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Book about Jesus as 'zealot' goes viral

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It’s about time.

A real conversation about religion has begun. In fact, it has gone viral. Up until now, public religion has too often been about name-calling, confessionals, politics and cartoon versions of "the other."

Thanks to a shockingly insensitive interview with religious scholar Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and a man who just happens to be Muslim, the Internet has lit up like a Christmas tree. Lauren Green of Fox News began her questioning with this: "You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" Once wasn’t enough. She kept asking the clearly dumbfounded Aslan the same question as he tried to explain he is a scholar of religion. Given her insistence, one might have wondered why an African-American Christian woman would be interviewing a white Persian male Muslim.

Aslan is not upset about the interview. In fact, he has reason to be pleased. It has given his book wide media exposure.

"I am so glad people are having this conversation," Aslan says. "I was surprised how it captured the zeitgeist. This is a topic usually discussed by academics in stuffy libraries."

What’s so outrageous about the book? He calls Jesus a zealot, for one thing. But as he explains, "in Jesus’s world, ‘zealot’ referred to those Jews who adhered to a widely biblical doctrine called zeal." They were against Roman authorities and their collaborators, wealthy temple priests and aristocratic Jews. The fact Jesus was a revolutionary — a rabble-rouser — is not exactly news in the world of theology. He wasn’t running around passing out Easter eggs.

Aslan, whose father was an atheist and mother a Muslim, had a nonreligious background. "After we came from Iran, we scrubbed our lives of any trace of Islam," he says. "Being Muslim and Iranian were not the safest things to be in this country."

At 15, he converted to evangelical Christianity because he felt the need to be connected spiritually. "I had an encounter with Christ and had a deep desire to share it with others." He persuaded his mother to convert, as well.

As he began his academic studies, "I abandoned my faith. I had the sudden realization that Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. Everything he said, he said in the context of Judaism. The Christian interpretation of his words and actions weren’t historical."

Aslan says that when Jesus said, "I am the Messiah," it did not mean God incarnate. It meant "anointed one," the descendant of King David, to rule the kingdom on his behalf. "Nobody in those times who heard Jesus say ‘I am the Messiah’ would have thought that he was saying ‘I am God.’ Nobody. He meant he was the king."

Encouraged by Jesuit friends, Aslan returned to Islam, the religion of his forefathers. He knew nothing about Islam or the prophet Muhammad and had never read the Koran.

"What I found was that the symbols and metaphors about God and humanity — the relationship to God — made more sense to me than the Trinity and the incarnation, which are just other symbols for understanding God. I do not think Islam is true and Christianity is not." He points out that his mother is still Christian, as is his wife.

"I see myself as someone who is compelled to confront any religious or political institution in the name of those who are left out," he says. "That’s what Jesus did; that’s what I want to do." He says his "chief objective" is to speak truth to power. "That’s what it means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus."

In fact, Aslan believes that Jesus is a model for human behaviour. "He is my personal hero, the man I’ve based my life on." His values — his empowerment of the poor, the marginalized and the outcasts — are what Aslan admires.

Although Aslan says he has had much favourable reaction to his book, he realized that when you write a book about Jesus and do not call him God incarnate, "there you go. It’s not appealing to the rest of the country."

What’s interesting here is the backlash from what he calls "the anti-Muslim fringe, the rabid Islamophobes, who have been attacking me for a decade and calling me vile and racist names." He wasn’t surprised by what happened on Fox News and has no hard feelings toward Green.

"I have nothing but compassion for her. I understand where she is coming from. I used to be like her. I used to be a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. It’s a fear in the world of being confronted with questioning the most basic tenets of your faith."

As for Jesus, "I’ve been obsessed with him for 20 years, this illiterate, poor peasant day labourer from the hills of Galilee [who] started a movement that was such a threat that he was crucified for it. His words and actions inspired the largest religious movement in the world. How could you not be obsessed with that guy?"

This doesn’t sound like the words of an anti-Christian or a Muslim. It sounds like the words of a religious scholar. Which is what he is. It would seem that Reza Aslan may have started a movement himself, one that will have people reading and learning and talking about religion in a way they never have before. Nothing could be healthier.


—The Washington Post

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

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