Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Aslan Gets Bulverized!

Many of the early negative reviews of Reza Aslan's runaway bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, were embarrassing to those of us who think the real problem with Aslan's portrait of Jesus is that he gets his facts wrong:

"Written by a muslim, and I thought he was very subjective in his writing and makes assumptions that are very negative towards Christianity."

"The author is a Muslim. Most of this garbage you hear from other Muslims. This man has an agenda and it does not involve the truth. It is the usual anti-Paul stuff repackaged. If you want to know the truth about Jesus then read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I also suggest Pope Benedict's trilogy Jesus of Nazareth. Don't waste your time and money on Muslim propaganda."

"Wow - talk about deception - the author, who is a devout muslim, attempts to hijack the historical Jesus and make him over as he is portrayed in Islam... The author is deceptive, and a liar. He portrays to be a historical authority, yet he is just a muslim. Now, he is authorized his viewpoint, but he should speak for a position of truth. Islam has been at war with Christianity since it's inception 1400 years ago, and will continue to be. It isn't a great book, or a great insight into Jesus the man - it is muslim ideology."

What such reviews share in common, is that rather than engage Aslan's arguments and explain why they are wrong, for the most part they tell a story that they think demonstrates the shameful origin of Aslan's views, hoping to discredit them in that way.  This maneuver is what C. S. Lewis called "Bulverism," noting that it was popular among Marxists and Freudians, in particular:

Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father - who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third - “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

Unfortunately, Bulver's influence has not yet died. 

Not to be outdone, many who reviewed Aslan's book positively do so by making arch comments about Fox News, some preacher who seems to have inspired some of the one-star reviews, or about Christians in general. 

I'd like to focus on one such Amazon review in the remainder of this post: by someone who describes himself as a "Christian and historian." 

Please let me know if I'm being mean to this fellow or gal.  It's quite possible.  But I find his approach to recommending an historical book purporting to overthrow Christian orthodoxy rather startling (yes, along with his even for me sloppy spelling):

NY SanDa: I am both a Christian and a trained historian. There is no need for those two to be mutually exclusive and fortunately in the past 50 years increasingly there has been well researched, well reasoned historical examinations of the Bible, Church history and of course, Jesus. I've read most of this stuff for over 20 years now, which is why I don't find much new or controversial here.

To suggest the author has no "right" to write about this subject because he is a Muslim borders on racism/hate speech. The claim he somehow tried to hide the fact his is a Muslim is absurd, as it is discussed immediately on page two of the book. In addition, a controversy because he is a Muslim writing about Jesus just demonstrates the woeful lack of education and understanding far too many Americans have. Jesus is a pirovtal, important figure IN Islam.

All the so called "controversies" here are, frankly, illogical. Does any Christian deny that Jesus was crucified? As the author points out repeatedly, this universally accepted fact DOES tell us something important about Jesus. He was considered by the Romans a threat to the state. This should NOT be controversial; the Bible is full of Jesus questioning the status quo, challenging the temple and the established order, and, of course, the pivotal scene in the temple where he disrupts the entire (Roman organized) functioning of things.

Regretably, I have met Christians who seemed unaware that Jesus was a Jew, that he had brothers, that one of those brothers "James the Just" continued his church. Woeful ignorance does NOT equal "controversy." More Christians need to read their Bibles.

Similarly, it might make Christians uncomfortable that James and Paul vied for control and to interpret Jesus' message. But it is hardly "controversy." Luke in "Acts" reveals it while putting a nicer gloss on it, but reveals it none the less. Paul does not hide the controversey at all! And there are extra-cannonical sources for early Church history which reveal this.

In conclusion, if the idea that a Muslim is writing about Jesus upsets you perhaps you need not only to educate yourself on other religions, but also to reexamine your devotion to our lord's actual words. If you were unaware of the Jewish context in Jesus' words, of his brother James the Just, or of the fact that Paul's teachings were in variance with James, Peter and John you need to learn more about your Bible.

