by Randall Frederick
There is always some new author, blogger, preacher, or teacher who feels they’ve discovered something new about a religious (or quasi-religious) figure.
It sells, this feeling that we’re in on a scoop. That we – and not our friends, our social leaders, our bosses – have the cutting edge knowledge necessary to navigate the waters of our confusing times. That we know more, or are closer to these larger-than-life figures of time and space. That we are connected to these powerful people. That we know them – that we’re closer to them, that we would have been best friends with them. Because we get them now. We understand them in ways that others don’t. We see eye-to-eye. And so, in some mystical sense, we are them.
It doesn’t really matter who the figure is, when you think about it.
My family owns a consignment store outside of New Orleans and in addition to the houses of furniture, cases of antique place settings, crystal figurines, knick-knacks, and quilts, they also have a rural community’s worth of old books. It’s a small library, spread throughout the store. In one section, you could find art books concerned with Russian tapestry of the early 18th Century. In another section, you might find a first edition of Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. In another, a collection of Spanish poetry. But more than any other category there are the biographies. The majority of these biographies are about people I’ve never heard of, or of people whose names I know but haven’t left a memorable indention warranting me to pull the book off the shelf and even flip through. But I know that t some point, this biography was purchased. And was probably read. And was probably enjoyed. And probably inspired someone. Perhaps it even became something of an anecdote – a Tommy Dorsey record was put on at a party and someone said, “You know, I just read this fabulous biography of Tommy Dorsey and did you know that he [dot, dot, dot].” This is the script I prefer to think out instead of it’s alternative – “Who the f**K is Tommy Dorsey? Who reads this s**t? Bo-oor-ing.”
I suppose in some sense we like to imagine we are participating in continuing a legacy when we read biographies, or watch them on television. We are continuing a tradition of myth-and-meaning-making in the landscape of our countries. I once knew a man who felt John Wayne was “the biggest moviestar ever” despite evidence that other film stars have lived and even are now living much “larger” lives than John Wayne. Sometimes, we participate in the propagation of legacy out of some sense of obligation. The first biography of Frank Sinatra that I ever read was out of obligation. My grandparents like him, so surely he was a “somebody”, and even if the biography felt at times alternatively epic and dismissively small (re: petty), I finished the book because I didn’t want to intentionally just forget someone who influenced so many.
Perhaps a better example would be to localize the point?
I once dated a girl who insisted that her grandmother looked “just like Audrey Hepburn” and that her grandmother had “such a big life, so epic. She inspires me so much.” To me, an outsider to the family lore, I felt her grandmother lived… well… kind of a small life. I met her when she was in the late stages of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. When we met, it had been almost a decade since she had survived breast cancer. To be sure, these were huge life events which required a great deal of personal strength. But she looked nothing like Audrey Hepburn. Not even close. At all. Still, for my ex, she had to make her grandmother’s life meaningful. It took years for me to figure out why – because her grand’s life was so terribly small and, what it more, so was the life of the girl I was dating. She wanted to take a magic mirror to her life and paint things in much larger swaths than they actually were because she was afraid of the truth – a point lived out in many other ways in our relationship and ultimately one of the reasons why we broke up.
Now, I say this without malice or ill feelings to my ex. I say it because we all do it in some way. We attach ourselves to the lives of others because we feel our lives pale in comparison. And at some point, our “heroes” and “heroines” probably did the same thing. Frank Sinatra tried to sing like Tony Bennett at one point. Bill Clinton tried to emulate John F. Kennedy. And Kennedy was deeply inspired by Winston Churchill. Each of us look up to someone and, if only in the imagination of childhood, want to be someone else. We want to channel this person, and not just be them but become them. We want to continue their lives and go farther than they were able to.
In 1159, John of Salisbury wrote in Metalogicon that
Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea.
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.
Put another way, Ellen Degeneres once told a joke where she says, “The Great Light shines on me. And only me. The Great Light and I are best friends.”
