When you grow up in the Fox News version of Christian America like I did, it’s not uncommon to find yourself on the side of heretics. (Anything different is heretical.)
So when I voiced my support of the new book, Zealot, by Reza Aslan, I wasn’t surprised to get a few emails and tweets aimed back at me from old friends in shock that I would do such a thing. And now people are praying for my soul because I read and enjoyed a book that runs counter to what they think I believe. It’s not the first time.
In his book, Aslan does a great job of painting for his readers a more accurate portrait of Jesus the man. Now, we don’t need “the man” qualifier when we talk about many other male historical figures, but in the case of Jesus, there are two widely differing personas that we could be referring to: Jesus the man, and Jesus the Christ…referred to as the actual Son of God, and indeed God himself.
While it didn’t take long after Jesus’ death for Christ-followers to begin the theological gymnastics necessary to wrap Jesus in the fully-man, fully-God narrative, Jesus the man (who actually lived in an actual place with an actual religion and actual people) would’ve been a little perplexed by the classification.
Zealot is not the first attempt at digging through history to learn who Jesus of Nazareth really was, but it certainly is the most compelling that I’ve read. In Aslan’s account, the times in which Jesus lived come alive and feel much more like Game of Thrones than my Sunday School teachers let on. (Which is a shame; I would’ve been more attentive in class if they would’ve been a little more descriptive.) Intrigue, betrayal, murder, competing claims to the throne, Roman occupiers — it’s intense. Obviously, the political and religious climate of his day deeply influenced Jesus’ ideals. Even his claim to be messiah was a crime against the Roman state and a direct jab to the corrupt high priest. Jesus was not a soft man.
Personally, I continue to dance around with new ideas and the heretics that would suggest them. I attend events to listen to the top scientific minds and then go to churches where people believe that God has given them the power to heal. I’m surrounded with amazing people holding many different viewpoints. I haven’t always been willing to do this, to spend time with an “unbelieving” friend without trying to convert them. I’m well acquainted with the fear that comes with being confronted by a new theory.
Christianity, especially in America, is built on a binary platform. Ideas are either right or wrong. Never evolving. Which puts people that hold other ideas firmly in the “wrong” category. Yet Christians conveniently forget that they’ve been wrong on a lot of issues. Preachers certainly aren’t teaching the merits of owning slaves anymore.
To approach a new idea with maturity and consideration for the person holding it is difficult for many Christians. The perceived theology of many Christians is like a perfectly executed game of Jenga, where one more move could topple the whole thing. And rebuilding from scratch is just not an option. So while some might want to call conservative Christians things like homophobic or Islamophobic, I call them metathesiophobic (fear of change) or atychiphobic (fear of being wrong). These words just don’t grab headlines.
So here they find themselves, yelling on talk shows and in book reviews on Amazon, and they’re throwing the prefix “anti-” around like confetti to make sure everyone knows that they really stand for something.
I’m frequently embarrassed by the Christian establishment in America. I cringe when I think of some of the things that I taught when I was given a microphone and a pulpit way too early. But thankfully, it’s much easier for all of us to rally around the actual person of Jesus. Love or hate him, he really existed. And while a great deal of faith is required to make sense of the Christ (starting with a virgin birth), we can all celebrate the zeal that motivated a real man to take up the cause of the widow and the neglected and the poor— and wonder if we would have stood with him.