DM: With all due respect, I think you're trivializing the problems with this book. Admittedly, some critics do offer poor criticisms, but that hardly makes "all" the controversy over this book "illogical." Aslan is arguing, poorly in my opinion, that Jesus was a political revolutionary who cared only about Jews, and wanted to be king. You really don't find that "controversial?" And he makes numerous historical errors along the way. As an historian, given the fact that the vast majority of posters here naively accept Aslan's account, shouldn't you be correcting some of those errors? (Did you notice them?) As a Christian, do you really accept these notions? If Aslan is right (he is not, IMO), then Christianity itself is a foolish belief. 
I'm frankly a little surprised that you can be so blase about the claims this books makes, either as an historian, or as a Christian.

Sanda: Jesus, like many prophets of the time, was preaching the imminent arrival of G'd on earth to establish his kingdom. This is NOT a hotly debated topic, it is accepted widely even among Christian historians. As such, he was indeed spreading a word that had political implications, negative to Roman rule... The author does not say Jesus aspired to be "king", he says that the Romans crucified him for this "crime", aspiring to be "king of the jews" ie sedition. IF modern people today can't appreciate for example that Jesus s a central figure for Muslims, is it a stretch to say that Roman officials didn't care about "nuances", anything that sounded like sedition was put down violently. As for his mission "only to jews",,, this is debatable, though that his brother James thought and preached so is not. And accepting this doesn't make Christianity "foolish"... what makes it look foolish is ignorant claims and hate speech...

DM: Yes, Aslan does say Jesus aspired to be king, quite clearly, on pages 142-145:

When Jesus calls himself the Son of Man . . . In short, he is calling himself king. He is stating, albeit in a deliberately cryptic way, that his role is not merely to usher in the Kingdom of God . . . it is to rule that kingdom on God's behalf.

Jesus' kingdom -- the Kingdom of God -- was very much of this world . . .

I don't want to type out the whole passage: it is smack dab in the heart of the book, and rather long. I don't know how you overlooked this central theme of the book, or its many other blatant historical errors that, yes, also happen to be fundamentally at odds with the Christian faith, which I would hope would also matter to you.

Let me direct to you reviews by Craig Evans, John Dickson, or myself ("Aslan Stumbles"), to help you recognize some of the gaping historical errors in this book. Or if we happen to be wrong in our criticisms, please do correct us.

I'm not entirely sure what "hate speech" you're referring to. This is a well-written book with a lot of bad history in it, which deserves the debunking it has received, which all seems to me to be part of a healthy intellectual process.

SanDa: I have read some of your comments, and it appears that since you don't like the implications, you have simply chose to call them "wrong.

There is ZERO controversy that Jesus falls into the apocalyptic group of prohpets, so yes he was ushering in the kingdon of G'd and YES that would have had political consequences.

The fact that so many of the negative reviews of this book focus upon the fact that the author is Muslim do seem to reflect a sort of "hate speech". To decry his work based soley upon his religion, which doesn't seem to at all influence his book here. He does NOT give the Muslim verson of Jesus' stury here, at all.

Again, the real issue for you seems to be that the facts do not line up with your understanding of the faith.

DM: Your attempt to brush my criticisms off is strangely empty. I do not question Aslan's assumption that the Sea of Galilee is made of salt water because of some deep-seated psychological need I feel that it be fresh, or that Paul's letters constitute the "bulk" of the NT because it would wound my spirit if that proved true, or the weakness of Aslan's "argument" that Jesus was illiterate because his arguments wound my faith. You call yourself an historian: I point out historical errors, so kindly cut the psychobabble and attend to the actual points.

Since you yourself substitute psychological "explanation" for why I find numerous errors in Aslan's book (none of which you have even deigned to notice), you lose standing for complaining when fundamentalists do the same with this book. I don't make much of Aslan's Islamic faith, personally, though I do think Aslan's portrait of Jesus as a violent revolutionary who would be king, makes him a lot more like Mohammed. But clearly, not even all ad hominem arguments are "hate speech." Just as well, since that's about all you offered in your last post.

Jesus didn't "fall into" any group of prophets: he was quite obviously his own man. (And if you don't think so, again, I am curious why you identify yourself as a Christian - why follow some random ancient Jewish zealot still, in 2013?) Aslan's attempts to find parallels are deconstructed in the reviews I cited, but if you take that self-identity seriously, I can hardly believe you find them very persuasive, yourself.

