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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Reza Aslan interview: director's cut

Posted By on Wed, Sep 11, 2013 at 6:37 AM

Our arts section this week includes a feature on the upcoming Pittsburgh visit of Reza Aslan, the religious scholar who touched off such a shitstorm on Foxnews.com. That story contains excerpts from an interview City Paper carried out with Aslan last week ... but for Intro to Comparative Religion students out there, here's a longer version of our talk with him.

If I were going to distill your argument into a sentence or two, it would be this: Jesus and his followers were involved in a political and social struggle that was primarily about the future of Israel. But after his death, later Christians downplayed that context in favor of a more universal message, for political purposes of their own: to make the message appealing to a broader cross-section of people, and to avoid antagonizing Rome. Is that a fair description of your argument boiled down to just a couple of words?

Obviously, as an academic I'm not going to let you get away with that. Because there is no such thing as a difference between religion and politics in Jesus' time. A lot of people have said of my book, "Oh, this is just a political Jesus." But religion and politics were one and the same in the first century.

It's not that I'm providing a strictly political interpretation of Jesus' life. What I'm doing is reminding people that every religious thing Jesus said and did had an inextricable political dimension to it. And I'm trying to highlight the consequences of that.

So what are the consequences of that? Should your portrayal of Jesus change how Christians approach their faith?

It doesn't have to. ... The core of Christianity is that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. Christians tend to only hear or focus on the fully-God part. I think the reason Christians have been, for the most part, very positive about this book is because it's giving them a glimpse of who Jesus the man would have been.

Isn't any attempt to find the "true Jesus" kind of reductive?

When you go to the church in Nazareth, they have this amazing display. They've asked Christians from all over the world to send depictions of Jesus and Mary. And it's remarkable: The painting from Peru depicts them as essentially migrant coffee-workers. The painting from China depicts them as Chinese. The painting from Thailand depicts Jesus as blue, as though he's a Hindu god. Part of the reason for the success of Christianity is that Jesus has meant so many things to so many people.

In a sense, all of [those meanings] are equally valid. ... What I'm trying to do is peel back those layers of interpretation, and get to the core of who the person was.

One critic says you depict Jesus as an "ordinary political revolutionary rescued by an extraordinary storytelling machine." Is that a fair take?

I don't know if I would say Jesus was ordinary. You're talking about an illiterate, poor, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee, who managed to gather a movement to himself on behalf of the poor and the weak that was so threatening to the religious and political powers of the day that he was arrested, tortured and executed.

... A lot of critics say I describe Jesus as some sort of violent revolutionary, but I say in the book that there is no evidence that he openly advocated violence — though his views on violence were far more complex than people normally think.

But on topics like violence, critics say you cherry-pick which Bible passages to accept as historic. How do you respond?

Well, I have to say that is the argument of a non-academic. Those people who say that I am just picking and choosing tend to not be experts in this field. So they feel "why didn't you choose this first that contradicts everything that you see." Well, I didn't choose it because most scholars agree that it's not a historical verse.

Ok, but speaking as a non-expert, I'd like to ask about a couple of those. For example, you include some portions of the Sermon on the Mount, but not "blessed are the peacemakers." Why?

[Jesus' sayings quoted in the Sermon] are definitely historical, people agree on that. But we have two versions of that -- one in Matthew, and one in Luke. And it's the overwhelming consensus of scholars is that the Lucan version [which does not include the "peacemakers" reference] is the historical one.

You also quote Jesus telling the apostles to sell their cloaks and buy swords. But you don't mention that when his disciples try to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says, "He who lives by the sword dies by it.

You have to take that in context. ... The Garden of Gethsemane is not a place of fountains. It's a forest, a place to hide from the authorities. And all four Gospels talk about this massive force that comes to arrest Jesus.

... The skirmish was over time whitewashed so that it [fits] into the theological argument the Gospel writers were trying to make [about Jesus' nonviolence]. How can you take that event and cleanse it? Well, you have Jesus say, "Stop the fighting."

... The fact that it's a swordfight, in and of itself, should make you pause and rethink the notion of Jesus as a pacifistic preacher with no interest in the cares of this world. That Jesus would have gone totally unnoticed. It would not have required an armed posse to arrest him.

In your introduction, you say "scholars see the Jesus they want to see, and too often they end up seeing a reflection of themselves." Was that true of you?

It's for sure true with me. There is no such thing as objective history, whether you are writing about Bill Clinton or Jesus of Nazareth. And the people who first taught me how to read the Bible were the ones who had the greatest influence on me when it came to interpreting it. And that was the Jesuits, who emphasized Jesus' role as someone fighting for social justice and economic justice. That deeply influenced not just how I read Jesus, but who I am as a person.

Your publicist pleaded with me not to talk too much about the Fox interview --

It's unavoidable.

-- well, I avoided it for more than 20 minutes. You gotta give me some credit for that. But what's been the most frustrating response you've gotten?

I'm not frustrated by the knee-jerk anti-Muslim response. I've been getting that for a decade, I'm used to it. I am frustrated by the weird and insidious way that argument has filtered into the mainstream and become an attack on my credentials. This is my third book about religion, and no one ever questioned my credentials before.

For instance: "He's not an expert in new testament because his degree is in religious studies." Well, what do you think I studied in religious studies? "His Ph.D. isn't in religion, it's in sociology." It's in the sociology of religion.

And you're seeing that as an anti-Muslim thing?

No, not at all. I see it as an attack-the-messenger kind of thing. And those attacks on my credentials have a very clear purpose: "You don't have to take what he writes seriously, because he doesn't have the authority to write it."

This interview will be published Sept. 11. As someone with experience of both Islam and Christianity, how would you assess the dialogue between those faiths? Do we understand each other better than we did 12 years ago?

I think the middle does, especially in the United States. This is the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the world: You have no choice but to know and understand your neighbor.

On the other hand, the fringes seem to have gotten further and further away from each other. And unfortunately, because they are so much louder, that group is all we ever hear. But often the largest voice is the quietest. That's how change happens: not because religious leaders made it happen, but because neighbors made it happen.

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