You may not know the name Reza Aslan, but you might have heard about the controversy about an interview that FOX News religion report Lauren Green did with him about his book Zealot, about the life of Jesus. She questioned how a Muslim could write about Jesus, and he kept repeating his extensive credentials as a religious scholar. The storm over her amateurish piece helped the sales of his book reach #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
More interesting to me was this interview with John Oliver of The Daily Show. Aslan is addressing the Christian POV, though not focused on the Christ aspect of Jesus. Aslan disputes the notion of Jesus as a detached, celestial spirit, argues that the early Christian leaders never meant for the Gospel of Jesus to be taken literally, and attempts to answer the question of what Jesus would actually do were he alive in modern times. Aslan notes that if one knows nothing else about Jesus, knowing of the crucifixion is mighty informative since the cross was a punishment usually used on those the authorities considered trouble to the state.
The item that most intriguing me about him, though, was The Book That Changed Reza Aslan’s Mind About Jesus, an article in The Atlantic. The book in question was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, read when he was 16.
“I first read this book when I was a Christian: a firm, devout follower of Jesus. Someone whose impression of Jesus was wholly a result of what the church told me he was. When I read The Brothers Karamazov… my eyes were opened to the notion that the Church’s conception of Jesus is inextricable from the Church’s political, religious, and economic interests—that their Jesus may not be who Jesus actually was. This rocked my world, even back then. I could sense that I was never going to be the same…
“I think Dostoevsky is saying that we must never confuse faith with religion. We must never confuse the institutions that have arisen, these man-made institutions—and I mean that quite literally, because they’re all run by men—who have created languages to help people understand faith, with faith itself. I, as a person of faith, read the same story and did not see it as a repudiation of faith the way a lot of atheists do. I saw it as a challenge to always remember that those who claim to speak for Jesus are precisely the kind of people that Jesus fought against.
“One of the things that’s fascinating about Jesus is that he refused to recognize the power of the Jewish authorities to define the Jewish religion for him. In this time, the priests had a monopoly on the Jewish cult. They decided who can enter the presence of God, and who could not. Which means of course that the lame, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the ‘sinners,’ were divorced from communing with God. And Jesus’ ministry was founded upon not just rejecting that idea, but claiming the absolute reverse: That the kingdom of god that he envisions is one in which the priests, the aristocracy, the wealthy, the powerful, would be removed. And in their place would be the weak, the powerless, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. This was a reversal of the social order. In other words, it’s not just about the meek inheriting the earth. It’s about the powerful disinheriting the earth.
“I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual.”