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The Missed Opportunity of the Aslan/Green Moment

She is tall, pretty, and gifted. She knows her stuff, has had her struggles. She’s an African-American woman in a largely white male industry. She reports on faith in a news cycle dominated by the pressing and the hard-edged. She’s also smart. She’s a skilled musician, holds a graduate degree in journalism and she knows how to handle an interview—when to laugh and when to close in for the kill.

He is young, handsome, and accomplished. He is also a man of broader learning and experience than most. He was a Christian before he became a Muslim. He earned a degree in divinity at Harvard before he made writing his field and then completed a doctorate in sociology. He teaches writing but sits on the Council on Foreign Relations, writes books about the New Testament but advises U.S. leaders about the nature of jihad. His wife is a Christian; his brother-in-law is an evangelical pastor. He has a boyish smile and an irritatingly piercing intellect. He was born in Iran.

She’s eager to transcend the third tier of cable news. He’s prickly and addicted to the adoring look in the graduate student’s eyes. She’s from an African Methodist Episcopal background and is suspicious of smug scholars who make careers out of chiseling away at her faith. He’s saying nothing that hasn’t circulated in theological seminaries for a hundred years and yet the phrase “avant-garde thinker” dances seductively in his head.

And the interview begins. He has written a book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a light reworking of the higher criticism that has informed biblical studies at the university level since Abraham Lincoln went to Washington. There are some well-placed controversies. Jesus was a warmonger, he claims. And Jesus was crucified. Muslims don’t believe this. Some theologically liberal Christians don’t believe this. It might have been worth exploring.

But, no. Her first question had to do with why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus. Perhaps asked this for the sake of her audience. She surely knew that Muslims believe Jesus Christ existed, that he was born to a virgin, that he was a prophet and that he did miracles.
Perhaps she intended the question as a fat pitch to a first-time guest. Or, she may have intended it as the first blow in an online Ultimate Fighting event. Either way, it didn’t work.

He could have saved the moment, though: could have leaned into his teaching gift and helped a Fox News audience understand a Muslim’s interest in Jesus. He didn’t seem to have it in him. Within five minutes viewers had heard him give his resume three times. He just wasn’t willing to be bitch-slapped by a Fox-Babe who doubted his brilliance and assumed his duplicity.

It never got better. She asked him why he conceals his Muslim faith. He doesn’t. She read aloud the words of his critics having never meaningfully probed the words of his book. He was high pitched and thin-skinned and dared to assure, “I’m actually a fairly prominent Muslim…and well-respected religious scholar.”

It was among the worst ten minutes in the history of televised religious dialogue. It failed Fox News. It failed scholarship. It failed every faith in play at the moment.

Much was lost. As a Christian, Ms. Green might have noticed that her theologically liberal, Muslim guest unswervingly affirmed that Jesus Christ existed, caused trouble in the Israel of first century Rome and was crucified just as Christians have long declared. The man even called Christianity “the greatest religion in the world.” This in an age when a “New Atheist” movement led by men like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins suggests that Jesus Christ never existed and that the entire Christian story is a malicious myth. There was something worthy of gracious discussion here.

As a learned man, Dr. Reza Aslan might have summoned his nobler self, ignored the barbs and offered more than a list of his accomplishments. How had he—a member of a faith that denied Jesus was crucified—become convinced otherwise? Had he suffered opposition for his views from fellow Muslims? From Christians? And on what basis did he make the astonishing claim that Jesus Christ was a “warmonger?” How fascinating a discussion this might have been!

But, no.

And we should know that this embarrassment stems from a greater embarrassment still. We are a nation in which a student can progress from kindergarten to doctoral studies having never passed through even a brief survey of the world’s great religions, glimpsing the major faiths only from afar in history classes where teachers are urged to treat religion with embarrassed brevity, if at all.

It is why thugs in New York accosted Sikhs a few days after September 11, 2001, thinking them the followers of Osama bin Laden. It is why synagogues were forced to replace rock-shattered windows and a Hindu temple was vandalized during that same time–-Jews and Hindus being indistinguishable from Muslims to the patriotically enraged and religiously uninformed.

It must change. The world is too dangerous a place and religion is too much a defining force for the stupidity that tainted the otherwise noble days after 9/11—or the blundering and pride that made an international scandal of a simple interview about religion—to continue.

