Whose Radical Jesus? ‘Zealot’ is the story of a literary success.
Reza Aslan’s Zealot could have been called “Jesus Against Empire.”
By Paul Buhle | Truthout | February 6, 2014
[Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013: Random House); Hardcover; 336 pp; $27.]
A better title for this best seller would be: Jesus Against Empire. If the devil can quote scripture, according to tradition, and if the recovery and analysis of assorted versions of what became Bible text (or did not) have become a scholarly big business, then we can hardly expect any version to be accepted by all.
Still, Reza Aslan himself is by now the kind of major media personality who appears on “The Colbert Report” (and what could be more major?) with views on subjects ranging from Iran (where he was born) to the silliness of Fox News on Christmas.
Lionsgate has purchased the film rights to his new book, Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and he is reportedly scripting a television series for FX. Conservatives gripe at his Jesus, while senior Biblical scholars seem to be complaining that they never got the earthly attention and rewards now ladled upon him.
Zealot strikes me as the most radical version of the Christian story since C. Osborne Ward’s massive two-volume The Ancient Lowly appeared in the Gilded Age (1888 to be exact). Older brother to famed sociologist Frank Lester Ward, C. Osborne argued that Christianity was the “slave religion” taken up by those miserable Roman masses who craved a decent funeral and a happier afterlife.
Read by every literate radical who could lay hands on a copy (the Charles H. Kerr Company reprinted it in 1907 for a new generation of socialists), the tome showed religion co-opted by the rich and, above all, by the servants of empire. In the process, Christianity’s original promise got turned inside out.
Ward’s interpretation could not easily withstand evidence that some of the very rich adopted Christianity along with the very poor, from the get-go. Still, could there be a hidden truth in the argument? For more than 2,000 years, a whole lot of people have thought so, in part because the texts can be read against empire (and slavery as degradation and exploitation, its leading function) so effectively.
Sci-Fi giant Philip K. Dick, more mystic than radical, nailed it this way in his super-weird, late-life novel Valis (1981): “The Empire is the institution, the codification, of derangement; it is insane and imposes its insanity on us by violence, since its nature is a violent one.” He goes on to say, still more gloomily, that “whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies,” making them part of itself.
If this sounds like the saga of decolonization turned into neocolonialism, with South Africa the most dramatic of many painful examples, then Dick (who claimed to receive this wisdom through an intergalactic message of some kind) could not be far wrong.
Why Aslan, and better, why now?
Why Aslan, and better, why now? Best sellers have their own history, and Billy Graham — now apparently about to receive his Reward one way or another — was rarely far off the charts with his soporific literary sermons. In an era of dechurched masses looking for substitutes (angels, anyone?) and those still in church urgently looking for ways to bring back the crowds; in an era when the most reactionary pope since the era of fascist collaboration is replaced by possibly the most progressive pope ever; that is to say, in these days, a radical revisiting of the Greatest Story Ever Told can hardly be a surprise.
Aslan himself is a fascinating fellow. A boyhood convert to Christianity, a PhD from that notable New Age center, Santa Barbara, he has a marvelous gift for popularizing ideas. But he is also a serious reader, following up scholarly leads near and far. The Notes and Bibliography take up more than 60 pages of Zealot, citing all kinds of older and newer information and interpretation. He wants us to believe him, but he is clearly engaged in a dialogue without the usual special pleading.
The subject has been studied and trolled with increasing intensity for 20 years or so. Aslan does not have anything spectacularly new to say. But he has found a new audience, and the great value of the work, for this reviewer anyway, is the placement of real-life Jesus in backwoods Nazareth (this makes the birth in a Bethlehem stable one of the many useful myths necessary for the arrival of a much-expected Messiah).
The “windswept hamlet” in the “rough and tumble Galilaen countryside” was not even the kind of place where enough wood existed to train a carpenter. Crude structures of mud and brick required a different set of building skills. But here’s the bigger and main story: It was a hearty walk from an imperial city in the making, Sepphoris, with polished-slab streets, luxurious public baths (made possible by aqueducts), two-story homes adorned with sexy mosaics and a Roman theater seating 4,500!
Why didn’t I hear about this in Sunday School? You might well ask.
So the boys in JC’s family and their dad, too, until his early demise, came in town to work, answering the demand for labor. They were miserably exploited, of course, and if this doesn’t sound like the source of many a peasant revolt supported by segments of a proto-working class, then modern — as well as ancient — history must be littered with sheer accidents.
The district had seen continuous waves of mini-revolts and blood-curdling repression…
The district had seen continuous waves of mini-revolts and blood-curdling repression, messiahs, self-proclaimed now and then, martyred as soon as the Romans could get their hands on the victim. Sometimes the revolutionaries actually overwhelmed the guards of the royal armory and took the weapons, burning and/or robbing the homes of the wealthy and taking revenge on the Jewish theocratic aristocracy, cursed as collaborators with Rome.
