Getting Ready for Reza

I am getting very excited about Reza Aslan’s visit to Homebrewed Christianity this September 3rd. In anticipation of this conversation, I am reading his book Zealot and I recently attended a conversation between Reza and Rainn Wilson (who you probably know as Dwight from the Office) that was hosted at Barry Taylor’s church. IMG_2395

All of that aside, I am a little confused at some of the negative press that Reza has been getting in the past weeks. I get that some outlets and camps will be perpetually perturbed, and I don’t worry about them.

What has drawn my attention is the push-back from those I know and follow who have seemed to raise the ire about both Reza and his latest project. 

The complaints seem to come in 3 broad categories.

  • This has all been said before / Why do we need another book about Jesus? 

I am mystified by this line of reasoning. You think that because the Jesus Seminar or Borg or Crossan, Horsely or Karen Armstrong has covered this (at least some of it) in the work that there is nothing new or no new presentation that could be helpful for furthering the conversation?

Clearly – as you can see from the media response - hearing this from a new voice or from a different perspective has hit a nerve of some kind.

  • He is not even in Biblical Scholarship. 

This is an odd criticism. He is a historian and if you look at the courses in his department at the UC Riverside department you will see that it is not your normal creative writing program. Plus, discounting an author because of their field/title within the academy seems like a last-ditch effort at some level.

  • The Islamic thing. 

Don’t even get me started. If only people within a tradition are allowed … so Christians are not allowed to research-write about Jewish history or address anything Islamic? This just doesn’t hold up.

 

Enough of the negativity. Let me get to 3 things that I like about Reza’s project.

  • I love his approach. 

Instead of starting with the Bible, he starts with history. The Roman world was well documented and allows us to gain an elaborate picture of what life looked like during that period. We even know about their agricultural practices and prices – not to mention military, political, construction, trade, and religious matters.

Then what he does is come back to the Bible to if the details in the Gospel accounts stands up in relation to what we already know. The advantage to doing this is it helps illuminate what aspects of the Gospels were written for theological reasons. I find this a very helpful approach.

  • Not everyone knows about synoptic studies.

I come from an evangelical world where people spend lots of time reading the Bible but may not know that much about the Bible. In fact, every Christmas and Easter I felt like the bad guy for introducing them to the differences between the Synoptic accounts (not to mention the Gospel of John being its own thing).

This is why I love that Reza is getting so much attention and that we will get to chat with him on September 3 … and at my home church of all places!

I am a confessional christian and take great joy in integrating contemporary biblical scholarship as much as possible. The trick is always taking the often critical stance of that scholarship and utilizing it is a constructive confession!

One way I have found success in doing this is to embrace that the Gospel accounts are theological presentations – not newspaper reports – and that in those details that appear to be non-historical the authors/communities that wrote them are trying to tell us something. I want to hear and proclaim that something.

Am I worry that Reza’s work might not be intended for that purpose? No. That is why we are in dialogue with those in different disciples and traditions. We are translators at some level – all of us.

We engage, absorb, adapt, adopt, appropriate and integrate to the best of our ability.

  • Liberals should be even more upset than Conservatives and Evangelicals.

I get why folks from the conservative and evangelical branches of the family might not be too keen on Raza’s project. It gives them whiplash if they have never thought about this stuff before.

The most ridiculous response, however, is when those from the liberal side of the fences take the ‘we have heard all of this stuff before’ stance. Listen to what he is saying:

If the only thing that you knew about Jesus is that he was crucified, you would know everything that you need to. Crucifixion is reserved from state-criminals. Jesus was convicted of sedition.

From there it gets zesty. It turns out that the criminals on either side of Jesus that day were not ‘thieves’ they were bandits. That is how the original greek word should be translated according to Reza.

Jesus was not a good little Jewish boy who unfortunately and surprisingly got tacked up on a cross. He was a political threat with radical stances that were dangerous to the establishment. So when Liberals shrug their shoulders and go back to being ‘Chaplains to the Empire’ and participating in the establishment in ways that are complicit in unjust and oppressive institutions … they have missed what Reza is saying about their ‘savior’. It is an indictment on a brand of christianity is that is so compromised and complicit with the system that it is has lost its prophetic unction and revolutionary subversiveness.

