Who is the Zealot?


Recently, in support of his new book Zealot, Religion scholar Reza Aslan was interviewed by Fox News. Their supposition? That a Muslim has no business writing about Jesus. Their hope was to have a “Spirited Debate;” or, more truthfully, to have a Gotcha Journalism moment uncovering that Aslan is a “secret” Muslim set out to destroy Christianity.

The reporter’s first question was: “Why would a Muslim write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

There are already so many problems with this one question, let alone the interviewer’s whole posture toward her guest. At the core of the interview is fear, Islamophobia, and ignorance. Some things we should all remember about Jesus:

1. Jesus isn’t the founder of Christianity. He is the person at the center of it. Jesus didn’t seek to launch a religion. Jesus was a Jew, a fact Aslan is perfectly clear about. It wasn’t until after Christ that his followers were called “Christian” (Acts 11:26). Christ is a title, not a name. Christ, meaning “anointed one” was the Greek word for the Hebrew “Messiah.” To be anointed is to be one who is thought to be favored or blessed by God. People asked Jesus if he was the Christ and his followers today confess that he is the Christ. N.B. Jesus isn’t the only Messiah in scripture. In Isaiah, the Persian leader Cyrus was named by the Prophet Isaiah as a Messiah, one through whom God would work to redeem Israel (Isaiah 45:1). 

2. It makes total sense for a Muslim to write about the person of Jesus. Jesus is seen as a prophet in the Islamic faith. He is respected. Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth. Muslims do not believe the crucifixion happened (why would God let such a thing happen?).

When we lived in Israel and Palestine, this was clear. Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was thought to have been born (Aslan isn’t the only one who refutes this claim–in fact some Christians do too). In Bethlehem stands the Church of the Nativity, thought to mark the precise place where Jesus was born. Who can know for sure? What’s fascinating is not the just 14-point silver star, but the fact that the church still stands. Jerusalem and Bethlehem have seen many rulers since Jesus’ time: Romans, Christians Muslims, Brits, and now the Jewish State of Israel. Yet the church is still standing. It was not destroyed in the years of Muslim rule. Across the way in Manger Square stands the Mosque of Omar. Out of reverence to Jesus’ birth, the church was kept intact and the mosque built nearby (rather than destroying the church and building upon its ruins).

3. Aslan knows more about Jesus, Christianity, and religions than most (if not all) practitioners. Fox News showed its zealous and wrongful racism and Islamophobia, not to mention its stunning ignorance. Their base fear is that Aslan is seeking to destroy Christianity. Absurd. It was clear from the interview that Aslan respects the different faiths he has studied.

It appears that the reporter hasn’t actually read Zealot. Aslan makes it clear on page 2 (or xviii and xix) that he is Muslim. His faith practice is mentioned in every interview. It also appears that the reporter does not understand what academic scholarship is. Aslan has a PhD in Sociology and a Masters in Theological Studies. He teaches Religion. He is fluent in Biblical Greek. He even has experience as a Christian, and many in his family are Christian.

Aslan isn’t seeking to destroy Christianity. He is seeking, as a scholar, to broaden the conversation about the person of Jesus. For that, those who take the name Christian should be grateful. We could all learn from Aslan’s scholarship, and, perhaps even more so, his posture in the face of gross ignorance. His calm and concise responses showed a power beyond racism and a knowledge beyond fear.

The best interview I’ve seen was on The Daily Show. John Oliver interviewed Aslan. Most poignant? When John Oliver admits that he never had much of a relationship with Jesus because the Jesus that was presented to him was ghostlike. He confesses that the most connection he ever had was when Jesus cried on the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Why? Because he sounded human. Because Jesus expressed anger. There is a lot here for the church to learn. We are so quick to affirm the Christ of faith that we forget the Jesus of History. Aslan helps us hold up the other side of Jesus’ two natures.

Watch the interview.


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