For those outrages in 4 BC, the Romans burned the captured city to the ground, murdering the men and selling off the women and children as slaves. Actually, it was the rebuilding of Sepphoris that brought the Jesus family to work, and if young J (not yet JC) didn’t live through or take part in the revolt, he doubtless heard plenty about it.
The details of Roman rulers, some bad, others worse, take up a lot of space in Zealot. The siege around the Jewish fortress-city Masada, not far from Jerusalem, is of particular note because Emperor Vespasian determined to put an end to Jewish rebelliousness once and for all. The population was starved by a blockade, and then the Romans put something like an ancient A-Bomb (actually, a huge battering ram to break down the walls) into practice.
Everyone still alive inside was murdered with the exception of the failed (and captured) Messiah, dragged off to Rome. All the religious documents and treasures were burned or carried away, offering proof that the Jews’ very god had been destroyed by the more powerful Roman gods. The stage had thus been set for something yet more dramatic.
Another of the charms of Aslan’s book is the sidelight upon the popular culture of the cities in what we can now call New Testament Days. Throughout the Jewish settlement, the ancient version of snake-oil salesmen worked the crowds, frequently performing sleights-of-hand in the manner of damaged limbs suddenly working again, the blind made to see, and very occasionally (because it must have seemed so awfully suspicious), the dead brought back to life.
This was real street-fare entertainment, familiar to modern life until the radio and films gave urban visitors, shoppers and idlers something to do. Back in 1910, socialist and wobbly soap-boxers attracted crowds with rhetoric (and competed with hucksters), mixing curses and jokes, not so far from the more political-minded public orators of Jesus’ day.
Why be surprised that Jesus ranged and rambled from the time he found his first disciples among fisherman at Galilee through his entrance to the holy city on a donkey, to his capture, persecution and crucifixion? Aslan tells us that the “outlaws” of the day were just as likely to be political revolutionaries, and so many were crucified that some Roman authorities sent to clean up the empire’s dirty work became appalled at the omnipresence of the barbaric practice. Without Jesus coming back to life, there would be no Christianity. But up to that point, his life could be merged fairly easily with those of other leading rebels.
The very title of Zealot is an homage to the strength of the existing Jewish tradition…
The very title of Zealot is an homage to the strength of the existing Jewish tradition, also to an unrelated (but how could anything be unrelated?) band of zealots who rose up and were drowned in their own blood. Jesus was a rabbi-of-sorts, a challenger of the official priesthood, whose doings in the temple were worse than the practices of the money-changers. He saw everything that he did and hoped to do in that light.
Jesus’ extended family might have run the whole religion from Nazareth and surrounding regions, as they seemed to manage at first, but Paul, happily for himself banished to Rome, pulled the most astounding trick in world-religious history. Persuading enough upper and lower classes to follow the new faith, he set things up for the empire to swallow up Christianity.
In the process, Jesus became “Christ” or “the Christ,” a Romanish sort of god-designation unfamiliar to the Jews. If this is not quite fair, and Paul actually had in mind a subtler spiritual attack on empire, it seems to have been lost on his disciples, who made their deal with Rome, while actually penning most of what passes as his chunk of the Bible.
We are, in a sense, back to C. Osborne Ward and the Ancient Lowly, after all. What began as rebellion finally became an ideology of nonmaterialism, life after death (the critics have been calling it a Death Cult ever since, making a good argument about the practice of it by the powerful) and so on.
That it could not remain such a gospel is a testament to the usefulness of the texts and traditions in so many other times and places. The omnipresence of theology students at so many urban settings of Occupy (also, Wisconsin’s own uprising against Governor Scott Walker, our Herod) should tell us something if we are listening carefully.
CopyrightTruthout, where this article was first published. Cross-posted to The Rag Blog by the author.
[Paul Buhle, aged New Leftist and editor of the comic Radical Jesus: a Graphic History of Faith, is still surprised to remember that he was an officer of the Christian Youth Fellowship, circa 1962. Read more articles by Paul Buhle on The Rag Blog.]
Also read “Paul Buhle’s ‘Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith’” by Alan Wieder on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interview with Paul Buhle.
This entry was posted in RagBlog and tagged Biblical History, Books, C. Osborne Ward, Christianity, Jesus, Paul Buhle, Radical Jesus, Religion, Reza Aslan, World History, Zealot. Bookmark the permalink.
This president picks on the least powerful because all that matters for him is winning.
Danica Roem, newly-elected transgender member of the Virginia House of Delegates, at protest against Trump’s trans military ban at the White House, July 26, 2017. Photo by Ted Eytan / Flickr / Creative Commons.
