How Important Is Zealot?

editorial by Jas Faulkner

zealot_reza_aslanReza Aslan’s besting of Lauren Green last week has been the talk of the internet.  At first blush, it seemed like an instance of religion-baiting.  Ms. Green could not get past the idea that a Muslim would want to write about Christianity’s central figure.  Her affect and discourse went well beyond bemusement at the incongruity of it all in the world according to Fox News.  She tottered thisclose to righteous outrage that Dr. Aslan would dare to pursue such a line of inquiry about Jesus Christ.

This a good place to hit the pause button and clarify that Aslan has not written a book about Jesus the Christ, the religious figure worshiped by Christians.  What he has written is an account of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, one of many, many Jews who headed up revolutionary movements in Roman-occupied Judea.  More on that in a bit.  We need to devote just a little more time to the Aslan-Green kerfuffle.

Once the dust had begun to settle around this situation, some critics began to look askance at Aslan’s educational bona fides.  Here’s what Aslan said during the interview:

To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament. I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually. To be clear, I just want to emphasize this one more time, I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.

And here is a quick rundown of Dr. Aslan’s academic CV:

1995  B.A. Religious Studies    Santa Clara University
1999 Master of Theological Studies  Harvard
2002 M.F.A. Fiction   University of Iowa
2009 Ph.D  Sociology  UC Santa Barbara
He is a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside.

Having read Zealot, it is a source of consternation for me that Dr. Aslan did not simply say, “I’m a writer who has been fascinated by Jesus since I was fifteen. ”  What he has done by making these claims is give those who would have an axe to grind exactly what they need to try to diminish the importance of this book.  My inner realist knows that in some circles, Reza Aslan would be able to do no right.  For the rest of us, and for Dr. Aslan, being a writer should have been enough.

What is Zealot and why should you read it?

Zealot is a fairly concise summation of the current scholarship regarding the historic Jesus of Nazareth.  It begins with the political and cultural background of the region and the role Jesus of Nazareth played in the long line of erstwhile messiahs and leaders of movements who demanded the liberation of Judea from Roman rule.  Anyone with a firm grasp of religious/historic scholarship of that place and time will find nothing new here.  The scholarly tropes are familiar enough that I was moved to describe the book to the owner of this site as “Life of Brian without the jokes.”

The substance of Zealot might open some eyes to the body of scholarship devoted to the examination of Christian mythos, and this is a good thing.  For believing Christians, the presentation of narrative inconsistencies and balance of historic fact against canonical tenets of faith bring up some important questions.  Is the Christ expressed as the logos of Jesus unchanged in the face of the historic Jesus of Nazareth?  If it has changed, is the overall ethos of Christian faith enough to keep one  in the fold?  This line of inquiry should be a part of anyone’s intellectual diet as a religious practitioner or observer of the majority culture of faith in the West.

This is not the only reason Zealot is more than its hype.  One of the facts that becomes increasingly clear is that Jesus of Nazareth was one of many people seeking to wear the mantle of Messiah as a declared King of the Jews.  Acting as a sociologist, Dr. Aslan uses existing historical scholarship to give an educated answer to the question that will begin to nag as the facts are presented:  Why him?  Why this relatively unassuming itinerant carpenter from a backwards hamlet?  By what logic is this man chosen to become  the persona in whose name a wide swath of Western Civilization is fomented?

There is one more reason this book deserves serious consideration.  As I have mentioned, there is nothing in the way of new scholarship here.  There is good writing.  Aslan’s strength as a storyteller and pedagogical gift is evident.  He has created a vivid picture of the Judean social/political landscape and brought all of the players to life.  As someone with an academic background in social/behavioral science, I will attest there are many brilliant people doing good work, but not everyone can present it artfully.  Any student who has waded through a badly written, badly edited textbook in any discipline will tell you how important good writing can be.

But, but Reza Aslan is a…

Reza Aslan is part of the wave of people who fled Iran when fundamentalist Muslims took over the country.  In his introduction, he explains his family’s view toward religion when he was growing up and his own introduction to Jesus Christ the religious figure as a teenager.  Like any other writer, like any other social scientist, there is always a personal filter through which data is presented.  Dr. Aslan’s perspective is that of someone who has walked the path of a believer in the Christian Jesus and an adult who eventually reclaimed aspects of his Persian heritage and his ancestral religion.  It is this adult who acted on his desire to know more about the historic Jesus of Nazareth.

I know little about Persian culture, something I’m not particularly proud of admitting.  I cannot point out how Zealot reflects the typical Persian view of Jesus of Nazareth.  My rudimentary knowledge of Islam does inform me of the passages where the Muslim view of Jesus is evident.  Christians, no, let me amend that, Westerners, especially the ones who fear Muslims, will most likely be surprised that clerics, theologians, and historians from that community of faith have given so much thought to the figure of both historic Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ.

It is this final point, one of understanding coupled with the delight in finding commonality that makes Zealot more than this season’s latest scholarly pop tome on the history and attributes of salt or fingers or pandas or Panama hats.  So while the talking heads may rant and make declarations without ever actually reading what they’re so upset about, somewhere, someone is turning the pages and learning.  That is not only where the magic happens., that is the point where a mind is opened, and in this day, a life might be saved.

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