SanDa: Your denial of the mass apocolyptic movement in the first century isn't at all empty, it is instructive that you will deny anything that challenges what you want to believe. Paul is the oldest (closest to source) documents we have, yet from a man who never walked with Jesus and whom James, Peter and John said his teachings were unorthodox. Mark is the oldest gospel we have (oh LOL at the "critic" who tried to call the author to task saying "matthew came first"! Mattew comes first in the Bible, but no one with a stragith face anymore denies Mark is an older source), yet Mark leaves us many questions. What are you to make of the fact that Mark, Matthew and Luke are not consistent? Based upon historical records, what are you to make of how the Ponius Pilate of history is o the man in the man in the bible? Things that should make you open your mind, but in your case cause you to shut it closed 

DM: You need to read more carefully -- maybe that's your problem with this book. I didn't deny there were apocalyptic thinkers in the 1st Century, any more than there are in the 21st Century.

You're jumping to other conclusions that are unwarranted, as well. I have no problem with either of the two main theories about the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels -- though they shouldn't be confused with knowledge. Aslan's point about Pilate is weak, at best. It is not generally legitimate to throw out historical reports that a figure did X, because other reports said at some other time he tended to do Y. That's not how good history works, and would wreak havoc with all historical records.

But again, I am wondering how you as a self-described "historian" and "Christian" can be so enthusiastic about this book, which contains so much bad history, and the conclusions of which would seem impossible to reconcile with Christianity.

Sanda: I indulged your passive agressive ranting so far because it was a fine method for you to highlight your issues more clearly, and you have a ton of them. I"ve also let your numerous jabs and insults slide, "turn the other cheek" and all. But by now I think it shoud be pretty clear to all. Of course, it remains a free country and you will ramble on I am sure, but I really have no more use for you. Good day

DM: I think the expression you're groping for is "dish it out, but can't take it."

You begin by identifying yourself as both a Christian and a "trained historian." You then overlook the numerous historical errors in this book, or poo-poo them, as well as the fundamental incompatibility of Aslan's thesis with Christianity. You accuse persons unknown, for reasons unknown, of "hate speech," without backing up the statement in any way, except by suggesting (apparently, this is unclear) that anyone who makes ad hominem arguments against the author, rather than rebutting his historical arguments, must thereby be guilty of "hate speech."

I respond politely, with questions, and by pointing to some of Aslan's grosser errors. (And referring you to reviews, including by me, that describe many more.) But instead of rebutting the historical problems I point to in this book OR admitting them, you simply slur my character! (And misrepresent my arguments, to the extent you pay them any heed, at all.)

Passive-aggressive, indeed. Seeing that you both begin and end with very serious and unsubstantiated accusations, and then complain about my alleged "jabs and insults" (which are really mostly just questions), perhaps the correct term would be "hypocrite."

Well, maybe I was a bit harsh.  But where did SanDa engage my actual historical complaints?  Where did he at least try to reconcile Aslan's book, or his recommendation of it, with the Christian theology he claims to espouse?   Where did he represent my actual arguments accurately before denouncing them, not me? 

I don't take it too personally -- if only the problem were that simple.  What is troubling about the Amazon debate over Zealot, is not just the zealotry the book seems to inspire on both sides, but the almost total disinterest in historical facts one finds on that site.  The discussion reminds me very much of the debate over ID. 


william francis brown said...

From the interchange it seems pretty clear that "Sanda" is being disingenuous about being both a Christian and a historian.

I am extremely grateful for folks like you, David, who take the time to take on the psychobabblers who are so determined to undermine our faith. So many immature or new Christians are gullible enough to believe the Dan Brown's and Aslan's. It's a fight and we all must do our part.

--Wm. Brown
Forest, Virginia

David B Marshall said...

William: Thanks for your kind words. It is sad to read all the naïve 5 star reviews of Aslan's book.

My guess is, Sanda probably has some training in history, but probably not too much. I'd better not comment on his purported Christianity: no doubt there is some sort of story, there.