Interview: Reza Aslan on Religion & Extremism

Reza re-doneAfter earning a degree in Religious Studies from the Jesuit Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Reza Aslan wrote the book No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which turned him into an intellectual celebrity. In 2009, Aslan followed with How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism), in which he analyzed religious fundamentalism and the global War on Terror. Perhaps he’s most well known for his recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which has generated a lot of controversy for its presentation of the historical Jesus.

Spring was turning into summer when Aslan visited New York and we met at a café in Chelsea, where we discussed the current Islamic Reformation, zealots, and all things religious. ­The full interview is available in print, in issue #2 of Tweed’s.

—Randy Rosenthal

Tweed’s:  In the beginning of No god but God you wrote: “Minds are not changed merely by acquiring data or information.” If reading doesn’t change people’s minds, why do you write books?

Reza Aslan:  I recognize that if you’re going to read one of my books, then for the most part, you are already of a certain persuasion. In other words, you are either on my side and want information clarified so you can have arguments with other people, or you’re on the fence and are genuinely curious about these things, and so you want your mind to be changed. If you’re an Islamophobic bigot, you’re not going to read No god but God. If you are a fundamentalist Evangelical right-wing Christian, you’re not going to read Zealot. So what I mean to say is that those whose minds are most in need of changing are precisely the ones that aren’t going to change their minds based on information, because bigotry is not a result of ignorance, as much as we like to think it is. Bigotry is a result of fear, and fear is impervious to data. You can be told repeatedly that there isn’t a monster under your bed, you could look down there fifty times, and it’s not going to change how you feel, or how scared you are of it.

I think of my books as simply one part of a larger mission that I have in using story telling to reframe people’s perceptions and to transform the way they think of “the other,” which is why I don’t primarily think of myself as a scholar, or as a writer. Indeed, I know for a fact, that to have the greatest impact, precisely on those who need such an impact, I need to work in other platforms, particularly in popular media, television, movies, music. Because those are the media that have the most currency with the masses. Everybody made fun of Joe Biden when he said that “Will and Grace” transformed the way Americans thought of gay people—except he was right! He was one hundred percent correct. It arguably had a greater impact than all the LGBT activism combined. And that’s the power of popular media. Information is important—knowledge, education—but that’s not enough, and it’s certainly not enough to reach the most intractable minds on the other side. I read a statistic that before the movie Gandhi came out, less than twenty percent of Americans knew who Mahatma Gandhi was. And today Gandhi sells Apple computers. Not because of a book, not because of a college course, but because of a Hollywood film.

Tweed’s:  The idea of the power of popular media leads to my next question. Let’s talk about Zealot and the reaction to it. Surprisingly, America is a very religious country, with about forty percent claiming to be Christians—

Reza Aslan: Oh it’s larger. Pew Research, which does a yearly census on American spirituality, says seventy percent. Seven out of ten Americans are self-described Christians.

Tweed’s:  With such a large Christian population, you would think that Americans would want to know more about who Jesus was—the Jesus of history, as you say, not just Jesus Christ. They’d want to know about Jesus of Nazareth, not this mythical person that Paul of Tarsus invented, which you explain in your book. But there’s been this strong negative reaction among Christians to Zealot. Why do you think that Christians don’t want to know who Jesus really was?

Reza Aslan:  It might surprise you to learn that the overwhelming Christian response I have received about the book has been positive. I actually get dozens of emails from Christians, telling me that the book has empowered their faith. I think partly it has to do with the fact that the foundational belief of Christianity is that Jesus is fully God and fully man. The problem with that belief is that it’s unsustainable, mentally. The God part subsumes the man part. It’s impossible to think of someone as both man and God. One of those things is bigger than the other, and when you go to church or when you go to Bible study, what you are hearing about is the divinity of Christ. Even when you hear about his humanity, it’s still wrapped up in his divinity. For a great many Christians—and I mean mainstream Christians—this book, as they have reported to me, was their first opportunity to actually think about the consequences of what it means to say Jesus was also a man. I get emails from people all the time telling me they think that Jesus is God, but this is the first time they got to see him as a man, and they appreciated that.

The really overwhelming negative response to this book is much more wrapped up in the political Right than in the religious Right. Often those two groups go hand in hand, but it’s not just about Evangelicals. There are a lot of liberal Evangelicals who like this book because the politics that the historical Jesus espouses fit very much along the lines of the politics of some very die-hard fundamentalist Evangelical people who have views about the poor and about social justice that are in alignment with Jesus. What I have found is that people who react negatively to this book tend to do so more from a political position than a religious position. In other words, it’s not so much that I am trying to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith and trying to figure out who the Jesus of history was that bothers them. It’s that my answer to who the Jesus of history was is anathema to the politics espoused by so many right-wing Evangelical Christians. That conflict creates this dissonance that they cannot abide by. They can’t accept that Jesus wasn’t a middle-class carpenter who hated taxes. They can’t accept that Jesus was a social justice revolutionary who wanted to replace the rich with the poor. They want a Jesus who hates immigrants and wants to get rid of welfare.

To read the rest of this interview, purchase issue #2

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