Reza Aslan had an all-American religious experience after his family fled from Iran’s political-religious turmoil in 1979 and settled in California.
He got saved. He walked forward during an evangelical altar call during a Young Life religious youth camp and gave his heart to Jesus.
Jesus is the subject of Aslan’s newest book, “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” but the 42-year-old professor, media meister and author also of “No God but God: the Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” is not the evangelical youth he was. He ran those beliefs through the rigors of university study and found them wanting, though he hung onto, and still loves, Jesus. Even after reconverting to what had been his nominal childhood faith of Islam, Aslan is still zealous for Jesus the man, the teacher, the prophet.
“Zealot” explores the culture, context and times of Jesus and explains in sociological, historical and literary terms how the man became the man-God. And the book reflects in some ways Aslan’s journey from worshipper of the ethereal Christ to assayer of Jesus stripped of religious belief. The search for the historical Jesus certainly is not unplowed ground, but Aslan works best at the intersection of current culture and religion, boiling down thousands of pages and hundreds of years of others’ research into a compilation framed within a punchy narrative.
I spent 40 minutes on the phone recently talking with Aslan about his book and his life. His comments have been edited for length.
Q: Tell me about your conversion.
A: I have always been deeply fascinated by religion, partly due to my childhood experience in revolutionary Iran, and witnessed firsthand the power that religion has to transform a society for good and for bad, although I did not grow up in a religious family at all (his family were minimally involved or atheists).
But I never had any opportunity to do anything with that fascination … so when I got involved in Young Life (a Christian youth group), and I did it only because it was a fun thing my friends in high school did, it was the first time I was given an outlet for my spiritual yearnings. When I heard the Gospel story at camp and was given the opportunity to do the altar call, it was a profound experience for me. It was everything one says about conversion experiences. I truly did feel I had been forgiven, given another chance, let in on a secret that few people were aware of.
There is a reason the Gospel story is the greatest story ever told. The idea of a God coming down to earth and becoming a baby, and growing up and challenging authority and dying for our sins and rising from the dead, and that those who just believed in him would also have eternal life, it is just a very compelling message. So my conversion was real and emotional and deep and transformative and made me who I am today, even though only a few years later, I left this particular brand of Christianity.
Q: Tell me how you moved away from that.
A: As I began this process, I would confront people’s questions and doubts, and I would go to the Bible and look for the answer. And the more I did that, the more I realized that what I was being told from the pulpit was not so much incorrect but incomplete. I brought those questions and those doubts to my youth leaders, and I think it was their response that threw things off for me. It was to pray away my doubts or say my doubts were coming from a demonic force rather than to have to come up with an answer. That does not work for me. I’ve always been deeply inquisitive. And it was right around that time I went to college and began to take courses in religion and the New Testament.
(His conservative faith based in literal interpretation of the Bible eroded, and he began to understand religion in a more universal sense, that there is one God who speaks through many “symbols,” including those of Christianity. He later converted to Islam.)
It was a long, slow process that then accelerated at light speed.
Q: Are you more or less of a Jesus fan after that experience?
A: I say this all the time, I feel like I am more of a devoted follower of the historical Jesus than I ever was of Jesus the Christ at the height of my evangelicalism. People don’t know what to make of that, and it goes to the topic of my (upcoming) speech in Atlanta, “The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.” And the fact that these are not the same things. They are different things. And that alone I think is something that tends to fry brains a little bit. They are two different things. They have a lot in common but are not the same.
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