One Duty of a Man

I have a great deal to say about men in the modern world. I intend to say it all very soon, but I was hoping to hold off until my new website is up and perhaps until my next book—which is about men—hits the stands. I’ve been looking forward to both of those opportunities to sound a trumpet call to men.

However, there is one topic I can wait no longer to address. It is an odd topic for me, but it is a topic—a cause, really—for which I feel a great deal of fire. Forgive me if I scorch your computer screen here for a moment.

I have attended an unusually high number of funerals in my life. There are many reasons for this: my many friends in the military, my years as a pastor, and even the fact that my friends tend to be daredevils and idiots. Every death brings its grief and torture. The most devastating deaths I’ve experienced, though, have been the deaths of men who have unnecessarily left their survivors destitute. Usually this happened because the man failed to secure life insurance.

I’ve seen this tragedy many times in my life, but particularly recently. In the last year or so, I’ve watched the widow of a high-ranking military officer suddenly discover that she was going to be almost penniless after she paid her husband’s funeral expenses. I’ve seen a loving, grieving wife with half a dozen children—all bright and college bound—realize that her children’s dreams would have to bow to the financial devastation left by her husband’s death. I’ve watched more than a few funerals get clumsily reworked into fundraisers for a grief-stricken and soon to be impoverished family of survivors.

These things ought not be! Among the responsibilities of a man—a true and virtuous man—is that he takes care of those God entrusts to him. This means more than simply providing shelter and physical safety, food and the other basic needs of life. It means, among much else, that a man makes certain his family can live comfortably after his death.

I understand that not every man can save vast sums or secure large insurance policies. Most men, though, can make sure their funeral expenses are covered and that their heirs have at least a few years of financial security and support—years that will allow their families the time to retool and realign for the income they’ll need in the decades that follow. The kind of life insurance that would make this possible will cost a few hundred dollars a year. It is less than the cable bill for most families. It is less than what most men spend eating out twice a month for year. Most men could absorb this cost and hardly notice.

Men, love your families and your God enough to tend the field assigned to you. Provide as abundantly as you can for your families while you live. Make sure this abundance continues—as well as you can—after you die. Don’t allow your lack of planning to be a devastating surprise that comes just after an equally devastating tidal wave of grief washes over your family.

And, for heaven’s sake, let’s start talking to each other about these things. Husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, minsters and employers should refuse to let this topic remain the Great Unspoken Secret it often is. We should talk about these things and talk about them often, setting an example that prepares the next generation to make wise decisions of their own.

To not make such plans is not just foolish. It is sin. It is a form of disregard. It is abandonment.

To make wise plans of this kind is righteous and loving and absolutely essential in our day.

Get it done. Now.

The Inner American Revolution

For 237 years Americans have celebrated the Fourth of July as the birth date of our nation. It marks for us a beginning, a sort of national commencement—of the revolution, of our nation, and of our determined march to freedom.

Yet if we consider this important day through the eyes of our Founding Fathers, we find that the Fourth of July marked for them not so much a beginning as an end to a long and painful process, a troubled time some have called the First American Revolution—the one in the minds and hearts of men.

We must remember that the famous Lexington and Concord engagements, as well as the storied ride of Paul Revere popularized in the Longfellow poem, took place in April of 1775. But it was not until July of 1776, some fifteen months later, that Congress formally endorsed the Declaration of Independence. What took our Founding Fathers so long? What was the struggle that took nearly a year and a half to resolve?

The men who would ultimately sign the Declaration of Independence were not men for whom the idea of revolution came easily. A conservative lot who held dear their Christian faith, their English heritage, and the unique colonial society they had cultivated at great cost in the wilderness, these men were not the wild-eyed malcontents we think of as revolutionaries today. Instead, the Founding Fathers were men of strong principle who could not back down when their ideals and lifestyles were threatened by English aggression. When a war they did not want was forced upon them, when their values, their property—indeed, their very lives—were at stake, peace on British terms was never an option, and here we find one of the most misunderstood truths of our national origins.

The American Revolution was fought, unlike most modern revolutions, to preserve a social order rather than to overthrow one. What we have called a revolution was in reality a colonial rebellion against a power seeking to destroy a largely Christian and traditional way of life. As management genius Peter Drucker once wrote, the American Revolution was a “conservative counter-revolution,” fought not by power hungry radicals trying to overthrow an established government but by loyal citizens against grasping tyrannical rule.

