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Facts, Myths and Gospel: Mikey Weinstein and Author Reza Aslan Discuss “Zealot”

Dr. Reza Aslan is interviewed about his new book which looks at the ways Jesus Christ’s image has been abused by the Christian Right.

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“And so, organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation become enormously significant, become hugely important in trying to dial back, not from a position of attack, but from a position of respect; to dial back the kind of religious extremism that fosters the violence, the instability, the iniquity of the world in which we live.” – Reza Aslan, MRFF Advisory Board Member

Within the too-often thinly populated landscape of American intellectualism and theological historiography, one extraordinarily talented author and great personal friend towers prodigiously above the rest: Dr. Reza Aslan. I’m also immensely proud to call Dr. Aslan a loyal and devoted comrade-in-arms who has fought alongside the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) as a crucial and active Advisory Board member of the Foundation for many years, through many battles to preserve the Constitutional separation of church and state in the United States armed forces. When he started with MRFF, we had a few hundred clients. We now have well over 34,000. And 96% of them are practicing, passionate and believing Christians. Five years ago, Reza and I broke the scandalous news that the Department of Defense, in close collaboration with private evangelical fundamentalist organizations, was sending so-called “freedom packages” to U.S. military personnel in Iraq. What did the packages contain? As we wrote in our joint article for the Los Angeles Times:

Not body armor or home-baked cookies. Rather, they held Bibles, proselytizing material in English and Arabic and the apocalyptic computer game “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” (derived from the series of post-Rapture novels), in which “soldiers for Christ” hunt down enemies who look suspiciously like U.N. peacekeepers.

The packages were put together by a fundamentalist Christian ministry called Operation Straight Up, or OSU… OSU is an official member of the Defense Department’s “America Supports You” program. The group has staged a number of Christian-themed shows at military bases, featuring athletes, strongmen and actor-turned-evangelist Stephen Baldwin. But thanks in part to the support of the Pentagon, Operation Straight Up has now begun focusing on Iraq, where, according to its website (on pages taken down last week), it planned an entertainment tour called the “Military Crusade.”

Apparently the wonks at the Pentagon forgot that Muslims tend to bristle at the word “crusade” and thought that what the Iraq war lacked was a dose of end-times theology.

Reza understands exceptionally well the terrible dangers posed by the faux-Christian evangelical fundamentalist bigots and supremacists who seek to effect a theocratic coup within the United States of America. These “dominionist” religious predators aim to take possession of our republic’s key strategic asset: our military, which constitutes the deadliest armed apparatus ever devised in the history of humankind. The mentality of the fundamentalist Christian extremist “American Taliban” absolutely mirrors that of the Islamic fundamentalist, Salafi-Jihadist Al Qaeda. To understand and fully grasp the truly fanatical commitment of the evangelical Dominionist fundamentalists to this “Crusade,” I heartily recommend Reza’s 2009 book How to Win a Cosmic War (paperback title: Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age).

Reza’s latest amazing literary work is just now out and available. Titled Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth, it explodes the mythology of Jesus Christ that has been constructed by the latter-day imperial persecutors and would-be Pontius Pilates of our era. This stunning book reveals truths about Jesus Christ the man, not the cartoon character, and evaluates him within his proper historical context as a tenacious Jewish revolutionary fighting against the myriad complexities, iniquities, and brutal injustices of Roman-occupied Palestine. The below Question and Answer dialogue/interview between Reza and myself, based around a series of questions from MRFF servicemember clients stationed all over the world, will provide an enticing glimpse into the riveting subject matter of Dr. Reza Aslan’s invaluable new title.

Mikey Weinstein: Well, Reza, you’ve always been one of my heroes. We met each other a number of years ago; I think it was on the set of a shoot for Chris Mathews’ “Hardball” and you helped connect me into the world of speech writing and giving speeches and eventually led to my first book which you were so kind to “blurb.” You were one of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s first advisory board members. You’ve been through thick and thin with us, running through hell in a gasoline suit. This time with your incredible new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” you are really in dangerous territory. I mean, you’ve pushed the envelope before with some of your other wonderful books. But this one…frankly, you’re daring to tell the truth which is always a dangerous thing to do and you know, with our Foundation, when we started, when you first came on board, we could count the number of our clients in hundreds. Well, now, we have over 34,000 [clients, and] staff, full time and volunteers of 150. Our folks are all over the world, so we have a big audience for this. In the short time I had to prepare for the interview, I reached out to a number of them, asking if they had any suggestions for questions regarding the new book. So, our audience here is particularly, you know us well, you’re one of our earliest advisory board members. So could you talk a little bit about two things that I’m getting a lot of support from to ask you from our sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen, cadets and midshipmen. What caused you to want to write the book and can you tell us a little bit about the book?

