If you started reading this post thinking that it was going to be a comparison between Aslan, the unsafe but good hero of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, and Jesus Christ, the hero of the Christian Bible, then you are in for a bit of a disappointment. (However, you have to give me some credit for pulling you in like that!) No, this is a discussion of the recent controversy surrounding Reza Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. If you really do want a serious discussion of the aforementioned links between Lewis’ literary creation and the Son of God, you may find one of many examples here.
Mr. Aslan – whose previous books include No God but God: The Origins and Evolution of Islam and How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religion – is, in the words of his personal website, “an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions”. He is an Iranian American who works as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California in Riverside, and his list of professional associations include the Council on Foreign Relations. Oh, and he is also a Muslim.
Professor Aslan became the subject of much public attention recently when he gave an interview to Fox News about his newest volume, Zealot, which looks at the life of Jesus from the perspective of the political situation in Palestine under the Roman occupation. (Full disclosure: I have not read the book, and I’m probably not going to since books reexamining the life of Christ tend to be a dime a dozen these days.)
The anchor, no doubt prompted to take her particular line of questioning from the show’s producers, repeatedly questioned why Aslan would want to write a book about the founder of Christianity since he was, in fact, a Muslim. I have embedded a video of the interview at the beginning of this article so you can see it for yourself.
Aslan’s response that he is a scholar of religion who has a keen academic interest in Christianity seemed to perplex the anchor, with the conversation shifting to whether or not a Muslim could actually write an unbiased account of the life of Christ. It didn’t take long for the clip to go viral, with some pointing to this as yet another example of Fox News’ bias against Muslims and poor methods of interviewing. I would agree that Fox likes to promote a certain narrative, as does MSNBC, while CNN just seems too caught up with the latest sensational murder case or Twitter post to give a hoot. However, this controversy raises some other interesting points that are worth some consideration.
First, the assumption that Muslims should not be or are not interested in Jesus is absurd. As Muslims themselves are fond of pointing out, they revere him as a prophet who carried the message of God. The sticking point for Muslims is the whole issue of divinity: their understanding of one God does not leave room for God to have a son, which would be like two different Gods in their theology. Despite this, Muslims have every reason to be interested in Jesus simply on the basis of their own religion.
Second, the assumption that Aslan’s book, which apparently takes a view that diverges from the biblical gospels, could only be produced by a Muslim attempting to subvert Christianity is also absurd. The search for the “historical Jesus” is nothing new and has often been carried out by more liberal theologians within Christianity as well as those who hold to no particular religion. Thus, Aslan’s findings are not necessarily the sole product of his Muslim beliefs.
More importantly, this incident raises the whole issue of whether or not a member of one religion can possess an academic interest in another religion or even become a professional scholar on the subject. As the Fox News interview shows, curiosity about a religion other than one’s own can cause some people to be puzzled at best and incredulous at worst. For those who are firm believers in one faith, it can seem rather pointless to study another faith because it is seen to be untrue and even threatening.
Certainly the history of Islam and Christianity, both of which hold firmly to objective truth and the need to gain converts, indicates a keen sense of competition on a number of levels. Thus, when a person of one faith learns about the other, it is usually from an apologetic perspective (trying to prove the strength of one’s own religion and the weakness of the other).
Is it possible to be a committed Christian and yet seek to learn about Islam, or vice versa? Too much curiosity can lead fellow believers to suspect that the person in question might “go over to the other side”, taken in by the lies of the enemy. But as I have written before and firmly believe, ignorance about other religions is no way to solidify one’s own faith.
Only by knowing what is out there can we really see the truth, because only in relation to error does the truth really shine. More to the point, if we are to live with each other on this earth in a state as harmonious as possible, it makes sense to understand one another and make a good faith effort to appreciate where the other person is coming from.
As a Christian, I have no problem with Reza Aslan writing a book about Jesus, as long as he shows a basic respect for the subject matter, which is close to the hearts of so many people. Likewise, Christians ought to be able to write a book about Muhammad from an academic perspective, so long as they do not descend into simple name calling or conclusions like, “Muhammad was obviously demon possessed and Allah is an evil spirit.” That is an emotional response rather than the product of serious academic inquiry. (Consider, for example, that Arab Christians also refer to God as “Allah”, a word that is not a proper name but simply a label the same as the Spanish “Dios” or Hebrew “El”.)
Reza Aslan’s interview will probably be forgotten a week from now, as well it should be. There are much bigger problems in our world than what some anchor says on Fox News. However, the key issue of whether or not we should investigate other religions will remain. My recommendation when studying any belief system, whether it be Buddhism or Scientology, is to look at the writings of both adherents and skeptics. This will provide a more holistic analysis of the subject matter rather than something that could be overly biased either for or against the religion in question. We have nothing to fear from knowledge so long as it is paired with wisdom, that key element that is all too often forgotten.