 

I am excited to read the rest of this book and to continue to get ready for the September 3rd event. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to hear about Jesus from an angle I normally wouldn’t encounter. If people want to quibble about the title of the book as being fantastical and over-the-top in order to gains sales … OK.  But let’s not miss the point of the project over the title.

I would love to hear your thoughts or concerns. 

 

 

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12 comments
Kurt van Kraut
Kurt van Kraut

Actually, that the *real* Jesus was a badass is not news, especially not to Jesus-loving folk. For instance, is that not also the underlying message of Eldredge's 'Wild at Heart' (aka 'The testosterone driven life'), or in Ann Coulter's praise for Jesus kicking shit up when he cleansed the temple? Only that, where they present Jesus as a seditionist from a society that turns men soft at heart, or from a country run by godless liberals, Aslan's 'Jesus the Bandit' sought to overthrow Rome. 

I guess the problem, for me, is that all three present us essentially with a violent and all-too-human Jesus. So, I have the suspicion that if I gave Aslan's book to my literalist conservative friends who also love guns'n'empire, all they might learn is that Jesus was just a man. But ultimately, it wouldn't really change them. The fact is, though, that the unhistorical-naive picture of Jesus in the church has, in its better moments, been able to change the world.

That is why I find books like Aslan's so boring (and that is why I find real historical scholars like Bultmann, who deconstruct the NT, but then go onto ask who the 'Jesus risen into the church's kerygma' is, actually really exciting.) 

PS Bo, sorry to always crap all over your comment section - I really love our discussions, and I don't want to always sound contrarian.

MickyScottBeyJones
MickyScottBeyJones

Peter Enns did a short blog post on August 1 where he linked to two Bible/NT scholars critique Aslan's book. 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/08/two-scholars-respond-to-the-actual-content-of-reza-aslans-take-on-jesus/

The critiques are similar. What I found very helpful, is that they acknowledge the book is for a general audience (not theological nerds), point out the aspects that are well-done yet they also point out where his scholarship is out-of-date, lacking original thought and apparently (I wouldn't know) fails to acknowledge much of the recent scholarship on the life of Jesus. 

I think as more progressive thinkers, we have to be careful not to just like someone because they piss off our more "conservative brethren". Trust me, I struggle with that, but if we are going to dish it out, let's do so equally. 

Greg Carey's critique is gentle, yet pretty clear that Aslan misses some things in a fairly major way.

Le Donne goes so far as to say "problems like this surface on about every third page" which is in reference to a lack of familiarity with the latest literature on second temple Judaism. Now, I don't have one single, solitary clue if either Carey or Le Donne know what they are talking about, but I would likely defer to their education, research and continued authorship in Biblical studies over Aslan's PhD in sociology with a professional/scholarly emphasis in contemporary religion. That is very respectable and a depth of knowledge I do not posses, but he is not an expert in the area where he chose to write a book, so perhaps he should have leaned more heavily on more current research. Coming from a health care type background though, I've been trained to look for and trust recent research & scholarship and work which has been confirmed by multiple authors. So, that shows part of my personal bias. 

I am sure it will be an interesting interview. It would be very interesting to see him talk with a NT scholar like Carey or Le Donne or answer questions about the more negative concerns they raise about his scholarship on this particular book. Maybe he could answer why he went with the research and literature he did and excluded others.


Patrick Frownfelter
Patrick Frownfelter

The biggest criticism I keep hearing is that Aslan isn't well versed in the history he tries to talk about(that being Second Temple politics), treating Josephus's writings like "court transcripts" (as I heard one blogger say) and disregarding more current scholarship on the time period.  I think most historical Jesus scholars are looking at him and going, "Bro, do you even keep up with us?" The same blogger mentioned above makes the case that Aslan's claim to Jesus' advocacy for militant revolution was something refuted back in the 70's.   Now, we can't read everything, obviously, but from what I keep hearing, it's like he turned to scholarship that's all around 40 years old.  I don't know how true that is (I haven't read the book), but people keep talking like Aslan just discovered Atari while we're all playing xBox 360.  That's fine, but don't tout it like Atari is the newest thing on the planet.  

