A class offered at Cal Poly this fall is dedicated to examining the life of the “most popular person on campus,” who also happens to be the most-studied man in history.
Jesus, the class, is coming back for the third time.
Associate religious studies professor Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, who received the College of Liberal Arts Richard Keller Simon Faculty Recognition Award for outstanding teaching in 2011 and has taught the class the previous two times it was offered, is teaching Jesus (RELS 205) in order to give students a chance to learn about Jesus in an academic setting, he said.
“When I came here, it was a surprise that as you walk around campus and listen to people talk, Jesus is the most popular person on campus,” Lloyd-Moffett said. “I think people talk about him more than any other subject, yet there wasn’t any class that was devoted to it. I wanted to provide an environment to give an academic look at who this person is.”
The class examines Jesus from many different perspectives — from the four Gospels in the New Testament to the Quran to the modern movie “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
“Most of the course is looking at what we know about Jesus,” he said, “because it’s always struck me that for a lot of students, they spend more time researching their iPhone than who this person is that they claim to be at the center of their life.”
The class, which will meet from 6 to 8 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, tends to attract “a fairly healthy mix of atheists, fundamentalists and people who are unsure,” Lloyd-Moffett said. There are 165 seats available on PASS, but Lloyd-Moffett said he lets anyone in who needs units or wants to learn about Jesus.
The class isn’t designed to influence students toward or away from a belief in Jesus, and is instead a rare place students can learn about him without an agenda behind the teaching, Lloyd-Moffett said. Symbols from almost every religion can be found on some item or another in his office — his desktop background, flyers for classes he’s offering or books that are stacked on shelves floor-to-ceiling.
“I’m one of the few people who is going to teach about Jesus, who has no stake in what you decide,” he said. “If you hear it and you’re inspired to convert and become a pastor, fine. If you’re a pastor and you take the course and you decide to become an atheist afterward, fine.”
Lloyd-Moffett said, however, it’s rare that someone radically changes their worldview or faith after taking the Jesus class; but faith tends to transform throughout one’s life anyway, he said.
“Here’s what I always find, nobody’s faith stays the same, but that doesn’t mean that it gets worse or better or stronger,” he said. “As you go through life, you encounter data, and you re-adjust your worldview as data comes.”
Ethnic studies junior Kate O’Leary, who is currently in the “Monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity and Islam” class taught by Lloyd-Moffett, said he’s “an incredible professor, really helpful (and) really engaging.”
O’Leary hopes to fit the Jesus class into her fall schedule.
“Being a believer and a Christian, I thought it’d be super interesting to get an academic perspective on his life and history,” she said. “I’m really interested and curious.”
Although some administration had initial doubts when Lloyd-Moffett introduced the idea, he said the class has since proven to be “an academic look at the person of Jesus.”
“The administration was a little skeptical because initially they were worried about, you know, ‘Does this become a form for proselytizing?’ and things like that,” he said.
But despite the early uncertainties, the class was named one of the “must-have classes before graduation” in the New Times 2010 student guide and has not been met by any resistance from religious campus groups or churches.
Lloyd-Moffett said he agrees with the premise of a Tibetan monk ideal, which involves practicing arguments with other monks — one monk argues the Tibetan position and one argues the opposition, and then they switch sides when the abbot, or the head of an abbey of monks, rings a bell, he said.
“The idea is, you should know the arguments for and against so well, and then hold what you hold,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
The class uses the Bible as the main source of information about Jesus because, as Lloyd-Moffett explained, the New Testament Gospels are the primary sources about his life.
But the class also uses Greek, Roman and Jewish sources, as well as Christian texts that didn’t become part of the Bible, in addition to studying Jesus in Hinduism and Islam. The class also broaches theories that Jesus never existed and a more recent book that claims Jesus is a symbol for magic mushrooms, Lloyd-Moffett said.
Philosophy senior Derrick Crowe, who took the class from Lloyd-Moffett last time it was offered, said the Jesus class convinced him to become a religious studies minor.
Crowe said one of the most interesting topics covered in the class was the examination of the Christmas story and what is actually known from historical texts about the version popularly told today.
“(Lloyd-Moffett) did a very good job from a historical perspective,” Crowe said. “He looked at it from a very objective stance and looked at the argument for and against everything.”
Lloyd-Moffett said, as a professor, he’s there to present all the data about Jesus and discuss it in an academic setting — the rest is up to the students.
“If one wants to embrace Christ, you should know every argument that’s against it and every argument for it,” he said. “If you want to completely reject and be an atheist on everything, you still have an obligation to understand the arguments for and against.”