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A (Somewhat) Muslim Perspective: Why Is Reza Aslan's Jesus So Small?

Aslan is a remarkable writer and speaker. I only wish I had his talent. Yet his book on Jesus carries numerous problems.
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"Blessed are the peacemakers...."
-- Matthew 5:9

In his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus Christ, Reza Aslan reasons eloquently that the true Jesus of history must have been a militant revolutionary -- more Che Guevera than Jesus Christ, more Muslim Brotherhood than hippy brotherhood, more Malcolm X than MLK. He also argues that this Jesus is worthier of admiration and emulation than the classic image of an apolitical, inclusive and embracing healer.

Aslan says he has long been obsessed with Jesus. So have I. We share other parallels, beyond our initials and our chosen profession of writing. We both hail from the same part of the world (and we even may have lived in pre-revolution Tehran at the same moment). We have backgrounds that span Islam, evangelical Christianity and interfaith dialogue. And we both have sought to make sense, in our speaking and writing, of how the so-called "clash of civilizations" came about.

I suspect that, in the post 9/11 environment, both Aslan and I have nuanced and adapted our views, chameleon-like, to gain attention and affection -- sometimes from Muslims, sometimes from evangelicals and sometimes from liberals and secular humanists. (Aslan admits in his author's note that finding Jesus as a teenager gave him an acceptance as a foreigner to America that he never felt before; I felt similarly during my own fifteen years in evangelicalism.)

Aslan is a remarkable writer and speaker. I only wish I had his talent. He also has done an admirable job in the past of showing how the Islam of his and my forefathers is not a hopelessly violent animal and how it has inspired hundreds of millions of souls to grow in humility, charity and decency.

Yet his book on Jesus carries numerous problems.

1. His nationalistic Jesus is a xenophobe. Aslan asserts that Jesus' call to love one's enemies and turn the other cheek "must be read as being directed exclusively at his fellow Jews.... The commands have nothing to do with how to treat foreigners and outsiders, especially those savage 'plunderers of the world' who occupied God's land..."

Yet when Jesus instructs his listeners to go two miles when pressed to go one (Matthew 5:41), even a children's sermon effectively makes clear that this was specifically Jesus' demand that they dutifully obey the occupying Roman soldiers who dragged civilians into their service.

This would be the attitude of an anti-Roman revolutionary? (Yes, Aslan will probably call this verse's authenticity into question -- but the historical consensus of Christians and skeptics alike is that this verse is a part of the golden thread that runs through Jesus' true teachings.)

2. Aslan says the Jesus movement was preparing for violent revolution:
"The designation of the Twelve is, if not a call to war, an admission of its inevitability, which is why Jesus expressly warned them of what was to come: "If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Given how Jesus seemed to disappoint his own followers with a lack of an explicit program to overturn Roman rule, and given how the Romans then killed Jesus, one would anticipate his fellow zealots they would have risen up in a vicious motion to avenge his martyrdom. They didn't.

Undeterred, Aslan imagines that, over the next two or three decades, they reinvented his teaching from nationalism to something peaceful and inclusive that would make the Romans accept them.

To accept his case you would have to maintain that the core character of Jesus was almost completely rewritten in about 20 years (the dates of the earliest apostles letters), leaving virtually no trace remnant, and no faction of the followers of the "original" teaching of Jesus. Further, when the revolt against Rome did occur in AD 66, there is no sign that any faction of the church joined in. Actually the only tradition we have is that they did the opposite and headed for the hills and fled Jerusalem before the siege of the city started.

3. Aslan's rendition of Jesus is much like a traditional view of the prophet Muhammad, and his rendition of the prophet Muhammad is more like a traditional view of Jesus. He has portrayed Jesus as a well-meaning but bumbling rebel who was killed before he could even get started. And in previous works he has portrayed the prophet Muhammad as an effective rebel commander, and simultaneously a model of compassion, forgiveness and inclusiveness that exceeds Jesus of Nazareth.

So when he writes that, "My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ," he comes across as either opportunistic or confused. At bare minimum, the Muslims who have flocked to buy his works over the years must now be confused (especially since he casually admits that his "real Jesus" is not the Jesus depicted in the Quran).

4. Errors and overstatements abound. "I am predisposed to like Reza Aslan's latest book," wrote Larry Behrendt, a Jewish writer and student of the historical Jesus. Yet, he admitted, "Frankly, it's exhausting to read a book like Zealot, and constantly have to pause in mid-thought to ask if Aslan is giving me the straight dope." Expect more such critiques, as the initial euphoria dies down.

5. No one is objective. Everyone creates his god or goddess in his or her image. It says a great deal that Aslan thinks it's better that Jesus was a failed minor bandit rather than the prissy, peaceful type that others think of. Tellingly, Aslan suggests in many past writings that modern Muslim zealots' violence must be understood as an understandable response to the humiliation of occupation by foreign empires. Has he fashioned Jesus in their image?

Everyone, even the detached academic, creates their religious leaders in their own image. One catalog of the various strains of "historical Jesus" scholarship shows the various dominant images within the historical Jesus scholarship quest. (Note that "nationalist revolutionary" is not a well-represented image.)

Aslan is advocating an approach that will not serve the part of the world that he and I call homeland. The Islamic world desperately needs brave, Gandhi-esque figures and a restrained and compassionate MLK-like approach -- which, in other words, means a Christ-like approach. Aslan instead seeks to sanctify a brawling holy-warrior style.

If there is a Jesus worth following, it is the one who showed us with passion and conviction and urgency that every soul and every situation, no matter how hopeless, can be redeemed.

Even if such a Jesus turned out to be only mythical, it would be worthier of following than Aslan's so-called historical one. (As Emerson said, "Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures." If Aslan himself did not believe this, he would not have told others that his true goal is to be a novelist.)

Jesus was either that rare person who embodied how the cosmos' highest values stand our earthly values on their head -- or he was nothing worth writing home about. If Jesus is worth a damn, then he is the person who broke bread with castaways, who forgave those who didn't deserve forgiveness, who loved those who didn't love him.

That would be good news. Aslan's book is not good news, it is not good, and in the end it does not even appear to be news.