Tag Archives: Zealot

History, Myth, or Story?

Kennedy Center

Engraving on the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

I love stories.  And this week I was reminded again of just how important stories are to us.

I live in an “active adult” community.  I used to laugh to my younger friends that I could only live here because my husband’s age qualified us.  But now I, too, am over 55, and refer to all of us with affection as “the old folks’ community.”  I love it here because it’s the friendliest place I’ve lived since I moved from the small town of my childhood.

We moved here because the community lay just outside the congestion of the DC suburbs—close enough to drive in for the wealth of activities a city provides but far enough out to see the stars at night and to go for a walk in the early morning without seeing another human being.

This week our social committee arranged for us to take a small bus into the city to the Kennedy Center to see The Book of Mormon, a highly irreverent musical by the creators of South Park, about our penchant for attempting to create God in our own image.

I squirmed a little at the language—especially when the profanity was directed toward a God who allows pestilence and disease.  But I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time.  I never watched South Park, but I knew enough about it to know that I’d be seeing an outrageous satire about the way we humans approach our faith.

My favorite line appears near the end of the musical when the first convert has become disillusioned by the flaws in her bumbling hero’s faith.  One of her neighbors says to her—and I may not have the line verbatim here—You didn’t really believe that sh#*that a man f—d a frogdid you? It’s a METAPHOR!

After reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot the week before seeing this play, I belly-laughed at that line.  For anyone who’s avoided reading about the controversy surrounding Dr. Aslan, he outlines what scholars know about the history of Jesus the man and draws the conclusion that Jesus the Christ is a myth.

And while I found Dr. Aslan’s line of reasoning thought-provoking—and not in any way an insult to what I believe—I have to say that I was more drawn to the story of Parker, Lopez, and Stone, the creators of The Book of Mormon.  It doesn’t claim to be history, and it pokes fun at the myths we create.

In short, it is a story—a story that makes much the same point as Dr. Aslan—that we human beings tend to see God in the image we want to see.

On the bus ride back home, I reveled in listening to the reactions of my fellow active adults.  Some were quiet, and I wondered whether they had known just what they’d see on that stage of joyful characters.

The chatter I enjoyed most came from the couple sitting behind my husband and me.  On the ride to the theater, we had talked with them about their tennis game and their children, and I’d listened to their constant stream of conversation with each other.  Though they are in their 80s, both are still vibrant, and they truly enjoy talking with each other.  I had whispered into my husband’s ear earlier that I hoped we’d still have as much to talk with each other about when we were their age, and my husband had responded that he hoped he could still play tennis.

On the return trip they talked about the language in the play, and though I’ve never heard either of them curse, they didn’t seem at all offended by the license of the playwrights in regard to profanity.  And then my neighbor talked about the play in terms of his own life.  “I used to cuss a lot, even after the kids were born,” he said.  And then he launched into a story about when he finally learned to reign in his tendency to blurt out a stream of expletives.

I smiled.  That’s what I love about literature and story.  We can’t read or hear stories in a vacuum.  We bring our own lives and experiences to the world that story opens up to us.

And, ultimately, our lives write the story of the God we want to believe in.

So tell me your story.

See Your Reflection in Your Reading?

iPad

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?

Truth or Story?

Homecoming

Babies are born—every day, everywhere—full of promise.  Oh, wait, I’m starting to repeat myself.  Didn’t I just say that in another blog?

It’s true, though, so it bears repeating.  But on a lighter note than my last blog, today is the 27th anniversary of my becoming a mother.  And like almost every mom, on that day when my daughter was born, I might as well have been the only woman in the world who had ever given birth.

Never mind that as the nurse laid my baby girl on my chest for the first time, I could hear a woman grunting and groaning in the delivery room next to mine.  Never mind that I’d been listening to other mothers tell me horror stories of labor, delivery, and motherhood for nine months.  Never mind that I’d been given fair warning of sleepless nights, colicky infants, the anxiety of being a working mother.

