Bill McLean arrived more than a half hour early for Tuesday night's reading at the bibliophile mecca that is Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, figuring he'd have no trouble securing a spot to sit down in the Pearl Room on the top floor.
Then came an announcement, crackling over the PA system. “Tonight's reading is standing room only, and we are nearing capacity. We are about to close the doors.”
Who could this author be? Stephen King? J.K. Rowling?
None other than Reza Aslan, the author of the nonfiction book Zealot, about Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan was until a few days ago a bestselling author and scholar of religion, but not exactly a household name—not the caliber of author who even in the geektopia that is Portland would command such an impressive showing. As University of Oregon journalism instructor Suzi Steffen tweeted at me moments after I had lucked into a cross-legged spot on the floor: “You have to think this is the only time @Powells is packed for a book w/the name Jesus in the title.”
That was a reference to the city's widespread reputation as home to coffee-drinking, bicycle-riding, vegan atheists. But a funny thing happened on Aslan's way to Portland: he became a liberal folk hero.
If you haven't heard by now, Aslan is the guy who rhetorically demolished Fox News host Lauren Green in an interview last week about his book, after Green demanded—several times—to know what gave a Muslim (which Aslan is) the right to write a book about a Christian. The network would normally pack a room with one of these liberal elite types with several other “panelists,” so as to keep him just shouted down enough to squash any opportunity for him to get a word in edgewise. But in this particular interview, Fox producers decided to leave Aslan alone with the completely outgunned Green, who clearly hadn't read a single page of his book. BuzzFeed called it the network's “most embarrassing interview ever.” That clip went viral, sales of Zealot skyrocketed to No. 1 on Amazon, and Roger Ailes rolled in his grave. Wait, Roger Ailes is still alive? Well, he very grumpily ate some caviar then.
Many of those who attended Aslan's reading Tuesday, including McLean, hadn't heard of the author before Fox's clip. By the time they stuffed into the room, though, it was clear that they had not only heard of him, they'd been reading his book. Powell's was all sold out of copies, came another announcement over the PA. Fox News's attempt to hammer him on television could not have backfired more supremely.
Aslan seemed to enjoy that.
“As you know, I'm here to talk about Islam,” he opened, to a roar of laughter. Acknowledging the television cameras scattered about the room, he said “Most of you know you've walked into a taping of the Shahs of Sunset. Turns out, people are interested in Jesus. Who knew?”
Aslan then skipped reading a passage from his book—“readings are boring”—offered a brief background on his life, which included his time in an evangelical youth group, being “blown away” the first time he heard the Gospel at 15 years old, and preaching it to all of his friends after converting to Christianity. He later converted back to Islam, but remained fascinated by the story of Jesus, “who took on the greatest empire the world has ever known [Rome] in the name of the outcast and the marginalized and the dispossessed.”
Wait, I thought this guy hated Jesus. I came here to shout at him! He called him a mean word in that there book I ain't actually read!
Yeah, that's the thing. Aslan's book may disagree with the Gospel's description of Jesus as a pacifist—Zealot describes him more as a “revolutionary”—but that's not a bad thing, he stressed.
“That's a pretty cool guy,” Aslan said. “That's a guy I want to know. Hopefully it's a guy you want to know. If I do have some kind of philosophical objective—behind my secret Muslim objective—I want to show people you can be a follower of Jesus without necessarily being a Christian.”
Then, Aslan took questions, and something extraordinary happened. No one in the room grilled him about whether he had any business writing a book about Christianity. They actually asked him about the book itself. And the scholar did a pretty remarkable job of explaining his viewpoint on history in a lucid, funny, self-deprecating, and engaging way.
The reason people think of Jesus as a pacifist, and the reason they often forget that he was Jewish, is because that's actually how he became known as the true Messiah, the Son of God. The real Jesus was challenging the mighty Roman Empire's occupation of Jerusalem, and like the dozen or more other Jewish men declared “messiah” by their disciples, he was ultimately murdered for it. The other messiahs' followers “went home” at their deaths, Aslan said, because the fact that these so-called messiahs died instead of re-creating the kingdom of David meant they were disqualified, by definition.
“Jesus was a Jew, remember,” Aslan said, “and according to Judaism, 3,000 years of Jewish Scripture and thought and philosophy and theology, a dead messiah is not the messiah anymore.”
The difference with Jesus, Aslan posits, is that a different kind of Jew took up his story; the Diaspora, the wealthy, cosmopolitan, Hellenized Jews that had the resources to be able to travel to and fro places like Rome and Jerusalem and who, thanks to longtime exposure to Greek and Roman philosophy, could buy into the concept of a godlike man.
“It kind of makes sense to them, actually,” Aslan said. “They start to adopt it, and as a result, something very interesting happens. The Hellenists are ultimately kicked out of Jerusalem for preaching this message, and the more they preach it in this Greek and Roman culture, the more Greek and Roman the message becomes. The less Jewish the message becomes.”
As Jesus's story becomes less and less Jewish, descriptions of him become more and more pacifist, Aslan said. Writers of the Gospel made a conscious decision to continually downplay not only his Jewishness but also his revolutionary zeal. They were trying to convince the very people Jesus had worked so hard to overthrow, after all.
“Look, if you're a Christian in 70 C.E. [A.D.], and you want to continue preaching this gospel, you don't want to keep preaching it to Jews,” Aslan said. “Do you really want more Jewish followers? The Jews are a pariah. What you really want to do is preach it instead to the Romans.”
The crowd in Powell's was rapt—when it wasn't doubled over in laughter. Aslan's only reference to Fox News interview was in a discussion about Pontius Pilate, that guy who authorized Jesus's crucifixion, and in making the point that Pilate was actually yanked from his post as governor of Jerusalem by the Romans for executing too many dissident Jews.
“It's like when Fox News fired Glenn Beck,” Aslan said. “'You are too crazy for us.'”
Aslan's only (direct) reference to the sensation he has become was in response to a question about the negative reviews he has received on Amazon from people who also clearly haven't read a word of Zealot. The author said the negative comments in that “troll bomb attack” by “these six Islamophobes living in their mothers' basements with, like, hundreds of fake Amazon handles” didn't bother him. In fact, he enjoyed that so many devout Christians had come to his defense, especially those who had taken the time to understand that Aslan is not a Jesus hater.