Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth talks to Jugni Style about faith, the man they call Jesus, and that crazy Fox News interview that went viral.
By Leena Manro
On a bright Friday morning, I nervously anticipate the call I am going to make to Reza Aslan, author of best selling book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Reza is a religious historian and Zealot is about the historical Jesus as distinguished from Jesus the Christ of the Christian Church. The book outlines a historical understanding of what Jesus’s life may have looked like approximately 2000 years ago based on two decades of Reza’s research.
Reza Aslan is just your average public intellectual with four degrees and a PhD. The exceedingly intelligent, best selling author type. I am certainly intimidated. But when he picks up the phone and says hello, I realize this best selling author is also very accessible and down-to-earth.
Reza grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in a family that escaped the religious and political transformation that coloured Iran during the revolution. “It was not easy to be an Iranian Muslim in the 80s, in America,” he says. Many times, he pretended to be Mexican just to fit in.
Despite the fact that his family was only “lukewarm Muslim and mostly atheist,” Reza was deeply interested in religion and spirituality from a young age. His interest came from childhood memories and “childhood images of revolutionary Iran… the fact that religion can transform a society.” When he was about fifteen years old, he joined an evangelical Christian youth camp and became a faithful Christian.
However, as Reza describes in his book, the further Reza studied the bible, and the Jesus of history, the more he realized that many “truths” of the bible were historically inaccurate; that there were great differences between the Jesus of history and Jesus the Christ. This abrupt disillusionment triggered a change in faith for Reza, and inspired a two decade long research and fact-finding quest, which culminated in writing Zealot.
“That became my first confrontation with this enigmatic figure, Jesus the Christ… and of course recognizing pretty quickly the thousands of ways he is interpreted and understood throughout history and absorbed by different cultures… recognizing that this character, Jesus the Christ, was so malleable that I really wanted to find out where these interpretations came from. Who was the person himself that elicited these different interpretations.”
Reza’s book questions the literal accuracy of long held biblical beliefs. For example, Reza questions the entire notion of the “virgin” birth, the depiction of Jesus as a gentle and peaceful shepherd, and even the origins of the gospels.
“People think that they [the writers of the gospels] were walking around with a notebook… [however], every single word ever written about Jesus was written by someone who never met him. That is a hard fact for a lot of Christians to swallow.”
“The notion of a great Christian backlash is absolutely false. Part of the reason why it is such a best seller is that Christians are reading it. I can’t tell you how many Church groups, book clubs etc. contact me telling me they are reading it as a group or come to one of my appearances.”
And while Reza’s portrayal of Jesus may not agree with biblical images, his discussion is fair and respectful of Christianity. I begin to understand why Christian groups are made curious, but not angry, by Zealot. Reza is clear that the purpose of the book is to explore the historical Jesus, and not to attack the Christian faith.
“I am interested in exploring where faith comes from, how it’s formed… I am not interested in denigrating anybody’s faith, that’s for sure.”
Non-Christians and atheists also enjoy reading the book and write to Reza, often claiming that it is refreshing to learn about a Jesus that they “have been waiting to hear about… the man instead of the divine figure.” But there are still those who vehemently oppose and criticize the book, and Reza personally.
There’s the now infamous Fox News interview with Reza that went viral in 2013. In it, the host showed embarrassingly little knowledge of Reza and his book, and yet she seemed bent on debating his right as a Muslim to write about Jesus. That particular interview slowly imploded on network television, while Reza kept his cool throughout. Reza gently laughs about the incident and explains the politics behind that and similar attacks.
“Those who are attacking the book are primarily attacking me for having written it (are) from the very far right group, and not so much from the far right religious groups, but from the political right wing.” Reza cites attempts (at least in America) of using Christ to further political agendas; however, Zealot explores a different Jesus, one who would not view this favourably.
“In America we have Republicans using Jesus to argue against welfare, against food stamps, against immigration… for unending and limitless war in the Middle East. And I think that if there is one thing about this book that really frightens people on the right is that when you look at the real Jesus, the man who lived 2000 years ago, the politics he espouses is anathema to the politics of the right wing of the United States.”
He explains that one of the key differences between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ is that Christ is malleable. In this context, he explains how, in addition to political agendas, the “prosperity gospel” can be justified. “It’s the gospel that’s preached by those… who have become multi-millionaires by promising Christians that what Jesus really wants for them is material wealth… that Jesus wants them to drive a Bentley… (but) if there is one thing that you simply cannot glean from the gospels is this message of prosperity… I mean Jesus’s conception of the kingdom of God which was the foundation of his preaching was a radically new social order… a reversal of the present social order… whereby the rich and the poor switch places… This was not a message of equality.”
Fascinated, I want to ask him questions galore. I recall hearing an unsubstantiated claim that perhaps Jesus came to India and studied with gurus during his time on earth.
“[It’s] a common theory that has become very popular especially amongst South Asians, but there is no historical legitimacy at all…. when you are talking about the Jesus of history, you cannot forget that you are talking about a profoundly poor, uneducated, illiterate, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee, this is a man who would never have heard of India… who would never have had the opportunity to go more than a few miles from the village in which he was born let alone travel great distances and learn at the feet of great masters.”
“What you are seeing is precisely what I meant about the malleability of Christ. There is a wonderful Japanese community who believe they have the burial ground for Jesus Christ in Japan… The Mormons believe he spent time in the United States… These are perfect examples of what I mean when [I say] Christ becomes personalized. But the Jesus of history is frozen in history. He can only be understood in the context of his world.”
There are those who, Reza explains, are deeply comforted by the messages of the Jesus that is “frozen in history”, and accessible to man as opposed to a faith that may have been manipulated to suit political or cultural agendas.
Reza’s quest to discover Jesus the Christ began as a faithful teenager, and it seems that over the years, his discoveries have given him a new respect for Jesus, the man, that is not faith based, nor need it be. “…when you get to the end of the book I make this argument about why Jesus of history, Jesus the man, is every bit worth following as Jesus the Christ. The example he set of how to confront social injustice and the powers that be are just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.”
Reza Aslan will be speaking at Indian Summer Festival on July 10 as part of the 5×15 event at FOX Cabaret, and on July 11, in conversation at SFU Woodwards. Jugni Style is a partner on the 5×15 event. Visit indiansummerfestival.ca.
Leena Manro is a former lawyer turned writer and Leo nominated actress. After a few years of working as an attorney in the prairies, Leena packed her bags and moved to Vancouver where she co-wrote and co-created the hit comedy play series, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Chicken!” Currently, Leena is working on more projects written for the screen, including a feature comedy.