OK, I admit it, I've been a pest. Reza Aslan's book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth rubbed me the wrong way.
I've rebutted skeptical books on Jesus before, on Amazon, and in two books. As "Jesus spin" goes, Aslan's book is no more crackpot than your typical Jesus Seminar screed, and certainly not as silly as your typical Doherty or Freke / Gandry production. Yet not only have I posted twice on that book here, I've also taken to waylaying misguided reviewers on Amazon and correcting their "errors." (Most liberals who cut Aslan way too much slack, but also a few conservatives who didn't bother reading the darn book before reviewing it. I've also run into a few odd characters, who actually appreciated the input, and appeared to want to think through the issues!)
So what is it that bothers me about Aslan's book?
Two things, I think.
One, perhaps, professional jealousy, or maybe something a little more respectable than that. Yes, I do think my books are more interesting, because they uncover more of reality. (And given that we both claim to be aiming for historical truth, that goal sets the standard of comparison.) But also, why do so many reviewers talk about Aslan as if he had invented serious historical investigation of Jesus? This is laughable. He borrows much from the likes of John Crossan, John Meier, and Richard Horsley. His bibliography is one-sided, and not much more than a tithe of a typical bibliography in a thick NT Wright volume. As for quality, Aslan is a dilettante, yet is treated by so many readers as the summit of scholarship.
Fame, you are a fickle and wanton lass.
But something much deeper is bothering me, as well.
It's not that Aslan is giving a traditional Muslim interpretation of Jesus. He doesn't cite the Gospel of Barnabas, where Jesus begs to tie Mohammed's shoelaces. He doesn't say that Jesus didn't really die on the cross, nor does he confuse Mary with the Holy Spirit.
But he does something more clever, and insidious, and it bothers me that so many "liberal" readers are letting him get away with it.
Aslan is throwing mud on Jesus, and simultaneously whitewashing Mohammed, so as to bring both men into the orbit of Islamic orthodoxy. He is, in his own way, offering a far more sophisticated Islamic interpretation of Jesus, which is in that sense narrow-minded, triumphalist, and imperialistic, yet not only makes a mint off the scam, but is praised for tolerance, careful scholarship, and open-mindedness, into the bargain.
And that does offend my love of justice.
I flitted over to Aslan's book on Islam, No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and future of Islam. While liberals were swallowing Aslan's portrait of Jesus as a violent revolutionary wholesale, they also seem eager to echo his apparent portrait of a kinder and gentler Mohammed.
Let me quote a couple comments on that site from more "moderate" or "reasonable" visitors. Someone calling himself A Thomas Jefferson, wrote:
"The prophet appears to have been a good and devout man, who had strong beliefs on how we should live our lives in the light of God and what HE requires of us. Basically, the Golden Rule. To love, respect and care for one another.
"However, much like Judaism and Christianity, men stepped in with their own interpretations and bastardized what was good in God's will and/or laws, all of which were influenced by their lust for power."
That set me off on a micro-tirade:
"This book portrays Mohammed as a 'good and just man?' The historians I've read say he raped, murdered en mass, started numerous wars of conquest, enslaved his victims, tortured, married a 9 year old (in his 50s), and stole his son-in-laws wife, among others. This 'good and just man' would be in prison for life in our day, and that's if he lived in a state without capital punishment."
The two gentlemen who responded seem intelligent, generally reasonable (I've seen the second post elsewhere), and well-read. But I was astounded at their rebuttals of this no doubt rather intemperate screed. No part of those rebuttals, to my surprise, involved denying a single one of the charges I had just brought against The Prophet!
A. Thomas Jefferson: "I've always believed you can only judge a man
in the context of the time in which he lived. The prophet lived in a
very violent, turbulent time. He was an honest, fair and compassionate
man by comparison. BTW, I think his son-in-laws wife means she is the
daughter of the prophet. I read no such thing. And there are still
cultures today that marry off their daughters at age 8 or 9."
Bachmann: "If all of the appalling conduct you describe were true,
would his behavior be worse than pedophile priests and their enabling
bishops? Or Christian ministers (Martin Luther, one of Protestantism
founders) who were grotesquely anti Semitic and misogynistic? Surely he
was at least as "good and just" as that hate monger Luther and his
crazy cohort, John Calvin. And was Mohammed more bellicose than Pope
Julius II? More hysterically superstitious than Salem Puritans? I think not.
"Christians have a hell of a lot to answer for before you can start pointing fingers at others. Shame on you."
Do you suppose Jefferson and Bachmann really believe these arguments? The scary thing is, how typical they are. But let us draw out their implications:
(a) "You can only judge a man in the context of the time in which he lived." So how should we judge Jim Jones? He lived in the terrible 20th Century, when many of the history's cruelest tyrants committed horrific genocides, bloody wars raged around the world, totalitarian regimes crushed human dignity and destroyed great art, and the world was almost destroyed in a nuclear holocaust.
Clearly, Jim Jones was not to blame for his crimes! He was unduly influenced by New Age flakes and Marxist savages.
And what about those pedophile priests Bachmann mentions? Many were probably abused as children. They grew up in a sex-crazed era, and were forced to hide their strange loves to enter into their chosen vocations.
