I’ve been watching the controversy surrounding Reza Aslan’s new bestseller fairly closely. The book is called Zealot and it’s the latest of many titles to argue that Jesus was a revolutionary teacher, a man of prophetic vision, a political rabble-rouser and a devoutly religious Jew whose only real claim to divinity is found in the identity imposed upon him after his death. The author of this book has done what a variety of scholars have attempted to do: Separate for us the historical Jesus (the pre-myth person who lived a natural life in a real time and place) from the Jesus of doctrine—the eternalized celestial figure identified for generations all over the world as the Son of God.
I was first introduced to Dr. Aslan’s book one Friday morning while getting ready for work with the television within earshot. I was distracted by the protest of MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who strongly opposed the author’s depiction of the New Testament gospels as works of historical “fiction” written to promote an agenda. The exchange ended with Scarborough aggressively telling Dr. Aslan: “It sounds like a fascinating argument, [however] I am a believer, and I don’t think it’s myth.”
A week later, Dr. Aslan recorded the now-viral Fox News interview during which anchor Laura Green badgered him about his credentials—arguing that he doesn’t have the expertise to write a book about Jesus because he’s a Muslim. He remained gracious, but was clearly confused by her behavior as he repeatedly attempted to explain his responsibility as a historian of religions.
And then this afternoon, an Evangelical pastor by the name of John S. Dickerson wrote a Fox News article arguing that while Aslan “has been formally educated in theology and New Testament Greek,” his “Muslim beliefs affect his entire life, including his conclusions about Jesus.” Dickerson opined that the author of Zealot experiences a “conflict of interest” that is no doubt rooted in his adherence to a “religion that has been in violent opposition to Christ for 1,400 years.” Therefore, according to Dickerson, neither Aslan, nor his book, offer credible depictions of the historical Jesus.
As I’ve observed the reactions to Aslan’s work by Christians in the media, I’ve thought quite a bit about the three behaviors displayed. First, I thought of the effort to demonize the author despite his credentials and exhaustive research. (He claims to have read 1,000 books while preparing to write his work.) The second behavior—the blind rejection of information—was seemingly an effort to discredit and silence the author. (Cognitive dissonance, anyone?)
But the third behavior is more peculiar. I’m speaking of the attempt to hoard the person of Jesus, his memory, any scholarship associated with him, the endeavor to write about him and the privilege of speaking about him for those within the religious in-group. This behavior—the act of declaring one’s own group the only qualified custodian of the faith— seems to speak to the ongoing desire to insulate traditional Christianity against some presumed threat. This insulation reduces the chorus of voices in the discussion so that the only ones who can be heard are those who agree to reach an approved set of conclusions.
Those who attempt to declare themselves the custodians of the faith will tell you that they only wish to protect Jesus from the theological banditry known as intellectual pursuit. There is some belief within Christendom that it’s the true Christian’s job to reject every unapproved conclusion—no matter how accurate, logical or well-sourced that finding may be—in the interest of preserving the religion.
I wonder when people will realize that Jesus doesn’t need our protection. Jesus doesn’t need to be protected from archaeological evidence. Jesus doesn’t need to be protected from his own contextual history and he doesn’t need to be protected from scientific inquiry. Jesus doesn’t need to be protected from “liberal” theology, and he doesn’t need to be protected from the questions we may have about the birth of the religion we’ve named after him.
Jesus doesn’t need to be protected from anything you or I can write—no matter how critical it is. The only thing in need of protection is the collective ego belonging to this generation’s very fearful Christian fundamentalists—an ego which cannot bear the prospect of being wrong.
When a god begins to require the custodial protection of those who worship him, he is no longer a god. He becomes an idol. May we all find the courage and wisdom to never make ignorance the aim of religion, nor idolatry the replacement for faith.
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