email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God50 Voices of DisbeliefA Companion to Buddhist PhilosophyA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Frightening LoveA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Mirror Is for ReflectionA People's History of ChristianityAdieu to GodAn Ethics for TodayAristotle's ChildrenAugustine's "Confessions"Bad FaithBehind the GospelsBeyond the SelfBig DreamsBig GodsBody Piercing Saved My LifeBrains, Buddhas, and BelievingBrief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and FaithBuddhism and ScienceBuddhist Boot CampConfucianismConfucianismConfucius and ConfucianismContemplative ScienceCorporal Punishment, Religion, and United States Public SchoolsCourage to SurrenderCross and KhoraDarwin's Gift to Science and ReligionDarwin, God and the Meaning of LifeDeath and the AfterlifeDebating DesignDeeper Than DarwinDivinity of DoubtEmbracing MindEncountering the DharmaEngaging BuddhismEsalenEscape Your Own PrisonEvidence for PsiEvilEvolution and ReligionExplorations in Neuroscience, Psychology and ReligionFaithFaith and Wisdom in ScienceFingerprints of GodFor The Bible Tells Me SoForgivenessFrom Shame to SinGodGod & TherapyGod Is Not GreatGod Is Not OneGod: The Failed HypothesisHereticHidden DimensionsHooked!Hours with the MysticsHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow Would Buddha Act?Incorporating Spirituality in Counseling and PsychotherapyInto Great SilenceIslam and the Future of Tolerance: A DialogueJewish DharmaLife After FaithLiving DeeplyLiving with a Wild GodLiving with DarwinMaking Chastity SexyMedicine and Health Care in Early ChristianityMedicine and ReligionMedicine of the PersonMorals Not KnowledgeMysticism & SpaceNature and the Human SoulNothingOn Life After DeathPanpsychism and the Religious AttitudePathways to SpiritualityPeaceful Death, Joyful RebirthPhilosophers without GodsPhilosophical Myths of the FallPorn UniversityPray the Gay AwayPsychotherapy without the SelfPurgatoryRadical GraceReason, Faith, and RevolutionRecruiting Young LoveReligion without GodReligious and Spiritual Issues in Psychiatric DiagnosisSaving GodScience and NonbeliefScience and Religion at the CrossroadsScience and SpiritualityScience vs. ReligionSecular Philosophy and the Religious TemperamentSelf Hypnosis for Cosmic ConsciousnessSelf, No Self?Sex and the Soul, Updated EditionSmile of the BuddhaSong of RiddlesSpirit, Mind, and BrainSuperstitionTen Lectures on Psychotherapy and SpiritualityThe Accidental MindThe Belief InstinctThe Bodhisattva's BrainThe Cambridge Companion to AtheismThe Cambridge Companion to Science and ReligionThe Case for GodThe Chosen OneThe Dao of NeuroscienceThe Dark Night of the SoulThe Darkening AgeThe Delight of Being OrdinaryThe Forgotten CreedThe Fundamentalist MindsetThe God DebatesThe God GeneThe Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Improbability of GodThe Joy of SecularismThe Language God TalksThe Language of GodThe Meaning of BeliefThe MiracleThe New AtheismThe New Religious IntoleranceThe Philosophy of ReligionThe Power of FaithThe Power of ForgivenessThe Power of Religion in the Public SphereThe Psychology of Religious FundamentalismThe Psychology of SpiritualityThe Puppet and the DwarfThe Secular OutlookThe Sense of SelfThe Spirit of the BuddhaThe Spirit of Tibetan BuddhismThe Tibetan Book of the DeadThe Trauma of Everyday LifeThe Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular FaithsThe Watkins Dictionary of SymbolsTheology, Psychology and the Plural SelfThoughts Without A ThinkerTop SecretUnifying HinduismWays of KnowingWhat Is Buddhist Enlightenment?What Should I Believe?When the Impossible HappensWhy I Left, Why I StayedWilliam James on Ethics and FaithWriting as a Sacred PathYoga, Karma, and RebirthZealot
When our first son was about four he went to play school one day and immediately went over to an easel. He stood there holding a brush ready to start painting. The teacher came up behind him and said, "What are you going to paint?"
"God," he said.
"And do you know what God looks like?"
"I will when I finish the painting," he said as he began to paint.
Isn't that an amazing insight? Why do I find it important?
We do indeed give form and meaning to concepts and ideas in works of the imagination that we create including paintings and stories. We are the meaning seekers. We are the creators of meaning. The bible, for example, means by means of its stories. Think for a moment of the Christian hero, Jesus. There is a sense in which Jesus is a model for human beings to follow. He was a man of his time who held the assumptions and beliefs of his era. He is portrayed as a charismatic man who lived with intense purpose and drive, who had an existential thrust to his life, who cared deeply about human beings, and who wrestled with profound questions of ethics. The stories that grew up around him have affected the world for two thousand years and have touched the deepest parts of our humanity with their simplicity of image and their promise of "salvation". [Lane, Reading the Bible]
There is a sense in which each "biographer" of Jesus of Nazareth is like my young son: once I finish the work then I will know what the subject looks like. Reza Aslan is no different. He is an Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions and is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. He is best known as the author of No God but God: The Origin, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages and named by Blackwell as one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. His new book is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In a recent interview with The Nation Aslan is asked, Your Jesus is "the man who defied the will of the most powerful empire the world had ever known--and lost." Sounds a bit like Bradley Manning.He answers:
I think you could make a lot of comparisons in that regard. The historical Jesus took on the powers that be on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the outcast and the marginalized; he sacrificed himself for a group that most Romans--and the Jewish elite--didn't consider to be real people, much less people worthy of salvation.
