Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Face of Reza Aslan's Jesus

And it was at this point in reading Zealot that I went for a walk, and prayed for a little while.

I was "couch-bitin'-mad," as they used to say in my college fraternity.  Don't ask.  Really.  Don't ask.

Here is the best-selling book in America, making what felt like a full-frontal attack...so certain, so sure...on everything that I hold to be most precious and good about the founder of my faith.  I would not follow Jesus if he was the Jesus Zealot describes, and I'd be lying if I said the bizarro-world Jesus presented by Aslan didn't make me feel like Mr. Furious.

But I walked, and prayed, and walked a little more.  And quiet came.

From the quiet, a thought came to me: does Reza Aslan hate Christians and Christianity?  Is this a book filled with hate?  Is intended as an attack on Jesus?

And in truth, it is not.  Reza Aslan loves Christians.  He does, with all of his heart, and not in an abstract way. He is--as a Muslim--trying to find a way to love the Jesus of his Christian wife and her family, who love him just as he is.

Then what is this strange mess of a book trying to do?

This is not a book that serves the purposes of scholarship.  That's a mistaken assumption, the wrong lens through which to consider his writing. If you try to see it that way, it is unreadably terrible.  Nor is it a Christian book, intended to shape Christian faith. This is a book written for love, the love of a man whose wife does not believe quite as he does.

As a Christian pastor with a Jewish wife, I know what that feels like.

Here, I found myself musing on his Muslim faith.  Not in the manner of FoxNews, whose clumsy attempt at rabble rousing at the expense of Islam probably sold more copies of this book than any glowing review ever could.  [Reminder to self if I ever get published by a large imprint: Go on FoxNews. Get attacked.]

Instead, I thought of it in the manner of someone who is open to interfaith relationships, and also realistically aware of the differentials between faith traditions.

I have studied the Quran at great length.  Cover to cover, I've read the whole thing, in a variety of translations.  I've gone searching for Jesus there, hoping to encounter the heart of what I find in the Gospels.  There's a book in that, somewhere in the future.

What strikes me, in reading Reza Aslan's Zealot, is how his Jesus compares with the Jesus I found described in the Quran.

The Jesus of the Quran isn't at all the Jesus he's describing.  Not at all.  The Quran says many things about Jesus, that are actually wildly and surprisingly orthodox.  According to the Quran, Jesus is given the title Messiah (Al Maeda 75, At-Tauba 31).  He's born of the Spirit of God (Al-Anbiya 91), which impregnates the Virgin Mary.  He preaches with the authority of the Spirit (Al Maeda 110).  Heck, it even says he's going to return on the last day (Aal-e-Imran 55).  There are plenty of churches out there that'd take those as perfectly adequate grounds for membership.

But the Quran makes no claims about his being a revolutionary, a zealous warrior for the truth.  None at all.

Then it struck me, with the force of a full Schweitzer: He's not describing Jesus as if he was the Jesus of the Quran.  Neither is he projecting Jesus from his own identity.  I thought for a while about the ways Aslan praises this Jesus he's envisioned.

His Jesus is a man of humble birth.  He lives in a backwater, an area disrespected by the world.  He looks out at the faith around him, and sees corruption.  A vision of God comes, and he is stirred to take up an uncompromising stance against the powers around him.  He takes up the sword, and gathers followers, and stakes his life in a battle against the powers that have corrupted faith.  This Jesus, after his death, passes real authority on through his bloodline, through his family.

This Jesus is a noble and valiant warrior for justice, a fearless zealot in the service of the Creator of the Universe, one willing to put his life on the line to defend the assertion that Aslan puts into the lips of all zealots: Only the Lord is God.  "Someone worth believing in," as the book concludes.

Having read the Quran, I know that guy.

Reza Aslan's Jesus is the Prophet Mohammed.  Peace be Unto Him.

Yeah, I know, Reza doesn't up and say it.  But the whole book suddenly didn't bother me any more.  It suddenly made sense. It's like talking with a Buddhist who says, you know, I see my Buddha in your Jesus.  Or to a Hindu who sees Krishna in Jesus.

Here's a man who tries to describe Jesus, and finds himself instead describing the very best and most worthy person of his entire faith tradition.  It's hard to take offense at that.

To which I might say, you know, there's more.  There's so much more.

But I wouldn't be angry in the saying of it.