Saturday, June 13, 2015

Why *Did* Reza Write About Jesus?

"separate the man from the deity"

Why would Reza Aslan, a Muslim, write about the founder of Christianity?  He gave an answer to Lauren Green (in the famous Fox News interview) that was very different from the answer he gave in his post "Why I write about Jesus," written July 20th, 2013, only six days prior to the interview (emphases are my own):
The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.  
Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ. 
I have modeled my life, not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.   
I wrote my newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ. 
Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.
To Lauren Green, his answer to why he wrote about Jesus was because it's his job, what he makes his living doing, whereas the answer in Zealot (in the introduction) and in this opinion piece was "to spread the good news" of the real Jesus.  (Note: In terms of Green's original question, he didn't correct her that he hadn't, in his opinion, written about the founder of Christianity, though he doesn't believe that Christianity is truly based on Jesus' message.)  Why is Aslan's message in Zealot good news?  Because the Jesus of the Christians is a detached, unearthly, celestial spirit, unconcerned (as he puts it in many other writings and interviews) with the cares of this world, while Aslan's Real Jesus was actually concerned with people's earthly circumstances.  Zealot was written so that more people will follow Reza's hyper-Marxist version of Jesus "without being a Christian."

Even though he was on fire for Christ as a kid, now he is more "genuinely committed" in following Real Jesus™.  Is this because his previous commitment to religion wasn't as genuine a commitment, or because he is committed to something/someone more genuine (since his Jesus is the real Jesus)?

Now, Reza Aslan depicts himself as someone who, as a comparative religion theologian (or history-of-religion scholar), is fluent in various religions as a polyglot linguist is fluent in several languages; religions are, as he puts it in some of his interviews, simply symbolic languages for communicating the Ineffable Mystery.  If that were true, why couldn't he write an ecumenical work that translates a caring, non-detached God into the "symbols" of the three main Western religions?  Why does Reza's gospel require a "biography of Jesus" that devotes many, many pages to debunking Christianity?

Part of the problem here, see, is that a great deal of the New Testament, gospels and epistles, are precisely concerned with the divine majesty of the Christ/Messiah not being a detached spiritual entity with no interest in the earthly state of human beings.  In fact, in the First Epistle of John, being hardened against the earthly predicament of one's brother is of that spirit which denies that "Jesus is come in the flesh," a manifestation of "the antichrist spirit."  It is almost as though Reza doesn't know the difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism, which would be strange indeed for someone who touts himself as an expert in all Western religions.

On the other hand, I once attended a presentation (at UCLA, if I recall) in which a Muslim was explaining what is emphatically wrong about the Incarnation doctrine.  The "radical unity" of God, as this man had it, meant that God was too holy and detached from creation to have a human body with all its dirty biological waste processes and such.  I think this interpretation of "radical unity" is much more central to the origins and history and orthodoxy of Islam than Reza's mystical, panentheistic interpretation.  Whereas orthodox Islam thinks that it is blasphemous to consider Jesus divine, Reza Aslan thinks that it is wrongheaded to think that Jesus was any more or less divine than a rock or a chair.  Curiously, in some of his other work, he does acknowledge that Mohammed's understanding of Christianity was based on Gnostic Christianity.

Prof. Margaret M. Mitchell of the University of Chicago has written a scholarly assessment of the scholarly merits of Zealot (of which assessments there have been too few) and in it has also noted the irrelevance of Aslan's appeal to authority (his own) instead of an honest and direct answer to Lauren Green about why he wrote the book:
Not all scholars of religion (or of any sub-discipline within it) choose to make their own religious biography an explicit part of their work . . . , but when one chooses to do so it is hardly unfair to engage that aspect of the book or to ask how the biography and the arguments and the methodology interact (if at all). On this point Aslan cannot have it both ways [i.e. frame the book as a vehicle for his personal beliefs but still expect his personal biases to be off limits for discussion] and should not expect to. [emphases mine] 
Green's error was to suppose that the personal beliefs that Aslan is proselytizing for in Zealot were whatever Muslim beliefs he holds.  He opens up in a Santa Clara interview:
My Muslim faith plays a zero role in this book or frankly, in any of my academic work. That is not to say that this is a purely objective look at Jesus. There’s no such thing. I am bringing my own personal perceptions and even biases into this text, as we all do when we deal with sacred history. But that bias has nothing to do with Islam. It has everything [instead] to do with, again, you darn Jesuits, because the Jesus whom I was taught at Santa Clara University is the Jesus who is founded upon the preferential option for the poor, the Jesus whose entire ministry is predicated on the reversal of the social order . . . [emphases mine]
Zealot has everything to do with the "historical Jesus" that he claims he was introduced to by the Jesuits as he was introduced to liberation theology.  It has everything to do with a Jesus that wanted to take things even further than Karl Marx, a "reversal of the social order," a bloody revolution that he calls "a chilling new reality" in Zealot and in various anti-capitalist speeches. It is to this revisionist Jesus that Reza Aslan is a "more genuinely committed disciple" than he ever was to the Jesus of the New Testament.  This is the reason for Aslan's "straight-up biography" of Jesus.

"separate the man from the deity"

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