What a Christian can learn from a Muslim about Jesus, by way of Dostoevsky

I’ve got to read this book!

You may not know the name Reza Aslan, but you might have heard about the controversy about an interview that FOX News religion report Lauren Green did with him about his book Zealot, about the life of Jesus. She questioned how a Muslim could write about Jesus, and he kept repeating his extensive credentials as a religious scholar. The storm over her amateurish piece helped the sales of his book reach #1 on the New York Times best seller list.

More interesting to me was this interview with John Oliver of The Daily Show. Aslan is addressing the Christian POV, though not focused on the Christ aspect of Jesus. Aslan disputes the notion of Jesus as a detached, celestial spirit, argues that the early Christian leaders never meant for the Gospel of Jesus to be taken literally, and attempts to answer the question of what Jesus would actually do were he alive in modern times. Aslan notes that if one knows nothing else about Jesus, knowing of the crucifixion is mighty informative, since the cross was a punishment usually used on those the authorities considered trouble to the state.

The item that most intriguing me about him, though, was The Book That Changed Reza Aslan’s Mind About Jesus, an article in The Atlantic. The book in question was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, read when he was 16.

“I first read this book when I was a Christian: a firm, devout follower of Jesus. Someone whose impression of Jesus was wholly a result of what the church told me he was. When I read The Brothers Karamazov… my eyes were opened to the notion that the Church’s conception of Jesus is inextricable from the Church’s political, religious, and economic interests—that their Jesus may not be who Jesus actually was. This rocked my world, even back then. I could sense that I was never going to be the same…

“I think Dostoevsky is saying that we must never confuse faith with religion. We must never confuse the institutions that have arisen, these man-made institutions—and I mean that quite literally, because they’re all run by men—who have created languages to help people understand faith, with faith itself. I, as a person of faith, read the same story and did not see it as a repudiation of faith the way a lot of atheists do. I saw it as a challenge to always remember that those who claim to speak for Jesus are precisely the kind of people that Jesus fought against.

“One of the things that’s fascinating about Jesus is that he refused to recognize the power of the Jewish authorities to define the Jewish religion for him. In this time, the priests had a monopoly on the Jewish cult. They decided who can enter the presence of God, and who could not. Which means of course that the lame, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the ‘sinners,’ were divorced from communing with God. And Jesus’ ministry was founded upon not just rejecting that idea, but claiming the absolute reverse: That the kingdom of god that he envisions is one in which the priests, the aristocracy, the wealthy, the powerful, would be removed. And in their place would be the weak, the powerless, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. This was a reversal of the social order. In other words, it’s not just about the meek inheriting the earth. It’s about the powerful disinheriting the earth.

“I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual.”

8 thoughts on “What a Christian can learn from a Muslim about Jesus, by way of Dostoevsky”

  1. Since Aslan is now a Muslim, I’d be more interested in knowing his perspective on the contemporary state of institutionalized Islam. The various prejudices of Christianism in legally restricting people’s lives have been moderated (Jonah Goldberg of all people, suggests that is a result of the fratricide between Catholicism and Protestantism, and between the various Protestant sects), however the fundamentalist strain of State-endorsed Islam is obviously an active problem for civilization.


  2. Any church that ascribes to Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation does not understand the Gospel. I do question some of Aslan’s positions and obviously don’t agree with many of them, even with his “religious scholar” credentials. And isn’t he exactly the type of individual Jesus took issue with…religious scholars?


  3. Roger says:
    August 12, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Jesus was a religious scholar, yes?

    Some translations of the Gospels use the term “rabbi.” But does being schooled in ONE particular religion make one a “religious scholar?”


  4. Great post, Roger! For me Jesus was the Chosen One to be the voice of God. His hands, His feet, His eyes and His ears.He was full of God’s Spirit and therefore entitled to be called God’s Son, and with him we are also God’s children. Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father….”


  5. I’ve never read Brothers Karamazov, but I’ve read a lot of Dostoevsky and I can definitely see how Dostoevsky’s complex spirituality can have an intense impact on a person’s views on Christianity. I may read his book.

    I wonder how much of the sound and fury was due to the fact that a lot of people don’t know what a “zealot” was.


    1. I dare say, Chris, that most of the problem is that he was a Muslim explaining the Christian pillar, as though no Christian ever tried to explain Mohammad.


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