Reza Aslan on his new book, religion and the infamous Fox news interview


By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas

More than 5.4 million people have already seen the Buzzfeed link to the now infamous Fox news interview with Iranian-American academic and author Reza Aslan. His new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, however, was already a best seller prior to the uncomfortable interview that turned him into an internet sensation.

Born in Iran and educated in the US, Reza Aslan is a highly regarded scholar of religion and contemporary politics and is the author of several best-selling books including, No god, but God and How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terrorism. He is also an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and the founder of the AslandMedia.com, an online journal for news and entertainment about the Middle East and the world, and co-founder of BoomGen Studios, a pioneering entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Middle East. We had a chance to speak with him:

Elan: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be interested in the study of religion.

Reza Aslan: Well, I was born in Iran and left in 1979 at the height of the Iranian revolution not long after the Shah had fled and Ayatollah Khomeni had returned. My father was a fairly devout atheist while my mother was a lukewarm Muslim, as I like to refer to her. My dad had a healthy distrust of the mullahs in general, so he thought it would be a good idea if we left Iran for a little while, come to the US and then return. But of course, that didn’t happen.

For me, however, I was always deeply spiritual. Probably the childhood images of revolutionary Iran really seared themselves into my subconscious in a deep way as to how a religion has transformed a society for good and for bad. So I’ve always been curious in spirituality and religion. When I was a teenager, I went with some of my friends to an evangelical youth camp, for the first time heard the gospel story and it absolutely blew me away. I converted to evangelical Christianity and spent the next four or five years as a devout evangelical Christian spreading the gospel to everyone and even ended up converting my own mother to Christianity.

I attended a Jesuit Catholic college in the Bay area where I began the formal study of the New Testament and almost immediately was confronted with this fact that so much of what I had learned about Jesus the Christ was unhistorical. The historical Jesus was so different and the chasm that separated the two was so wide that I began to really question everything that I had been taught by the church. Ultimately I left Christianity and continued my studies unburdened by the dogma I carried from the church and became far more interested in the historical Jesus than I ever was in the Christ that I was introduced to. I mean it was this thing where I was having a completely different emotional reaction, one that I think was in a sense even deeper, to what I was learning in terms of Jesus the man than the conversion experience that I had to Christianity.

Ultimately, I continued my studies in the New Testament, but at the encouragement of the Jesuits at Santa Clara who noticed I still wanted some spirituality and encouraged me to learn more about the faith and practice of my forefathers. I had known nothing about Islam. So right around the time I graduated from undergrad, I began to study and read about Islam, the Koran, Prophet Mohammed, and realized that what I was learning was what I already believed. I already believe all these things but just didn’t know the word for it. So I often say I had an emotional conversion to Christianity and an intellectual conversion to Islam.

Elan: Tell us about your new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” What new arguments are you introducing about Jesus Christ?

RA: No new arguments at all. Two hundred year old quests for the historical Jesus pretty much said everything there is to say about who Jesus was and what Jesus meant. But the problem is that conversation has been had only in the bounds of academia. This conversation has never, in any serious way, been introduced to a general public in an appealing, accessible way.

While there are nuances to my argument that are arguably innovative, what I say about Jesus and certainly the grand conclusions that I make about him as a profoundly political and revolutionary figure who challenged the religious and political parties of his time on behalf of the poor, the weak, the marginal and dispossessed, these are conclusions that my colleagues have come to over the last two centuries. What I’ve done is bring that discussion to a popular audience and done it such a way as to make it as appealing and accessible as possible.

Elan: You mentioned in another interview that you are “obsessed with Jesus?” What fascinates you about Jesus Christ?

RA: Well, you’re talking about a man who was an illiterate, uneducated, very poor marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee who came from a village that was so small and so inconsequential, that its name does not appear on any map or document before the end of the third century.

And yet despite all this, through his charisma Jesus was able to launch a movement that was seen as so threatening to the powers of his day that he was ultimately arrested, tortured and executed for it. To me, that sounds like the most interesting man in the world. I don’t know why everyone is not obsessed with him over and beyond theological crunks made about him, who he was and what he was.

Elan: Everyone seems to be talking about the infamous Fox news interview where Lauren Green continued to question why you, a Muslim, decided to write a book on Jesus. How do you deal with critics and readers that share that notion and view you as a Muslim writing about Jesus rather than a scholar writing about Jesus?

RA: Look, at a time right now anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States is at unprecedented levels and is becoming increasingly main stream. And I understand that there are certain fringe groups in the US and abroad for whom, anything a Muslim does or says, is immediately met with mistrust, at best and hostility, at worst. So, I get that. And certainly Fox news has spent the last ten years churning a kind of fringe anti-Muslim sentiment not just into the mainsteam but into goal.

For me, I’m just focused on the overwhelming response to this book and particularly from Christians, even conservative Christians, has been remarkably positive. People have repeatedly told me that this book has actually strengthened their faith and made them even more devout followers of Jesus even though the book itself deals with Jesus, not in a spiritual way but as a person.

The foundation of Christian orthodoxy is that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. The problem, however, is that usually when they go to the church, all you ever hear about is te God part and rarely do you hear about the man part. And I think for a lot of people, a book that treats Jesus Christ as a man was eye-opening even for a devout Christian.

Elan: The Fox news interview was certainly a catalyst in propelling your book to the top of the charts but as I understand, it was already there before the video went viral. How do you feel about the controversy and the publicity it has given your new book?

RA: Well, you’re right. It was already a best seller #4 on the New York Times and #2 on Amazon. The Fox controversy certainly helped it be viewed by a different kind of audience that normally may not be interested in this kind of book. But what I’m most excited about is that it has launched a much needed conversation about the role of religion in society, questions about who gets to speak for Jesus, etc. Those are questions that I’m very interested in and talk about all the time. I’m just excited that’s now become part of a wider public dialogue.

Elan: You have a Master of Theological Studies degree from the Harvard Divinity School. There is a saying, however, that “Harvard is where faith goes to die.” What’s your take on that and the intellectual study of religion?

RA: The fact of the matter is that most anybody who goes into the academic study of religion probably originally does so from some position of faith because that’s where the interest in religion comes often comes from. But very soon that faith begins to dissipate as you study the world’s religions.

One thing that happens in the study of religions of the world is that it becomes very difficult to pick any of them all that seriously. More importantly, scholars of religion are often trained to look at religion and faith the way a biologist looks at a microbe through a microscope. We study it from a distance, break it down into smaller levels and try to approach it from a purely anthropological, sociological, historical or philosophical view point. And what often happens is that little by little, you begin to not just lose any faith that you yourself may have had but you also begin to lose any kind of seriousness for faith. In other words, you stop taking faith itself all that seriously.

I’m certainly unique in the sense that I look at the religions of the world and recognize that they are essentially saying the same thing and providing the same answers with different metaphors and different symbols. Rather than conclude that faith is a construct of the human imagination, I believe that the reason these answers are so similar is because the source of these answers is all the same.

I believe that when talking about something as indescribable and ineffable as faith, you need help. You need a language to help describe it to yourself or describe it to other people and that’s all that religion provides. And so I’m a Muslim not because I think Islam is right and other religions are wrong. I’m a Muslim not because Islam is truer than other religions. I’m a Muslim because the language, the symbols and the metaphors that Islam provides to help me understand my faith are symbols that make sense to me.

Elan: Not only are you a historian and a creative writer, you also have your own media company, Aslan media. What made you decide to start this initiative and why do you think it is important?

RA: Well I think of myself, more than anything else, as a story-teller. Now, whether I tell stories of religions or fictional stories or stories on TV or even stories in the media on politics, all of these things are just different forms of story-telling. The platform doesn’t matter to me. I just want tell stories that matter to me.

Elan: So what’s next for you on your agenda?

RA: Well, I’m just about to start my book tour in November. So all of this is without the book store even started yet so and that will probably go for the rest of the fall, both in the US and abroad. I think the book itself has been purchased by upwards of 20 different countries. And in fact, after that it’s time to get back to writing and my next book is most likely going to be a novel that I’ve been working on for quite some time and then I’m thinking about what my next non-fiction book is going to be.


Follow Reza on Twitter @RezaAslan




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