"A reader lives 1000 lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."
- George R. R. Martin

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Zealot by Reza Aslan

The origins of the world's religions have always been fascinating to me, but none more so than the origins of Christianity.  I read about the history of Jesus and the other key players in the Bible as often as I can, and have found a lot of insight into the issues of today because of it.  One of my secret wishes is to learn ancient Greek and to read the Bible in its original form, just to be able to compare for myself the original with today's Bible. Being that I will not be able to do that anytime soon, I settle for reading books by those that can.

I came across Zealot on Facebook, actually, in a roundabout kind of way.  Someone had posted a link to the Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, which was a total train wreck and should have been highly embarrassing for those involved at Fox.  Mr. Aslan spoke with authority and integrity, and thus attracted me to his book.  Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer, scholar of religions, and a Muslim - which I thought would add a very interesting perspective to his history of Jesus of Nazareth.

Reza Aslan does a wonderful job creating the context and culture of the historical Jesus, painting an excellent picture of the world in which he lived.  Leaning heavily on the records left by Rome, the political, religions, and cultural atmosphere of Jerusalem and it's surrounding areas during Jesus' life become living landscapes in the mind of the reader.  For this reason alone, I would recommend this book.

At the start of Zealot, Mr. Aslan brings up the notion that pseudepigrapha (religious or scholarly writings falsely attributed to biblical characters) were quite commonplace and considered more of a tribute to the character represented than an actual forgery.  This has been the stance of many biblical scholars that I have read over the years, but recently I came across a logical and compelling counter-argument for this theory.  Bart D. Ehrman's Forged argues that forgery in antiquity was taken just as seriously as forgery is today, and given his evidence, I tend to agree. Reading Mr. Aslan's easy dismissal of forgery as "perfectly acceptable" back-in-the-day immediately had my skeptic's view on high alert. I chose to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, and continued the journey.

Mr. Aslan takes us on a cultural adventure wherein he discusses the seeming multitude of "prophets" and "messiahs" that roamed the countryside before, during, and after the time of Jesus, many of whom suffered the same fate as Jesus, ultimately dying on the cross or by stoning.  This plays a major role in the political and religious atmosphere at the time of Jesus' ministry, and affected how both the Roman and Jewish leaders responded to him.  Religious zealots of the time were considered a threat to Rome, and treated as though on par with traitors - the penalty for which was death. Rome and it's representatives held the Jews to very strict law during this period, ruling with an iron fist, and the people responded with threats of rebellion.  A stunning atmosphere to imagine a pacifist carpenter preaching peace to be ensconced in.

At first, there seems to be some contradictions concerning crucifixion and its prevalence during this period.  In one section, Mr. Aslan speaks of how widespread and common crucifixion actually was back then, while in another he discusses the fact that crucifixion was reserved "solely for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry" (p. 464, iPad version).  If crucifixions were only utilized for the "most extreme" crimes, but were also common and widespread, it leaves the reader with the image of a politically extreme climate where bandits and zealots popped up every-which-where. Keeping in mind that the Jews were an occupied nation, and that Rome was not the most forgiving of masters, this theory goes a long way toward demonstrating the atmosphere that Jesus and his ministry were facing.

The ideas put forth by Reza Aslan are interesting and, for the most part, fresh (or an old idea from a fresh perspective) and genuinely thought provoking.  All-in-all, I would recommend Zealot for readers of all interest levels and religions.  The historicity of Jesus and his impact on today's culture all over the world, are often in contradiction.  Books like Zealot go a long way in opening up the conversation about who Jesus actually was, and what impact he meant to have versus what impact he actually has.

If you are interested in reading more books along these lines I would also recommend the following:

Forged by Bart D. Ehrman - concerning forgery in antiquity and how culture responded to it.

The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible by Bruce M. Metzger, Robert C. Dentan and Walter Harrelson - three of the men on the translation committee for the NRSV Bible.

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman - possibly my favorite book on this subject, so far.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Humans

For Christmas this year, my new boss gave me a wonderful gift - The Humans by Matt Haig. 

I had heard the title bandied about on various lists, but I had no inclination as to its plot or author.  Having read the dust jacket, I was excited to dive in, and I was not disappointed. This lovely story explores what it is to be human, what it is to love and be loved, and how difficult it is to do all those things at once.

The basic premise is that an alien visitor assumes the form of one Professor Andrew Martin, proceeds to experience life through this guise, and comes to certain understandings about the human condition.  But there is nothing basic about this book.

Professor Andrew Martin, the real Professor Andrew Martin, is a mathematics genius who deals mostly with prime numbers.  He has, in fact, discovered a proof for the Reimann Hypothesis, one of the most important unresolved problems in math, the proof of which has endangered not only our planet, but all others as well.  In order to prevent the destruction of the Universe, The Hosts remove the real Professor Martin and place the narrator in his place.  This narrator (who never gives us a name other than Professor Andrew Martin) has no inclination as to what it means to be a human, only that he must destroy all evidence of the proof be it in a computer or in a human.  Coming from a place where everyone is immortal and has infinite knowledge, his experiences as a human are both hilarious and poignant. The story he tells is intended for The Hosts, in order to explain his decisions and actions as the Professor, but serves as a mirror for the reader instead.

Experiencing things that we take for granted every day, such as clothes and food, and how "cow" becomes "beef" once it's cooked, sent me into fits of laughter.  His simple observations about everyday moments and simple conversations actually gave me pause as I experienced them myself.  But it is his dealings with his wife and son that left the biggest impressions.

The real Professor was, apparently, a bit of an ass - which can only be surmised by the reactions of his wife, son, and best friend to the different Professor that the narrator has become.  As our narrator explores his relationships with these people, both as a human and as the alien sent to destroy the information they may or may not hold, the natures of humanity and love are explored and ultimately experienced in ways unexpected by both the narrator and the reader.  Often funny, extremely self-aware, Matt Haig has created a stunning work of beautiful imperfections that will make you laugh, sigh, and may even bring you to tears.

I highly recommend The Humans.  No one that opens this book will be the same person when they close it.