by Hannah Saulters
On Sat., Sept. 13, author Reza Aslan visited Jackson’s Lemuria Books for a reading from his No. 1 New York Times bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The text, which he has described in interviews as “an historical biography of a man named Jesus of Nazareth,” was not the focus of the evening. Perched on a stool amid overflowing bookshelves and posters of Mississippi writers, Aslan addressed the diverse audience of approximately 20 people casually, immediately opening up the space for conversation and questions instead of a reading from his book.
Perhaps best known for a now infamous interview with Fox News Aslan is an expert in the field of religious history, with a specialty in studying the New Testament. Iranian by birth, Aslan’s family immigrated to the United States in 1979, during the Iranian hostage crisis. He darkly quipped of his youth as a Muslim on the West Coast: (“It was not the best time to be Muslim, as opposed to, you know, now.”), and recalled that he spent “a good part of the 80s” pretending to be Hispanic. He noted that from an early age, he recognized and wanted to understand the power of religion to transform society, a theme that recurred throughout the talk as he highlighted the significance of intercultural understanding of religious affiliations.
Aslan’s ease in talking about his own struggle with religious identity translated into the rest of the conversation, which, while touching on topics from the book, focused more on current issues of political and religious tension. Thoughtful and articulate, his answers drew connections between the current political climate and religious trends and their historical precedents. Citing the “prosperity gospels” of Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes as perpetuating an interpretation of the Bible in which “Jesus wants you to drive a Bentley,” Aslan pointed out the inherent subjectivity of religious interpretation, again emphasizing that his work is historical in nature, rather than theological.
A member of the audience asked about why this tendency to create a dichotomous “us vs. them” relationship, particularly on religious grounds, exists. In response, Aslan pointed to the very fabric of American identity as one culprit, calling it “an old story of persecution that is unique to the American identity.” He continued, ”We’ve built a cohesive national identity predicated on a set of ideals [that we] cannot sustain in times of societal stress,” recalling the historical scapegoating of Catholics and Jews in the United States. Bringing his example into a more contemporary setting, Aslan spoke about a video protesting “the mosque at ground zero,” in which the narrator uses an ambiguous “they” to equate the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks with Muslim Americans. “It’s ignorance matched with certainty that drives me crazy,” Aslan said, encouraging audiences to be informed, because rhetoric is a powerful tool.
So while the evening was not the reading as advertised, it was an engaging conversation among Jacksonians and a renowned scholar. Aslan’s book Zealot is now available in paperback at Lemuria Books. His upcoming work will focus on the origin and evolution of the concept of God.