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08.04.2013 _____________________

It was a thing of beauty. It was a failure and embarrassment of epic proportions. It was a Fox News interview of such incompetence and bigotry that it went viral and ranked the performance of its host, Lauren Green, who clearly had not read her guest’s book, as among the most inept in Fox’s history — and that’s saying a lot.

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Fox News’ host asked Reza Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” You can watch it at http://bit.ly/18WRqcA.

It was a question of such arrogance and ignorance that I’m surprised Reza Aslan, PhD, scholar of religion, author, professor, was as composed and articulate as he was in his responses.

For those responses, and for his book, I am thankful.

I just finished reading “Zealot.” It’s a wonderful read and illuminating experience. He brought to life first-century Palestine in a way to make an historical Jesus of Nazareth accessible: Jesus as “a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine.”

My first introduction to Reza Aslan was in reading, “No god but God,” which successfully attempted to explain the origins and evolution of Islam — its beauty and complexity — from an historian’s point of view. Aslan, a Muslim, did not shy away from controversy, which led him to be criticized by some Muslim scholars, but the honesty and clarity of his narrative was compelling, and the work is now considered a classic reference.

And to understand Islam, Aslan wrote then, it was necessary to understand the time before Islam, the Jahilyyah in Arabia, and his chapter on that period provides invaluable context for witnessing the rise of Islam.

And to understand Jesus and the rise of early Christianity, Aslan argues, it’s necessary to understand the culture, the zeal, the corruption and resistance to occupation that was rife in first-century Palestine — the context that made it possible for Jesus to challenge both the temple and the temporal.

Aslan is not asking readers to believe. He is asking readers to contextualize, to understand, to discern. He is asking readers to be open to the unknown.

One of the criticisms directed at Reza Aslan is that because he’s Muslim he has a secret agenda to tear down and diminish Jesus. Most people know Jesus through scripture — Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, etc — which define Jesus as divine, as the Son of God. Believing Scripture to be divinely inspired, many Christians have traditionally been unconcerned with historical evidence.

For centuries the “historical Jesus,” didn’t exist. Christianity was about spiritual truth, not historical accuracy. Today, Reza Aslan is not the first scholar to ask us to witness Jesus as a radical Jewish nationalist through the history of the times, rather than through Scriptural reverence. He’s not the first scholar to argue that Jesus “bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community,” and certainly for many Christians that’s an image that’s hard to fathom.

But he’s the first Muslim to have the effrontery to do so, and that’s the rub. Fox believes he doesn’t know his place.

Christians are not alone in believing in the power and reverence of scriptural truth. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists — all people have their creation stories, hero journeys and enduring cultural traditions. In a peaceful, pluralistic world those stories should be honored and shared, not shunned. Challenges should be welcomed, not feared. Doubts raised, questions answered.

Faith without doubt is idolatry.

An introduction to a TED talk, “On Reading the Koran” reads that Lesley Hazleton, “sat down one day to read the Koran. And what she found — as a non-Muslim, a self-identified ‘tourist’ in the Islamic holy book — wasn’t what she expected.” See http://bit.ly/fgPadA.

So Hazleton, a self-described “agnostic Jew,” wrote a book, “The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad,” an extremely well-written and engaging biography of Islam’s Prophet. It’s a wonderful, scholarly and respectful read, serious and reverential while challenging some scriptural Islamic theology.

No one asked her how a non-Muslim could write a book about Islam’s first Muslim.

No tried to put her in her place.

Indeed, the willingness and the insights of “outsiders” like Hazleton and Aslan to enter into our journeys and stories with scholarship and reverence proves that we all need outsiders to read our stories, to re-imagine them, re-frame them, re-experience them in the light of their knowledge and experience and to re-present them — not as polemics and hate-speech as many faux-scholars do — to believers and non-believers as love stories affirming the plurality, diversity and richness of a common humanity shared on this fragile earth.

Welcome these storytellers into our midst — they are delightful companions, and fellow sojourners of truth.

This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.

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