- Photograph by Harvard Magazine/KX
In a discussion Thursday at the Divinity School, New York Times bestselling author Reza Aslan, M.T.S. ’99, engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about personal faith, the historical figure of Jesus, and the challenges of writing for a popular audience, all spurred by his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The impetus for the book, Aslan told the packed audience, came from his personal journey of faith. After growing up in a family of “lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists,” Aslan says he found Jesus in high school at an evangelical Christian camp, and went on to study religion at Santa Clara University. There, he said, “I had that experience that I think a lot of people in my situation have—all of a sudden you realize, ‘Oh, most of what I was told was not right.’” The Jesus of the Gospels did not match up to the Jesus of history, leaving the young Aslan “confused and spiritually unmoored.” “Truly, if you’re asking what was the impetus for this book,” says Aslan, “that was the moment. I wanted to let other people in on this experience that I had, this experience of being confronted with the historical Jesus.”
It is this historical Jesus that his new book explores, Jesus of Nazareth rather than Jesus Christ. In sifting through ancient writings, Aslan said, he had to differentiate between truth and fact, which were separate conceptions in premodern times. “The Gospel writers are not writing about Jesus the way that a historian writes about Napoleon,” he said. “These are not so much historical accounts of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. They are a theological argument about something called the Christ.”
His own historical analysis begins with the fact of Jesus’s crucifixion. “Crucifixion in this era was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for crimes against the state,” he says, “so you have to start with this notion that Jesus was crucified as a state criminal, that he was crucified for sedition, for rebellion, insurrection…Right away, that should, at the very least, begin to put a dent in this modern perception of Jesus as a kind of pacifistic preacher of good works with no interest in the affairs of this world…I think, to be blunt, that that Jesus would have probably gone unnoticed by Rome.”
Aslan argued that the historical Jesus is a concept important for believers as well as nonbelievers. While Christian doctrine maintains that Jesus is both fully man and fully God, Aslan observed that worship centers on Jesus as God. “Even when you try, as a Christian, to think about the man part of Jesus, if you will, when you try to think about him as struggling or suffering, as anxious or scared—when you try to think about the humanity of him—it’s very difficult to do because, you know, he’s also God,” he continued. “I often compare it to watching a tightrope walker with a net underneath him. It’s not that interesting! If he falls, so what? I guess what I wanted to do is take away the net.
“If you’re serious about this belief, that Jesus was also a man, then you need to suspend that belief [in Jesus as God] for a moment to truly absorb the consequences of it—to recognize that he was a product of this world, that his teachings addressed specific social ills, that his actions were a confrontation to specific political and religious powers. The man that arises from that understanding may not look like the man you expect.” Though Aslan later returned to Islam, he writes in the author’s note to his book that “two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.”
It was Aslan’s Islamic faith that indirectly catapulted his book to double-edged celebrity. Discussion moderator Jason Smith, M.T.S. ’13, played a clip from Aslan’s interview on Fox News, an interview that received widespread attention for reporter Lauren Green’s persistent questioning about why Aslan, a Muslim, would write a book about the founder of Christianity. “I watch Fox News, I know what Fox News is about,” said Aslan, “and so I would be lying if I said that I didn’t suspect that this would come up.” But he says he did not foresee the immense attention the interview received; immediately after his conversation with Green, he was “more confused than anything else.” Once the clip went viral, he said, the discussion went beyond him. “It became about these very important discussions about media and journalistic bias, religion and society, the role of academia in public and popular discourse. It was delightful! These are the conversations that we all have amongst each other all the time, and that nobody else listens to.”
In addition to his interviewer’s implicit hostility towards Muslims, Aslan says he was also struck by Green’s “inability—an inability that I think is shared by the vast majority of Americans—to even understand the concept of religion as an academic enterprise.” He poked fun at the most common response when someone learns he studies religion: “‘Oh my god…did I, did I just cuss? I mean, are you a priest?’” “The idea that I’m actually studying an academic discipline in a scientific environment is a completely foreign concept to a lot of Americans,” said Aslan. “And I have to be honest with you—that’s our fault.” Work written for a general audience is frequently seen as unserious by fellow academics, he said, and it can even be detrimental to one’s career to write a popular book.
Aslan offered three pieces of concrete advice to academics seeking to make their work more accessible. “Learn how to embed your research,” he said. In academia, proof is often emphasized above the argument itself. Though methodology should be present, he said, it belongs in the back of the book, as supplementary information for interested readers. His own book offers two versions of the central argument: one directed toward lay readers interested in the overall narrative, and one for those who want to follow the academic back-and-forth. Secondly, he urged his colleagues to simplify: “Your grandmother doesn’t care about your methodology or your research. She just wants to get to your conclusion.” And finally, “Learn how to write.” Aslan, who earned a master of fine arts degree after graduating from Harvard, is now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. “We have such a specialized writing style in academia, with our own secret language that no one can decipher, and that only we ourselves understand…You have to get past that.”
He ended on a positive note. Though he believes academics still need to engage more with the general public, he observed, “Things are already changing. When I speak to university students and graduate students, what I’m confronted with is a different kind of scholar than I remember when I was in school, a scholar that’s much more engaged in popular media and popular discourse, a scholar that’s not afraid to break through the ivy walls.” He concluded, “I think it may take a generation or two more, but I think [this change is] happening. And I think it can only be good for our society.”