By Steve Russell | The Rag Blog | November 15, 2017
Why attack the powerless, beyond the exhilaration of winning? I don’t even get the exhilaration of playing poker with a stacked deck. I enjoy trading stocks because I know that on the other side of every trade I make is a person who has at least as much information as I have, is probably at least as smart as me, and is willing to bet real money that I’m wrong.
The stereotype says Indians are not competitive. To buy that, you must have never seen an informal horse race on the rez or attended a stickball game. We play to win, but that does not mean we play to run over people who have no chance.
The talking heads on the tube are speculating that there must have been some precipitating incident that led President Trump to change the military policy on allowing transgender persons to serve. The idea is that a sudden policy change by Twitter without consulting the people affected must mean there was some incident in training or in operations that created an anecdotal argument for changing the policy.
No reporter has yet come up with such an anecdote.
Anecdotal evidence rules when science is not persuasive to those in power. It’s seldom clear whether the anti-science crowd does not understand or they do understand but suffer the blind spot that comes from believing their job depends on not understanding.
In the climate change debate, for example, we see grown people with college degrees who argue as if climate and weather were the same thing.
The legislative circus around so-called ‘bathroom bills’ is also a science-free zone.
The legislative circus around so-called “bathroom bills’ is also often a science-free zone. Do they really believe there is no such thing as gender dysphoria and thousands of people will fake the symptoms so they can get their fair share of abuse?
Medical doctors — often caught in political crossfire — have over generations developed elaborate protocols to be certain reassignment surgery is necessary and only undertaken with informed consent.
Before most qualified surgeons will even consider reassignment, the patient must have lived as the sex to which they seek reassignment. The patient presents as who he or she wishes to be in dress and in dealing with social pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. The required presentation of self extends to the use of public facilities.
This means a pre-op transsexual who follows the protocols to qualify for the operation commits a crime in some states. Once the hormone treatments kick in, choosing a bathroom by birth certificate can be hazardous to the health of trans people. Even if the unpleasantness seldom goes all the way to homicide in modern times, it’s still unnecessary.
These bathroom bills are at worst based on rumor and at best on anecdotes — seldom more than one anecdote. These civilian policy debates would be hilarious if they did not involve unpleasantness ranging from public ridicule to aggravated assault.
Importing these culture wars to real wars — military service — is more complicated in some ways and less complicated in others. One thing to remember is that the U.S. military has been there and done that several times.
World War II was the last engagement of a U.S. military segregated by race.
World War II was the last engagement of a U.S. military segregated by race. To end segregation, the argument went, would destroy unit cohesion and combat readiness. That argument looks laughable today from the military academies to the training bases to the combat zones.
The same argument recycled when women moved out of units segregated by sex and recycled again each time the military occupational specialties open to women expanded. As I write, two women have applied for the elite Navy special operations forces, the SEALs. They are trying to live out Hollywood’s take on that very attempt, G.I. Jane. The difference is current policy allows them to try.
Women have more voices now, like Iraq veterans and U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who lost both of her legs flying a Black Hawk helicopter in combat. On the other side of the Capitol, there are Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who was an MP in Iraq, and Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who led the fight against abandoning the best close air support vehicle the U.S. flies, the A-10 Warthog. McSally’s credibility was enhanced by having flown Warthog combat missions in Iraq.
The argument about unit cohesion was particularly asinine when it came around against gay GIs. I served with openly gay men and women in the sixties and all that mattered was that they were competent.
Now comes the Trumpian Tweet, thunder from the mountaintop.
Now, in the middle of a six-month study of trans people on active duty, comes the Trumpian Tweet, thunder from the mountaintop. He cited no evidence but he claimed excluding trans service members was “after consulting with my generals and military experts.”
The tweet was a lie, and I do get weary of this POTUS claiming that general officers of the U.S. military belong to him. All the women combat veterans serving in Congress except Rep. McSally came out opposed to the Trump tweet immediately and McSally has not supported it.
Marine Gen. James Dunford, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to accept a tweet as a valid order. The veterans reading this have seen military orders and understand that copies go to everybody affected. Military discipline offers little room for management by tweet. Army Chief Mark Milley said he found out about the tweet “the same way everybody else did — on the news.”
I find myself asking how somebody could be commander-in-chief for six months without learning how to issue a command? In this fake emergency, it’s no big deal, but the delay could cost lives in a real emergency.
The military spends 10 times as
much on Viagra.
Trump accused transgender troops of incurring “tremendous medical costs.” The rebuttal to this nonsense has been that the military spends 10 times as much on Viagra. Contrary to what you may hear on Fox News, this meme did not come from the Democratic Party but from very old research and reporting by Military Times.
