“Aslan” is a name that rings sweet in Christian ears. The great and noble Lion from C. S. Lewis’ “Narnia” series is a symbol for Christ Himself. When Aslan surrenders himself into death to save the life of a traitor, it’s a reminder of how Jesus sacrificed Himself to deliver us all.

             But now another Aslan has emerged, with a very different message about Jesus. Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American author whose book about Jesus, Zealot, has been grabbing loads of attention lately. Aslan did the talk show circuit and was profiled in Time magazine; as of this writing, Zealot sits at the very top of the New York Times bestseller list.

             Aslan’s personal story is interesting. Nominal Muslims to begin with, his family became even less attached to Islam when they were forced to flee Iran after Ayatollah Khomeni took over. Eventually the family converted to Christianity. However, when Reza went to college, he was exposed to a modern, critical approach to the New Testament that robbed him of his faith. He returned to the Islam of his ancestors.

             Aslan’s book reflects the modern Biblical criticism that crushed his faith. According to this criticism, the New Testament accounts of Jesus are all very late–written from 70 to 110 A.D., many years after Christ’s crucifixion in 30 A.D. Thus, very little in these accounts is to be trusted. Whole swaths of Biblical narrative (the Christmas stories, the trial before Pontius Pilate) are dismissed as “pure fiction”. (I can’t help but note, however, that the first books about Reza Aslan’s current prophet, Muhammad, were written almost two hundred years after the events!)

             This attempt to discredit the Gospels never grapples with the strong evidence that Mark was writing down St. Peter’s reminiscences; that Luke was self-consciously striving to be an accurate historian (Luke 1:1-4) ; and that there probably was a Hebrew original of Matthew. The “late and unreliable” view of the New Testament has to ignore a lot of evidence!

             Once Aslan has stripped away all the “fiction” in the story of Jesus, this is what he offers as historical truth: Jesus was a revolutionary who wanted to end the Roman occupation of Palestine, and to overthrow the rich Jewish aristocracy who supported the Romans. He was willing to use force to drive out the Romans. This was the “kingdom of God” that he preached about. Actually, Jesus was just one of many preachers who tried to foment revolution against Rome. And, like all the others, he failed. His disciples kept his memory alive–but ultimately people like St. Paul took Christianity in a totally different direction. They denied that Jesus ever represented a threat to Rome–His kingdom, they declared, was completely spiritual, not political. Christians turned a violent revolutionary into a peacenik. They also began to worship Him as God, something He never claimed for Himself. Thus, Christianity is based upon some imaginary “Christ” figure, and not on the “real” Jesus at all.

             But what, we might ask, about Christ’s commands to “turn the other cheek” and “resist not evil”(Matthew 5:39), to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), to, to “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31). How does this fit with Jesus as a violent revolutionary? Aslan says that for Jesus, these commands only apply to the way Jews should treat one another. For Jesus, one’s “neighbor” is a fellow Jew. A Roman would not be one’s neighbor, and therefore violence could be used against the Romans. A major agenda for Jesus was driving all non-Jews out of Palestine.

             This, of course, flies in the face of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a non-Jew treats a Jew as neighbor! There also are the stories about the healing of the centurion’s servant, and the exorcism of the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Jesus’ primary ministry was to the Jews, but He also reached beyond the bounds of Israel to show compassion to Gentiles as well. But for Aslan’s Jesus, God’s mercy does not reach beyond the Jewish community.

             By recasting Jesus as a purveyor of religious violence, Aslan makes Jesus look more like Muhammad (the difference being that Muhammad succeeded as a warrior while Jesus “failed”). But much of what Aslan says about Jesus would be unacceptable to Muslims. Zealot affirms that Jesus really died on the cross–but in Islam, Jesus escapes the cross, and someone else dies in His place. Aslan also questions the Virgin Birth of Jesus, which is something Islam affirms. So it’s unfair to say that Aslan is writing a Muslim life of Jesus.

             An aspect of the book that intrigued me is Aslan’s treatment of the resurrection. He actually dances toward accepting the resurrection–how else to explain the fact that Christ’s disciples kept their faith after His death, and were willing to accept martyrdom for Him? Indeed, the very first line of the book caused me to bolt upright in my chair: “It is a miracle that we know anything at all about the man called Jesus of Nazareth”. Aslan seemed to be echoing a great Christian scholar who once said, “If Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead, we probably would have never even heard of Him.” (I don’t think Aslan did this intentionally). But really–it did take a miracle, a real, death defeating miracle, for us to know about this first century Jewish preacher Jesus. In the end, however, Aslan says that the resurrection is a fact of faith and not of history. This is a frequently-used cop-out among religious types–that there is a “sacred history” over and above normal human history, and something can happen in this “sacred history” without happening in “real” history. To me, facts are facts, history is history, truth is truth–Jesus either rose from the dead in real time, in the real world, or He didn’t rise at all!

             Sometimes Aslan makes mistakes that show he is punching a little above his weight scholarship-wise. He attributes to Rudolf Bultmann an opinion that actually belonged to Albert Schweitzer (that when people write about Jesus, they almost always end up recasting Jesus in their own image). His account of the Council of Nicaea seems to have been drawn from The DaVinci Code rather than from actual history. Contrary to the Code and to Aslan, Nicaea was not convened to decide the question: “Was Jesus God or was He just some guy?” It was convened to decide: “Was Jesus fully God, or was he a glorious, pre-existent supernatural being who just missed being God by a couple of millimeters?” The author of The DaVinici Code may get a pass on this gaffe because he was writing a thriller; Aslan, who likes to brag about his many academic degrees and his expertise in religion, gets no pass.

             On the question of whether Jesus claimed to be God or not, I would point to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus consistently says: “I say to you...” Never once does He say, “Thus says the Lord!” Someone who sees himself as a prophet says: “Thus says the Lord”–the prophet points to a divine authority beyond himself. Someone who says “I say to you” sees authority as coming from within Himself. The “I say to you” implies that the speaker sees Himself as the source of authority–sees Himself as, in fact, God. So the idea that Christ was just a prophet who didn’t claim divine status collapses in the face of the Sermon on the Mount.

             Aslan tries to end his book on a positive note. “The historical Jesus–Jesus the man–is every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.” But why? Aslan has painted Jesus as a fomenter of violent revolution, as an ethnocentric hater of non-Jews, as one who failed in his mission. What’s to believe in? If it’s a revolutionary I want, I’ll go with George Washington, or David Crockett. In the end, I don’t need a revolutionary–I need Someone who will forgive my sins, assure me that my life has meaning, assure me that death is not the end. I need a God and a Saviour. And contrary to Reza Aslan, I find that God and Saviour in Jesus.

             And I pray that, in the end, this Second Aslan would return to the Saviour symbolized by the First Aslan.

             God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 84 - No. 9
Sept 2013