"You want people like that to hate you": Reza Aslan on Glenn Beck, that Fox News interview, and who gets to speak for Jesus

Reza Aslan on why he loves being on Glenn Beck's "chalkboard of crazy," and why Jesus would raise the minimum wage

Published April 20, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

Reza Aslan           (Random House/Hilary Jones)
Reza Aslan (Random House/Hilary Jones)

There are 2 billion Christians in the world. Reza Aslan, the author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," is not one of them, as the entire Internet learned last summer. But Aslan has a lifelong fascination with Jesus, and a PhD in the sociology of religions, too. And now, thanks to "Zealot," which looks beyond those familiar stories of birth and resurrection and into the historical world that Jesus inhabited, Aslan may be the world’s most famous living biographer of Jesus (the most famous dead biographers, of course, go by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

Aslan’s fame owes little to his historiographical methods — which are far from unique — and much to the accessibility of his prose, and to the number of people whom he seems to enrage. After all, Aslan is a Muslim who questions the historicity of the New Testament. Where some sense the ordinary workings of detached scholarship, others hear the echoes of a holy war.

In an appearance on Fox News last year, Aslan endured 10 minutes of questioning about why, exactly, a Muslim would want to write about Jesus. “I am a scholar of religion,” Aslan explained again and again to an increasingly frustrated Lauren Green. The video went viral, and "Zealot" climbed the bestseller lists.

Green’s intuition wasn’t entirely wrong: there is a culture-war flavor to Aslan’s work. It just has nothing to do with Islam. Instead, what distinguishes "Zealot" from other accounts of Jesus’s life is Aslan’s forceful, timely insistence that Jesus was not the apolitical, mild-mannered, “leave unto Caesar” figure that we’ve come to know, but instead a revolutionary partisan — in short, a zealot, raging against a stultifying elite.

With Easter this weekend, I reached Aslan by phone in Boston, where he was in the midst of a three-part global book tour. We spoke about resurrection, right-wing pundits and whether Congress should raise the minimum wage in order to celebrate Easter.

You write that, when we look at the historical evidence, the Jesus we find “may not be the Jesus we expect.” So, who was this guy?

Well, he was a Jew preaching Judaism to other Jews. That’s the simplest and most profound way of putting it. And that phrase helps to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. The Jesus of history was a Jew preaching Judaism to other Jews.

How do you separate this historical person from “the Christ of faith”?

Some people would say that you can’t at all. In fact, some people would say that the historical figure is absolutely unacceptable, because everything that we know about him, we know through Christian sources. I totally understand that argument, but the thing is while we do know very little about him, we know a lot about the world in which he lived. So if we take the little bit that we know about him and we place it firmly in his world and allow his world to define him, then we can create a fairly accurate portrait of who the man was.

As you note in the book, much about this portrait is pretty typical: There were a lot of messianic preachers wandering around first-century Palestine, Jesus among them. You argue that it’s the story of resurrection that really set Jesus apart. What made resurrection such a novel idea?

Well, it simply doesn’t exist in Judaism. The idea of an individual dying and rising from the dead absolutely has no basis in five thousand years of Jewish history, scripture or thought.

So, that’s the thing: No matter what you think about the resurrection, the thing that’s kind of fascinating from an historical perspective is that there is simply no Jewish context for it. The resurrection was one the earliest credo statements in this new movement. They wholeheartedly believed that Jesus rose from the dead very, very early on, and to be perfectly honest, historians who will admit as much don’t know what to do with that statement.

We can’t just ignore it. In other words, we can’t just simply say, “Oh, it was just some mass delusion,” or “It was all just some big scam.” I don’t think those answers are sufficient in explaining the experience [of believing in the resurrection] and how that experience transformed this, as I say, small ethno-nationalistic movement into the largest religion in the world.

Should the faithful take heart, then? Do you feel that people have had their faith challenged by this book, or bolstered by it? 

It’s funny. I mean, I’ve had both responses. I get dozens of emails from Christians telling me that the book has actually empowered their faith. I think that the bottom line is, you have to understand history and faith as two different modes of knowing. Faith is interested in what is possible. History is interested in what is likely. So is it possible a man dies and rose from the dead three days later? Sure, it’s possible, anything is possible with faith. Is it likely? No, it’s not likely. And there’s no reason why these two modes of knowing need necessarily be in conflict with one another. It all depends on what kind of question you are asking.

Google your name, though, and the first thing that pops up is an ad from First Things, a Christian magazine. The tagline: “'Zealot' author lies.” Why are some Christians so scared of you?

Look, if you are someone who believes that Jesus is literally God, then he has no context, and who cares where he lived or who he lived with or what his cultural or religious biases may have been? Simply by trying to place Jesus in the context of this time and place, I must be offending some very conservative Christians. But to be perfectly frank, the real venomous, critical response from this book hasn’t come from the religious right, it’s come from the political right — and that’s what First Things is — a politically right-wing magazine, much more so than it’s a religious right-wing [magazine].

The real Jesus, the historical Jesus, the Middle Eastern Jew who advocated for the poor, whose politics were adamantly, I would even say violently, against the wealthy, is a Jesus that is very threatening to a lot of these guys in the right wing. I mean, if you can with a straight face stand up and say that Jesus would want to get rid of food stamps and welfare, as some of these guys do, obviously you’re going to feel extremely threatened by historians who present a Jesus who in actuality stands against everything that you pretend that he stands for.

How did Jesus develop this revolutionary kind of politics?

It’s who he was. Jesus was an extremely poor Galilean peasant from the countryside, from the backwoods, what we would nowadays refer to as a “country bumpkin.” He lived in a society in which the gulf between the extremely rich and everybody else was absolutely unbridgeable. And he experienced for himself this gulf. And the people that he preached to, all the villages that he went to, the very point of his message was geared toward poor, marginal peasants like himself. So, it’s not hard to imagine where he got his “politics” from. He got it simply from living a life as a poor Galilean peasant enthralled to this enormously wealthy, repressive and political authority.

I feel like you’ve given us a Jesus for the era of income inequality and Occupy Wall Street.

I think that’s a good way of putting it.

So should Congress raise the minimum wage to celebrate Easter?

I think that would a perfect way of celebrating what Jesus actually stood for. This is a man who was not about income equality; this is a man who was about the reversal of the social order.

Were Jesus to preach the same thing today as he did 2,000 years ago, the very same people who claim to speak for him would run the other way. Look at the way that a large number of American Catholics and Protestants have responded to Pope Francis. I mean, they’re calling him a Marxist, they’re calling him a socialist simply because he’s questioning the excess of capitalism. Well, if you’ve got a problem with Pope Francis, then you’ve got a problem with Jesus, because Jesus’s preachings are in absolute stark contrast to the unchecked capitalism that has created this massive gulf between the very rich and the very poor in the modern world.

Why is it, then, that we’ve seen the right politicize Christianity so much more so than the left? Or maybe that’s a false distinction.

Well, this goes back to where we started this conversation, which is the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. You see, the Christ of faith can be anything that you want him to be; he can be any race, any color, any ethnicity that you want. He can bear any values, any politics that you hold. He can be a capitalist, he can be a Marxist, he can be white, blue-eyed, blond-haired; he can be black or Chinese or even Hindu, as a lot of the images in India present him to be.

The Jesus of history, however, is frozen in place, and that Jesus, that historical man, his politics are as clear as can be. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” You can’t get any clearer than that.

Lately, there’s been an uptick in books about the historical Jesus written for a popular audience, even though scholars have been talking about this for centuries. Why do you think there’s been this increase in interest in Jesus as a historical figure?

Well, to be honest, I think that this interest has been fairly consistent over the last 50 or 60 years. But I think you’re right that back-to-back-to-back there have been three bestselling books about Jesus that have come out. I think that people are interested in this man. Especially now, certainly in the United States, there has been this surge of what [the] Pew [Research Center] refers to as non-affiliated Americans, which refers to people who say that are spiritual, but not religious. That surge of Americans are thirsty for alternative takes on these great religious icons. And I think that’s why you see the success of books like mine or films like "Noah." People are fascinated by different ways of looking at the figures that have been defined by these religious institutions in very narrow ways for centuries.

