Friday, August 2, 2013

The Imagination and the Intellect: A Quick Reflection on Reza Aslan's "Zealot"

I recently read David Burns’s The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus (You can read a more thorough review of the book over at the Religion in American History Blog). This Jesus was a pseudo-scholarly construction emerging out of biographies of Jesus written by Ernest Renan, Bouck White, and others in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The Jesus that they constructed was thoroughly secularized and did not believe himself to be divine. He was also a social and political revolutionary who argued for a nonviolent overthrow of the Roman system, and was suspicious of all religious institutions. According to the radical religionist biographers, this meant that the Christian church itself was not a true representation of the historical Jesus.


By stripping away the supernatural and divine from Jesus, by instilling in Jesus a deep antagonism against all institutions (earthly and spiritual), and by imaginatively filling in the missing details of Jesus’ life to make him more human, the radical biographers were able to construct a Jesus who was acceptable to freethinkers, socialists, and anarchists. Burns specifically highlights Robert Ingersoll, George Herron, Bouck White, and Eugene Debs as representative leading figures in promoting the radical historical Jesus ideal. But how, exactly, did this happen? What methods were used by the radical religionist biographers to create a secular-revolutionary Jesus?

According to Burns, the authors “blended fiction and fact to fashion an imaginative brand of biblical criticism that they thought provided them with a vivid picture of the human Jesus.” Imagination is a key concept in Burns' reading of the radical religionists. For example, he describes George Herron’s methodological approach as one in which historical imagination could “produce truth on the same level as scientific knowledge.” This use of imagination to produce truth was a self-conscious decision by most radical religionist biographers. Burns describes Bouck White as “self-aware” of the imaginative approach to history, and yet sure of its validity. According to Burns, supporters of the radical historical Jesus believed “imagination could produce truths as valid and viable as those generated by the intellect.”

Since I had recently read and written about Burns’ book, I couldn't help but think of it when the controversy over Reza Aslan’s Zealot erupted in the past week. I followed intently, usually via my twitter timeline, as outrage over the way a clueless Fox News anchor badgered him about his Muslim faith gave way to controversy over the way Aslan described his academic credentials. Conservative blogs Get Religion and First Thoughts even went so far as to argue that Aslan had deliberately misrepresented his academic credentials, pointing to his statement that he had a “PhD in the history of religions” when in fact his PhD was in “sociology of religions.” The uproar (read the comment thread here if you dare) eventually led to Aslan’s PhD adviser himself trying to clear the air, writing that Aslan "is who he says he is.”

After all this, finally, people started to actually write and read about the book itself. It became quite clear that although Aslan’s book is well-written, thoroughly researched, and captivating, it is certainly not a work of profound scholarship. Greg Carey, a professor of the New Testament, noted that Aslan “seems to have bought into an outdated model of Christian development,” and that a “misguided idea of a secretive Jesus figures importantly in Aslan’s overall argument.”   

Paula Fredriksen a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, suggested that Aslan’s arguments were not “controversial at all” because they were simply not new. Even so, Aslan’s conclusions about Jesus, according to Fredriksen, were not widely accepted by specialists in the field, and she found them to be unconvincing, with a couple major flaws.

Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, echoed the emerging scholarly consensus: Aslan’s book offered little in the way of new academic argument, but instead was primarily a “personal interpretation” of Jesus that was informed by “some of the scholarly literature.” Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, agreed, writing that Aslan is “more a storyteller here than a historian.”

In short, it seems that Aslan (who is well-trained to sift through and synthesize religious scholarship) utilized the biblical scholarship of others and his obvious gift with the written word to paint an engrossing and humanized picture of Jesus for a contemporary popular audience. And even if scholars weren't convinced by his arguments, there were many who were captivated by Aslan’s narrative (and many more who at least purchased the book). Take Jennifer Danielle Crumpton for one example. Writing for the Huffington Post, Crumpton did not get bogged down by academic discussions on the accuracy of Aslan’s work. Instead, she wrote that Aslan had “articulated a story I had long pined for.” She argued that Zealot was “mandatory reading” for young people of faith who can no longer stomach the Christianity that has been fed to them” and that any faithful interrogator of the indoctrinated Jesus will indeed find the other story she suspected was there all along.” Aslan’s Jesus captured her imagination, and that was enough.*

Maybe Zealot is simply a one-off cultural phenomenon, a here-today, gone-tomorrow creation of viral digital media. Or maybe it’s something more, something that will be written about in one-hundred years by a historian studying the constructions of Jesus prevalent in our time. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that Zealot provides one more example that what is intellectually accepted and lauded by the academic community is not always what becomes widely accepted and embraced by the rest of the population . The radical religionists of the late 19th-century were onto something when they recognized the importance of appealing to the imagination when winning people over to their version of the truth. 

Which reminds me: since I'm a wannabe historian, perhaps I should enroll in a creative writing class.


*As an aside, I had a hearty chuckle at Crumpton’s breathless claim that Aslan used “thousands of sources” to construct his book. Such non-specific attempts to establish credibility sound just as silly from her as when David Barton claims authority because he has thousands of primary documents from America’s founding period.