Reza Aslan might not have ever tackled the subject of the historic Jesus of Nazareth — might not be speaking Wednesday at Miami Book Fair International, in fact — if not for an evangelical youth group that he discovered in high school.
Though raised “in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists,” the 15-year-old Aslan found himself involved with the Young Life crowd, which brought activities to school and youths to summer camp. There, the games gave way to a serious salvation message.
So began his early infatuation with Jesus, a path that led to evangelism, studies of religion, eventual disenchantment — and, some 25 years later, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random, $27).
“There’s no question about the profound impact that the gospel message had on me, my life, my values, my future, my career choice,” he said. “I don’t regret that in the slightest.”
The book doesn’t seek to uncover new territory in its portrayal of Jesus as a revolutionary whose actual message was more about rabble rousing than peace making. It argues that John the Baptist was far more famous during that era and that Jesus was just one of several would-be messiahs and miracle workers wandering the land.
“I don’t think at this point there’s anything to add to the scholarship on the historical Jesus,” said Aslan, 41. “What hasn’t happened, I don’t think, is an attempt to translate that discussion and debate into an accessible, appealing format that people who are outside of academia would want to read and know about.”
Even with ventures into Roman history, first-century Palestinian geography and nuances of Aramaic, the book is easy to read and accessible to readers who might have only a passing acquaintance with the Bible. Aslan said he was writing for two audiences: those with a background of faith and those with no religious roots who just wanted to know, “What’s the big deal with this Jesus guy?”
Regardless of their backgrounds, audiences had clearly discovered the book (and made it a bestseller) even before a confrontational FoxNews.com interview in late July. Religion correspondent Lauren Green set the tone with her first question: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” The awkward questioning continued, leading BuzzFeed to wonder: “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?”
The book shot up to the top spot on Amazon.com and The New York Times’ lists.
“Let’s just be honest, there’s no way I would have ever caught up either to Sheryl Sandberg on The New York Times or J.K. Rowling on Amazon had it not been for Fox,” Aslan said. “I’m hoping they’ll have me on for all my books.”
But while he said he expected passion, emotion and controversy — the book shoots down the story behind most Christmas carols, after all — Aslan said he was surprised by the direction of the criticism.
“What I didn’t expect was that the controversy would be less about the book than it is about me,” he said.
Even more surprising to Aslan has been what he considers attacks on his background as a scholar from reputable outlets.
“This is not my first book of religious history, it’s my third book of religious history, and it’s the first time that anybody has questioned my academic credentials,” he said. Previous books include No god but God, an explanation of Islam, and How to Win a Cosmic War, which examines religious violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
And after four degrees — including a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University and a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara — Aslan said the swipes about his academic bona fides were a little painful.
Good old-fashioned disputes over the content of the book are just fine, Aslan said; he cited scholars in his notes who disagree with him and said he was not taken aback to see other scholars write pieces arguing against some parts of Zealot.
“That’s what we do, we disagree with each other,” he said. “That’s what we call a Thursday.”
The overwhelming response from Christian readers has been positive, Aslan said, including a recent email from a man who said he walked away with empowered faith because he realized “that the only way this sort of poor, pious, illiterate peasant nobody could have become who he is today is through divine intervention.”
As the dedication to the book reveals, Aslan has a direct line to Christian readers in his wife, Jessica Jackley, and her family, “whose love and acceptance have taught me more about Jesus than all my years of research and study.”
And although the in-laws are “deeply evangelical” and Aslan was the first Muslim his mother-in-law had ever met, he said he has “the most wonderful, loving, fantastic relationship” with the family.
“And they actually love the book,” he said.