Gil Scott Heron was wrong. As the Arab uprisings have shown, the revolution most certainly will be televised. It has to be. Because if something isn’t televised, live streamed, and tweeted, it simply hasn’t happened, at least in the public consciousness.
Fox News has just widened the aperture: the Inquisition will also be televised. And we have a foretaste of how idiotic and ugly a Torquemada of the tube actually looks.
Host Lauren Green had no rack or bastinado when “interviewing” author Reza Aslan about his new book “Zealot.” In a fit of inexplicable stupidity, mendacity, prejudice, and paranoia, she spent ten minutes bizarrely harassing him about why, as a Muslim, he chose to write a book about Jesus.
Aslan is an exceptionally savvy writer and marketer. He went on the show to sell his book, an honorable and universal motive for any author. He probably knew he was entering hostile territory, but it’s extremely unlikely he anticipated how vicious Green would be. She gave him a glorious opportunity to be gracious in the face of a deranged harangue.
The most inquisitorial moment comes when Green bizarrely implies that Aslan, who comes very close to being something along the lines of a professional Muslim, somehow “hides his faith.” Inquisition is always about uncovering the “crypto.” But in addition to his whole career, “Zealot” begins with an account of Aslan’s conversion to Islam as an adult. He hasn’t hidden, but marketed, this. It’s essentially a calumnious lie in the form of a purported question.
Between Green’s borderline insanity and Aslan’s composed responses, the video went viral and his primary aim of increasing sales will have been met beyond any possible expectations. Aslan’s publicists couldn’t have scripted it any better if given a totally free hand.
And, of course, it’s all the more intriguing to the viral video viewers because he is given no chance to really explain what his book actually is or isn’t. “Zealot” is a quick and easy read, and essentially an extended essay that popularizes decades of scholarship that attempts to identify “the historical Jesus.”
But, as Aslan notes, “The problem with pinning down the historical Jesus is that, outside of the New Testament, there is almost no trace of the man…” So, as “Zealot” goes on to demonstrate, this “historical Jesus” quest can only really boil down to learning as much as possible about Roman occupied Palestine at the time he supposedly existed, and then applying the myths and legends about this alleged figure to that generalized context.
In other words, when it comes to “Jesus” there is nothing outside the whale of the New Testament. All we know about this purported individual is contained in the works of people openly engaged in religious propaganda. This is the case with most truly revered religious and “holy” figures: they are conveniently shrouded in the mists of impenetrable time, in the smoke and mirrors of myth and legend.
Aslan – who is a good researcher (perhaps the best part of the book is the 53 pages of detailed notes, very useful for any interested generalist) and essayist – repeats the gesture of numerous “historical Jesus” scholars. First they sketch out the historical context. Then they separate the Jesuses of the Gospels (even though these very different figures don’t in any literary or biographical sense comprise a recognizably coherent character) from the Jesus as depicted in the later writings of Paul.
Far from being anything new, this conundrum is one of the oldest in Western civilization. Rather than, as some of his critics, claim, presenting an “Islamic” version of Jesus, Aslan basically sticks to some amalgam of the Jesus of the Gospels and assumes some level of truth to those accounts. He therefore ends up presenting a very familiar figure to anyone who has paid attention: Jesus the Jewish political and religious insurrectionary and revolutionist.
There will be many who haven’t heard this before, and be fascinated with “Zealot.” That’s exactly what a book that popularizes decades of scholarship should do. The problem isn’t new, it’s ancient. One set of well-established answers are concisely summarized and simply presented in this very accessible book.
What the insufferable and bigoted fool Green didn’t realize is that Aslan is buying into a concept that has no real basis in fact: the existence of Jesus. He might have really lived. But just as easily not. Believing Jesus ever really existed at all is, therefore, itself, an act of faith.
Green and her ignorant friends might find Aslan’s rehashed “revolutionary Jesus” disturbing. But imagine their interaction with someone who dismisses the whole thing as a ludicrous fairy tale. Her new televised Inquisition might be suddenly turned on its head, and defined by a completely different set of pointed questions, this time aimed at them.