Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Warrior Christ: Why Fox News Should Love Reza Aslan's Jesus

by Charity Erickson

A refresher, for those of you who were living in a cave (Sicarii-style) last week: Fox News put the “most embarrassing interview [they] have ever done” on the internet and, in addition to launching a boatload of delightful snark, it pushed Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.

The extreme right is up in arms over the book and, in service of God and country, some intrepid culture warriors have taken to leaving fake negative reviews on its Amazon profile. Meanwhile, on the more left-leaning side of the Christian internet, Bible scholars and students—in a display of epistemic humility—have continued to express excitement over the book, sharing reviews and Reza Aslan’s interviews.

I am enjoying the book, myself. It is engagingly written and insightful; as a non-scholar, I appreciate Aslan’s handling of historical drama. And I thoroughly enjoy seeing the Gospel texts through a different lens; in Zealot they are de-familiarized in a way that is captivating to the imagination.

My biggest problem with the book itself is that much of its argument is based on sheer dubiousness – Aslan builds off the assumption that the Gospels contain wildly improbable narratives, and therefore sets about constructing “estimated guesses” of what really happened.  Perhaps it is only due to his stylistic choice of extensive endnotes, rather than engaging his sources more substantially within the text, but Aslan’s estimated-guesswork often feels unsubstantiated by evidence. (This issue and others, along with the merits of the work, are addressed from the viewpoint of a legitimate scholar here.)

As I made my way through the first few chapters of Zealot, I found myself thrown by Aslan’s style of argumentation – and I was surprised at myself, at how critical I felt of the piece. I suppose that I had expected to enjoy the book on the basis of the author’s throw-down at Fox News – the conservatives hated him, so I imagined his stuff couldn’t be all that bad.

But as I became more familiar with the portrait Zealot paints of Jesus, I found myself laughing at the irony that the extreme right should hate this book when Aslan’s zealous Jesus seems like a guy that anti-Islam conservatives would like a lot. The book argues that Jesus was one of several men (albeit an extraordinary man among the others) who sought to “take back [his] country for God” using military force. Aslan doesn’t buy that Jesus would have been crucified in the manner in which he was for anything less than actual sedition against the Roman government – he must have been a true revolutionary, a would-be conqueror-king who wanted to kick the pagans out of Jerusalem. But in the years after Jesus’ death, after the Romans razed Jerusalem for its revolutionary fervor, his followers began to downplay his Zealotry for political reasons. Thus was born the Jesus of the Gospels.

The book asserts Jesus’ humanity rather than divinity, but if we ignore that detail for a moment, the Zealot Jesus starts to look like Mark Driscoll’s warrior Christ, with “a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.” He is the god of the Western Empire, with a literal government to increase. He is a nationalist god, longing to bless his chosen nation. 

If anyone is to be offended by the picture Aslan paints of Christ, it should be us liberals – we who celebrate Jesus’ nonviolence, suffering servanthood, and commitment to creating a non-worldly Kindgom, who view these as sacred distinctions. We should be the ones taking issue with the claim that Jesus must have been crucified for being a violent threat to the empire, rather than a peace-loving threat to a violent empire.

I don’t write this to reinforce division among Christians, but rather to point out division’s absurdity. The declaration of war on a piece of writing because of its author’s faith affiliation is just as silly a performance in political posturing as the heaping of praise on the same piece of writing for the sake of appearing open-minded – not like them, not like Fox News.

In the Kingdom of God, we don’t need to do this—pretend and pose to prove our loyalty to a cause. It’s an absurd waste of time, not to mention dishonest. Too much concern with how we represent ourselves politically turns our faith into a mockery of itself. When we refuse to be divided along party lines we will be forced to vote, read, teach, critique, and worship based not on a play-acted political identity, but rather, as free people informed by wisdom and the example of Christ. 

I hope that we—as Christians—can agree on one thing about Jesus: he wants us to be zealots indeed, zealous for the cause of love.

Charity Erickson and her husband Lance live and work together in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill. 

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OnPopTheology. 

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