An Interesting Book, Apparently

This recent Fox News interview is getting a lot of attention; maybe you’ve already seen it. In the interview, Lauren Green, Fox News’ religion correspondent,is interviewing Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American who holds a PhD in the history of religions and who has written several books on the subject. He also happens to be a Muslim, having converted to Islam from Christianity. Aslan, who has a great last name for anyone who is a fan of irony, has apparently stirred up some controversy with his book. Apparently, it calls into question the historicity of some beliefs of orthodox Christianity regarding Jesus. His book is certainly not the first book coming out of academia to draw fire from within the Christian faith for having done that. It was this very issue – scholarly examination of the life of the historical Jesus, and the historical study of the scriptures and their origin – that spurred the reactionary response within Christianity that gave birth to Fundamentalism in the late 19th- and early 20th century. But Aslan is apparently also being targeted for criticism based on the claim that, as a Muslim, he could have no valid interest in Jesus, nor could he have anything of value to add to the Jesus discussion. And it’s this line of thought – that Aslan’s book is an anti-Christian screed full of Muslim bias and misperceptions of the real Jesus, whom only Christians would be able to speak of – that Lauren Green raises in her interview questions.

Green has taken a lot of criticism for the interview, mostly in the form of personal attacks. She’s called stupid, moronic, hateful, a tool of her conservative handlers, etc. etc. I won’t jump on that bandwagon. To be honest, I find that line of attack just as shameful as the attacks that have been made on Aslan. It’s impossible to really know a lot about the true character of a media personality, but from what I’ve seen and heard from Ms. Green in the past, I believe that she’s intelligent and fair. She is very sincere and committed in her Christian faith. She is also a very talented musician. But most importantly, she’s a serious journalist – and on the whole, I think a pretty good one, and even her detractors should grant that.

But her line of questioning in the interview is really troubling. Based on what I’ve seen of her reporting, I’m pretty sure that she’s part of a more conservative strand of the Christian faith than my own. So it isn’t surprising, and frankly, it’s entirely appropriate, that she would question Aslan about the controversy his book has stirred up among more conservative Christians. Frankly, that’s the whole reason for the interview to begin with – digging into that controversy increases viewership and sells advertising for Fox News, and sells books for Aslan. Blessed be the name of the game.  But the whole “why would a Muslim want to write a story about the founder of Christianity?” bit is very troubling to me for several reasons.

Jesus is not only the Head of the Christian Church. He’s also held in the very highest esteem by Muslims as well. Jesus (Isa) is considered a prophet of the highest degree, second only to Muhammed. And while Muslims do not believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God, they do believe that Jesus was the Jewish messiah – although it must be noted that Muslims understand that term somewhat differently than Christians do, who, in turn, understand the term differently than do Jews. Muslims do not believe that Jesus actually died on the cross and was resurrected; rather, they believe that he only came near death, and later revived in the coolness of the tomb in which he was laid (a number of admittedly non-orthodox Christians also believe this). On the other hand, Muslims do believe in Jesus’ virgin birth (something that a number of non-orthodox Christians do not believe in, but who continue to believe in Jesus’ divinity, believing the virgin birth to be unnecessary for the mystery of the incarnation).

This is all basic information that any Christian should be aware of – and if they aren’t, shame on them. More accurately, shame on their churches for not educating them in important matters of interfaith relations. All of this points to the fact that any Muslim should have a strong interest in understanding more about the historical Jesus.

But what about the claim that a non-Christian is apparently a biased, or an unreliable source or scholar regarding Jesus? I know that there are some within the full spectrum of Christianity who believe that – I’ve encountered them regularly, and it seems to be those people whom Lauren Green is channeling in her interview with Aslan. The issue of bias should be tossed out from the get-go. Everyone has a bias in their understanding. Everyone. That includes not only Aslan – who, for what it’s worth, makes clear at the very opening of his book that he’s Muslim – but it also includes the people who believe he’s wrong. Each and every one of them hold beliefs that are shaped every bit as much by their own cultural, social, contextual influences. The problem arises when people can’t or won’t admit this reality, and when they think that their particular understanding is some pristene, unbiased norm, the gold standard by which others’ scholarship or beliefs are to be measured.