Most of his approach is evident in that answer. Jesus, he argues, was outcast and marginalized, probably illiterate, and filled with zeal for the Jewish religion he was born into. He reminds us that the gospels were written after 70 CE, an important date because that is when the Romans returned and destroyed Jerusalem, burning the temple to the ground. The Romans slaughtered thousands of Jews, exiled the rest, and made Judaism a "pariah religion". [Read the interview here.]
The Zealots were a revolutionary political party that emerged around 66 CE and were instrumental in the uprising against Roman occupation. Aslan presents Jesus as a small case zealot – one who is filled with zeal or a passion for the sanctity of God and for revenge on God's enemies. Zeal for Jesus was both a religious and a political passion. The enemies of God included not only the occupying Romans but also the priests who ruled for them. This is a substantial book covering most everything one can learn about the historical Jesus from all the 20th century work done by the Jesus Seminar and the many books that came out of that study by top New Testament scholars.
In a sense the Gospel of Mark is a creation myth as he is the first to write of this itinerant preacher and miracle worker. Mark tells a marvelous story about Jesus and a fig tree. He tells of a time when Jesus and the disciples are walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. Jesus feels hungry and "noticing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it." Since it is not the season for figs, there are none on the tree. Jesus is angered by the lack of figs and curses the tree: "`May no one ever again eat fruit from you!' And his disciples were listening." The group proceeds to Jerusalem where Jesus goes into the temple and, still angry, drives out the money changers, upsets their tables, turns over the seats of the pigeon sellers, and cleans out all commercial activities in the temple. He then teaches the crowd about the proper use of the temple. Early the next morning Jesus and the disciples are walking back toward Bethany when they pass by the fig tree. Peter says, "Rabbi, look, the fig-tree which you cursed has withered," and indeed we are told, "the fig-tree had withered from the roots up." Still later, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus uses the fig tree in a lesson to his disciples about the Endtime that is coming. "`Learn a lesson from the fig-tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all this happening, you may know that the end is near, at the very door. I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all.'"
Consider the fig tree from a literary point of view. Jesus teaches his disciples about Endtime: "`Learn a lesson from the fig-tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all this [a set of eschatological signs] happening, you may know that the end is near, at the very door.'" Just as leaves signal spring and summer, so do the signs of darkened sun and moon, falling stars and celestial explosions signal Endtime, when the mighty Son of Man will arrive in "great power and glory" and "gather his chosen." Jesus goes on to say, "I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all. (Mark 13.30) Because Endtime is imminent he warns his disciples to `Keep Awake.' The specific signs that Jesus says will be present right before Endtime also include these:
When you hear the noise of battle near at hand and the news of battles far away, do not be alarmed. Such things are bound to happen; but the end is still to come. For nation will make war upon nation, kingdom upon kingdom; there will be earthquakes in many places; there will be famines. With these things the birth-pangs of the new age begin. (Mark 13.7-9)
Some of these warnings seem to relate to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century of the common era, while some sound as if they warn of the end of history. Mark, of course, writes after the Second Temple destruction and would be in a position to know what was going to happen after the time period covered in the narrative. Prophesying after the fact is as good a "prediction" as one can get
Yet a second time he goes off to pray and when he returns they are asleep again. When asked why they could not stay awake, "they did not know how to answer him."
The third time we sense a dramatic shift in tone. Upon his return Jesus says quietly, "Still sleeping? Still taking your ease? Enough. The hour has come." (Mark 14.41)
Anger and frustration shown in the fig tree story, the temple story, and in the Gethsemane story are finally washed away by the prayer and by the act of accepting his own death. "The hour has come." There is a quiet resolution in that sentence. Acceptance has replaced anger and now Jesus can complete his destiny. Until one has accepted one's own mortality, accepted death in a psonal and lucid sense, one cannot live. Thus Jesus teaches us: there is life in death. Death, as the poet Wallace Stevens reminds us, "is the mother of beauty."
Aslan's excellent book is indebted, as Aslan says, to John P. Meier's thesis in his multiple volume work, Rethinking the Historical Jesus, "we know so little about Jesus because in his lifetime he would have been viewed as little more than a marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee." Given the little we know Aslan produces a readable and believable biography of Jesus.
"Do you know what Jesus of Nazareth was like?"
I will when I finish the book.
© 2013 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia and the author of Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation.