Reza Aslan, Middle East Commentator for NPR, Muslim Affairs Analyst, and author of “No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” spoke at Elmhurst College on February 14 about his most recent book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”. The lecture was six months after his book was published and after his infamous interview with Fox News anchor Lauren (“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”) Green.  His answer to her and to all the conservative pundits was “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.” So how has Aslan’s message changed after six months of interviews and lectures?

Zealot-Elmhurst-ThumbTo the packed auditorium, he said “there has not been a massive Christian backlash to the book” except from the political right wing who continue to object. To a big laugh from this liberal audience, he said he did have other reasons for writing his book other than “the secret Muslim agenda to destroy Christianity”. This was his last reference to the fact that the publication of his book on Jesus activated the strain of Islamophobia that runs through American media. Although he talked about returning to the Muslim faith of his youth from a flirtation with evangelical Christianity in his high school years, he never once discussed the importance of Jesus within Islam itself. Given that Jesus or Isa as he is called in the Qur’an where he is mentioned in fifteen surahs and ninety -three ayahs (“Jesus in the Qur’an”, Geoffrey Parrinder p. 16) and is recognized by Muslims as an important prophet, it seems odd that not only a Muslim but a “scholar of religions” would not even bring this up given the Islamophobic source of much of the book’s criticism. This was a missed opportunity for a very eloquent and engaging Muslim speaker to continue to fight the prejudice and ignorance behind Lauren Green’s original question. It not only makes sense that a “religious scholar” would write a book on the historical Jesus, but also makes sense for a Muslim to do so as well.

Aslan clearly differentiated between the focus of his book and lecture, the “Jesus of History”, and the “Jesus of Faith” that many of his audiences believe he should only talk about. But for him “the biggest question then is which Jesus of Faith are we talking about?”. With multiple images of Jesus projected behind him, he asked “is it the Jesus of Megan Kelly [Fox News anchor] that is white like Santa?” or “the black Jesus of Ethiopia” or the “Jesus of liberation theology with a rifle slung over his shoulder?” He explained how the “Jesus of Faith” is very malleable and incorporates race, culture, and multiple ideologies. He moved away from this critique of socially determined views of Jesus to developing a profile of the historical Jesus. This portrait was “a Jew who started a movement for Jews” to establish the “kingdom of God on earth”, while “living in a Palestine occupied by the Romans”. Aslan was the most effective in describing the harsh occupation the Romans enforced on the Jewish populace that Jesus of Nazareth challenged with his “socially revolutionary teachings” and who was executed by crucifixion for crimes against the state.

There were many questions from the audience, but one reflected one of my own few criticisms of his book – “you take the position that Jesus was certainly extraordinary but not utterly unique – how do you explain that of all the ‘messiah’ figures at the time, he was the only one who started a worldwide religion?” In developing a portrait of Jesus as a Jew living in a period of oppressive Roman occupation when the Romans heavily controlled even Judaism, Aslan had failed to explain how Jesus became such a powerful spiritual and religious figure. His answer at the lecture was that Jesus’ revolutionary social teachings calling for a complete reversal of the social order (“those on top and those on the bottom should reverse places”) and that he was the one “messiah” whose disciples claimed he rose from the dead ensured that his message and his role as messiah would live on. As he said in concluding the lecture quoting his book, “Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone to believe in.” (“Zealot”, page 216) Aslan’s case that Jesus the man is “compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy” begs the question of Jesus’ importance as a religious and spiritual leader. Such praise could be given to any important political leader in history.

One of the last questions asked was about his own religious beliefs. He avoided the question, likely intentionally, talking about the evolution of those beliefs. Aslan has written so well about Islam before, most notably in “No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” and has a degree in religious studies so it seems strange he would not at least mention the role Jesus plays in Islam to remind Christian audiences once again that a Muslim writing a book on the historical Jesus is even more appropriate than it would seem. One of Aslan’s last statements in the lecture was that “you can be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian”. In a country still struggling with Islamophobia, an even more important statement would have been, “you can be a follower of Jesus and also be a Muslim”.