By David Carlson

Jesus was a Jew. We know this. So why should it be surprising if God breaks in in the form of a Jewish book reviewer?

I’d better go back to the beginning. I first encountered Reza Aslan when I saw his new book Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth being promoted in the Atlantic Monthly. The add caught my eye and following up I discovered that his bio indicated that he had been raised in a secular Iranian/American home in California.

200px-No_god_but_God_(Reza_Aslan_book)_US_coverWe are told that for a time, in his teens, he gave his life to Jesus after encountering Him at an evangelical youth camp. Later however he became a serious student of Islam and had attained fame as the author of an award winning book No God but God detailing the life and impact of the prophet Mohammad. I decided to read Aslan’s first book before taking on his newest.

What I discovered reading No God but God was a powerful apologetic for Islam which moved me towards a greater appreciation of the Muslim tradition. I discovered that Mohammed had a particularly high regard for Jesus.

In perhaps his most dramatic move as he was promoting the proposition that there is no god but God, Mohammed cleansed the Ka’ba in Mecca of all icons – save for one – a statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. I won’t go into more detail about Aslan’s first book and will simply say that I liked it (and recommend it) and decided to move on to his new one.

I discovered that Mohammed had a particularly high regard for Jesus.

I don’t know what I was expecting but I had been set up to like Zealot in part because I liked Aslan’s first book and in part because it was recommended by Jon Meacham, who praised it as being “. . . vivid and insightful . . . one that believer and skeptic alike will find surprising, engaging, and original.” I respected Meacham’s opinion because I had read his biographies of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson and found them to be well done.

I think I also expected to like the book because I expected to encounter a Muslim who loved Jesus. Mohammed had at least respected Jesus. And Aslan had encountered Jesus in his youth. Just before I began to read the book came an infamous interview of Aslan on Fox News.

Perhaps you saw it. The interviewer has been widely criticized because she seemed indignant that a Muslim would presume to write about Jesus. Aslan’s defense was that, while he was a Muslim, he also had the university degrees that justified his credentials for such a project. He also pointed out that his wife is a Christian and his brother-in-law a pastor. I thought it was an odd defense, but the whole interview was odd.

I think I also expected to like the book because I expected to encounter a Muslim who loved Jesus.

When I finally got into Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth I was immediately disappointed. I found it implausible and self-contradictory and, most disturbingly, unkind. It was patent nonsense and I quit reading half way through. Again I won’t go into details, you can read it if you like (I don’t recommend it).

What surprised me was that the book rattled me – even shook my faith a bit.Ever since I have been trying to figure out why I reacted this way. I think it’s because I respected the author, and for a moment, gave credence to his argument. Also I felt betrayed. It’s a hard thing to have someone you respect mock someone you love. I respected Aslan. I love Jesus.

I respected Aslan. I love Jesus.

On reflection, I have a theory about why Aslan wrote a book mocking Jesus. It’s not because he’s a Muslim – it’s because he’s a disappointed would-be follower of Jesus. The Jesus Aslan experienced at Bible camp didn’t live up to his expectations; that’s my guess. But never mind – I will pray for him, hope that his wife works on him, and wait for his apology for this book. But none of this is my story.

Back to the Jewish book reviewer I mentioned at the start. Two or three weeks after putting Aslan’s book away, I decided to see what reviewers were saying about it. A short Google search indicated there was a lot of negative reaction. I chose to skip over reviews from Christian sources and clicked on one in The Jerusalem Post by Allan Nadler, posted in the Jewish Review of Books.

According to Nadler’s bio he is director of Jewish Studies at Drew University and rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal. His review of Aslan’s book is quite lengthy and rather than summarize it, I will try to explain how for me it was a God breaking in moment.

Nadler exposes Aslan’s ignorance of first century Hebrew history and culture. Nadler provides a detailed description of how, since the very beginning, serious Jews have wrestled with the Jesus of the gospels.

Unlike Aslan, Jewish scholars take Jesus seriously. It would be presumptuous to say Nadler loves Jesus, but he certainly is enticed by Him and admires His followers.

I’ll provide but one example. Quoting Nadler:

“Among his most glaring over-estimations is Aslan’s problematic insistence that the foundational Christian belief about Jesus, namely that he was both human and divine, is ‘anathema to five thousand years of Jewish scripture, thought and theology.’ . . . Judaism’s doctrine about this matter is not nearly so simple . . .

Aslan’s essentially political portrayal of Jesus thus hardly, if at all, resembles the depiction of the spiritual giant, indeed God incarnate, found in the Gospels and the letters of Paul.”

This comment from a Jew – who goes on to explain that thoughtful Jews take the New Testament seriously.

Several years ago, when I was a member of the faculty at Concordia, one on the religion profs employed the tactic of having a variety of faculty come to his class to talk about their individual faith walk. As I thought about what I would say, I settled on Matthew 16:15: “But who do you say that I am?” (my emphasis). I’m not sure why I settled on this verse except that it is probably the most important question ever asked.

When I went to the class I discovered that another colleague, David Adams, a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament with credentials so impeccable that he left Concordia to be the political liaison for the LCMS in Washington, had also been invited. He got to speak first and said something to the affect that the question of faith hinged on – Matthew 16:15, “Who do you say that I am?” When I got to speak I had to say something like: “I really was prepared, David just stole my line.” It’s one of those “coincidences” that seem to occur when people turn their thoughts to Jesus.

Who do you say that I am? I was introduced to Jesus when I was a child and it was love at first sight. I’ve always loved Him, but I was well into adulthood before I knew who He was. When I reflect on it now I don’t know how I missed it. I suppose it’s because the Trinity is such a hard thing.

I was introduced to Jesus when I was a child and it was love at first sight.

Both Muslims and Mormons, for example, reject the idea that Jesus IS God. I didn’t get it either. The Jesus I loved when I was a child was the man holding the children in His lap; the shepherd cradling the lamb in His arms. When I was a child, God was like the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln memorial – big; and staring past me. I feared God, but I didn’t love Him.

It wasn’t until I read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity well into adulthood that I saw that God is the Man with the children. I have great respect for people who wrestle with the question of who Jesus is. I didn’t really struggle with it when I was young. I admire Allan Nadler who continues to wrestle with a troublesome Jesus. In a curious way I find thoughtful non-Christians more encouraging than less reflective Christian brothers and sisters.

I have great respect for people who wrestle with the question of who Jesus is.

I am disappointed by Reza Aslan who dismisses Jesus the Christ even as he expresses admiration for a fictional Jesus the political zealot. That question Jesus put to Peter and the other disciples 2000 years ago remains, I believe, the most important question ever asked.

Who do you say that I am?