By comparison to Hitler, Jim Jones was pretty even-tempered.
(b) The word "judge" here must be defined. I am not a literal judge, with Mohammed standing before me in a court with a gavel on my desk, capable of sending him on a whim to a tiger or a lady. I am an Amazon reader, considering what a reviewer says about a book about a man who has been dead 1400 years, but whose influence continues to grow. Is it not the duty of a historically-informed person, and of any responsible person in our day, to "judge" the character of so important a religious leader in that sense?
(c) Mohammed invited his enemies to a free conference, then betrayed them and had them murdered. He made up thread-bare "revelations" from God, obviously to justify his own sexual and financial desires. Some Meccans concluded that he was a liar. On what grounds should we dispute their assessment? Does Mr. Jefferson possess independent knowledge that Mohammed's claimed meetings with angels and ascent to heaven actually occurred? Or is he implicitly accusing Mohammed's neighbors of being worse liars, so that we cannot "judge" these relatively petty offenses against truth? On what grounds?
(d) Starting numerous wars, murdering 700 unarmed men, raping, marrying a child, etc, do not only fail to meet the 21st Century definition of "compassion," they would not have impressed Jesus in the 1st Century ("by their fruits you will know them"), St. Paul ("love is patient, love is kind") or Confucius or Mo Zi or Isaiah in previous centuries.
(e) Yes, there ARE still cultures that marry daughters at 8 or 9 -- thanks mostly to Mohammed's poor example.
(f) Bachmann's criticism is even more odder. First of all, how is "mongering" hatred, as Martin Luther certainly did in his infamous anti-Semitic letter, worse than actually attacking and killing your neighbors? Not to mention Mohammed's other crimes, few of which Luther can be credibly accused.
(g) But who said I defend that letter? In fact, elsewhere on this site I describe it as "deeply embarrassing for Christians."
(h) More oddly still, what is Lawrence saying about pedophile priests? Is he claiming that I have ever defended them? Honestly, if he supplies the stake and wood, I'll be happy to supply the match.
(i) But by Bachmann's argument, he cannot criticize those pedophile priests, since he is defending a pedophile prophet. Does he really wish to make this argument -- and disarm every morally aware person on the planet, who abhor priests who abuse children?
I suspect Mr. Bachmann has simply not considered the implications of his argument.
(j) John Calvin was not "crazy." Nor do I claim Mohammed was, either. Calvin was in some ways far too harsh in his thinking. He was also a brilliantly lucid writer, whose insights may or may not balance his oversights. But a biographer should indeed take note of his bellicosity -- that, indeed, is the duty of an honest biographer.
(k) Is Bachmann's final point that as a reader, human being, and incidentally an historian, I have no right to criticize non-Christian tyrants and murderers, because some Christians have done bad things, as well? If that is the case, let's just put history quickly out of its misery. Because if that is so, then atheists can't critize crazy religious people, and religious people can't criticize crazy atheists, and everyone needs to keep his hand firmly over his mouth all of the time.
I must be missing something. Surely liberals don't want to end critical history. In fact, Mr. Bachmann us itching to go after Catholic priests, bishops and popes, Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans in Massachusetts. (Who did not make a pile of money by burning witches, as Mohammed did by conquering his neighbors, however.) And he's welcome to have at them. If Christians have flaws, as clearly we did, it is important that we face them honestly.
And surely liberals don't want us to back off on pedophiles in the church? Or to make excuses for their opponents, because they were also raised in environments that may have influenced them to do things liberals don't like? Maybe Richard Nixon had excuses for his paranoia. Maybe George W. Bush should also be forgiven for overthrowing that dictator with the brush under his chin -- growing up in a Republican household must have been traumatic.
Historical honesty is, I think, the best policy.
The same issue came up with communism. We had a phenomena that some called "anti-anti-Communism," with these same lines spoken in a 70-year-long dress rehearsal. I still have a clipping in my files of a Presbyterian pastor writing in the New York Times, claiming that American Christians are really just as bad as the communists, and we had no right to criticize them.
Forget about the millions of Christians (and non-Christians) in the Gulag.
The stakes when it comes to the "Mohammed wars" are also high. Historical Jewish communities in the Middle East have already been driven out. Mohammed himself started this processing, by driving out or massacring the Jewish tribes of Medina.
Now Christians are disappearing. Churches are burning in Pakistan. Mobs are assaulting Christians in Egypt. Rebels are murdering Christians in Syria. (I have to disagree with John McCain on this one -- much as I hate to see Iran win, Christians will pretty much be wiped out in Syria if the rebels come out on top.)
One reason we get along with dogs, I suspect, is that it is also human nature to "suck up" to Alpha males. But in an effort to make peace with a threatening civilization, we shall again throw our weak allies in those civilizations "under the bus," as they say.
Mohammed, like Marx, was a cruel man, and his cruelty set a pattern for those who followed. If speaking that truth honestly means we must also look clearly at the misstatements of Martin Luther, or the crimes of certain priests, so much the better. Whatever else is right, it is not right to sweep enormous crimes under Reza Aslan's Persian rug.