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See Your Reflection in Your Reading?

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Reading Zealot, Dr. Reza Aslan’s controversial new book, enlightened me.  But it was not the enlightenment I expected.

Like Aslan, I became an evangelical Christian as a teenager.  Like him, my education made me question church leaders who insisted the Bible was “true, literal and inerrant.”  Like him, I ultimately rejected evangelical Christianity.

Given our similar experiences, I expected to nod my head in agreement as I read.  I was so sure I’d share his perspective that, before I even started reading, I posted comments on several web pages refuting conservative Christians’ attacks on his credibility.

But after a few chapters, I stopped nodding and tilted my head in thought.

Like many scholars, Dr. Aslan concludes that, having grown up in Nazareth, Jesus was likely a peasant and quite possibly illiterate.  When, in Chapter 3, Aslan quotes extensively from the Gospel of John, I kept thinking of Nathanael’s retort in John 1 when a recent convert invites him to come see Jesus:  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Dr. Aslan seems to imply that same question when he concludes that Jesus had to have been more zealot than teacher.  Aslan becomes ensnared in the trap of many teachers and scholars and intellectuals:  He makes the assumption that people who grow up in poverty and illiteracy are not likely to seek justice through reason.

Explaining that Jesus likely spent a lot of his young adulthood as an artisan in the nearby city of Sepphoris, Aslan describes the Jews there as different—“rich, cosmopolitan, deeply influenced by Greek culture, and surrounded by a panoply of races and religions….”  Many biblical scholars agree with Aslan on that point.  So isn’t it possible that Jesus might have learned there to read the holy texts that interested him so much—texts that he quoted skillfully in refuting the arguments of religious leaders?

Illiterate people can think.  And history shows us many examples of the poor and women and minorities who learn to read in societies that actively attempt to keep them ignorant.

I found much in Zealot to agree with.  The non-biblical sources are not new.  In fact, many of the sources Dr. Aslan cites have been employed for other works, such as the PBS Frontline series From Jesus to Christ, where Yale professor Wayne Meeks says:

The temptation is, out of all of the various figures of Jesus that emerge in our sources, to pick one and say, “That’s the real one.” And usually we will pick one, of course, that accords with our notion of what we would like Jesus to have been like. You know, someone at the margins of society, the hero of the proletariat revolution or the anti-establishment figure, and so on. That’s probably inevitable that we will all do this, but it’s not very good history writing. I myself am very skeptical finally that we can describe independently of any of these traditions what the real Jesus was like.

Dr. Aslan’s credentials on the subject of Jesus should not be questioned.  But all of us interpret history through the lens of our experiences.

His comments on the subject of Jesus’ literacy spoke to me because I grew up with a functionally illiterate father who quit school in fifth grade.  But he revered teachers and insisted to his children that education was the key to a better life.  I became an English teacher because I loved what I learned about life through literature, but I earned a graduate degree as a reading specialist so I could help students who, like my father, struggled to read.  And in 30 years as a teacher of literature, I often found that students defied my expectations when they had a compelling reason to read the books I placed in front of them.  Each of these lenses, in addition to my faith, shapes the way I read the stories of Jesus.

Curious after I had finished Zealot, I reread Dr. Aslan’s biography, notes, and introduction:

Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see.  Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed…If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.

I smiled and nodded.  Dr. Aslan is a scholar, with degrees in fiction and the sociology of religion.  And he, too, is seeing the Jesus he wants to see, as do all of us.  And the reflection we see usually changes over time.

Our perspectives converge in many ways.  But Dr. Aslan believes that literature and theology obscure history, while I believe that historical context illuminates a story—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.  I’m glad I read the book because it challenged me to think.  But if I’d had the choice to download his memoir instead, Zealot might not have made it to my e-reader shelf.

What stories have led you to your reflections of the Eternal?