Great Books in the Time of COVID-19


The first week of the semester went something like this:

  • Monday: Teach Genesis 1–3 and its implications for our understanding men and women
  • Tuesday morning: Teach Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
  • Tuesday afternoon: Teach Aquinas on the doctrine of God
  • Thursday morning: Begin teaching The Brothers Karamazov

And so it went for a few months. We worked through questions of nature, Scripture, and culture in our discussions of masculinity and femininity, noting how our identity as men and women plays out in the home, the church, and the world. We read Julius Caesar, then Coriolanus, then Macbeth as we explored Shakespeare’s political vision in his tragedies. After a few weeks with Aquinas, we began a journey with Dante, as he descended from the dark forest into hell. And as for The Brothers Karamazov? Well, let’s just say we were there for a while, following Alyosha as he moved among the turbulence of his father, his brothers, and their small town. This was the rhythm of my life, as it has been for the last ten years, teaching theology and literature to undergraduates.

Midway through the semester, everything changed. Halfway up the mountain of Purgatory with Dante, in the third act of Much Ado About Nothing, just as we’d discovered if Dmitri Karamazov was guilty, COVID-19 struck, and the rest of the semester looked very different. No more classes at Bethlehem’s Downtown Campus. Instead, I descended into my basement office every day for two-hour classes via Zoom. No more scribbling on a whiteboard; instead, I had to learn to share my screen (and remember to hit the record button). Most significantly, no more embodied presence of my students; instead, we talk over this amazing technology, muting and unmuting, and doing our best to make the most of the final two months of the semester.

Yes, in mid-March everything changed. And yet again, in a very important respect, nothing changed. At Bethlehem, our curriculum is built around reading and discussing great works of theology, philosophy, history, and literature, all in light of the Scriptures. That’s what we did in January, and that’s what we did today, as we completed our final class of the semester. Each day of our Bethlehem-in-exile, I would ask my students for initial observations and questions based on their reading, just as I did when we met on campus. And they would give the same sorts of answers.

  • “I’m interested to compare Tolkien’s understanding of sub-creation in The Silmarillion to what we read last week in Leaf by Niggle.”
  • “How does Dante’s depiction of Virgil help us understand his view of whether pagans can be saved apart from conscious faith in Christ?”
  • “I’m not sure what I think about Othello. Yes, Iago deceived him, but he also seemed to be very insecure. Is he really a noble character?”

And just like we did on campus, we would open the Great Books together, and I would lead the students through the text, making observations, asking questions, and pushing them to make connections and probe more deeply what they’d read. I would point out things like:

  • “Have you noticed that Shakespeare uses the same basic plot in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale? And that each of these plays represents a different genre: comedy, tragedy, and romance? Let’s explore the genre question through these jealousy plays.”
  • “Note the way that Tolkien seeks to uphold Augustine’s privation understanding of evil, while still insisting that evil is real and has horrific effects on God’s good world. Let’s talk more about the various depictions of evil in Tolkien’s myths.”
  • “As we read this non-Christian book on leadership and the self, I want you to try and translate his concepts (when they’re true) into Christian vocabulary. Let’s try to plunder the Egyptians here.”

And then, after we’d asked our questions, made our observations, and sought to understand these authors on their own terms, we turned to evaluation and application, seeking to bring the wisdom of the Great Books to bear on our own lives.

  • “How can DuBois’s notion of ‘double consciousness’ and the Veil help us to wisely navigate the challenges of race and ethnicity in the 21st century?”
  • “Let’s think more carefully about Iago, the villain in Othello. What if the malice, envy, and corrupted desire that Shakespeare portrays in his most terrifying villain isn’t just outside of us? What if each of us has an Iago in our heart?”
  • “How can Shakespeare’s romances teach us patience and hope as we live in a broken world that is filled with enigmas and riddles that we can’t untie ourselves?”
  • “As future leaders, pastors, and parents, how will a right understanding of human nature—as male and female, as body and soul, as intellect and passions—help you to be the men and women God is calling you to be? How can we apply what we’ve learned to fighting sin, resisting anxiety, and healing from trauma?”

And so, as we finish this semester in “unprecedented circumstances” (as all of the emails say these days), know that at Bethlehem we’re still committed to fulfilling the mission that we’ve been given. We’re still seeking to spread a passion for God’s supremacy in all things for the joy of all peoples. And we’re doing so by reading Great Books in light of the Greatest Book for the sake of the Great Commission, so that our students leave here as mature adults, ready to witness for Christ with wisdom and wonder for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Joe Rigney
Assistant Professor of Theology and Literature

Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray for grace and wisdom as we make plans for in-person classes this fall.
  2. Pray for continued protection from the virus for our students, faculty, staff, and community.
  3. Pray for the deliberations of the presidential succession commission.
  4. Pray that the Lord would provide the needed funds to finish our fiscal year well.