Last week I read Reza Aslan’s New York Times bestseller, Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It was an easy choice for me, I have spent a lifetime reading about religion, history, and philosophy so I eagerly dove into my Kindle to find a new depiction of such an important time in the history of the world. What I got, instead, was an all out assault on some of my most basic beliefs disguised as academic research. Now, for the record, I’m okay with my faith being tested, re-examining faith is a good thing every now and then, but I am disturbed that some old and tired theological arguments are climbing the New York Times bestseller list in the name of truth and people who are inclined to not believe in God are going to have yet another reason not to believe in God. And, let me say, not believing God is a perfectly logical choice for many people; I object to the marketing and presentation of Zealot, not its content. Let me explain.
I saw Reza Aslan first when he was interviewed on the Daily Show this summer. He was introduced as a Biblical scholar who’d written this remarkable new account of the life of Jesus that was going to change everyone’s opinion. John Oliver, the summer host of the Daily Show, gushed about the book and how he couldn’t put it down. The next day of Aslan’s book tour brought him to the infamous Fox News where the interviewer made a fool of herself asking him why he had the nerve to write about Jesus since he was a Muslim (Muslims write good, credible Biblical research all the time) thus insuring sympathetic coverage from the rest of the media, and, of course, guaranteeing a New York Times bestseller (jealous author here.)
Aslan, who is not a Biblical scholar at all, but a creative writing professor who has studied religion, write a fascinating tale of the economic oppression and frustration of a Jewish people living under Roman rule. I was engaged by the story, which painted Jesus as a much needed hero in a world looking for one. Rome, of course, was used to failed revolutionaries and Aslan claims that Jesus was simply one of thousands of victims of crucifixion, the Empire did not tolerate dissent and dealt with false prophets on a daily basis. The problem is that Aslan assumes the authority to determine which parts of Bible scripture are true and which ones are “obviously false,” this very good book marketer claims to be an authority on something that he is not and the danger of Zealot is that hundreds of years of ernest Biblical study is simply cast aside for the sake of a good story.
The problem with Zealot isn’t for people of faith who accept the authority and inspiration of scripture. The problem is for those who are wrestling with the whole religion thing: the unchurched. Aslan weaved a very believable story about the unequal distribution of wealth, corrupt politicians, rich priests, and the plight of an oppressed people looking for a hero as he hides behind some very vague credentials. A little research, in fact, shows that he is not a Biblical scholar at all, he is, like you and me, another guy with some education and an opinion. Aslan places his readers in first century Palestine and he tells them that most of the stories we assumed to be true about Jesus were made up. He hands discarded theology in the form of a movie script to readers who may really be searching for faith. Atheists will love this book, but those looking for truth will be disturbed because he presents a version of scripture that no serious academic will verify.
It didn’t take me very long to find these academics who disagree: Allan Nadler, for example, in the Jewish Review of Books, questions not only Aslan’s credentials, but also his conclusions; he dismisses him as a “talented self promoter” and mocks his claim that Zealot is based on the research of around 1,000 scholarly books. A Google search will reveal a number of similar responses from academics around the world.
Not only does Aslan casually dismiss any thought of the divinity of Jesus, he colors the early Christian church founders as spin doctors who changed the story of the life and teachings of Jesus to make themselves politically fashionable. In my studies, I’ve written about Christian apologists, like C.S. Lewis, who use scripture and logic to prove the validity of Christianity and that works fine for folks who accept the authority of scripture. The problem for apologists is that Aslan doesn’t play by conventional rules. If Lewis asked his famous question to Aslan, “You either have to accept that he is the son of God or that he is a liar, you can choose, but choose carefully,” Aslan would say, “Jesus never said he was the son of God in the first place, the New Testament is a pack of legends that were sanitized by an early version of a Christian P.R. firm.” One cannot use scripture to argue with someone who rejects it, and Christians are put in the very difficult place of having to defend their most closely held beliefs without being able to use their most closely held beliefs.
To those of us who have faith, a book like this is not likely to change much of anything, although it might raise some uncomfortable questions, it did for me. Zealot is the kind of book that hides its message in a very good and believable story. The problem, of course, lies with shrinking church congregations and a growing number of people who call themselves spiritual but not religious. (I tried that road, it didn’t work for me, but I understand the line of thinking pretty well). In a world where the bumper sticker sized stories often define Christians as the nut bag preacher in Gainsville ready to burn copies of the Koran or the intolerant psychopaths of the Westboro Baptist church, there is little space for intelligent discussion of the historical Jesus.
I found a number of solid academicians willing to dismiss Zealot as nothing more than old arguments and the author as nothing more than a good creative writer. But: I had to look for them, how many will? Far too many people are willing to believe in conspiracies (did you know 9/11 was a plan of the trilateral commission and our government was in on it? Sigh) and a New York Times bestseller like Zealot doesn’t just threaten religion, it threatens civilization. If people dismiss Jesus as Aslan’s version of a failed revolutionary with anger issues and a gift for fooling people with magic, what happens to all that love your neighbor, peace, and redemption stuff?
That, in the end, is what disturbed me about Zealot. Not that it made me question my faith, but the fact that so many people might be convinced to not have faith at all. I’ve thought about this a lot, thought about the people who claim Jesus was a great teacher, but nothing more, I’ve talked with Unitarians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews who respect Jesus but don’t buy into the divinity part. And, that’s fine, I believe God reveals himself a little differently to everyone, I’m of the Big Tent philosophy when it comes to religion. I don’t need to convince anyone to believe what I believe. But I don’t like that a NYT Bestseller cynically questions faith and is possibly convincing so many people that one of the great world religions is nothing more than a hoax. That is as subtle a version of religious intolerance as you are likely to find. I am in favor of people believing what they want to believe, of finding their own way to God (or source, or nothing), but I am opposed to attacks on religion disguised as well researched fact.
In the end, when it comes to matters like this, I have to trust in the omnipotence and wisdom of God and know that there is a bigger plan. I hope, in the meantime, that some of us can find a way to get the correct story out.