Monday, July 29, 2013

Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Updated)

Let's take a break from the blog series on Isaiah and talk about Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). Since an interview on Fox News with a host who was not able to get past the idea that a Muslim wrote writing on Christianity, Aslan's book has sold briskly on Amazon. Not that it was doing poorly before; only now it is at the top of the charts.

On my shelf is sitting his No god by God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2006), from which I developed a healthy respect for Aslan's acumen. It seems appropriate that a Muslim should write a book on Jesus, since Islam claims Christ as a prophet who brings the Gospel, like Moses brought the Torah, David the Psalms, and Muhammad the Qur'an, affirms his virgin birth, and proclaims his return on the Last Day. Only the orthodox Christian formulation about the two natures, divine and human, in one person is absent from in the Islamic account. It betrays the ignorance of the Fox News host, and everyone else who thinks what Aslan wrote is fundamentally objectionable, to suggest Aslan has absolutely no business writing on Jesus. Unlike persons, religions are not discrete entities; they overlap, interweave, and mix in the heads of persons down through the course of human history.

But Aslan has taken a lot of heat from certain quarters for his newest book. Understandably, though regrettably, conservative Christian quarters in the main. The most intelligent criticism I have read so far comes from First Things blogger Matthew Franck, who points out 'Reza Aslan Misrepresents His Scholarly Credentials'. I say 'intelligent' because the article is more than mere opinion. The author did a little bit of digging around to develop the piece. But the argument may not be entirely fair. Franck places more value on form rather than content, on the external things, which should only be regarded as of secondary importance. He argues Aslam misrepresents his scholarly credentials, and therefore we should doubt his contribution to the broader conversation is the implied suggestion. But scholar who spends his life reading texts about religious beliefs, writings books on religious topics, ought to qualify as a scholar of religion, in my estimation, regardless what his current academic title is or what his dissertation is on. Franck disagrees. You can read his piece for yourself and form your own opinion.

The obvious point to be made, apparent in the title of book, is that Aslan's Jesus is not the Jesus of the New Testament Gospels. The Gospel are fairly careful to distinguish the sort of messiah Jesus was supposed to be from other Jewish claimants to messiahship around the same time. Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. The kingdom of God is within you. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and God what is God. And so on and so forth. Short little catchphrases may be found throughout the Gospels, all of which relativize the importance of transient worldly success. (It is transient, after all.) The message of the Gospels is subversive in a bend-over-and-take-it-on-the-backside kind of way. Jesus ends up going to die on the cross--willingly.

The inch-deep, mile-wide cultural commentary ought there misunderstands that Aslan's basic hermeneutic for reading the Gospels does not come from Islam, but from 19th century European seminaries. Very intelligent theologians, for reasons peculiar to the place and time, decided the Gospels' portraits of Jesus were not historically reliable. They drew a fundamental distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. Believers could believe whatever they wanted. On the other hand, scholars had to restrain themselves from saying anything beyond the surface of human history. This scholarly attitude lives on in such organizations as The Jesus Seminar.

Aslan's Jesus is a rebel of sorts seeking to effect some worldly change. So Aslan rejects the final implications of the Gospel portrait. As he says in the opening pages of his book, 'If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.' Divide faith from history, like Aslan does, and the willingness of the historical Jesus to go to death in order to effect a victory, not over mere human powers, but over sin, death, and the denizens of hell, no longer makes much sense.

There is nothing new in Aslan's arguments, and certainly nothing worth loosing our heads over--nor compromising our resolve to love our neighbours as ourselves, even and especially when they may disagree with us. There is nothing especially offensive in his presentation either. It is entirely in line with a Christian confession of belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God that a non-believer doesn't believe the same. Whether Aslan has mined the Gospel for all the viable 'historical material' that can be had from them--well, that is another question.

1 comment:

Thorsten said...

Fantastic!