As for me, the political elements of the gospels is something I think most people well versed in Historical Jesus are fully aware of. I'd heard the cross thing through Shane Claiborne back in my sophomore year of college! Jesus' march into Jerusalem as a public demonstration is nothing new either.  Popular people (not just scholars) have been talking about this for awhile now. The only thing different here is his thing that Jesus was beefing up for armed revolution, and I think he's going to have a hard time proving that.  

This isn't to say I won't give him the chance.  @BoSanders, you're right on with every response to these criticisms you've presented.  There's no reason that someone, Christian or non, biblical scholar or not, couldn't take something like this and have a go at it from a new perspective.  I do intend to give this book a go at some point...I just can't say I'm rushing in to do it.

C_Lambeth
C_Lambeth

Bo, It seems to me that when some Christians say, "Oh, we've heard this all before," what they mean is that Aslan's portrait of Jesus is remarkably similar to what some fellows of the Jesus Seminar have been saying for decades, namely, that there is nothing remarkable about a 1st Century, rabble-rousing Jew who got himself executed for leading a rebellion. To get to that conclusion however, a lot of presuppositions have to be lurking beneath the surface, the most thinly veiled of which are that Jesus is not God, never claimed to be God and that the collection of documents we find in the New Testament are inherently unreliable sources for the Jesus of history (all part of Aslan's perspective btw). As you have noted, the Fox contingent of Christians start gnashing their teeth and assembling a barrage of ill-conceived attacks, but for those of us who know better (at least in my case), the tendency is to roll our eyes at Aslan's one-sided and purposefully provocative re-casting of Jesus of Nazareth, but this doesn't mean we are "Chaplains to the Empire." Of course people ought not dismiss Aslan's thesis because its author is a Muslim, but rather because it tries to present itself as fair and balanced (sound familiar?). It seems to me that the author started with a conclusion and then worked backwards to steer evidence in a just-so fashion towards that conclusion. All of us have our biases. Indeed, we cannot extricate ourselves from them, but having various biases is not the problem. The problem with Aslan's latest book is that it pretends not to have any biases at all... and that makes my BS alarm blow up. Just listen to his interviews and see how much he touts his degrees and all his years of studying Jesus in an effort to present himself as the authority on the subject. Gee, a guy who thinks he's the expert on Jesus. Which one of us hasn't been guilty of that... and then come to know better?

willhouk
willhouk

I look forward to reading this book. I've seen the interviews, he seems like a really fascinating guy. I think the negative response on the Evangelical/Conservative side is rooted in empire. Any person that challenges the structures of hegemony that they've created in the world is up for a fight. Maybe that's just the Zinn/Chomsky influence in me coming out. From what I've read so far Aslan is painting Jesus as a political figure speaking out against empire and he got strung up for it. It kind of looks like Aslan is identifying with Jesus in the last few weeks, especially in the atrocious Fox News interview.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@MickyScottBeyJones what a great comment! Thanks for the links. I just read Enns (who we love around here) and will get to the other 2 in the morning.  Thank you. 

p.s.  this is going to be rockin' evening.  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@Patrick Frownfelter @BoSanders Very interesting take ... and I thank you for wading in with that. It will definitely be something that I keep and eye on as I progress through this book.  -Bo 

idalis
idalis

@C_Lambeth You nailed it. As a Media Consultant I've been arguing this point. What he did to Lauren Green was prepare his rebuttal way ahead of time. He knew they would nail him on writing the book and having an agenda as an ex christian and Muslim. But he can deny that and hide behind his degrees. What they needed to nail him on is the title and some passages that reveal his true agenda.


He's making a movie out of this. This is a dangerous commentary on Jesus and should not be released. It's a slap in the face to al Christians. Gosh I hope someone nails him as you did publicly. Obvously its way over this bloggers head.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@C_Lambeth Honest question- not trying to be argumentative -  Are you saying that you could view the same historical evidence the Reza researched and, viewing it without any bias at all, come to different conclusions?  

-Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@willhouk I think I can definitely hear the Zinn/Chomsky influence coming out ;)  -Bo 

C_Lambeth
C_Lambeth

@BoSanders @C_Lambeth It's a fair question, but the answer is, "no." What I am saying (well, PART of what I am saying) is that none of us comes to the topic without our biases. Not me, not you and not Reza Aslan. 

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