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Reza Aslan's political Jesus: 'I wanna be like him'

The controversial author spoke to a Seattle audience Monday about the Fox News segment and what so fascinates him about the real Jesus.

"If this book threatens your faith, then your faith is not built on a rock," announced Reza Aslan Monday night. "It's built on sand." Aslan was speaking with award-winnning religious scholar Lesley Hazleton, before a standing-room only crowd in the auditorium of Seattle's iconic downtown public library. His arrival in Seattle marked the end of the first full business day after now-infamous Fox News anchor Lauren Green had taken the Muslim-turned-Christian-turned-Muslim Iranian-American to task for writing "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."

"You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" Green had asked, looking pointedly up from her notes.

Aslan, who spent the entire interview trying to convince Green that they should be talking about the contents of the book rather than his own religious affiliation, had a few reasons: Religion degrees from Santa Clara, UC Santa Barbara and Harvard; not to mention an international bestseller about Islam. By the time Aslan went to bed on Monday, one YouTube version of the interview had more than 1.5 million views. 

Aslan chats with a fan at the Seattle Public Library after his Monday talk. 

It was an ironic line of questioning. As Aslan pointed out, Green — a religion reporter for Fox — is a devout Christian. And that didn't stop her from penning an essay about Islam in 2011. "Is there something in Islam that makes believers more susceptible to radicalization?" the article asked. Incidentally, Hazleton, a Jew, penned her own award-winning biography of Muhammed.

But the viral squabble exposed something much more interesting than Green's underlying hypocrisy. It reminded us of something fundamental about how Americans perceive religion. It is a core part of their identity. Like Lauren Green, seven out of ten Americans self-identify as Christian. As an American teen in Southern California, disenchanted with the dispassionate Islam his family practiced at home, becoming a fundamentalist Christian was the most American thing Aslan could have done. And so he embraced it.  

A packed house files out of the Seattle Public Library auditorium Monday. 

It was only years later, reading up on ways to support himself in religious debates, that he began to uncover asynchronicities in his new faith; that he began to tilt back towards Islam. 

As Aslan sees it now, religion is a language, not an absolute; a set of phrases and symbols that allow you to communicate about the transcendent. And he has an intellectual flowchart to help others find their way to his own conclusions. 1. Do you believe that something exists beyond the physical world? 2. If yes, does that matter to you? Do you want to explain and understand and experience that idea? 3. If so, you need a language and a frame so that you can describe it to yourself and your community. "And that's what religion is." 

"I think and feel in Islam," he explained Monday, but it doesn't matter what language you choose. 

Aslan shakes hands with a fan during the book signing after his talk. 

So what does all this mean about how Aslan's book "Zealot" actually portrays Jesus, a question ironically marginalized by the Fox News debacle? The Jesus that so fascinated Aslan, he told Seattleites, was not the divine Jesus, but the human, political Jesus: A Jewish peasant from a town so small it wasn't even on the map, "fundamentally shaped by the tumultuous era in which he lived." (A Jew in a region razed by Romans.)  

"This is a man whose entire ministry was based on reversal of the social order," Aslan explained. "He is talking about a world where the poor become rich and the rich become poor. Reconcile that with the Republican platform." (Aslan himself identifies as neither Republican, nor Democrat.)


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 30, 8:04 p.m. Inappropriate

What's missing in the notorious Fox interview of Aslan and in much conversation about his viewpoints is that his ideas are entirely consistent with the thinking of many liberal Biblical scholars who've come before him. A quick check of John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and many others could've helped Ms. Green figure out that Aslan's is not a "Muslim" perspective on the historical Jesus, just a thoughtfully crafted analysis, well within the mainstream of contemporary scholarly thought. Fox has helped him sell boatloads of his books, so Green's attempt to marginalize him comes off both as ignorant of modern Biblical scholarship and as clumsily helpful to his bank account.

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 10 p.m. Inappropriate

What was really missing was someone like Christopher Hitchens to end the silliness of the entire interview and knock the underpinnings out of their arguments.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Aug 2, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

The Laura Green interview was one of those moments where you get an insight into how unselfconsciously primitive is the tribal mentality of the FOX right. It struck me while watching the interview that Green, like so many on the FOX right, cannot imagine anyone having motivations different from her own. Aslan as a Muslim must look at Jesus and Christianity as FOX Christians look at Mohammed and Islam. Green seemed sincerely convinced that Aslan could write a book about Jesus only for culture-war motivations.

I would have expected that a FOX interviewer might have attacked Aslan for the substance of his argument. Aslan paints a picture of Jesus that has been airbrushed away since Constantine--Jesus as a political insurrectionist, or at least as someone whom entrenched power of the time saw as a destabilizing threat. That Jesus could ever have been Shanghaied for the purposes of legitimating imperial power is one of the most egregious distortions of his life and mission imaginable. The non-imperial view of Jesus is not compatible with the FOX Christian view of him.

The Jesus of the gospels does not proffer a flag to rally around, either for the Left or the Right, but he does offer a way of seeing the world that is profoundly subversive of the self-serving legitimation narratives of the wealthy and powerful. But that's not something FOX Christians seem to understand, as they are equally incapable of understanding why the Jesus of history is such a compelling figure on his own terms for anyone, yes even non-Christians.

Posted Fri, Aug 2, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

@Djinn--Hitchens was a clown. Clowns have their uses insofar as they mock the pretensions of the pompous and point out that the emperor has no clothes when in fact he has none. But he was a merciless bully, too. His targets were not always the pompous and the powerful, but sometimes the weak and naive. He struck me as a man who debunked for the sake of debunking and for the self-absorbed pleasure of exhibiting his own wit. He served no larger truth than that, and was in the end, despite his prodigious talent, nothing more than a sad drunk. And as such is someone to whom Mother Teresa would have shown more understanding and compassion than he did for her.

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