A few days ago, a religious scholar named Reza Aslan
published a book that set the Evangelical world on fire was interviewed on Fox News about his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The interview went viral for many reasons. Some felt it was yet another example of Fox News lack of credibility in their research, disrespect to guests, and the network’s “conservative agenda” which ignores the news but instead uses the news to denounce ideologies that the network-as-a-whole does not share. Example: the religion of Islam. Some felt the host, Spirited Debate‘s Lauren Green, simply wasn’t ready to have a “real” interview and so it is a comedic piece on the failure of news anchors who watch the news rather than make it. Then again, some felt she got it spot on, and that Aslan never really answered an important question. Indeed, what does a Muslim have to say about Jesus? Islamic teaching doesn’t share the same understanding of Jesus that Christians have. Isn’t that the same as an American imposing foreign policy and capitalism on other countries? I know best, and will proceed to ignore your heritage to speak about things I hardly know about. As hard as it is for me to say this, in some sense Lauren Green is right. As a Christian myself, what right do I have to speak on/ about/ or for other religions?
Still, as an aspiring theologian myself (aren’t we all armchair quarterbacks in some sense?), I liked Aslan’s response. Just because he’s a Muslim does not preclude him from writing about other faiths. Rather, it broadens the discussion. More, he’s not an amateur in the field of religion, but a scholar who has devoted his life to the field. Just because he practices at a mosque does not mean he is incapable of critically engaging with the teachings of Jesus, review evidence, and conclude that while the Christian Scriptures are inspiring, they are not divine oracles in the way that the Quran is for his life. Again, we seem to be determined to propagate this feeble myth that no one is as capable of understanding things – including the divine – as we are.
Aslan’s accounting of New Testament literature is revisionist at best, but this points seems to take a back seat to the furor that the Fox News interview elicited. While yes, he admits he is a Muslim on page 2 of the book and makes no effort to conceal his own bias in his research, there isn’t much in the book that is particularly novel. And he admits, the book contains nothing seminal or original. It is, as he admits, a repackaging of old discussions.
Another Biblical scholar (this one a Christian) reviewed the book recently and I tend to agree with assessment. Craig A. Evans writes
There are numerous problems with Zealot, not least the fact that it heavily relies on an outdated and discredited thesis. But it also introduces a number of its own novel oddities and implausibilities. Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions. I cannot help but wonder if Aslan’s penchant for creative writing is part of the explanation. Indeed, Zealot often reads more like a novel than a work of historical analysis. (Source: Christianity Today, 9 Aug 13)
While we might criticize Evans for his reading of scripture, we see little problem with it in our own lives and practices. For those who attend religious services each week, the “story” remains the same. Moses leads the Children of Israel out of bondage. King David sleeps with Bathsheba and has her husband killed so that he can marry her. The prophets point out the socio-political dilemmas of their generation. Jesus is born under curious circumstances and later dies under curious circumstances. Paul tries to make sense of Jesus’ novelty by restating moral and ethical codes for a new generation of believers. Muhammed receives several visions that change the world. Joseph Smith seeks to restore religion to its purest form. We’ve heard these stories so often that many of us become bored and decide to stop attending services for a while. It’s kind of like going to the same handful of movies, year after year. The stories once amazed us. Then we watched them seeking to recapture that initial sense of wonder. Then we got bored and left, and returned later in life to reaffirm the passion and security of our younger years. There’s nothing really new about the stories, just the way that we tell them. And we retell them in all kinds of wild ways, the mildest being the way that we ascribe the letters of Paul to us today as though Paul were not literally and historically writing to the Galatians or Corinthians, but to us today. This is not only anachronistic, it is – like Aslan – a revisionist and contextualized recounting.
And so the point remains, no one knows the Great Light like we do. It doesn’t even matter if we are right; ours is an Oprahesque culture of retelling the events in ways that best suit us. Myself included. We believe what we want to believe and reject what we want to reject. In point of fact, the only thing our tolerance will not tolerate is another person’s intolerance – especially if they are speaking on something we feel we know something about. We excuse our belligerence in many forms with the comedic mantra, “The Great Light shines on me. And only me. The Great Light and I are best friends.”
:: For the full transcript of Fox News’ Spirited Discussion interview with author Reza Aslan, check out The Washington Post.