Reza Aslan’s Viral Jesus

With his bestselling book, Reza Aslan started a movement that has people talking about religion like never before.

It’s about time. A real conversation about religion has begun in this country. In fact, it has gone viral.

Last year, thanks to a shockingly insensitive Fox News interview with religion writer Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the internet lit up like a Christmas tree. Journalist Lauren Green began her questioning with this: “You are a Muslim, so why did you write about the founder of Christianity?” Once wasn’t enough. She kept asking the clearly dumbfounded Aslan the same question over and over again as he tried to explain that he was not writing as a believer, but as a scholar.

Given her insistence, she might as well have been asking herself why an African-American Christian woman would be interviewing a white Persian Muslim man.

Aslan is not at all upset about his now-famous interview — indeed, he is pleased that it catapulted his book onto the forefront of media outlets.

The fact that Jesus was a revolutionary is not exactly news in the world of theology.

“I am so glad people are having this conversation,” says Aslan. “I was surprised how it captured the zeitgeist. This is a topic usually discussed by academics in stuffy libraries.”

What’s so outrageous about the book? He calls Jesus a zealot, for one thing. But as he explains, “In Jesus’s world, ‘zealot’ referred to those Jews who adhered to a widely biblical doctrine called ‘zeal.’” They were against Roman authorities and their collaborators, wealthy temple priests, and aristocratic Jews.

The fact that Jesus was a revolutionary is not exactly news in the world of theology. Jesus didn’t get killed for running around out there passing out Easter eggs.

Aslan, whose father was an atheist and mother a Muslim, had a non religious background. “After we came from Iran, we scrubbed our lives of any trace of Islam,” he says. “Being Muslim and Iranian were not the safest things to be in this country.”

At 15, he converted to evangelical Christianity because he felt the need to be connected spiritually. “I had an encounter with Christ and had a deep desire to share it with others,” he says. He convinced his mother to convert as well.

“Nobody in those times who heard Jesus say ‘I am the messiah’ would have thought that he was saying, ‘I am God.’ Nobody.”

But his academic studies led him down a new path. “I abandoned my faith. I had the sudden realization that Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. Everything he said, he said in the context of Judaism. The Christian interpretation of his words and actions weren’t historical.” Aslan says that when Jesus said, “I am the messiah,” it did not mean God incarnate. It meant “the anointed one,” the descendant of King David, come to rule the kingdom on God’s behalf.

“Nobody in those times who heard Jesus say ‘I am the messiah’ would have thought that he was saying, ‘I am God.’ Nobody.” Aslan says “son of God” was never a description in Judaism. It was given to kings. “He meant he was the king.”

Encouraged by Jesuit friends, he returned to Islam, the religion of his forefather. He knew nothing about Islam or the Prophet Mohammad, and he had never read the Qu’ran.

“What I found was that the symbols and metaphors [in Islam] about God and humanity made more sense to me than the Trinity and the incarnation, which are just other symbols for understanding God. I do not think Islam is true and Christianity is not.” He points out that his mother, his wife, and his brother-in-law are still Christian.

Aslan says, “I see myself as someone who is compelled to confront any religious or political institution in the name of those who are left out. That’s what Jesus did; that’s what I want to do.” He says his “chief objective” is to “speak truth to power. That’s what it means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.”

“[Jesus’] words and actions inspired the largest religious movement in the world. How could you not be obsessed with that guy?”

In fact, Aslan believes that Jesus is a model for human behavior. “He is my personal hero, the man I’ve based my life on.” His values, his empowerment of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcasts are what Aslan admires.

Aslan wasn’t surprised by what happened on Fox News, and he holds no hard feelings toward Lauren Green. “I have nothing but compassion for her. I understand where she is coming from. I used to be like her. I used to be a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. It’s a fear in the world of being confronted with questioning the most basic tenets of your faith.”

As for Jesus, “I’ve been obsessed with him for 20 years — this illiterate, poor, peasant day laborer from the hills of Galilee [who] started a movement that was such a threat that he was crucified for it. His words and actions inspired the largest religious movement in the world. How could you not be obsessed with that guy?”

This doesn’t exactly sound like the words of an anti-Christian. And with his bestselling book, Reza Aslan may have started a movement himself, one that will have people reading and learning and talking about religion in a way it never has before.

Image courtesy of Aslan Media.

Sally Quinn
Written by