On Tuesday October 1st 2013, JCCSF hosted a conversation between Reza Aslan and Michael Krasny as part of the Arts and Ideas Literary Lecture Series. The topic of discussion was Aslan’s controversial new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Reza Aslan, of Iranian descent, is colorful, young, and enigmatic. He spoke enthusiastically and poignantly on the history of the life of Jesus, sometimes uttering sentences verbatim from his book. Aslan currently is a Professor of Creative Writing at UC Irvine and holds numerous degrees, including Bachelors of Arts from Santa Clara University, Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, Master of Fine Arts from University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Sociology from UC Santa Barbara.
The book shot to the top of the NYT bestseller list after an interview with Aslan on Fox News went viral. The premise of the book is centered not on Christianity but on the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. According to Aslan, the hardest question for a Christian theologian to answer is who Jesus thought he was: Did he consider himself a Messiah, a Son of God, or a son of man, and the conversation between Aslan and Krasny revolved around this topic.
According to Aslan, there are three certain facts that all Christian religious scholars believe:
- Jesus was a Jew.
- Jesus started a Jewish movement, as he wanted to establish a kingdom of God.
- As a result of that movement, Jesus was crucified.
Here’s a simplified breakdown of the conversation: Crucification was a punishment given by the Romans for heinous crimes, including rebellion, and often administered to slaves. Jesus’s teachings taught of an extraordinary reversal of the social order. Belief in a dying and then rising Messiah did not exist in Judaism; Jews were awaiting a Messiah that would triumph and live. But Jesus was not able to achieve all that he had promised in his lifetime. Hence Jesus’s disciples boldly redefined the concept of Messiah by claiming that Jesus was resurrected. The disciples preached with an unmatched passion, and this new figure of Jesus as a heavenly and divine being became more appealing to the gentiles.
Aslan jokingly referred to Jesus as a Middle Eastern socialist who advocated for the poor and provided free health care. To the people at the top of the social ladder, Jesus’s message would be as threatening today as it was some 2000 years ago.
The auditorium was packed and people listened intently to Aslan iterating the history of the Roman Era. Krasny conducted the interview very well and kept the conversation flowing, but I was a bit disappointed he did not ask Aslan about the negative reviews of the book published in some of the major newspapers, including The NY Times and The Washington Post. These reviews, written by Religious Studies professors, praised Aslan for his creative writing skills but discredited his thesis as unoriginal and condemned him for overselling a known idea. I wondered whether the attacks had any ring of truth to them or were due to Aslan’s bestseller achievements, which in the past have included No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and the Future of Islam.
It is always a pleasure to attend JCCSF’s renowned speaker series. They have an amazing upcoming Fall calendar of conversations with Ann Patchett, Alice Waters, Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders, and Karen Russel to just name a few. The series is one not to be missed!
Fyza Parvis is a bohemian bibliophile who writes software by day and by night reads grotesque deranged modernist prose with intellectual and spiritual depth. She loves living in the Bay Area and covering its literary scene.