writer Jennifer Danielle Crumpton
A Helluva Zealot: Reza Aslan Doesn’t Just Bury Fox News, He Resurrects the Young, Progressive Christian Imagination
Are the spiritual-but-not-religious X and Millennial generations ready for a real “come to Jesus” moment? Read Aslan’s Zealot.
Transformative epiphanies circle the globe in a stream of light and all humanity bears witness, documented for eternity in the great book. Visions and pronouncements spiral in split seconds to the four corners on the wings of a great screaming bird. Ethereal voices hover above material reality in a pulsing cloud mind that shimmers with both the flash of battle swords and the crystalline idealism of a heavenly unity.
But I’m not quoting post-Exilic Jewish apocalyptic literature from the books of Daniel or Revelation, I’m talking about us, now.
Today we casually debate and create modern meaning with a new technology alphabet, but is our generation also poised to create a new language for seeking God, and for understanding and practicing the Christian faith? Dorky prophetic language about tech advances aside, the answer is yes.
And what FOX News does not realize is that it is going to be radically inclusive, activism-oriented, multicultural, gender-neutral, intellectually open-minded, spiritually open-hearted, and even inter-religious. Young people of different religious backgrounds are increasingly joining together not only to raise awareness of social issues and create change, but also to support one another along our faith paths, whether through sharing our stories or exploring the big questions together. It is, for example, Muslim author Reza Aslan who has recently articulated a story I had long pined for — one that had haunted me equally as an evangelical Christian child as in my years of progressive seminary studies — in his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Aslan, a Harvard-trained scholar of religious history who is fluent in biblical Greek and holds a degree in the New Testament, brings together the similarities and differences between the Jesus of the Gospels and the man of the historical records. Not the first to put Jesus in his context of the violently oppressive, apocalypse-obsessed, messiah-ridden, crucifix-crammed Roman occupation of first-century Palestine, Aslan’s fresh presentation is a story that resists theologizing or modernizing Jesus for the reader and offers a vision that his followers can make their own.
He also goes further to plainly explain the often unrecognized Hellenization of the poor, illiterate, marginalized Jewish day laborer and the later stories passed on about him not just after his crucifixion around 30-33 CE, but also after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. Aslan reveals the Roman-Philosophized process by which he became an otherworldly perfectionist dualized from body to soul, but instead of arguing historical points with convoluted academic jargon, Alsan uses thousands of sources to get into the minds and motivations of the characters involved. The result is that it reads like a novel accessible to people outside academia and the theologians’ bubble, a series of actions and consequences that we can relate to today.
It took just under three days for Aslan’s Jesus to raise my hopes for the future of Christianity from the… well, you know. I began to feel a presence I recognized. I flew through his compelling narrative faster than Ezekiel’s wheel traversed space and time. Like me, any faithful interrogator of the indoctrinated Jesus will indeed find the other story she suspected was there all along. And many in our generation have undoubtedly been holding out for the other story.
Especially when it comes to the doctrine of inerrancy and infallibility of a God-written Bible that perpetuates so much inequality and physical and spiritual violence toward women, gay people, immigrants, and different religions, among others — it’s hard for us to abide “God’s word.” So for young people of faith who can no longer stomach the Christianity that has been fed to them, Zealot is mandatory reading. It may not provide the answers various groups want to hear, but that’s exactly why it matters: we are reminded that Jesus’ life and death were not about generating eternal answers to the issues that Western (often white European, middle- and upper-class-dominated) religious sects 2,000 years ahead would stake their claims upon. For rising generations obsessed with unsullied knowledge and truth-seeking unscathed by the interpretations and enforcements of massive power structures, this holds immense value.
When we sat down to talk, I asked Aslan what a new practice and language of Christianity developed by our generations could look and sound like. He pointed to the Pew Research study that pronounced the “rise of the nones” — young adults and teens whose faith and spirituality is important to them, but (or maybe it should be “and therefore”) do not associate with any religious affiliation, including the spectrum of Christianity. Barna notes that 59 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds with Christian backgrounds have dropped out of church attendance after having once gone regularly, and half have been “significantly frustrated by their faith.” Aslan expounded:
There’s a refusal to be defined by or accept labels and doctrines. There’s hesitation to adhere to the institutional viewpoint, born from the way religion has been used for political and economic gain, just the same as Jesus rejected. All those things make people feel their faith has been devalued and bastardized. [Young people] want faith in practice, not about details of what you believe but what you actually do. They don’t want to sit in a church bogged down in doctrinal gymnastics; instead, they will get up and go to Haiti and build a house.
And that is what it looks like now to cultivate spirituality and follow Jesus: it’s all in the language of experience, motivation and outcome. The goal is love, cooperation, redemption.
Aslan had his own come-to-Jesus moment. When his family fled the Iranian revolution and settled in Northern California, they left religion behind. But at 15, an encounter with Christ became a profound passion for spreading the “good news,” and he even converted his mother, who is still an evangelical Christian today. But as happens for so many of us, when in college he began to closely study the Bible, he realized the “unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant” was “patently and irrefutably false.” And like many of us, he felt conflicted and confused.
He let the symbols and metaphors of evangelical Christianity go, but he never let Jesus go. Even after a Jesuit priest he studied with at Santa Clara University encouraged him to reclaim his Muslim heritage, he still only drew closer to Jesus’ essence and impact, eventually coming around again to passionately share him with the world. Today he is married to a Christian and his brother-in-law is an evangelical youth pastor. He has no interest in diminishing Jesus, but in more democratically bringing Jesus to life, as it were.
But can a Muslim man really help disenfranchised Christians find Jesus? Watch an outtake of my interview with Reza Aslan on faith and Gen X/Millennials:
Watch the full 14-minute interview here.After all, Jesus repeatedly asked people to follow him, not to worship him. The former is much more of a commitment, much more strenuous and meaningful. As Zealot reveals, the idea of a messiah was very different in his time. Jesus was not surrounded by angels, he was surrounded by the demons of his generation’s culture, and he fought like, well, a man of his meager means and a world-changing vision. Zealot dares us to really see Jesus, and dares us to walk in his footsteps.
And anyway, why obsess over ancient eschatology in a time when we can choose to hit the refresh icon and load a new page in the long history of crucial moments that allow the end to bring new beginnings? Maybe the concept of resurrection is something we can emulate in new, unexpected ways, so a seeking generation of followers can coax “kingdom-come” to the place we can effectively live our faith: the here and now.
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