It amuses me now that women told me I’d “forget all about the pain of childbirth” and in the next breath shared the gritty details of their own pain.  I’m certain they must have shared stories of joy with me.  But I don’t remember those.  And since we didn’t have timelines on social media back then, there’s no record of the funny stories, the stories of unbridled joy.  So I only remember the bridled stories—the ones that start with feet in the stirrups.

I do have a reminder from one of those women—an easy recipe for a busy mom day that a friend gave me on a note-card.  (Remember those days?  Before you kept your recipes in the Cloud?) The design on the card shows a mom holding a screaming baby, and the caption reads, “Being a mother is very educational….now I know why ferrets eat their young.”

I wonder if it will be any different for the young mothers I know now.  I love following them on social media as they offer snippets of their lives.  I empathize when they share challenges, but the stories I remember are those that touch my heart or make me laugh.

There’s the picture that needs no caption—my friend’s little boy lying on his tummy on a bookshelf, his fingers trailing along the cover of a book he isn’t yet able to read.

There’s another friend’s story of making banana bread from a recipe given to her by her son’s birth mother.

And there’s the friend who writes a few lines of dialogue in the style of a play script:

Dad: A thinking cap isn’t a real body part.

Son: Yes it is. Mine is in my pants.

Some day if they sit down at a computer to write their stories, they’ll have a wealth of notes and pictures to remind them of all the facts that were important enough to remember.  But even then, their children will probably say to them, “That’s not the way that happened.”  That is the nature of story.

Even now, when we have so much technology at our fingertips, recognizing the difference between story and truth isn’t an exact science.  I’m reminded of this yet again in the controversy over Dr. Reza Aslan’s recent book Zealot, in which he distinguishes between Jesus of the gospels and Jesus of history.  After converting to Christianity and being told by church leaders that the Bible is “true, literal and inerrant,” Dr. Aslan made it his life’s work to study the history of religions.  Of Jesus, the man from Nazareth, he says, “But in the end, he is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.  Everything else is a matter of faith.”

I don’t understand why some of the people who share my faith feel threatened or outraged—why there is a perception that Christianity is under attack—when a scholar decides our faith is “a myth,” as Aslan pronounced it in one interview.  I can read research about the context of Jesus’ life and not necessarily draw the same conclusion as the researcher.  As Aslan admits in another interview, there are many scholars who read the same research and come to a different conclusion.  As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Each time I learn something new about the stories of faith, I’m reminded that the God I believe in will always be bigger than we can understand.  Every faith that’s lasted—Christianity or Islam or any of the other faiths that sustain believers—has withstood thousands of years of questions and doubt.

It is impossible to “prove” the absence or the existence of God.  But it is possible to draw strength and wisdom from the stories—the human stories that have as many variations as there are storytellers.

I look forward to finishing Dr. Aslan’s book, just as I enjoy hearing the stories of his life that led him to devote himself to the study of religious history and revert to the Muslim faith of his father.  History and his story speak to me far more than the interviewers who question his right to speak the truth as he understands it.

I enjoy hearing him for some of the same reasons I love knowing both the facts and the stories of my friends’ lives—because they reveal truths of what’s important to them in the telling.

And I find the same kind of joy in reading what one of my pastors called “the stories of God for the people of God.”  What is the truth of the Jesus who answered religious leaders with wisdom greater than their cleverly crafted questions?  The truth of the Jesus who fought zealously for the poor?  The truth of the Jesus who saw himself as one with God?

The truth is that every fact of history, every understanding of context, every story I’ve read—and I’ve read many that challenge my view of the world—helps me test what I believe to be sure it’s worthy of my faith.

It’s a historical fact that 27 years ago today, I had enough faith to bring another life into the world’s story.  But knowing that history can’t begin to express how that little baby’s life has become a unique story of her own—and how, in the process, she has helped me glimpse the face of God.

Tell me the stories of your truths that transcend history.