First, it strikes me that much evidence of the impact of allowing transgender individuals to serve is going to be anecdotal. There are circa 7,000 persons who self-ID as transgender in all the U.S. armed forces at all levels. Of those, less than 250 are expected to need surgery. Number-based policy would be easier with greater numbers, but Trump has chosen his victims for small numbers as well as little public opinion support.
Second, the Trump administration had already backed off on protections for transgender students. There was no sudden appearance of evidence calling for that change, so why expect a reason for the military tweet? There’s only one place where the presidential tweets might have an explanation beyond bare naked bigotry, and that’s a two-pronged political attack.
One prong is Trump’s need to change the national conversation.
One prong is Trump’s need to change the national conversation from all the investigations as they get closer to his top campaign staff and his family; the other is the need to remind the part of the Trump base that never saw a difference they didn’t hate that Trump is their man and they may never have another like him.
The political argument is correct. Irrational hatred is fungible. Denied blacks as a target, Indians will do. Denied both, sexual minorities will do. Researchers were picking up the correlation between racism and Trump support long before the election. Now we can ask what to make of the geographical areas of Trump support having the most Google searches for “nigger.”
There was a time when the support of Stormfront and a crew of ex-KKK and neo-Nazis would have been the kiss of death. Suddenly, white supremacy won’t sink you, disrespect for Gold Star parents won’t sink you, live mic admission of sexual assault won’t sink you, a parade of women claiming to have been assaulted won’t sink you.
We’ve come a long way since Nelson Rockefeller could not run for POTUS because he was divorced, no?
So why would Donald Trump purposely harm individuals who have volunteered to defend the United States, something Trump himself avoided with several student deferments and then a bone spur that was serious enough to keep him out of boot camp but not off the tennis team?
He needs transgender soldiers for
political cannon fodder.
Because he is a winner and he needs transgender soldiers for political cannon fodder. What counts in Trumpland is the fact of winning — not the method. This is the rationale for one of the most powerful individuals in the world attacking some of the least powerful.
We can only hope the forces of intolerance will never get their own POTUS again, but I’m not sure what evidence shows that. There’s a direct line though Andrew Jackson’s attacks on Indians, Woodrow Wilson’s attacks on blacks and immigrants, and Donald Trump’s attacks on transgender people and immigrants.
Intolerance has a lengthy political pedigree and Donald Trump’s bigotry did not exactly arrive by virgin birth. It stops when it quits working and the first step to that result is to call it out for what it is.
Trans people took the next step this last election day, when at least eight openly transgender candidates surfed on a tsunami of anti-Trump sentiment to electoral victory. For some very good reasons, Danica Roem has become the face of the transgender electoral uprising.
Roem’s victory was a textbook example
of poetic justice.
Roem, with the support of Joe Biden’s PAC, American Possibilities, won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Her victory was a textbook example of poetic justice.
Roem defeated a 13-term incumbent Republican who wore his bigotry on his sleeve. Former Delegate Bob Marshall referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” He refused to debate his opponent and consistently referred to her using male pronouns. He had been the sponsor of the bathroom bill that died in committee in the last legislative session.
For her part, Roem did not run on a platform of liberation for transgender people. She ran on infrastructure and education and all those kitchen table issues that get neglected in the idiotic battle over bathrooms.
Invited to gloat after the election, she would not go beyond, “Discrimination is a disqualifier.” Of her defeated opponent, Roem said, “I don’t attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.”
Danica Roem showed the grace in victory that has eluded Donald John “The Donald” Trump, the invisible candidate on this year’s ballots. With eight openly transgender winners in one night, President Trump will before long have to beat the brush to find another group with very little power like the Mexican immigrants he attacked in his announcement speech and the transgender GIs he tried to banish with a tweet.
This last election was not just a victory for openly trans candidates. There was also a bumper crop of women, people of color, immigrant refugees, and gay officeholders from school boards and city councils to state houses.
Trump’s base considered it a terrible result. The rest of us considered it a good start.
[Steve Russell comes to The Rag Blog after writing for The Rag from 1969 to the mid-seventies. He is retired from a first career as a trial court judge in Texas and a second career as a university professor that began at The University of Texas-San Antonio. He is now associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. Russell is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a ninth grade dropout. He is living in Sun City, just north of Austin, and working on a third career as a freelance writer. His current project is a book of autobiographical essays explaining how an Indian ninth grade dropout was able to become a judge and a professor without picking up a high school diploma or a GED.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ]
This entry was posted in RagBlog and tagged Bathroom Bills, Danica Roem, Donald Trump, Rag Bloggers, Steve Russell, Transgender Ban, U.S. Military. Bookmark the permalink.