Books, Politics

The Revolutionary Jesus: Reza Aslan’s Zealot

by S.A. Jones , October 2, 20131 Comment

Zealot

 

The backlash to Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth confirms the old adage that, in polite circles, it’s best to steer away from religion, politics and sex. Aslan has virtually nothing to say about sex, but plenty about religion and politics. Indeed, Aslan’s central thesis is that if we want to understand Jesus it is his politics we should concern ourselves with; a politics so destabilising of the existing order that the church that bears his name whitewashed it to make it palatable to the Romans and to every power structure since.

‘The common depiction of Jesus as an inveterate peacemaker who “loved his enemies” and “turned the other cheek” has been built mostly on his portrayal as an apolitical preacher with no interest in or, for that matter, knowledge of the politically turbulent world in which he lived. That picture of Jesus [is]… a complete fabrication.’

The idea of Jesus as a revolutionary is not new. Crossan, Tully and Eisenman, among others, have covered similar ground either in text or on screen. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion, therefore, that the furore surrounding the book has more to do with Aslan being a Muslim than an especially provocative scholar. The hysterical (even by Fox News’ standards) interview between Aslan and Lauren Green, in which Green demands to know why a Muslim would write about Jesus, speaks volumes about our current anxieties. As Bethanie Blanchard points out ‘the implication in Green’s line of questioning is that there is something inherently problematic with those of Islamic faith writing about Christianity’. Green’s implicit xenophobia is matched by her ignorance. She calls Jesus ‘the founder of Christianity’. Twice. If Aslan had pointed out to Green that Jesus was a Jew, she might have imploded.

But is the book any good?

The lay reader wanting an accessible account of first century Palestine should find pleasure in Zealot. Aslan captures the tumultuous stew of economic pressures, nationalist ambitions and messianic fervour characterising the period. Throughout the book, there is a palpable sense of what life was like for the Jews under Roman occupation and how they responded: from the accommodation of the wealthy temple priests to the sometimes violent resistance of the disaffected and dispossessed.

Zealot also makes an elegant case for how the gospels should be ‘read’, rather than approaching the (almost certainly) factually inaccurate story of the census that took Jesus and his parents to Bethlehem as a fabrication:

‘What is important to understand…is that [Luke’s] readers, still living under Roman dominion, would have known that Luke’s account of Quirinius’ census was factually inaccurate…Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word “history”. The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths…they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.’

Aslan keeps his attention firmly on Jesus’ politics, meaning his Jesus is somewhat narrow and one-dimensional. There’s no hint of the conflicted Jesus of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ or the tortured and lonely figure of John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus. Was Jesus wry? Frenetic? Approachable? Enigmatic? Aslan doesn’t provide any insight into Jesus as a personality and as a result he comes across as a rather bloodless fanatic.

Like all such books, Aslan’s suffers from the insoluble problem of source material. Most of what we know about Jesus as a historical figure derives from the canonical and non canonical gospels, the hypothesised ‘Q’ documents and a handful of Roman historians. Somewhat disingenuously, Aslan at times uses the material to support his argument and at other times claims the (same) material cannot be relied upon. So, for example, while the Pauline version of events is dismissed as self-serving, the Jamesian version ‘no doubt represents what [James] believed’.

As to the question of Jesus’ divinity, Aslan wisely leaves it well alone. His interest is in the historical Jesus: the Jesus who came from a poor, Galilean backwater, was probably illiterate and chafing under the twin bondage of Roman occupation and Temple tithes. ‘Everything else,’ Aslan says, ‘is a matter of faith’.

S.A. Jones is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking. Her essays and commentary have appeared in The Age, The Guardian, Overland, The Drum, Crikey and Kill Your Darlings. Her new novel Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is due for release in late 2014.




marilyn-ulysses

Reading Marilyn reading Ulysses: when celebrities are photographed with books

In 1955, photographer Eve Arnold snapped a now-iconic image of American actress Marilyn Monroe, in her bathers on a Long Island playground, reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the sixty years since, the photo has prompted continual suspicion in those who see literature and celebrity as mutually exclusive – was she really reading it? Read more »

capote-dog

The Outsiders: The early stories of Truman Capote

The recent publication of The Early Stories of Truman Capote – a collection of newly-discovered short stories from the archives of the New York Public Library – reveals the preoccupations of the adolescent Capote, drawn to drifters, exiles, and others living on society’s fringes. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.
(AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.)
SARA GILBERT

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »

SPEAR_0014_Edward_Mulvihill copy 2

Lauren Carroll Harris

Eyes Open Dreaming: Spear and the potential for an Australian art cinema

Commercial success has long been prized as Australian cinema’s salve, and the values of that commerce-based vision of success have deeply permeated the national conversation. Spear sets this conversation aside entirely, raising in its stead the possibility of an art cinema in Australia. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

Bowie - The Image  1

The Art of Immortality: David Bowie and The Image

With the news this week of David Bowie’s death at the age of 69 from a long battle with cancer, watching The Image is an oddly reassuring experience: the shared, mass hope that it can’t be true, that he’s not really gone, is played out in this grainy, almost haunted relic now almost 50 years old. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

PLM

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Sydney - January 20, 2016: This Is How We Die perfomed during the 2016 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Impossible Futures: Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die

These two shows ask: how hard do we need to listen? In each, minutiae can be discarded, at least in slivers of time. Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die each allow your brain to detach for a moment: to spin off into the different worlds they create, before returning once again, as best you can, to the work at hand. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »

_85072354_hamlet3-pa

Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »