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.
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).
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.