Reza Aslan: Let me start with what caused me to write it. When I was 15 years old, I heard the Gospel message for the very first time and it had a profound effect on me. I immediately converted to Evangelical Christianity and began traveling the country missionizing, preaching the gospel as I had heard it. And then when I went to college and began studying the New Testament from an academic perspective, I discovered this great chasm between the Jesus of history, this illiterate Jewish peasant who walked the hills of Galilee 2000 years ago, who took on the greatest empire the world had ever known on behalf of the poor and the weak, the dispossessed and the outcast and who was ultimately arrested, tortured and executed as a criminal of the state…that person became so much more real and interesting to me than the, sort of, celestial spirit that I had been taught about in church and ironically, I abandoned the Christian faith that I had been taught., When I was a teenager, I became an even more devout follower of the historical Jesus and what I wanted to do with this book was to preach the gospel of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I used to preach the gospel of Jesus the Christ.

Mikey Weinstein: Well, that is, as I said before, always dangerous territory to talk about the truth and no one can do it better than you can. You have the ability to write so beautifully where you don’t talk down to people; you don’t appear to be pejorative or pedantic. I’m sure if I take you back about 5 and a half years ago, you remember a very raucous day when you and former ambassador, Joe Wilson and I, went to my alma mater, the Air Force Academy, to try to bring truth there with regard to religious respect and tolerance. I think you were the first to speak and you greatly admonished an audience that I felt was quite rude with regard to a subject that is extremely controversial. When I reached out to a fairly senior member of the U.S. military who supports this but is…I would describe him as an Evangelical Christian and not a Fundamentalist, meaning that the spreading of the gospel from his perspective must always be done in a time, place and manner that comports with our laws and our Constitution. He was concerned that you were trying to take away all of the magic…you were trying de-deify Christ. On one hand, I talked to another senior officer who’s an avowed Atheist, saying “well, even if Mr. Aslan talks about the historical Christ, there is such a small amount of extra biblical references or authorities with regard to the existence of Jesus. How does he handle that dichotomy and you realize, of course, that in speaking to our audience, and you’ve been with us much longer than many of our clients have been, we’re dealing with Dominion or Fundamentalist Christianity, which is very literalist at its base.

Reza Aslan: Well, let me respond to the Evangelical Christian first. I want to be clear: this book is not an attack on Christianity. My mother is a Christian, my wife is a Christian, [and] my brother-in-law is an Evangelical pastor. I have no interest in bashing Christianity in the slightest. In fact, to be perfectly frank, this book is not even about Christianity; it’s about Judaism, because Jesus was a Jew. But even if you believe that Jesus was God incarnate, God-made flesh, you still believe that Jesus was also a man. That’s the core of orthodox Christianity; that he was fully God and fully man. Well, if you believe that, then as a man, Jesus lived in a specific time and place. He confronted a specific set of social ills and his teaching, his work, his actions, must be understood in the context of that world in which he lived. So if you truly call yourself a follower of Jesus, then shouldn’t you know something about the world in which the man that you follow, lived in? Because that world, it turns out, was enormously influential in shaping who he was and the teaching that he espoused. To answer the atheist, if it’s true, outside of the New Testament, there is very little trace of the historical Jesus. Essentially we are relying upon a throw-away line in a first century Jewish historian’s work called the Antiquity. The historian who was named Flavius Josephus, who, while talking about far more significant historical figures, the Roman governor Albinus and the Jewish high priest Ananias, mentions how this Jewish peasant by the name of James, whose brother was Jesus, the one they call messiah, was unjustly put to death by the high priest in the year 62 CE. That’s it. That little tiny phrase, that clause, James, the brother of Jesus, the one they call messiah…the only evidence that we have outside of the gospel that Jesus actually existed. My argument is that it’s enough because if all we know about Jesus is that he was a Jew who lived in first century Palestine, that he started a Jewish movement, the purpose of which was to establish the kingdom of god on earth, and that as a result of that movement, he was arrested, tortured and executed by Rome as a state criminal. This is what I would say the vast consensus of scholars would agree upon…those three things. If that’s all we know about this person, the argument of the book is that it’s enough. That is, you take those three things and label that person’s friend, call him Joe, you don’t have to call him Jesus, and put that person in first century Palestine, you would know everything you need to know about who this person was and what his life meant because while we know almost nothing about Jesus, we know almost everything about the world in which he lived. So all you have to do is look at that world to take the claims of the gospel about Jesus and to analyze them according to the world in which he lived to find out who this person really was.

Mikey Weinstein: Reza, do you have any personal concerns; you know, at some of the interviews you’ve seen…I won’t say the names of some of the people I’ve seen already interview you for this spectacular book on TV, who want to nail you down initially with regard to what do you believe and are you trying to say that this stuff is, I think one commentator used the term “fiction”, you came back saying “no, there’s a difference between fiction and mythology”. Is that parsing too closely or could you tell our military audience what you mean by that particular dichotomy.

