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Reza Aslan
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Reza Aslan

Is Jesus being hijacked?

Books | How Reza Aslan’s socio-political beliefs shape the way he re-invents the life and mission of Jesus Christ in Zealot

I’ve written several short columns (“Fawning over falsehood,” “Fawning over falsehood II: Zealot,” and “Press zealotry for Zealot) critiquing Reza Aslans Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which was a hot seller this summer, but since Amazon.com still lists the book as No. 1 in Books/Christian Books & Bibles/Theology/Christology, here’s a longer review by Peter Cassidy, a semi-retired English instructor who taught at Biola University. —Marvin Olasky

Reza Aslan and his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), came to the attention of many when FoxNews.com interviewed him and the video went viral, with accusations of anti-Muslim bias on the part of Fox and charges of inflation of credentials by Aslan. As a result, the book shot up to first place in The New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction, although some have suggested it might fit better in the genre of fiction. In recent weeks, many Christian leaders and academics have expressed serious reservations about Aslan’s book.

Reza Aslan came to the United States with his parents after the revolution in Iran, and in high school he had what he considered to be a “genuine” conversion experience, after which he led his mother to the Lord and actively shared his experience with his friends. But in college he began to have doubts about alleged inconsistencies in the Bible and, somewhat influenced by his college professors, succumbed to doubt and eventually decided to embrace Islam. In his video “What do you believe?” Aslan said he preferred the “symbols and metaphors” of Islam. By this he meant he liked the Muslim “symbol” of a God of Oneness as opposed to the Christian belief in the Trinity. He describes his faith as very “rational and intellectual” and considers all religions as “man-made” and equally valid, simply speaking “different languages.” It would be a mistake to think of him as a strong Muslim; he is rather more of a syncretist regarding religion. But his real passion seems to be more in the area of Muslim progressive politics.

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Aslan has some expertise in the study of social movements and did a doctoral thesis, viewable on Scribd, titled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement,” looking at both radical and moderate Muslim groups as social movements rather than religious movements. He is also somewhat of an expert in “growing” social movements and has written about harnessing the power of social media and religious symbols to gain adherents to one’s cause. More about this later.

In addition to being a writer and instructor at the University of California, Riverside, Aslan is very active and influential in Muslim progressive politics, has traveled in the Middle East, and has been an advocate for social, religious, and political change. He also has a strong internet presence—his Aslan Media website being a “meeting place” to encounter progressive Muslim music, art, literature and politics.

Now, why this longish introduction in a book critique? It is my contention that Aslan’s socio-political beliefs, especially his views on harnessing social movements to potent religious symbols, profoundly shape the way he re-invents the life and mission of Jesus.

It was all politics

As Zealot opens, nearly the first third of the book is spent developing the idea that first-century Judaea was a place of apocalyptic and revolutionary fervor. Various reforming factions plotted and acted to overthrow the Roman occupiers. This period was the incipient stage for a faction that would later be called the Zealots, who were exceedingly dedicated and uncompromising in their opposition to Rome. Aslan depicts Jesus, when He was a young carpenter, as visiting these rebel strongholds and being converted to their cause. John the Baptist also mentored Him in this.

The main tenets of the Zealots were: 1) the total liberation of Israel/Palestine from the oppressor—in this case, Rome, and 2) the overthrow of the corrupt temple priests who were collaborators with Rome. This, according to Aslan, was Jesus’ whole mission—the overthrow of the Roman occupiers. This was the Kingdom of God—a Judea free of Rome. Jesus was, in Aslan’s gospel, wholly political, totally human, and only interested in the Jews. For this political cause, and for an “attack” on the Temple, Jesus was, summarily dispatched to be crucified for sedition and died as a “failed revolutionary.” Regarding Jesus’ disciples, Aslan claims that Paul was a self-ascribed apostle, not trusted by the others, and that his 14 epistles of the New Testament are to be disregarded in favor of James’ five chapters, because what Jesus really advocated was for all Christians to be under the Mosaic law. Lastly, Aslan claims that the disciples altered large portions of the New Testament to make Jesus less revolutionary. So, now Aslan is giving us the true picture.

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