Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Reza Aslan, Schweitzer, and the History of Jesus History

My encounter with Reza Aslan's Zealot has been shaped by decades of studying the history of the faith, both personally and as part of graduate and undergraduate work.  I do it for a living, every single week.

That journey began in earnest at the University of Virginia, where I received my degree in Religious Studies.  This weren't no two-bit "bible college" in my grandpappy's garage.  This was Mistah Jeffahson's University.

It was and is a remarkably good program, filled with competent and well-known scholars of religion.  It was also not a seminary.  The purpose of the program was not to train pastors, but to study religion using the tools of historical critical and textual analysis.  Period.

I remember much of it, these decades later, because it lit me up and laid the groundwork for my current faith.  For some, particularly those who thought these would be easy classes after years of Sunday School, it was a rude awakening.  The first-year fundamentalists in my classes would protest ferociously, rising up to challenge professors on those first days of class, only to find that the professors--churchgoers and pastors--knew the Bible with a depth they couldn't even begin to match.  Those folks fell away quickly.

But I loved it.  I found that the engagement with the reality of my tradition only enriched my faith.  History and textual analysis gave a richness and reality to my beliefs.  Knowing the context makes for a much richer faith.

But history has its boundaries, as we were reminded in one of my early seminar courses.  Around the turn of the last century, the historical critical method was in full swing.  It dominated Christian intellectual discourse.  And yes, there was such a thing.  I know it seems hard to believe sometimes, but there really was.

In the late 19th century and early 20th, if you were a Christian, there was a formula for producing best-selling books: Write a history of Jesus.  "Discover" some new and amazing insight into who this person actually was, which would then be argued and discussed and debated while you raked in the royalties and the acclaim.

This trend cranked along for a while, until a book was published by Albert Schweitzer entitled The Quest of the Historical Jesus.   Schweitzer was a brilliant man, a theologian/historian/adventurer/doctor who spent much of his life serving in a hospital in Africa as a way of recompensing for what he saw as the dehumanizing blight of European colonialism.  He particularly hated the fusion of colonial power and Christian faith, which he saw as a monstrous betrayal of the Gospel.  To quote:
The name of Jesus has become a curse, and our Christianity--yours and mine--has become a falsehood and a disgrace, if the crimes are not atoned for in the very place where they were instigated.  For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus' name, someone must step in to help in Jesus' name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless.
Amazing stuff, from the Buckaroo Banzai of the Jesus world.

Schweitzer noted, in a review of all of the histories, that the scholars who were creating these works tended to come up with exactly the Jesus they wanted to encounter.  That Jesus would share all of their insights, all of their theological predilections, and affirm everything they'd ever written or thought.

Meaning, the Jesus they created from "history" was exactly the Jesus they wanted to see.  It was a brutally revealing insight to late 19th century Christian scholarship, one that took the wind out of the sails of "Jesus histories" for serious historians of the faith.

Those books still sell, of course.  But they are not history.

Reza Aslan appears to have missed that memo.  Or rather, he wants us to imagine that it does not apply to him.  People do this, he says, in a single sentence.  But my history is the best real history.

For Aslan's aspirations, Schweitzer's challenge does apply, radiantly and self-evidently so.  How?

For that, another post.