opener for me.
The professor takes the subject quite seriously, and strikes a fine middle-ground approach: neither credulous nor debunking, but taking the book seriously on its own terms and exploring it as a piece of history, literature and theology. He particularly tends towards the history, examining the milieu that Jesus and his followers lived in, what we can learn about the man himself, and how the church evolved after his death.
Several aspects have particularly struck me so far. One is the difference between the accounts of Jesus' life. He spends a full lecture on each of the official gospels, as well as on the apocryphal ones (especially the Gospel of Thomas) -- basically, he covers everything written in the first hundred years after his death, explicitly discounting anything later as pretty much worthless from a serious historical perspective. He explores the way the story is subject to a large-scale game of telephone, describes the critical tools used to unpack it, and then applies those tools.
Most interestingly, he focuses on the agenda of each gospel, and the way that each is trying to sell a particular viewpoint, none of them quite alike. I was very struck by the way that everything I respect about Christianity seems to come from the book of Mark (the earliest of the gospels) and most of what repels me about it comes from John (the latest). As the story evolves from a very modest messiah to a very overt one, I get progressively more uncomfortable with the whole thing.
The second half of the course is spent on the post-Christ early evolution -- the 20-some books of the Bible that are talking about aftermath and theology, rather than the life of the man. In particular, he spends quite a while describing Paul and his theology, and the way that Paul starts from a few fairly straightforward assumptions (mainly that Christ was the selfless and utterly good son of God, who was executed, and that the end times are coming soon), and proceeds to derive more or less all of Christian theology from them in a remarkably convoluted chain of reasoning. You can really believe that this guy was a Jewish scholar before his conversion: the whole thing comes out sounding downright Talmudic at times.
My favorite section, though, has to be the background of the Epistles.
Before going into the details of each letter, he describes what was going on to cause the letters to be written. He describes these early churches, that Paul has founded and then moved on from, that have written to him for help over their internal conflicts: people taking all the food from the communal dinner board before others get to eat, or people speaking in tongues over each other, each trying to out-shout the other in petty internal power games, leading the rest to write to Paul for help.
And my immediate, instinctive reaction was, "My god -- it's a dysfunctional shire, complaining to the King".
Really, this shouldn't surprise me: intellectually, I know that the problems of organizations are largely consequences of human nature, and are pretty universal. But it's never been driven home to me quite so viscerally before. One thinks of the church as so big and long-established that it just never occurred to me that, in the early days, it would have had all the problems endemic to young clubs that are full of weirdoes.
Anyway: fun course, and really quite an interesting topic. Hearing it taken apart from a historical perspective does much to demystify the whole institution, and shows how the apparently contradictory messages of Christianity evolved from a common origin...