The truth now so often forgotten is that it was England who first declared war on the American colonies. Attempting to consolidate her gains following the French and Indian War, late in 1775 the British Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act, which broke off relations with the colonists and declared them a “foreign enemy.” John Adams wrote in response that the Act “makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties.” England forced the colonies out from under Royal Protection and declared itself the colonists’ adversaries. This belligerence stunned the colonial leaders and they sought every means available to prevent separation. Even after Lexington and Concord, they hoped against hope that England would turn from her harsh course. It was not to be.

Finally, with every possible remedy exhausted, the colonial leaders pleaded their case in a Declaration before the nations of the world, claiming America’s rights according to God’s law and the law of reason. These United States, they said, “are and of a right ought to be,” free and independent.

The Founding Fathers were not radicals seeking power; they were family men, business men, ministers and, for the most part, Christians, who were forced to fight a defensive battle, seeking a return to established legal principles and governmental boundaries—and it cost them dearly.

Some of the signers of the Declaration were killed during the War. Some were heartlessly made to watch while loved ones were tortured or hanged. Many lost their estates and a large number suffered physical ailments for the rest of their lives from the wounds they incurred in battle. They were hunted, vilified and despised by the British and some of their fellow colonists alike. Yet having pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” these founding heroes could not turn back, despite the horrors they faced.

Writing some years after the events of the Revolution but as an eyewitness to most of it, John Quincy Adams wrote, “Posterity, you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”

Perhaps, even yet, we will. Perhaps.

 

The Words and Their Setting

I first began reading the Bible when I was 18 years old. I remember that what drew me were not only the words on the page but also the stories I sensed lurking behind those words. I had not grown up in a religious home and so I had no preconceptions about how to approach the Bible. I simply read it and as I did it became obvious to me that the “books” of the Bible—letters and mini-histories really—were addressed to people who lived long ago. To understand the meaning of the words in these books, I would need to understand what they first meant to the people living in the day they were written.

The New Testament seemed from the beginning like someone else’s mail. It still had meaning for me. In fact, it was filled with the most meaningful words I had ever read. Yet I constantly felt the need for the backstory, the history, and the context—all in order to understand what was being said. I came to see the Bible as a collection of literature from a broader, centuries-old story. I had to understand the words against their times in order to capture all the meaning that was intended.

The whole experience was something like venturing into my attic and discovering a packet of my great-great grandmother’s letters. To fully understand what she wrote, I would have to know something of her times, something of the events she lived through.

Let’s imagine that my great-great grandmother’s letters mention a “war,” an “enemy,” a “president,” a “plague,” the “many dead,” and the “rapid changes in our nation.” To know what these words mean—and, more specifically, their meaning for me—I would have to know the story they referred to.

It might be that by “the war” she meant the American Civil War. This would mean that—in the case of my southern ancestors—the enemy was the Union army, that the president was Lincoln and that the plague was a plague of abolitionist sentiment. It would place the letters somewhere around the years 1861 to 1865.

Or, the war might be World War I. If so, the enemy referred to would be Germany, the president would be Woodrow Wilson and the plague would be the influenza epidemic that killed tens of millions in 1918.

Clearly, in my great-great grandmother’s letters as in the Bible—and in all literature–the context defines the meaning. If I take the view that people who wanted to abolish slavery around the time of the American Civil War were a “plague” on the nation, then I could easily absorb racist attitudes and perhaps deep and defiling bitterness over the Confederacy’s defeat. Yet if the references to plague were meant to indicate the influenza epidemic and if my great-great grandmother mentioned this plague by way of urging someone to take care of their neighbors, then a completely different lesson surfaces.

It is very much the same with the Bible. Though I believe scripture is holy, timeless literature, there is also a human side to the Bible that requires the same type of historical questioning that I would use to understand that packet of letters in my attic.

This leaves us with what scholars like to call a “dynamic tension.” In order to understand the Bible as intended, we have to approach it both as divine literature and as literature arising from a human story. This shouldn’t surprise us. Christians must understand Jesus in exactly the same way: as both God and as having a human story. Even the name “Jesus Christ” reflects a union of the human and the divine. It is the truth at the core of the Christian faith. It is also the union at the heart of the Bible.

Unfortunately, most people take either one view of the Bible or the other. Either they approach the Bible as history alone or they approach it as revelation alone. The first gives us mere human thinking. The second gives us mystical ideas disconnected from life. Both extremes give us bad theology, flawed ethics, weak faith and, frankly, boredom.