But beyond that – if non-Christians have no legitimate voice in Jesus and/or Christian scholarship, then we would also have to discredit such scholars as, to name just two, Amy-Jill Levine, the brilliant biblical scholar, author, and professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Vanderbilt Divinity School, who is Jewish; and Bart Ehrman, the prolific author, respected biblical scholar, and professor of New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill – who started out a Fundamentalist Christian, then shifted to become an Evangelical, then a Progressive Christian, and finally became Agnostic, due to his struggling with the question of theodicy – the question of how any all-powerful, all-loving, all-just, and all-knowing God could possibly allow so much pain and suffering within our existence.

But we couldn’t really stop there, either. We’d also have to discount the value of any scholarship or conversation about the historical Jesus that came from any strand of the faith different from one’s own, if we hold that only Christians, and at that, only Christians who believe exactly like ourselves bring anything of value to the discussion. And that’s just plain silly. I have some issues with my own Christian denomination – as of late, those differences are more of a bureaucratic nature, but that’s another story. But one thing that I’m most proud of in our tradition is our official recognition that – go figure – people, individually or collectively, including church councils – err. We/they can, and do, get things wrong. Therefore, we can’t hold to a rigid belief that we’ve got a lock on the absolute truth of the faith, and that everybody else – Christian or non-Christian, for that matter – has got it all wrong. Their voices are an important part of God’s speaking to us, and leading us into a fuller discernment of our understanding of divine/human, and human/human, relationships.

Sectarianism aside, the whole idea that Jesus might not be of interest to anyone other than professing Christians is just contrary to Jesus’ entire earthly mission. I think that most people who dig into Jesus’ life and teachings for themselves is likely to find Jesus fascinating, and would likely want to know more.

I think that some of the heartburn that Aslan’s book causes is the fact that he became an Evangelical Christian as a youth, but ultimately rejected it in favor of Islam; and American Evangelical Christianity takes that rejection personally. In a way, the movement feels a need to attack Aslan in order to defend the brand, as it were. More than that, though, I think that the biggest issue  for some people is that – and I offer this in advance of reading the book – it seems to emphasize that the Roman government correctly understood the radical, revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message. They understood that it posed a threat to the cultural, institutional status quo. Jesus’ words, heard and understood from within their actual historical/social context, weren’t merely some future, pie-in-the-sky words of spirituality disconnected from our physicality and real-world, daily living. They were words of life, both in terms of the hereafter as well as the here and now, and their implications for the here and now were dangerous, downright seditious, to the world of Roman-occupied first-century Palestine.

And, understood from within that context, they are every bit as dangerous and discomforting to much of our American culture today.

Many people have a vested interest in keeping Jesus the relatively harmless, easily managed and marginalized spiritual being, and not seeing him as someone who offers a radical alternative message to the established powers of our current world as much as he did to the ancient Roman world. Many want to deny that Jesus speaks discomforting truth to the power structures of much in our society which is deeply cherished, and often drapes itself in supposed Christianity, but which is quite opposed to Jesus’ actual teachings. In short, that image of Jesus, which the book seems to flesh out, scares some people. Good. It should.

As far as the interview goes, I’m going to write it off as Lauren Green having a bad day, or having incompetent staffers feeding her bad show prep, or both. The interview really was embarrassing, and I believe she’s a better reporter, and frankly, a better person, than it would imply. As far as the book goes, based on the information about it I’ve read online, I haven’t found anything about it that’s different from the work of many other scholars I’ve read, and I certainly haven’t seen anything that makes me want to climb the ramparts with a broken bourbon bottle, as conservative talk radio personality Barry Farber used to say, to defend the honor and truth of my Christian faith. Will I agree with everything in the book when I read it? If I did, it would be the first time that’s happened in a half century of reading (I suppose I even took issue with a line or two of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel), but that’s really not the point. Does it look like a good and interesting book? Definitely, and I plan to read it soon. I only wish that Lauren Green’s staff had done the same before that interview, since it appears that they didn’t.

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