Last Friday I saw Reza Aslan give a brief talk at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. I looked forward to hearing one of my favorite authors and scholars speak in person, but instead I was confronted with the realities of my own faith journey.
I fast became a fan of Aslan, whose latest published work is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. A while back, I wrote a review of this book. Aslan’s personal faith journey is a source of encouragement for me. He converted to Evangelical Christianity when he was 15 and proudly shared the gospel. As time went on and he studied religion at various universities, his faith in the story of a God-Man that mystically wipes away the sin of the world made less sense to him. At the urging of Jesuit priests he looked into the faith of his ancestors, Islam.
Hearing his story empowered me to embrace my own faith walk. I’ve changed dramatically since I decided to “give my heart to the Lord” in 2002. I still love God. The idea of this sacred Kingdom where the social order is reversed intrigues me and I desperately would like to see it. However, church is dull to me. I honestly can’t pinpoint a sermon that’s moved me to greater inspiration or challenged me to walk more deeply walk with Jesus in the past few years. Usually when people discuss the Bible I become bored. At this point in my journey those are vital aspects of any discussion.
Granted, I think most of my dissatisfaction is due to my experience in life. I’m a religion nerd, inquisitive, and an intense thinker. My knowledge of the Christian religion is far above average. Most sermons aren’t going to catch my attention. Preaching isn’t usually an exercise in intellectual discourse. However, still I find it very interesting that the one sermon that inspired me to stick with Jesus more than anyone else has in about two years came from a Muslim, not a Christian. Jesus could’ve been rich based off of his abilities as a miracle worker, but he choose not to. Seems simple, but it’s revolutionary.
The talk at Busboys wasn’t anything dramatic. If you’ve watched any of the other interviews of Aslan discussing his work, then you heard nothing new. When the talk ended, Aslan signed autographs. As I was waiting in line, a man and a woman were standing in front of me. The man asked the young lady what she thought about the talk. She said that she found what he was saying very intriguing, but ultimately didn’t agree with him. The gentleman looked a little stunned.
“You didn’t agree with anything he said?”
The lady shook her head. “I hear all of what he’s saying, but that’s just an opinion. The Bible is divinely inspired. God wrote this. So all of his theories don’t matter as much.”
The gentlemen seemed even more perplexed. “So, you mean nothing he said up there rang any bells or made you think a little?”
“Not at all.” Her face firm with the determination of faith.
“But he has degrees in this stuff.”
“He’s just a man.”
“So, what makes what you think you’re correct? People wrote the Bible, too.”
Similar conversations were going on around me. An elderly lady and man were talking to the side of me. He was discussing how Jesus is still an amazing figure, even if what we believe about his divinity isn’t true. The man had a consoling tone to his voice, and he held her hand while he talked to her. It was as if the older lady lost a friend. Perhaps after the lecture that Aslan just gave, she really did.
I’ve realized that deeply religious people who only are minimally versed in religious education tend to respond in a wooden manner when confronted with the frankness of religious study. Topics and doctrines that are dictated and simply believed in houses of worship are up for discussion and vehement debate. That can be very jarring to someone who believes, “God said it, and that settles it.”
While Aslan said nothing new in my hearing that night, the experience in line made something very clear. The stark chasm between the Christ of faith and Jesus of history will always require a staggering feat of mental athleticism to cross. After seeing the effort that is required to deal with the effort to maintain child-like faith in an era of stone cold facts, most prefer to stick with the Jesus that is the most comfortable to them. A few try to cross the chasm between history and faith. Even fewer actually make it, and those that try always have wounds to show for it. I’ve tried to jump across the chasm. I wonder if I’m still in free-fall.
This will always be the Church’s issue. It was an issue that early Christians had to deal with and contemporary church can’t shy away from it. Becoming more rigid (and in some causes, ridiculous) in particular church stances and doctrines won’t help. Especially when the reasons for belief aren’t necessarily based in firm logic. Perhaps the best way to discuss Jesus is the first and oldest way: love your neighbor, critique the powerful, and bring the outsider near. There is a lot that we can’t prove about Jesus, but there is a lot that we can demonstrate about love.