I believe the Bible is a grand drama—a gritty, moving, horrifying, gloriously human drama. And, at the same time, I believe that drama is the vehicle by which God gives us his eternal truth. These two truths together are what make reading the Bible a journey into truth, into an almost overwhelming variety of human experience, and into the heart of what it means to be human.

The more I talk about this, the more people tell me how eager they are to read scripture with new eyes, to escape their flawed beliefs and to enter the stirring adventure that the biblical story is meant to be. In fact, I think we may be entering an era of fascination with the story of scripture that will surprise us. The young are hungry for raw meaning. Their parents are weary of religious novelties. Society as a whole is desperate for words that penetrate the soul and bring change. The Bible answers all of these needs, but only if we let it speak as it insists upon speaking: as divinely inspired human literature.

I’ve been thinking about these themes a great deal recently because I’ve just written a book called Killing Jesus. I’ve simply never had a writing experience that was more emotional, more difficult and more profoundly transforming than the one I had writing this book.

I believe that the death of Jesus is the most important event in history, but I also believe it cannot be understood fully from the pages of scripture alone. This is exactly what God intended. When a gospel writer says “they crucified him” or “they flogged him” or “they took him to the ‘place of the skull’,” we can’t know what they mean unless we get some information from that writer’s times and allow them to frame the words he wrote.

What comes from this process is what thrills me so much. Put a bit of history next to the words of scripture and it becomes an even greater revelation of God and his purposes. I revel in it, as I think you’ll see in the pages of Killing Jesus. I hope you’ll buy it, read it and let it lead you into new spiritual territory and into more meaningful battles in your spiritual quest.

Let me leave you with this final thought from the introduction of Killing Jesus.

The Bible reveals sacred truth but it does so through a less sacred-seeming drama—an often earthy, troubling, lewd, starkly human drama. We are not meant to be embarrassed or rush quickly by. We are meant to know the story against the stormy age in which it happened—with all the grimy details fully in view—and to accept it as part of the way God speaks. Blood, spit, wine, semen, sweat, and the off scouring of generations spill out onto the page. No apologies are offered. This is the thrashing human drama of God, not some dainty pious tale. This is the Bible!

Did Jesus Exist?

Just before Easter, I was interviewed on several national talk shows about by upcoming book (go to “Recent Media” to view). Of all that I said on the air, what prompted the most email was my statement that there is evidence from outside the Bible both for the fact that Jesus lived and for the fact that he lived when the Bible indicates he lived. It never crossed my mind that this was controversial until a friend explained that it is now widely accepted, particularly on university campuses, that the whole story of Jesus might be contrived and that, therefore, Christianity is a myth.

My new book, Killing Jesus, is not about apologetics. It is, though, about the historical underpinnings of the execution of Jesus and this is why I decided to include an extensive section of notes, some of which have to do with confirmation of the Jesus story from outside of the Bible. Let me quote a bit from those notes here to answer a few of the questions I received.

I should say first that the gospels themselves are sufficient evidence of the life of Jesus. There are many fine scholarly works that confirm this. I’m happy to accept the challenge of providing evidence from outside of scripture but I do not want this willingness to be construed as agreement that the New Testament is not alone a credible historical document. It is, but I certainly agree—even with Christianity’s critics—that if the faith arose as the New Testament claims, there ought to be external evidence.

I’ll provide just a few examples here. There is much more in my book and far more than that in the many studies of the New Testament documents as history that skeptics ought to consult.  I would recommend, for example, F. F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 

I’ll also agree to lay aside one of the most famous statements on the historicity of Jesus, the one in Josephus’ work (A XVIII. 63). Now, I believe this is absolutely credible but I don’t want to take the time to defend it here. So, I’ll go with two others. Here, then, are two credible sources that confirm both the existence of Jesus and that he lived in the first half of what we now call the first century.

 

1. Cornelius Tacitus (Roman Historian),

“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.” –Annals, 15.44, Loeb Edition. (116 A.D.)

 

 

2. Mara Bar-Serapion (Philosopher)

“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.”–British Museum Syriac MS. Addition 14,658.  (just after 70 A.D.)

*Note that the phrase “their kingdom was abolished” refers to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This destruction, according to this passage, came “just after” Jesus was executed, indicating that he lived in the first half of the first century.

I hope these two brief quotes answer the immediate questions so many had. There is much more in my upcoming book and, of course, far broader scholarship to consult for those who are interested. I’m looking forward to the discussion.