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Is Jesus being hijacked?

"Is Jesus being hijacked?" Continued...

The Middle East and the clerical monopoly

The author of Zealot doesn’t seem to be a radical Muslim, but quite the opposite, favoring a brand of Islam that is democratic, tolerant, and forward-looking. His political interests are in the greater Middle East stretching from Israel to Iran, and the interests of the Muslim diaspora in Europe and the United States. He speaks frequently on Muslim issues and hosts a website, Aslan Media, dealing with progressive Muslim interests and issues. He has spoken on Israel/Palestine, considering this land as a potent symbol for rallying disparate Muslim factions.

In addition to Aslan’s interest in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, there is in another issue he feels strongly about that he discusses in his book No god but God. In a chapter called “Welcome to the Islamic Reformation,” he is against a kind of clerical monopoly on defining Islam by an old-guard coterie of scholars attached to century-old mosques and universities. He would like to see them displaced by a band of younger, educated, media-savvy Muslims, preferably non-clerical, who would also be able to interpret the Quran.

These are not unreasonable goals; they’re even admirable. But what concerns me is that there seems to be an eerie similarity between Aslan’s goals in the chapter “Islamic Reformation” and Jesus’ imputed goals in Zealot. In both cases the goals are: 1) political freedom for the greater Middle East, and 2) freedom from the domination of an entrenched and corrupt “priesthood.” It appears as if some universal typology or symbolism were being created. Further it presents Aslan’s cause as Jesus’ cause and vice versa.

Symbols can be manipulated

Zealot’s author is not only a leading figure in a political movement but is also somewhat of an expert on “how to grow a social movement,” having spoken on this issue at the Monterey Institute and in his book How to Win a Cosmic War (2011). Before discussing his ideas on social movements and symbols, let’s look at how he defines “symbols.” In speaking of his own faith in the video mentioned earlier, he said, “I became a Muslim because I was comfortable with the ‘symbols and metaphors’ of Islam.” He elaborated that he was more comfortable with the “symbol” of the God of Oneness as opposed to the Christian “symbol” of Trinity.

In Aslan’s view, whether we’re speaking of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, a cross, a crescent, zeal, Mohammed, or Palestine—they’re all symbols. This is important. Now, as we return to quote and consider some of Aslan’s ideas on social movements and symbols (How to Win a Cosmic War), I’d like the reader to keep in mind the author’s depiction of Jesus in Matthew 21 as a symbol of revolutionary zeal:

“We have … seen how a social movement relies on the use of symbols to create solidarity among members across ethnic, cultural, linguistic and national boundaries. …”

So symbols unite diverse groups. Let’s continue:

“For such symbols to be effective they must be familiar enough to be recognized and easily absorbed by the movement’s members, yet new enough to arouse excitement and interest; they must reflect society’s values while also challenging them.”

So—familiar, but somehow new. And yet challenging to society. We continue:

“Religion, with its familiar yet infinitely malleable supply of symbols, provides a reservoir of ready-made symbols—words, phrases and images—that can be interpreted and reinterpreted as often and as innovatively as one likes to invest a movement’s message with meaning and significance.”

Thus, religion and its words and symbols are malleable—able to be manipulated. And what kind of “symbols” can be manipulated? GOD! CHRIST! What “words” can be reinterpreted “often” and “innovatively”—the Scriptures? And why? To invest a movement with meaning and significance.

Aslan also wrote:

“These symbols can be appropriated from traditional religious authorities and re-cast in such a way as to draw a sharp distinction between the old, outmoded arcane and apolitical posture of the church, temple or mosque and the new, innovative, populist position represented by the social movement.”

So symbols can be appropriated, that is stolen, hijacked for one’s own use. They can be recast, that is presented in a slightly different way, and can be used in a church or mosque to divide the old, nonpolitical members from the new political movement. All of this is done to increase interest and members in one’s movement.

At the end of Zealot, the author says that he wrote this book to show that “You don’t have to be a Christian to be a follower of Jesus.” In other words, you can keep your religion (Muslim or whatever) and still be something called a “follower of Jesus,” the political revolutionary. But can you be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian? Of course not. Because this “latest” Jesus is a lie. He’s a phantom created to sell books and gain “followers.” There aren’t two Jesuses—a “historical” one and a “heavenly” one. There’s only One—“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

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