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Reza Aslan's Zealot: Religious Extremism Then and Now

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Reza Aslan, Muslim academic and commentator, has written a controversial book titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which, thanks to a bungled interview by Fox News, is now number one on Amazon. As someone who has read the background texts and traveled some of the same journey Aslan has taken, I am truly mystified by the controversy.

Well before Zealot, whole libraries of books have made a strong case that Jesus was a revolutionary, a political insurrectionist or dangerous man, and feared by the Romans. So what was it that sparked the re-emergence of this redundant religious argument? One could assert that the interview on Fox was the catalyst, though the incendiary line of questioning was not so much threatening as embarrassing for the host. Absent a strong prompt in Lauren Green's earpiece, Fox could have used a vaudevillian cane to serve as an off-camera hook.

However, as fairly stated during the interview, Zealot does not preserve the traditional views of orthodox Christianity; but then, neither do many books written on the historical Jesus. Since post-enlightenment humanitarian and scholar Albert Schweitzer penned one of the first, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, or 20th century New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann authored the last, it has been accepted in academic circles that the quest for absolute truth was an impossible one. All we could know for sure was the "Christ of Faith," the one experienced through belief. So, again, I asked myself, what is the source of this new controversy?

Three possibilities for this uproar came to mind: 1) It was because Aslan, a Muslim (former Christian), wrote the book, or 2) The word "Zealot" itself connotes, especially for a Muslim writer, a vicious radical, like a car bomber, or 3) It is still too difficult to see through the apparition of the divine Jesus to recognize the man.

Starting in reverse, with the third thesis, we must try the impossible, and imagine a Jesus other than the one portrayed in the later gospel accounts: born of a virgin, became a teacher of wisdom who would gather apostles, preach to the world, and build a church, and one day a celestial city. Rather, we can focus on the scantily known facts of the historical Jesus, a 1st-century Jew in Palestine, who, after cleansing the money changers at the Temple for using "dirty" Gentile coin, was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

The gospels do depict a zealous Jesus consistent with the historical figure, a man who rode into Jerusalem on a mule wearing robes as a mocking gesture toward the king, or even Caesar. He spoke of carrying a sword, and promised a kingdom, which would mean an apocalyptic clash with the Empire. And while ancient revolutionaries such as Jesus did not carry RPGs, their daggers (sicae) were plunged into the bellies of senators. They were bandits, or zealots, like Barabbas, picked over Jesus by the angry mob. In fact, history and the Bible agree, describing Jesus distinctly as a figure standing against authority. And while his revolution included religious rhetoric, the blood spilled on the cross was in truth a result of the Roman penal system, a punishment served for a genuine act of sedition a sign of warning nailed above the head of this "king of the Jews," a religious zealot.

As for the word "zealot," ancient contexts reveal that it describes a person living single-mindedly for God. God revealed himself to those "zealous for Him." Even Jesus' greatest advocate, the Apostle Paul, referred to himself as one whose "zeal for the lord" was a true sign of faith. He wrote it was "great to be zealous, provided the purpose is good." The latest Gospel of John even states, "Let it be our prayer to all be zealous for God out of perfect knowledge, truth, and love for Him." No surprise, then, that Jesus as a messiah (king) was a religious man in a political context, much like the Muslim radicals we see today who are fighting to overthrow foreign rule.

So that leaves us with the proposition that the contemporary controversy, exacerbated by the Fox interview, is over the fact that Aslan is a Muslim man writing on Jesus. We all see through our prisms, and for the average Christian American, Muslim extremism, whether indicative of the whole of Islam or not, and especially after 9/11, has sparked religious violence for a generation (a generation with 24-hour media coverage offering a window into the Middle East, London, Spain, Africa, etc.). No one can paint a whole religion with one brush, yet human instinct to protect and defend does take precedence over theological nuances that separate moderates from extremists. Islamic struggle for equality is legitimate, yet too many times attempts to reach legitimacy quickly are acted out through violence.

So the Modern Muslim lens is real. But if the purpose of Aslan's book is to state that early Christianity, before it was reinterpreted by two millennia of theology, was necessarily a radical movement, as the extremes of Islam might be today, this would be true of all the Abrahamic faiths: those that believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, God and a promised destiny with a climactic end. All revelatory religion means a golden mosque, or temple, or church, must rise over conquered enemies before a new day is born; that is the very fulfillment of the promise of God.

An argument for common humanity should transcend religion and ask: Can any extremism be justified in a modern world? How can critical reason, common law, or individual opinion stand, when many claim a source of incontrovertible law from different worlds? Conflicting sources from whence religious difference and strife have been perpetuated? If Aslan balances the books by restaging an earlier time, when Jews needed to use violence in the same way as modern Muslim radicals, well, touché, but please don't end there. Remember that as the Jewish (then Christian) faith was tempered by the Greco-Roman humanist tradition, it found a more permanent home in the world and reduced tribal factionalism and cycles of violence.

This means that as post-modernists still perfecting these classical notions, human beings must make all religious thought accountable, as did the founding fathers in dealing with divine rights, challenging the assumed pulpits and holy writ. Mustn't truth pass through the fires of doubt? Is doubt not a sign of humility, and its brother insecurity not a by-product of an ever-changing world? Shouldn't we never forget that even our divine aspirations remain rooted in the human?

If so, Reza Aslan's Zealot, along with his personal journey, has contributed a new and unique perspective to that human (divine?) evolution.