Reza Aslan’s “Zealot” and other books that’ll send me to Hell (or so Fox News says)

If you haven’t been able to tell, I like to read. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, magazine articles — all of it. Giving me a book is like giving a screaming baby a pacifier (and other similes); it shuts me up for a few hours. Just call me Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last.”

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Thank God I have contacts.

One of the first books I remember really sitting down to read (apart from installments of the American Girl and Nancy Drew series) was a giant volume of Bible stories for children. That’s what comes with growing up in a Catholic household; my first books were a coffee table-sized, illustrated New Testament and an easy-to-read missal for Mass each Sunday.

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One of our visiting priests looked identical to the one on the cover.

But I also grew up a reader, and my parents were very encouraging when it came to exposing me to not only secular books but also those that weren’t entirely endorsed by the Vatican. Enter the Harry Potter series, which my mom read aloud to the family every night until she was sure I wasn’t going to go occult on her.

As it turned out, J.K. Rowling didn’t turn me to a life of Paganism or witchcraft (still waiting on that letter, Professor McGonnagall). I am still Catholic, but I am very careful to separate my political views from my religious ones. I consider myself to follow the Catholic faith, not the Catholic Church. For the sake of time and argument, let’s leave it at that.

This post is not meant to tout myself as a firmer believer than anyone else — trust me, I continue to have doubts like many others in this scientific and nihilist era. But I feel like reading literature that takes different approaches when it comes to God, scaling everywhere from being critical of the historical context surrounding Biblical passages to being purely blasphemous in the eyes of the Church, can actually strengthen my faith. It takes a bit more to worship Jesus as Christ when you’ve exposed yourself to non-Christian writing than it is when you turn a blind eye to intelligent arguments (or just arguments) against the religion.

I think it was Victor Hugo who wrote “An intelligent hell would be a stupid paradise.” If I’m going to Hell for reading these books in the spirit of learning and opening my mind rather than “knowing the enemy,” then maybe I won’t mind that much at all.

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Zealot by Reza Aslan

I’m starting a Goodreads bookshelf titled “Books I Read Because of Jon Stewart,” and Zealot will be the first on there. Aslan, a scholar who has written several books on the Abrahamic faiths, appeared on The Daily Show this summer to promote his work on the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth. When the program ended, I knew I wanted to read the book.

A week later, a different interview made me buy it immediately.

When Aslan, a Christian-turned-Muslim, was interviewed by Fox News’ Lauren Green, the entire exchange was dominated by her questions of “Why would you write a book about Jesus if you’re a Muslim?” For ten minutes, he had to defend his credentials as a PhD and longtime studier of religion, barely able to discuss what the book was about or what sources it used. Buzzfeed posted the link as the most insane interview Fox had ever done (which is saying something), and I have to agree as both a viewer and a journalist.

Zealot outlines Jesus of Nazareth’s life as a political and historical figure in the middle of one of the most tumultuous periods of Jerusalem’s history (again, that’s saying something). It takes a critical look at the context in which the Biblical stories take place, both disproving certain legends (Pilate’s extensive involvement in Jesus’ crucifixion) and elaborating on events that happened (Jesus as one of many healers traversing the area). Most of the book is skeptical of New Testament stories, but Aslan shows that he’s not beyond considering the most important aspect of Jesus — his resurrection — as something that could have happened.

“Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense,” he writes. “However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony…They were beaten, whipped, stoned, and crucified, yet they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus.” He doesn’t come right out and say it, but clearly: if so many people were willing to die protecting the Resurrection story, isn’t it at least possible that it actually happened?

God, I love books.

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Who Cooked the Last Supper: The Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles

My friend Shaina introduced me to this book, citing it as one she’s read multiple times. It’s not focused on the history of Christ or the women surrounding him (as the title may suggest), but on women as a whole. Did you know that at one time, women were considered the highest-ranking humans because of their ability to “miraculously” rear children? It’s when men found out they had a hand — or, rather, a different appendage — in the reproductive process that they started to dominate their female counterparts socially and politically.

The book itself calls into question many of the traditions upheld by the Catholic Church; not only does it point out that women were instrumental in starting the Church (Peter wasn’t alone, as Zealot also points out), but it also examines the papacy’s continually suppressive doctrines directed to keep women as nuns and wives rather than leaders in their faith. And in the end? I gleaned from Miles’ work that it wasn’t God or Jesus who pushed us out of the Church; Jesus spent most of his time protecting women from persecution and promoting equality. It was when mortal men decided they were just as good to carry out Christ’s message that banished women from having high stakes in their faith.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Nonfiction isn’t the only place to test faith — in fact, fiction one of the more controversial styles of literature because of its creative license. It’s also one of the more interesting and funny places to simultaneously blaspheme and belief-build.

I read Lamb at the end of high school because my mom (yes, my Mass-every-Sunday mom) recommended it. Never has a modern piece of fiction about Christianity been so hilarious, poignant and tragic all at the same time for me. The novel tells the story of Jesus’ thirty years before starting his ministry from the perspective of Biff, his childhood best friend. By the way, Biff isn’t his real name; that’s just the sound that comes from his mother slapping him upside the head. He and Jesus travel all over the world visiting the cradles of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism so that the young Christ can come back to Judea with a wide perspective. Some of the anecdotes are funny — ten-year-old Biff and Jesus decide to circumcise a Roman statue in the town square so it complies with Jewish tradition — but others are reflective, such as when Jesus asks that rabbits be around whenever he is in distress (hence, the Easter Bunny).

Lamb is one of the few books I remember making me cry, and the very first one that made me realize that even the most heretical literature can strengthen faith. Moore has written a sequel, and I look forward to tucking into it as soon as it finds its place on my bookshelf.

That is, when I find space for it.
That is, when I find space for it. And don’t tell me to move my Harry Potters over, because they deserve a shelf all their own.

Reading takes us to places we’ve never been, teaches us things we don’t learn in the classroom and opens our eyes to the beauty that can be found in our fellow human beings. It makes us question, answer those questions and question our answers. Most of all, it makes us think. And even if literature is offensive to some in that it defies religion or looks beyond tradition, the intelligent thing to do is be exposed to it and see if faith can hold up against it.

Aslan sums it up perfectly at the end of Zealot: “…The magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth — Jesus the man — is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

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2 Comments

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  1. May I recommend Ancient Rage by Mary Lee Wile. The story of what happened to Mary after the crucifixion and resurrection.

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