Reza Aslan: How we define history, in the modern world, as a collection of observable and verifiable facts, is wholly a product of the modern age. That definition of history is a couple of hundred years old. It would make no sense at all to the gospel writers or frankly to the ancient mind, for whom history was not about uncovering facts but about revealing truths. This is, admittedly, a very difficult concept for modern people, not just Christians, but just modern people to understand that what they call history didn’t exist 300 years ago and so when I question some of the “historical claims of the gospel,” I think that people think that what I’m saying is that this is a lie. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is the gospel writers understood that what they were writing was not factually correct. They wouldn’t even know what we talk about when we say factually incorrect. They were interested in writing mythologies about Jesus, the purpose of which was to reveal the truth of who he was, not the facts of what he did. Again, I recognize how hard it is for the modern mind to wrap its head around this complex idea but it is the foundation for understanding how to read the Scriptures.

Mikey Weinstein: I think that is incredibly profound. A question from a senior enlisted Marine with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan was that he is dealing with what he views as a Fundamentalist Christian or Dominionist Christian company commander. He asks, “If I give this book as a gift to my commander, trying to get him to understand that he is currently in violation of his oath to the Constitution, how do you think he’ll respond?” He wanted me to ask that of you and I said, “Well, I think I can probably answer that but I will go ahead and ask that to my good friend, Reza and so, back to you Reza.”

Reza Aslan: Look, there are going to be some Christians who, because they believe that Jesus is God, also believe that the context of the world in which he lived is irrelevant. In other words, if Jesus is God, then who cares the time and place in which he lived? Who cares about the social milieu out of which he arose. His words are eternal, his actions are eternal and frankly there’s very little that you can say to someone who believes that, though I will say that it’s actually in contradiction to traditional Christian orthodoxy which believes that Jesus was not just God but also a man. And I think that a lot of Christians who believe that, forget the second part, that the ‘Jesus is God’ part tends to subsume the ‘Jesus is man’ part.

Mikey Weinstein: Of course, the concept that…you’ve seen this phrase before, there are many bumper stickers, they’ve been on billboards, “The bible says that I believe it and that ends it.” That the concept of literalism is just impossible to try to fight; it’s very difficult…

Reza Aslan: By the way, let me just say something about that for a second if I may. I know that there are many, many Christians out there who call themselves literalists; they’re lying. There is no such thing as a biblical literalist. Those people who claim that they believe every word of the bible is literal and don’t actually believe that. I’ll give you a perfect example of this. I mentioned in a discussion with a Christian who believes that Jesus was an inveterate pacifist that Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew that “I have not come to bring peace on earth but the sword.” His response to me was “Oh, Jesus means the metaphorical sword. The figurative sword.” Do you see what I mean, Mikey?

Mikey Weinstein: Yes, yes I do. If we look at Luke 19:27, the Parable of the Pounds, Jesus is telling a parable about a king who basically says “go out among my people and bring back before me, all those that will not bow to me and accept me as their king and slaughter them.” There are many folks in Christianity, in the fringes that we fight in the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, that believe that Jesus is speaking about himself. The problem is that you back to parsing words again. I know we have limited time which is why I think this book is just so fetching and so fantastic. I have a question from a flag officer, meaning an admiral or a general, wanting to thank you for your long association with the Foundation and ask you why you’ve stuck with this for so long.

Reza Aslan: Well, look, even though I spend a lot of my time talking about historical issues, the rise of religions, origins of religious experience, prophetic figures who lived thousands of years ago, I understand that these theories that I espouse are lived in the real world. That they have serious consequences to the world in which we live and, for those of us who want to live in a world of pluralism, and tolerance and respect; a world in which violence and extremism in the name of religion is overcome by those who espouse a moderate pluralistic vision of their religious faith, we have to be engrossed in the, as Jesus put it, the things of this world and, for me, we are at a time, right now, of course, where religion and militarism on all sides of the aisle, whether you’re a Jew in Israel or a Christian in the United States or a Muslim in Afghanistan have become perhaps the greatest threat to the safety and security of the world. And so, organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation become enormously significant, become hugely important in trying to dial back, not from a position of attack, but from a position of respect; to dial back the kind of religious extremism that fosters the violence, the instability, the iniquity of the world in which we live.

Mikey Weinstein: Well, that is great, Reza, I very much appreciate the homage to our folks that are fighting to secure our ability to have a discussion like this and to be able to have the peace of mind to know that we can live in a wonderful nation where we can look at different views and look at the truth itself, and so obviously our foundation is going to be pushing “Zealot” as much as we can and we wish you all the best; I know you’re on a book tour that’s probably got a breakneck speed. We have probably another one of these well over 400 cities in 40 minutes. We wish you the best and we are so honored that you’ve been with us for so long and supported us and we’ll look forward to seeing the movie in a couple of years.

Reza Aslan: Awesome…I can’t wait.

Mikey Weinstein: All right, brother, thank you very much. Be well!

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