So they’re looking to branch out into interpretations that haven’t previously been available?

Yes, looking for interpretations that are freed from the bounds of institutional dogma.

Your interview on Fox News was painful to watch, but it also pushed you to the top of the bestseller lists. How do you come to terms with that kind of bittersweet PR boost? Do you ask for an apology? Do you write a thank you note?

[Laughs] Well, just to set the record straight, the book was already a massive bestseller. But you’re absolutely right: the Fox News interview shoved it to No. 1. Obviously, I’m grateful for that, but mostly what I’m grateful for is the way that the interview launched a much-needed public conversation about who gets to speak for Jesus. I think Fox News watchers, conservative Christians, were outraged by that interview, as many of them have emailed me to say. This idea that there are only these gatekeepers who get to speak for Jesus — that’s something that’s obviously absurd, and a lot of people reject that.

So you’ve gotten a lot of support from regular Fox News viewers? 

Of the thousands of emails I’ve gotten about that interview, I think 99 percent of them were positive, and many of them were from regular Fox News watchers who said they would never watch Fox News again. Many of them were from conservative Christians who said that, while they disagree with my interpretation of Jesus, they were horrified by the blatant bigotry that was shown in the interview.

I have to say, after watching the interview, it is hard to watch, and I thought that you responded well —

It is hard to watch.

I’m sure it was hard to be there as well. In the interview, you emphasized again and again your scholarly credentials, and that your book is a work of scholarship. Certainly, it’s deeply cited and well-researched. But it does read more like excellent journalism than a scholarly work. How do you draw that line between writing for a popular audience and writing as a scholar?

I’ve written those articles, I’ve written for scholarly journals, I’ve written scholarly books, but that’s never been my interest. From the beginning of my career, I’ve always wanted to be the kind of scholar who writes for a popular audience. I’m also extremely confident in my scholarship. My task is to write something that's appealing, that’s perceptible, that’s popular, that’s a fun read, but still maintains a rigorous scholarship.

On your Twitter feed, the background picture is of Glenn Beck looking distressed. I have to ask: Do you enjoy being the bane of these right-wing media personalities?

Am I allowed to say yes? I mean, look, when someone like Glenn Beck puts you on his chalkboard of crazy, I think it’s a moment to be proud of. When designated hate-group leaders like Robert Spencer or Pamela Geller spend all of their days Googling you and writing articles about things you’ve said or written, I think you should be proud of that, because these guys are clowns. They are racist, bigoted individuals, and you want people like that to hate you.

So, listen, I’m guilty of baiting these guys sometimes; it’s not a professional thing to do, I’m not proud of it, to be honest with you. At the same time, there is something to be proud of when Glenn Beck and Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer and magazines like First Things hate you.

Moving from hate to love: You dedicate "Zealot" to your wife, Jessica Jackley, and her family. You write that “they’ve taught me more about Jesus than all my research and study.”

My wife comes from a family of fairly conservative evangelical Christians. Before my wife and I started dating, they had never even met a Muslim. They'd never even stood in the same room with a Muslim. My wife’s mom will freely admit that the only thing she ever knew about Islam or Muslims is what she learned from Sean Hannity on "FOX News."

From the day that they met me, they have shown me nothing but love and support. I think my wife’s family is a better model for what Christianity is supposed to be, who Christ is supposed to represent, than all of these charlatans who continue with the claim to speak with him.

So, any special plans for Easter?

Well, I have two year-old [twin] boys, and this will be their first Easter. So, yeah, we’re going to do the whole shebang, the whole Easter egg hunt, and give them their first taste of an American Easter tradition, which I’ve never had. We will celebrate the Persian New Year, and then we’ll celebrate the Christian Easter.

By Michael Schulson

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